Monday is the Fourth of July: Independence Day in the United States. This Sunday, churches across the religious and political spectrum will hold patriotic services and sing “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful.” These services will include quotes from the Founding Fathers – the men who led the drive for independence and who wrote and ratified the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.
Women played key parts in the founding of this country and deserve to be remembered for their contributions, but the office-holders were all men. Such was the state of society at the time. You have to wonder how contentious issues might have been decided differently if women had been included.
Though fundamentalist Christians are notorious for making religious claims about the Founding Fathers that are not supported by history (and in some cases are outright lies), these men had a wide variety of religious beliefs and political opinions about religion – almost anyone can find a quote or two that supports their position today.
“I do affirm it to be against the testimony of Christ Jesus for the civil state to impose upon the soul of the people a religion, a worship, a ministry. The state should give free and absolute permission of conscience to all men in what is spiritual alone.”
Roger Williams (1603 – 1683), founder of Rhode Island (1)
Why do Baptists, Pagans, and everyone else try to claim the Founding Fathers as their own? Some of it is the logical fallacy of appeal to authority. If these important people believed something, it must be right and we should believe it too. Some is an appeal to precedent. If we can establish that the Founders believed something, we can claim that as the “traditional American way.” Some of it is the Law of Contagion. These were great people who did great things, so if we can establish a connection with them, however tenuous, some of their greatness will transfer to us.
“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever… Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. Liberty, I contend, is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans, and Christians.”
John Leland (1754 – 1841), Baptist minister and advocate for religious liberty (2)
The Founding Fathers were great men who did great things and we owe them our honor and respect. They risked their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” to declare independence – and then went out and won it. In an era where the divine right of kings was still accepted as the way things should be, they created a republic that for all its shortcomings still stands today.
“Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word ‘Jesus Christ,’ so that it should read ‘a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.’ The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”
Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826), President of the United States and author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (3)
But let us all – liberal and conservative, Pagan and Christian and atheist – never forget that the Founding Fathers were not Gods. They were just men.
I’m mostly willing to judge the Founding Fathers in the light of their times, and to emphasize the good they did over the harm they perpetuated and in some cases caused. But any claim to Godhood or sainthood they may have had was forfeited when they punted on the issue of slavery.
The Founding Fathers knew slavery was morally wrong, though some attempted to rationalize it. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was the ideal time to abolish slavery, or at least to lay out a plan for its gradual elimination. But it was firmly established in the South, where many plantation owners insisted it was necessary. The founders compromised by counting slaves as 3/5 of a person for the purposes of taxation and representation (even though slaves couldn’t vote and didn’t pay taxes) and they prohibited Congress from addressing even the importation of new slaves until 1808.
“Let us not intermeddle. As population increases poor laborers will be so plenty as to render slaves useless. Slavery, in time, will not be a speck in our country.”
Oliver Ellsworth (1745 – 1807), Connecticut delegate to the Constitutional Convention and Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court (4)
They tried to stay neutral on an issue where there can be no neutrality and they dumped the matter on the next generation of American leaders. In doing so, they gave slavery twenty more years to sink its roots even deeper into the plantations, widened the split between North and South, and virtually assured the necessity of the Civil War.
Gods would have had the courage to deal with the issue. The quotes we will hear this weekend are the words of deeply flawed men, not the words of Gods or saints.
Many of the early European immigrants to North America came here seeking religious freedom – for themselves. As soon as they established themselves, they promptly begin harassing (and in some cases, killing) people who believed differently – which usually meant other Christians. I’m thankful that by the time of the Revolution and the Constitutional Convention, the majority of American political leaders supported religious freedom for everyone. I’m thankful for the First Amendment, and I’m committed to defending it against those who would use the power of government to promote their religion above all others, and against those who would pervert it into an excuse to discriminate in public accommodations.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Amendment I to the United States Constitution, ratified December 15, 1791
So this Fourth of July, give thanks to the Founding Fathers for establishing a secular republic where all are free to practice the religion that calls to them. Give thanks that the First Amendment includes Pagans, and atheists, and Muslims.
But do not worship the Founding Fathers, and do not worship their words. They weren’t Gods, they were just men.
(1) excerpt from Roger Williams’ testimony in his 1635 trial for sedition and heresy, as quoted in The American Creed: A Biography of the Declaration of Independence by Forrest Church, 2002.
(2) from The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland: Including Some Events in His Life, edited by L.F. Greene, 1845.
(3) from Autobiography by Thomas Jefferson, 1821, on the attempt by some to insert “Jesus Christ” into the Virginia Statute For Religious Freedom.
(4) “The Debate in the Convention of 1787 on the Prohibition of the Slave-Trade” from The Madison Papers, Vol III, as published by the New York Times.