Religion and the Founding of the United States

Christianity at the ballot box

NOTE: This article originally appeared on the substack of Jason Pye, which can be read by clicking here. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Project Liberal. For more articles, visit the Project Liberal blog by clicking here.

While casually scrolling through Facebook a few days ago, I ran across an ad for the “We the People Bible.” The front cover was a design of the American flag, with the words “Holy Bible” etched between the stars. The ad stated that this version of the Bible was “designed exclusively for those who want to preserve their faith and love for America for generations to come.”

I’ll concede up front that I’m an atheist. I’m open to being wrong, but I need tangible evidence, not, as David Hume wrote, “sophistry and illusion.” I was raised Southern Baptist in an evangelical household and attended a private Christian school for about half of my grade school years, but as I got older and read the Bible and scholarship on the Bible, I found myself with far more questions than answers.

That was years ago. Over time, I found more answers to my questions. Although I acknowledge that no one can truly know with any certainty if there’s an intelligent being, atheism is what makes the most sense to me at this stage of my life.

To be clear, I don’t care what you believe or what religion you practice. My girlfriend is a Christian. Most of my family and close friends are Christians. As long as you don’t hurt anyone in the process of your beliefs or use the force of government to impose your views on people, what you believe is none of my business. I’m not here to change your mind or ridicule you for what you believe. That’s not my thing. Just don’t force it on me.

That being said, the blending of radical nationalism and evangelical Christianity is something that really bothers me because it’s based largely on false or misleading narratives about the Founding Fathers and framers of the Constitution. What’s more, Christian nationalists are actively trying to use the force of government to impose their will on Americans, many of whom practice other faiths or don’t practice any faith.

The Constitution has two mentions of religion. The first comes in Article VI, which states, “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” This means what it says and shouldn’t require any additional explanation. The second comes in the First Amendment. As opening of the amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

The second reference to religion deserves more explanation. What became the First Amendment, as we know it, was James Madison’s third and fourth proposed amendments. The third proposed amendment contained the relevant language; that “Congress shall make no law establishing religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, nor shall the rights of Conscience be infringed.”

Madison drew from the Virginia Declaration of Rights, authored George Mason, for what became the Bill of Rights, but especially in regard to the Free Exercise Clause. Section 16 of the Virginia Declaration of Rights states, “That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practise Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.” Neither Madison’s third proposal, nor the text of the First Amendment, has any reference to a specific religion.

The Senate would combine Madison’s third and fourth proposals and strike the “rights of conscience” clause. The House and Senate would eventually settle on a modified version of the Senate proposal that was sent to the states for ratification.

The prevailing view in the roughly first century after the ratification of the Bill of Rights was that the rights were limited to only federal citizenship. The Supreme Court formalized that view in Barron v. Baltimore (1833). The ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment was a turning point for how we view the Bill of Rights. The relevant part of Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment reads, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Reading that, one would think that the Bill of Rights immediately applied to the states. That’s not how things actually played out. The Supreme Court has gradually applied the Bill of Rights to the states. I’ll spare you the differences between incorporation through the Due Process Clause and the Privileges or Immunities Clause, except to say that the Supreme Court has routinely used the Due Process Clause to incorporate rights against the states. I’ll also add that Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Neil Gorsuch are proponents of incorporation through the Privileges or Immunities Clause. This view is what created the concern about the right to same-sex marriage and other hot button issues being put in jeopardy post-Dobbs. While I have no doubt that Justice Thomas would side with social conservatives in reversing the right to same-sex marriage, for example, his concurrence in Dobbs referred to the process by which the Court incorporated the right, not so much the right itself.

Back to the point. The First Amendment has gradually been incorporated against the states. The Free Exercise Clause was incorporated in Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940) while the Establishment Clause was incorporated in Everson v. Board of Education (1947). Cantwell drew on Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, in which Jefferson, who was serving as president at the time, wrote, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

Some dispute that the First Amendment was meant to put a wall between church and the federal government, but the language of First Amendment—really, the Constitution as a whole when one takes the Religious Tests Clause into account—clearly signify that was the intent. Those who reject this interpretation also point out that Jefferson was in France when the Bill of Rights was proposed and debated. Although it’s true that Jefferson was a minister to France when the Bill of Rights was working its way through Congress, Jefferson wrote the Virginia Declaration of Religious Freedom, which was carried in the Virginia General Assembly by Jefferson’s top lieutenant, Madison, who wrote what became the First Amendment. As Madison wrote, “The religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man, and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.”

Now, was there a Christian influence on the Founding Fathers? I’d be remiss if I said there wasn’t. Clearly, virtually every Founding Father respected Christianity. There’s at least one notable exception in Thomas Paine, who outright rejected Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in The Age of Reason. Paine seemed to have a particular contempt for Christianity. He went to great lengths long before modern biblical scholarship, archeology, and access to centuries-old manuscripts to call Christianity a “fable.” That being said, Paine suggests that a man named Jesus Christ existed, as the historical record shows us, and he wasn’t an atheist.

The influence of Jefferson and Madison are quite notable considering that they were deists or theistic rationalists. Like Paine, Jefferson wasn’t a believer in Christianity. He edited his own version of the Bible—The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth—that excluded miracles and the resurrection. One might say that Jefferson highly regarded Jesus as a moral teacher. As Jefferson wrote in 1803, “I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, & believing he never claimed any other.” He wasn’t comfortable talking about his views publicly “because it would countenance the presumption of those who have endeavored to draw them before that tribunal, and to seduce public opinion to erect itself into that Inquisition over the rights of  conscience, which the laws have so justly proscribed. it behoves every man, who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others; or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own. it behoves him too, in his own case, to give no example of concession, betraying the common right of independant opinion, by answering questions of faith, which the laws have left between god & himself.” (This is straight from the letter, so try to ignore what we would consider typos today.)

In 1816, Jefferson was much more direct, writing, “I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel, and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what it’s Author never said nor saw. they have compounded from the heathen mysteries a system beyond the comprehension of man, of which the great reformer of the vicious ethics and deism of the Jews, were he to return on earth, would not recognise one feature.” (Emphasis Jefferson’s.) There are some echoes of Paine in that statement.

The Declaration of Independence, primarily authored by Jefferson, uses deists references for God, such as “Nature’s God” and “divine Providence.” There’s no mention of Christianity. Granted, the rough draft of the Declaration did reference the “Christian king of Great Britain” in a passage that ironically condemned the slave trade. This passage was struck from the document because of objections from southern colonies.

Madison’s religious views are harder to pin down. He may have been a deist. He may not have. Nevertheless, he made the quest for religious freedom a part of his public life. He believed that religious freedom even bolstered faith. In an 1819 letter, Madison explained, “Whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood & the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the State.” Going back to Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists, Madison wrote what became the First Amendment. Again, the intent of the separation of church and state is clear.

Like Madison, George Washington’s religious views aren’t clearly known. John Adams was a unitarian but seemed to have some frustration with religion, once writing, “Twenty times, in the course of my late Reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, ‘This would be the best of all possible Worlds, if there were no Religion in it’…this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in polite Company, I mean Hell.” Adams appears to have disliked Catholicism. In 1813, he wrote to Jefferson, “Indeed, Mr. Jefferson, what could be invented to debase the ancient Christianism which Greeks, Romans, Hebrews and Christian factions, above all the Catholics, have not fraudulently imposed upon the public?” Adams also criticized laws that the criminalized doubting or denying the divine inspiration of the Bible.

There’s also the Treaty of Tripoli with Tripoli, signed by Adams in 1797. Article 11 of the treaty states, “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.” The language, which supposedly doesn’t appear in the Arabic version but does appear in the version ratified by the Senate and signed by Adams, may have been placed in the treaty to settle concerns about religious hostilities similar to the Crusades.

Unquestionably, there were Christians involved in the founding. The “Great Awakening” took place roughly 30 to 40 years before the colonies declared their independence, but this revival of faith was mostly regional while the Enlightenment, reason, and liberalization gained favor. Evangelical Christianity wouldn’t hit its stride until the 19th and 20th centuries.

Patrick Henry, John Jay, Benjamin Rush, Roger Sherman, and John Witherspoon all come to mind when thinking about devoutly Christian founders. Another founding father, Elias Boudinot, wrote a rebuttal to Paine’s Age of Reason. Boudinot called Paine “the vain and infidel author” of the book.

Am I saying that there wasn’t a religious or even Christian influence during the founding of America? No, I’m not. What I am saying is that the founding fathers weren’t as straightforward in their religious views—particularly when it comes to Christianity—as modern evangelicals want them to be. The views of the founding fathers were diverse, nuanced, and complex. But when it comes to the Constitution is a secular document. We weren’t intended to be a Christian nationalist nation. Very clearly. The separation of church and state was intended. It’s a feature of our system.

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