The Founding Fathers views on church and state


Under the regime of the Republican right, an aggressive effort is under way to eliminate the separation between church and state.

Some clearly aim for a theocracy.

The right is fond of invoking the views of “the founding fathers,” but on church-state issues they run into a problem: The founding fathers themselves inserted language into the Constitution that prohibited any “religious test” for persons holding federal office, and later added the famous language in the First Amendment forbidding the “establishment of religion.”

To make the case that they did not mean what they plainly said, all sorts of fictions are being put out which would have us believe that the founders wanted a Christian Republic. To be sure, these efforts to depict the founders as highly religious are not new; they started at the beginning of the 19th century with Parson Weems’ notorious inventions about George Washington. But the effort is especially intense right now.

A new book by investigative journalist Brooke Allen, “Moral Minority,” should put a stop to such myth-making, but of course it won’t.

Allen reviews the literature and correspondence of Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison and Hamilton, and clearly shows that all except Hamilton eventually distanced themselves from, or actually rejected, Christian religious orthodoxy.

Most tended toward deism or Unitarianism, which means that they believed in a vague concept of a creator God and an afterlife, but rejected miracles, revelation and the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Children of the Enlightenment, they thought that reason, not faith, should be the foundation of government. As crafty practical politicians, they did not always say so in public, and were not above mouthing religious platitudes when expedient.

Here are some revealing items from the book:

• Franklin wrote: “A man compounded of Law and Gospel, is able to cheat the whole country with his Religion, and then destroy them under Colour of Law.”

• When George Washington, as president, was given proclamations to sign, he used to edit out any reference to Jesus Christ. He attended church in Philadelphia, but habitually wandered out before communion. When the priest complained, Washington graciously apologized and then stopped going to church altogether on days in which communion was to be offered.

• Jefferson chopped up a copy of the New Testament and re-pasted it together so that only moral sayings of Jesus remained, removing all reference to things like Christ as son of God, miracles, virgin birth, resurrection, etc., which he considered mere fables. He considered this an improved version of the Bible, appropriate for an age of science and reason.

• Adams expressed, in an 1817 letter to Jefferson, the fear that a Calvinist “Protestant popery” could yet be set up as a theocracy. “What a mercy it is that these people cannot whip, and crop [i.e. cut off ears of dissenters], and pillory and roast, as yet in the U.S.! If they could they would.”

• Only Hamilton was strongly religious as a mature adult, and he used religion to “slime” Jefferson in the election of 1800. Jefferson won, and the loser, Adams, later bitterly regretted allowing Hamilton to drag religion into the campaign.

Allen appends three very useful documents: two letters from Jefferson in which the nation’s third president demolishes the idea that the Bible was always considered part of English common law, and a remonstrance by Madison against a proposed Virginia law to use state money to finance the training of religious teachers.

So much for President Bush’s office of “faith based initiatives”!

The founders agreed with another Enlightenment figure, King Frederick the Great of Prussia, who said his subjects were welcome to “go to Hell in the manner that pleases them best.”

Most were for absolute freedom of religion (not mere toleration), to encompass not only all Protestant denominations, but also Catholics, Jews, Muslims and atheists. They wanted to persecute nobody, but simply wanted religion to be completely separated from politics and the state.

These children of the Enlightenment could have used more enlightening with regard to their attitudes toward African Americans (several owned slaves), Native Americans and women. And, of course, they defended the interests of the ruling class to which they belonged.

Yet if our right-wing adversaries insist on claiming that Washington and Franklin actually wanted the United States to be a Christian theocracy, Allen’s book certainly can help to refute that outrageous lie.

Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers

By Brooke Allen

Ivan R. Dee, Chicago 2006

Hardcover, 256 pp., $24.95