God and the Founding Fathers

Many well-meaning people argue that the United States was founded by Christian men as a Christian nation. Undoubtedly, many of the founders were Christians. But some of the most well-known of the founders were demonstrably not. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams are three that come to mind. And even those founders who were Christian were not interested in trying to create a Christian nation here. They knew all too well the European experience of a unified church and state. After witnessing the persecutions that so many who had come to these shores sought to escape, the founders were not at all interested in trying to duplicate that mess.

One can discover many positive statements about God in the writings of the founders, together with stirring words about the value of religion. However, talking favorably about religion does not make a person a Christian. There’s a bit more to it than that. After all, though Moslems believe in God and acknowledge Jesus as a great prophet, they would most strenuously deny being Christians. Ninety percent or more of the American public claims to believe in God; but nowhere near that percentage show up in church on Sunday morning.

Perhaps it might be beneficial to define “Christian.” The dictionary tells us that a Christian is “one who professes belief in Jesus as Christ or follows the religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus.” That then begs the question of what it means to believe in Jesus as Christ, and what it means to follow the religion based on his life and teachings. Generally speaking, regardless of denomination, Christians agree that Jesus came to redeem humanity from sin by dying on the cross and that he later rose from the dead. Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God, one member of the Trinity made up of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Christians also tend to accept the Bible as authoritative, believing that it is the Word of God.

If an individual does not accept this traditional Christian message, most people who call themselves Christians would then question that such individual was a Christian. Simply saying nice things about Jesus isn’t enough. The Koran says nice things about Jesus, too. If a person claims to be a Democrat but always votes for Republicans and spouts the Republican party line, one would be justified in questioning whether that person was actually a Democrat. What you believe and practice really does matter in religion, as much as it does in politics.

Thomas Jefferson created his own version of the New Testament. He was uncomfortable with any reference to miracles, so with two copies of the New Testament and a pair of scissors, he snipped out all the references to miracles from the story of Jesus and pasted together what remained. The stories of healing blind men, walking on the water, and the resurrection from the dead wound up as scraps in Jefferson’s trash basket.

He did this cut and paste job during February 1804, as he says, on “2. or 3. nights only at Washington, after getting thro’ the evening task of reading the letters and papers of the day.” His finished product is still in print and is an interesting thing to read if you want to get a sense of his attitudes toward both Jesus and the Bible.
John Adams, the second U.S. President, rejected both the Trinity and the idea that Jesus was God. It was during Adams’ presidency that the Senate ratified the Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Tripoli, which states in Article XI that:

“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 Musselmen,—and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arrising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

This treaty with the Islamic state of Tripoli had been written and concluded by Joel Barlow during Washington’s Administration. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty on June 7, 1797; President Adams signed it on June 10, 1797 and it was first published in the Session Laws of the Fifth Congress, first session in 1797. Quite clearly, then, at this very early stage of the American Republic, the U.S. government did not consider the United States a Christian nation. Of course, the simple fact that the U.S. Constitution, Article VI, paragraph 3 states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” gives us a clue to that effect. If the founders had wanted to create a Christian nation they certainly did a lousy job of it.
The reality was, Europe was full of Christian nations and the founders were not interested in following that broken tradition.

Benjamin Franklin was a delegate to the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention. It is often noted that Franklin made a motion at the Constitutional convention that they should bring in a clergyman to pray for their deliberations. However, it is rarely noted that Franklin presented his motion only after they’d already been deliberating for four or five weeks, during which they had never once opened in prayer. More significantly, Franklin’s motion for prayer was voted down by the other delegates.

About March 1, 1790, Franklin wrote the following in a letter to Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, who had asked him his views on religion. His answer would indicate that he was not much of a Christian:

“As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.”

He died just over a month later on April 17.

The founders hoped to avoid the mistakes they saw in Europe. They wanted a nation in which religion could be freely exercised, with no government intervention or coercion, and in which religion could not coerce the government, either. Rodger Williams, the Baptist founder of Rhode Island who had been tossed out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony by the Puritans for the sin of being a Baptist, wrote that government tends to corrupt religion. Thomas Jefferson, a century later, wrote that religion tends to corrupt the government. Looking at the European experience, the founders realized that both of them were right, and so they tried to create a system that kept both religion and government from interfering with one another.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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