Founders Preferred Secular Government
Pilot readers often fervently claim that America is a "Christian nation."
A recent writer offered as proof the fact that the Founding Fathers followed the biblical teachings of the Ten Commandments. I mentioned that rationale to a Jewish friend of mine named Moses. He suggested that if that were the determinative argument, then America must be a Jewish state.
Some aver that the Pilgrims set America's religious tone when they signed the Mayflower Compact. It affirmed loyalty to King James I, who published his own Protestant version of the Bible and affirmed the Divine Right of Kings. James, born a Catholic, persecuted Papists and Pilgrims alike, which drove the latter from England. The Compact has had no legal impact on America's Constitution.
"Should one rely for modern-day governmental inspiration upon the narrow-minded strictures of the Pilgrims, who willingly executed fellow colonists for witchcraft?" asks Professor H. Ester Prynne of Harvard.
The Founding Fathers were of a Protestant establishment. Colonial Catholics had long been discriminated against and, as in England, could not hold public office. Only official Protestant denominations were supported by public taxation. In spite of such an overwhelming Protestant orientation, the Constitution fails to mention Jesus Christ, God or Christianity except in the old-fashioned way of dating the Year of our Lord).
The founders believed in a Supreme Being, but like St. Thomas were more than a little doubtful. George Washington was a deist, as were John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who are often quoted on the roles of religion and government. Their well-preserved libraries are rich in religious literature. (Both contain the Quran.)
Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration of Independence, wrote, "I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature. Religions are all alike - founded upon fables and mythologies." In an 1823 letter to Adams, he wrote, "The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as His father, in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter."
Earlier, Adams wrote to Jefferson, "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."
Benjamin Franklin and James Madison were equally skeptical of organized religion. Madison wrote, "During almost 15 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 superstition, bigotry and persecution." He warned, "In no instance have the churches been guardians of the liberties of the people."
Instead of creating a Christian or theocratic state, the founders, who greatly feared the tyranny of a dictatorial clergy and corrupt hierarchical authority whether in Rome or London, did just the opposite. They remembered all the innocent lives slaughtered in wars fought in the name of a "true religion" during the Reformation and vowed it would not happen here.
The authors of the Bill of Rights understood that a strictly "Christian nation" could not guarantee equal rights to those of other faiths. Their language is therefore unambiguous: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
The 1797 treaty with Islamic Tripoli, negotiated under Washington and ratified by the Senate, clearly states, "the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion - as it has no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen (Muslims. )...it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinion shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries." A treaty is the law of the land.
Strong nativist fears of German and Irish Catholic immigrants for supposed loyalty to the Pope gave rise to the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s, whose presidential candidate garnered one of four votes. Despite the First Amendment's clarity, virulent attacks on Catholic Al Smith's 1920 presidential campaign by the Protestant Ku Klux Klan and fundamentalist Protestant clergymen reflected a continuing fear of Catholics, still evident during John F. Kennedy's presidential race.
The myth of a "Christian nation" will not easily die, and parents will still tell their questioning child, "Yes, Virginia, America is a Christian nation." But America's history of continuous religious bigotry confirms the prescient genius of its founders, who knew exactly what they were doing in establishing a secular government that guarantees freedom of religion for all.
Paul R. Dunn lives in Pinehurst. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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