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August 1, 2012 / Sandy Asher


Most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as it would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions, which they have delighted in explaining to their colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven thread by thread into their own lives. —Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy’s observation applies to the “falsity of conclusions” held by many about the role of Christianity in their country’s founding.  Faith, belief, and myth often trump accurate history.

In one of its 2012 platform planks, the Texas GOP declared that our country has been a Christian nation since its inception.  Whether “inception” refers to when the colonies were first settled or when the United States obtained independence is not made clear. Either way, many Americans agree with this assertion.  

If meant to convey that a majority of religious Americans back then were of the Christian persuasion, the declaration is, indeed, factual.  If more than a head count is intended, the issue gets considerably more cloudy.


Given the plethora of denominations present at the birth of the USA – Congregationalists, Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics, Quakers, Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Baptists, among others – one must ask, “What constituted an American Christian at the time?”   Below are three variations on that theme.  There were more.

Some denominations adhered to Calvinist notions of predestination whereby God alone chose at birth those destined for salvation, irrespective of the behavior they later demonstrated. While this “elect” would likely exhibit exemplary conduct, one could not know for certain who they were.  These believers also worshipped a wrathful God who, while delivering some of them to the Promised Land, also wreaked harsh retribution for sins committed on earth.

Other denominations emphasized God’s willingness to extend grace to all, an offer each individual was free to accept or reject. Those who accepted agreed to follow their church teachings about how to carry out God’s wishes and earn salvation. The performance of good works was seen as an indicator of being in a state of grace.

The Great Awakening that began in the 1730s gave rise to Pietist groups that partook of emotional church services led by less educated preachers who appealed to the hearts, not the minds, of their congregations, and stressed the importance of a mystical union with God.

Those who hold that the United States originated as a Christian nation are very far from scoring a slam dunk. It would be more accurate to say that the new country was a nation of prolific and diverse Christians who disagreed about what constituted the true Christian faith as well as over the relationship between church and state.  Some, for instance, like Roger Williams, founder of the Rhode Island Colony in the late 1730s, feared reducing faith to merely a means of temporal power; hence, the church should stay out of politics. Williams was interested in saving the church from the state, not the state from the church.  Others took an opposite approach and called for state-supported churches to be financed by all citizens living within that state, whether or not they belonged to the established church.                          


The religious views of the Founding Fathers cannot be defined easily, if at all.  However, their thinking on the state’s role in the theological arena is more clear.

President Washington frequently referred to the “Almighty Being,” and supposedly improvised the phrase “so help me God” at the end of his first presidential oath, while kissing the Bible on which he had sworn it.  But he was never heard to invoke the name of Jesus Christ in public prayer. 

A treaty with the Muslim nation of Tripoli initiated by Washington, completed byAdams, and ratified by the Senate in 1797 stated “the government of the United States is not in any sense a Christian nation….”

During a visit to Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790, President Washington was honored by the Hebrew Congregation of the city.  In response, he wrote: “May the congregation of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one of them shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Ben Franklin spoke of “the Excellency of the Christian religion above all others ancient or modern,” but said of Jesus, “I have some doubts about his divinity.” He thought it needless to study the question “when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.” 

John Adams read both books of the Bible regularly, as did his son, John Quincy.  For more than sixty years, the father attended the Unitarian Church, and rejected forcefully the notion of the Trinity that “one was three.”

Thomas Jefferson, though fulsome in his praise of the ethical teachings of Jesus, scorned organized religion and distrusted established churches, whose clergy he excoriated for allying with the despots of liberty. “The way to silence all religious disputes,” he declared, “is to ignore them.”  Also: “Priests have perverted the purest religion known to man into mystery and jargon unintelligible to all mankind.”  In 1802, he urged the building of “a wall of separation between church and state.”

In his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom introduced in 1799 to the state’s General Assembly, then Governor Jefferson wrote that all attempts to influence the free mind that God had created “by temporal punishments . . . or by civil incapacitations . . . are a departure from the Plan of the Holy Author of our religion.”

His sentiments were supported by James Madison who, in his 1785 “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,” argued “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion,” a position that went well beyond that of toleration. (My emphasis.)

The overwhelming majority of the 238 Founding Fathers – signers of either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution or both — affiliated with a church: 54% Anglican, 30% Presbyterian, 27% Congregationalist, and single digits for other denominations.  

The chief founders – add James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, Philip Freneau, and many others, to Washington, Jeffersion, Franklin, and Madison —were all Deists, irrespective of church affiliation. They were comfortable with the Enlightenment concept of a world whose benign operations were set in motion by God the clockmaker and left to run by their own devices.  Reason was the tool for understanding the laws governing those operations, and humane conduct was what those laws taught.

The Declaration of Independence articulated the soon-to-be new country’s articles of political – not religious – faith. In drafting the document, Jefferson mentioned God only twice, as “Natures’s God” and “Creator.” In the editing process, his colleagues added allusions to a “supreme judge” and “divine providence,” terms based more on a religion of reason than of revelation.

The Constitution drafted by the Founding Fathers made no mention of religion other than in the First Amendment, which prohibits Congress from making any laws respecting the establishment of religion or its free exercise.  Candidates for the presidency faced no religious test.

The Founders were far from hostile to religion. Indeed they believed themselves in service both to God and man. John Adams said, “My religion is founded on the love of God, and my neighbor.”  They wanted God in American public life, but with each American free to define God in whatever way he chose: as God the Father, Yaweh, Allah, and so on. It was also acceptable to profess to atheism or agnosticism. First and foremost, the Founders wanted to avoid mixing religious passions with the ambitions of politics.  Acutely aware of the history of strife engendered by state-endorsed religion, they believed that for an untested new form of government to survive, separation between the federal government and religion was a must.

Bear in mind also that their public service and political careers were mostly centered on waging war and, once independence was secured, on setting up a new government. Religious concerns occupied a very small part of the agenda.

The restrictions placed by the Constitution on the federal government’s role in religion did not apply to the states. What states could and could not do in this arena came to be determined by higher courts’ interpretations of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibited states from abridging the privileges and immunities of American citizens and denying them due process of law as regards life, liberty, and property.


Contrary to the accepted mythology, Christians who came to these shores to escape religious persecution were hardly advocates of religious freedom.  Puritans established a theocracy and tried very hard to impose their theology on all the inhabitants of Massachusetts Bay Colony. They restricted rights of citizenship—to vote and hold public office—to members of the Puritan faith. Non-church members were tithed, while dissenters were persecuted, prosecuted, and exiled.    

The intolerance of the Puritans also characterized other religiously founded colonies like Catholic Maryland and the Anglican Restoration colonies in the Carolinas. Concern with obtaining personal salvation, which they believed only their version of Christianity guaranteed, meant those who suggested otherwise were not simply dissenters but heretics whose falsehoods risked closing off the possibilities of life ever after for those they bewitched or bedeviled.

In Virginia, especially the northern part, the Anglican Church penalized Baptists, jailing them for preaching a “false” gospel. Not surprisingly, Baptists and other persecuted evangelical Christians were passionate in support of church-state separation.       

Also at work in promoting separation was the growing belief encouraged by the Great Awakening beginning in the 1720s that the worshipper’s relationship with God was personal. There was no need to go through a clerical hierarchy to reach salvation.

The process of Disestablishment, that is, the prohibition of a state-endorsed religion and of taxes to support it, began in Virginia and spread quickly to other southern states, but did not reach New England until the early 19th century.

Large-scale denominational competition fueled by ethnic diversity—not new enlightened views about freedom of religion—eventually led to toleration of rivals, even non-Christian ones. Scots-Irish Presbyterians, and later German Lutherans and Baptists, cooperated in attacking the Pennsylvania Quakers, while inVirginia struggles ensued between members of the Church of England and the Scots-Irish. Under the circumstances, the antagonists eventually came to endorse a government neutral in religious affairs over one inspiring fear by taking sides.

It’s not by chance that religious conflicts here have never led to all-out assaults by warring factions, or to the government serving as the court of last resort for settling religious disputes.  A crucial result of keeping church and state separate has been that the United States has not experienced the torrents of blood “spilt in the old world by vain attempts of the secular arm to extinguish Religious discord by proscribing all difference in Religious opinion” (James Madison). 

Though we have never known the likes of the bloody Thirty Years’ War of 1618–1648 between and among Protestants and Catholics in Europe that led to the death of tens of thousands, there have been a few situations in America where deaths resulted from religious conflict, the Salem witch trials being the best known among them. Under the Puritans, Mary Dyer and a small number of dissenters were executed; she, after continuously defying her banishment and returning to challenge the existing orthodoxy.  The Philadelphia Election Riot of 1742, led by Anglicans trying to break longstanding Quaker dominance, was triggered by rumors that Quakers were bringing in non-naturalized Germans to vote.  Fatalities resulted when 70 sailors, shouting anti-Quaker oaths, attacked Quakers and Germans present at the courthouse to cast their perfectly legal ballots. In May and June of 1844, deadly riots took place after nativist Protestants spread false rumors that Catholics planned to remove Bibles from the schools. Fighting between the mob and soldiers protecting Catholic churches—two of which had been destroyed—led to injuries and deaths. 

The Know-Nothing Party’s anti-Catholic platform of the 1840s, and the American Protection Association’s similar stance in the 1890s (it also disliked Greek and Russian Orthodoxy), did not lead to widespread religious violence. The successes of anti-immigrant groups in restricting immigration by non-Protestants were short-lived.  The Ku Klux Klan, Christian Identity, Army of God, Aryan Nation, and Lambs of Christ—who in the name of their distorted Christianity justified hatred of Jews, Catholics and other “un-American” beliefs and practices – were denounced and strongly sanctioned by mainstream religious groups. 

The 2012 Texas GOP platform is misinformed and misguided; long-held beliefs,  as Tolstoy observed, make it hard to face the facts.  As we have seen, there were many Christian factions present at the birth of our nation, and feuds among them were not uncommon.  And there were others present — Jews, doubters, atheists and agnostics among them.  In his book, Head and Heart:  American Christianities, scholar Gary Willis makes the case that without Disestablishment in America, there would have been no escape from the theological monopolies governments elsewhere imposed on their subjects. Disestablishment, he points out, eventually led to the “unfettered play of worship, a diversity of denominations, an energetic ministry, [and] a higher level of religious belief and practice than other developed nations enjoy.”

The separation of church and state, he concludes, “has not led to the suppression of religion . . . .  Just the opposite.  It meant the freeing of religion.”

Amen to that.


William Lee Miller, The First Liberty: Religion and the AmericanRepublic,New York: Alfred Knopf, 1986.

John Meachum, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, New York: Random House, 2006.

Gary Willis, Head and Heart: American Christianities, New York: Penguin Press, 2007.


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