Between Mitt Romney's and Rick Santorum's soulless bleats about "secular religion" to the increasing horrors being perpetrated on women by the sociopaths in Republican-controlled state legislatures in the name of what they call religion, it is important to revisit our Founders' reasons for making government secular. In the process, we will see how religion fits into a free society. And just as important, how it does not.
It is particularly important for us Pagans to understand this history and reasoning because the theocratic right will have us in their sights if they are able to pervert the institutions of this country much farther. Because so many Americans do not know their own history and because these men lie as easily as they breathe, it is vitally important we Pagans know the truth, so as to confidently rebut their lies whenever we encounter them.
While Christianist historians lie incessantly about the principles underlying our founding, happily a treaty introduced by President John Adams and unanimously endorsed by the Senate makes matters clear to any honest person. The treaty with Muslim Tripolitaniastated:
Article 11: As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
Upon signing the treaty after its ratification, President Adams said:
Now be it known, that I John Adams, President of the United States of America, having seen and considered the said Treaty do, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, accept, ratify, and confirm the same, and every clause and article thereof. And to the End that the said Treaty may be observed and performed with good Faith on the part of the United States, I have ordered the premises to be made public; And I do hereby enjoin and require all persons bearing office civil or military within the United States, and all other citizens or inhabitants thereof, faithfully to observe and fulfill the said Treaty and every clause and article thereof.
As Thomas Jefferson is often accused by Christianists of being out of step with Americans in his commitment to secular government, it is worth noting that the treaty was actually written by George Washington and ratified under Adams. Adams, who so clearly endorsed the treaty, had defeated Jefferson to become our second president. Further, the anti-Jeffersonian Federalist controlled Senate ratified the treaty unanimously. It then became the law of the land. What is most significant however is that no one at the time thought it at all unusual. There is no record of any politician in the Senate paying a political price for endorsing the treaty's language.
Religion and Citizenship
Given that many Founders were religious in some sense, how did they see religion relating to the duties of secular citizenship? In 1790, George Washington wrote the following words to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island:
All possess alike liberty of conscience, and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural right. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
During the Constitutional Convention, the question of whether a religious test should be required to hold national office came up for discussion. Tests of this sort had long been typical in England and in many of the colonies. They persisted for a while in some states. Even so, proposals for such tests in the Constitution were rejected, and a future Supreme Court justice, James Iredell of North Carolina, put the reasons succinctly: