Discovering Religion: Episode 17 – One Nation ABOVE God
A common view among many Christians throughout the United States is that American values are rooted in the Bible, a view propagated by the inaccurate perception that the Founding Fathers were devout believers in Christ and subsequently designed the American political system with Christian ideals in mind.
In fact, quite the contrary. The most influential figures responsible for authoring the United States’ founding documents were well-known deists of the 18th Century Enlightenment, not to mention vocal critics of organized religion. Yet despite their private religious convictions, all of the Founding Fathers believed in secularism and strongly agreed with the First Amendment, including the separation of Church and State.
But what if American morality were truly based on God’s laws set forth in the Bible, as so many Christians like believe? To glimpse what an American theocratic state might look like one need look no further than the Islamic countries that follow Sharia law, as many of the Islamic moral guidelines and punishment for crimes closely parallel those found in the Old Testament.
Yet despite the persistent attempts by Christians to inject religious observances into the American consciousness, the United States is not one nation under God, but rather, one nation above God, for as we will see, Americans are held to a much higher moral standard than the brutal and archaic rule of law found in the Bible.
This same bigoted, self-righteous mentality is exactly what the first American colonists left Europe to avoid. And this desire to limits on personal freedoms is what brave soldiers of Revolutionary War sacrificed their lives to overcome. The heavy burden of taxation without representation and the oppression of individual liberties ignited the American Revolution and inspired the Founding Fathers to design a new type of government, never before put into practice.
A separation of Church and State was a cornerstone of their vision for this country, ensuring the biases of the dominant ideology, whichever it might be, could not hinder the State’s ability to effectively govern a nation comprised of many different cultural and religious backgrounds. Our first Amendment rights, which includes the freedom of religion, allows us to worship however we see fit. But, it also ensures the freedom FROM religion — an individual’s right to refuse the unwanted subjugation of any religious ideology or denomination, including those of Christianity.
There is no doubt the US Constitution was authored and signed by men that believed in a God. But a thoughtful and concerted effort was made to avoid mention of Jesus Christ, or any other deity, in this federal document. But why? One would expect such allegedly religious men to eagerly seize upon the opportunity to fashion a Christian nation however they saw fit. Although the Founding Fathers believed in a separation of Church and State, surely the mere mention of Jesus Christ or the holy trinity would not have served to “establish” a particular subset of Christian beli efs over another, as all Christian denominations adhere to same basic belief in Christ.
In fact, the Founding Fathers could have invoked the name of Jesus Christ on every single line of the Constitution or made the 10 Commandments the very centerpiece of American law. Yet, they did not. Instead, they constructed a government that preserved the rights of all individuals, no matter their religious affiliation, by segregating religious and public institutions. For this reason there is so much conflict within American politics, because a religiously neutral, secular government was created around a population whose majority belief was and still is rooted in Christianity.
Although the Constitution contains signatures belonging to self-described “Christian men”, at the founding of the United States on July 4th 1776, it would be another 83 (1859) years until Charles Darwin would publish “On the Origin of Species”. Therefore, what indication did these men have to believe in anything other than the dominate views of their era? And why should the personal religion of these men have any bearing on the religious beliefs of Americans today?
To claim that because the Founding Fathers believed in Christ and were responsible for designing the American system of government, Modern-day Americans are therefore required to believe in the Judo-Christian God, is analogous to saying, because the ancient Greeks believed in Polytheism and were responsible for creating the first democratic and republic systems of government that the United States still uses today, Modern-day Americans are therefore required to believe in Zeus.
The fact that we have adopted political ideologies of a historical group of people has absolutely no bearing on the legitimacy of that peoples’ religious beliefs.There was no indication for the top philosophical minds of ancient Greece to doubt the validity of their gods, just like there wasn’t any reason the foremost intellectual minds of the 18th century should doubt the commonly held religious views of their culture either.
Although none of the Found Fathers were known to be atheists or even agnostics, considering they lived almost 100 years before the mechanism of natural selection was first described, and taking into account they did not have access to all the scientific facts we today consider common knowledge, why would we expect them to have believed in anything other than the dominate views of their time?
Men such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin are just some of the foremost intellectuals that lived during a time period known as the “Age of Enlightenment”. But to get a sense of how these men thought, we must understand the era in which they lived. The Enlightenment, which spanned the 18th century, was a time during Western philosophy, science, and cultural life where logic and reason were considered to be the ultimate source of legitimacy and authority. This cultural phenomenon developed simultaneously throughout the American Colonies, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and in many other European nations as well.
Although the Enlightenment was not a collective movement, all participants shared a common belief in the same basic principles, such as critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs, and morals, as well as a strong acceptance of rationality and scientific facts. Therefore, it is no surprise that during this period of time there were many political upheavals as a result of such drastic and rebellious changes in thought.
The spirit of the 18th Century Enlightenment was grounded in scientific investigation of the natural world as well as deep intellectual reasoning, through which sprang the political philosophies that rejected the tyranny of oppressive forces in favor of liberty and freedom for a United States of America. However, in the 21st Century a recent grass-roots initiative, known as the Tea Party movement, appears to draw inspiration from the “Age of Enlightenment” in theme, but severely lacking in any of core principles, such as an understanding of science, history, philosophy or public policy that made the Enlightenment such an influential era. The “Restoring Honor” rally hosted by Glenn Beck in August of 2010 brought many Tea Party members from around the country to converge on Washington D.C.
The vast majority of participants in the Tea Party movement are Ultra-Conservative, Republican Christians, who are very fond of claiming that America was formed by devoutly Christian men and the United States must therefore return to the Christian values upon which it was allegedly was founded. However, their glaring lack of any historical or political education leads them to shamelessly distort the facts and misrepresent what we historically know to be the actual views of the most influential Founding Fathers. Although the foremost contributing authors to the Constitution did believe in a God, many of them were strong critics of the Scripture and organized religion — their belief more akin to deism than traditional, orthodox Christianity.
For example, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, was responsible for writing the initial draft of the Declaration of Independence, creating legislation to limit and prohibit slavery, as well as authoring the Freedom of Religion into the Bill of Rights. Jefferson is also responsible for authoring an important piece of historical literature, known as the “Jefferson Bible”, in which he attempts to extract Jesus Christ’s moral teachings while removing all verses containing supernatural claims, such as those regarding angles, prophecies, the virgin birth, the resurrection, Christ’s divinity, as well as the idea that God consists of three beings, that of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Jefferson closely held the views of:
Unitarianism — that God is only one person in contrast to the trinity, and Deism — the belief that a supernatural being created the universe and truth can only be determined using reason and observation of the natural world, without need for faith or organized religion.
In 1782 Jefferson is quoted as saying:
“Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burned, tortured, fined, and imprisoned, yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half of the world fools and the other half hypocrites.”
- Thomas Jefferson
Notes on Virginia, 1782
In a letter to Thomas Cooper in 1814, Jefferson wrote:
“Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law.”
- Thomas Jefferson
Letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, from Monticello, February 10, 1814.
John Adams, the second US president, played a major role in persuading the Continental Congress to declare independence and assisted Thomas Jefferson in drafting the Declaration. Adams and Jefferson were very close friends, and in their latter years they had frequent correspondence. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1815 Adams wrote:
“The question before the human race is, whether the God of nature shall govern the world by his own laws, or whether priests and kings shall rule it by fictitious miracles.”
- John Adams
Letter to Thomas Jefferson, June 20, 1815
James Madison, the fourth US president, was responsible for proposing the revolutionary concept of a three-branched federal system of government that became the basis for the American Constitution. In 1785 Madison stated:
“During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”
- James Madison
Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, 1785
Do these men sound like devout Christians to you? The Founding Fathers may not have been atheists, but their disgust with Biblical doctrine led them to seek an alternative, more palatable version of the Christian god. Although these men did not have access to modern scientific knowledge in order to make a truly informed decision about their belief in God, they could certainly recognize the kinds of persecution, ignorance, abuse propagated by religion of their day and, as evidenced by their writings, they most definitely did not base America’s founding documents on the Juedo-Christian Bible.
The Founding Fathers designed the American government “for the people, by the people”, based on a system of subjective values — where laws pertaining to moral beliefs can be voted on or decided in a court of law. Without the ability to reach a consensus on certain moral issues, America would have never been able to overcome the scourge of slavery, to provide equal rights to groups once oppressed by sexism and racism, to allow a woman’s right to choose, and to overturn legislation that vies to take away liberties on the basis of sexual orientation.
In contrast, the Bible is rooted in a system of objective morality, where moral beliefs cannot be voted on or overturned in a court of law. God’s laws are absolute. Therefore, Christians are personally accountable to follow every single one of God’s absolute, morals laws contained in the Bible. In the next episode we will explore these laws and what our political landscape might look like if America were truly a Christian nation.