It’s no secret to anyone but the Religious Right that the Founding Fathers were stringently secular. As men of the Enlightenment, many were deists or at the very least only marginally religious. They were most certainly not fervent believers who set out to create a country based on Christian values. In fact, for most, they were bound and determined to oppose the same sort of zealots who make these ahistoric claims in our time.
They valued human reason over revelation. Freedom of conscience over sectarian control. But none of the FFs were as openly hostile to religion and Christianity than the patron saint of Church/State separation, Thomas Jefferson.
I’m planning a series of posts on the vehement separationism of the FFs. But in this presidential campaign season, I thought I would start out relaying a snapshot of the 1800 presidential campaign pitting two giants of American history: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. These anecdotes have been gleaned from the delightful book, Moral Minority, by Brooke Allen, as will the bulk of the stories related in this series.
John Adams came from Puritan Calvinist stock. But as he grew older, he came to doubt the Fall and was suspicious of revelation. Though he continued to be a “churchgoing animal,” he was a Unitarian (as were many of the FFs).
Thomas Jefferson was an ardently anti-religious deist. As I’ve found in my research about deistic scientists like Lamarck, the standard slander against deists was that they were atheist. Oh the horror! That’s because deists believe God created the universe and all of its laws, then skipped out to play golf in a Club Med in the sky.
As much as atheists would like to believe it, Jefferson was most likely not a fellow traveler. But you can see why his intemperate, freethinking comments about religion–and especially Christianity–would leave that impression. (I’ll get more into that in future posts.)
But for now, I’m going to give some examples of the campaign rhetoric between the Federalist John Adams and the Republican Thomas Jefferson. (You should wipe from your mind all current ideas of the Republican Party.* Even up to the early 20th century, the Republican Party was actually the party of reform. Think Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting.)
How the Republicans have fallen!
Far from being a song-and-dance man, except in the political sense, Alexander Hamilton was the Dick Chaney of the early days of the republic. As a fellow Federalist, he ran the Adams campaign like Karl Rove in a ruffled collar. He positioned Adams as the pious incumbent against the infidel Jefferson.
Here is an ad published several times in the Gazette of the United States.
THE GRAND QUESTION STATED
Shall I continue in allegiance to
GOD–AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT;
or impiously declare for Jefferson–and no god!!!
So, vote for Jefferson and burn in Hell for eternity!!! (The !!! is in the original text.)
The ground for such base pandering to religious fears had long been laid, in part due to Jefferson’s own rhetorical excesses. But here’s an excerpt from an editorial in the Connecticut Current, which paints a dystopian picture of what the US would look like under a Jefferson presidency.
Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will openly taught and practiced.
Remember reading about the breakdown of civilization during Jefferson’s presidency in your American history class? No? (I hope Donald Trump doesn’t get any ideas.)
But Jefferson wasn’t exactly the white knight in this campaign. The Republicans campaign darkly hinted that the Federalists aimed to establish a national church. Minority Christian sect like the Baptists, Methodists, Quakers and the like felt safer with an infidel as president because he wouldn’t impose his sectarian belief while in office.
Adams came in third, behind the man who would eventually kill Hamilton in a duel: Aaron Burr. You think modern politics is cutthroat….
Years later, John Adams wrote of the election voters, “They said, let us have an Atheist or Deist or anything rather than an establishment of Presbyterianism.” Of course, Adams was just as dedicated to separationism as Jefferson. But some things never change.
The first casualty of political war is truth.
*It has been pointed out to me that I should’ve made it clear that there is no connection between Jefferson’s Republican Party and the current Republican Party, which was started as an anti-slavery party before the Civil War.