The Declaration of Independence refers to “Nature’s God,” “Creator,” “Divine Providence” and “Supreme Judge of the World.” The Constitution does not refer to divine intervention but to the will of the people. So how do people claim that we are a Christian nation?
Our founding fathers purposefully did not refer to Jesus Christ or any specific Christian denomination of which there were many in the late 1700s. The population was predominantly Christian but not of the same denomination. New England was dominated by Congregationalists of the Pilgrim and Puritan tradition. However, in the South the Protestants were more Episcopalian and aligned with the Church of England from which the Pilgrims had fled. Maryland was founded by Catholics and the rest of the population consisted of Methodists, Presbyterians, Quakers and even some Jews and Muslims.
Even with this strong Christian majority the leaders stayed away from making it a state religion. This was intentional. Ben Franklin proposed to open the meetings of the Constitutional Convention with prayer, but it failed for lack of support. They didn’t think is was appropriate or needed. Most of the Founding Fathers believed in Deism, which had replaced the Judeo-Christian God of Biblical traditions. Looking at some of their personal beliefs helps reveal their thoughts at the time.
Ben Franklin was what we would now call a Unitarian. Late in his life he wrote: “Here is my creed. I believe in one God, creator of the universe. That he governs it by his Providence. … As to Jesus of Nazareth, I think the system of morals and his religion … the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have … some doubts as to his divinity.”
George Washington regularly attended the Episcopal Church but often referred to “Providence.” He was certainly Christian but commonly left the church service before communion, stating silently that he did not agree with it. But Washington was also a Freemason along with John Hancock, Paul Revere and Ben Franklin. In his famous letter to the Newport Hebrew Congregation in 1790 Washington wrote, “The government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.”
Thomas Jefferson was more radical in his opposition to organized religion and considered organized Christianity a form of “tyranny over the mind of man.”
He produced an edited version of the Gospels (the Jefferson Bible) where he emphasized the moral and ethical teachings of Jesus but left out all references to his divinity. In 1782 Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom was approved by the Virginia Legislature and ended state support for the Episcopal Church. James Madison had a significant role in its passage.
The language of that statute still rings true today.
“We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
Jeff Blanck is an attorney in private practice in Reno. He can be reached at email@example.com