Posted by: Ticktock | April 8, 2008

Faithless Founders of the USA

My Dad is visiting and inspiring all kinds of posts for this blog.  Today we were at Cincinnati’s Museum Center for the Bodies Exhibit and to take the kids to the Children’s Museum.  My Dad, a PR guy for public schools, wandered a little too close to a playgroup of creationist Moms who were badmouthing public education.  Among the things discussed were whether “Jesus” could be spoken by public school students and whether the Earth was 6000 years old or 6 billion years old.  He started debating with them, and I was completely embarassed- for no good reason- and kept my silence until… one of the Bible Moms said, “Our country was founded on religious principles.”

I replied that God is not mentioned in the constitution once and instead you find this- Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

What then are the beliefs of our founding fathers?

In 1797, the Treaty of Tripoli was ratified by the senate unanimously.  It said, “The government of the United States is in no way founded on the Christian religion.”

In God We Trust was not added to US currency until 1957 during McCarthyism.  The original Pledge of Allegiance (written in 1897) did not mention god; it said this, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”.  “God” was not added to the pledge until 1954 when the Knights of Columbus referenced Lincoln’s Gettysburgh Address as a reason to add it.

George Washington was baptized as a child and went to church some, but he refused communion after the war.  When hiring workmen for Mount Vernon, he wrote to his agent, “If they be good workmen, they may be from Asia, Africa, or Europe; they may be Mohammedans, Jews, or Christians of any sect, or they may be Atheists.” 

John Adams was a unitarian who had some nice things to say about christianity, but he also said this- “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 was no religion in it.’ ”

Thomas Jefferson, a unitarian, had this to say about christianity “The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them: and for this obvious reason that nonsense can never be explained.”  ETA… He completely disagreed with the miracles attributed to Jesus in the gospels.  He actually re-wrote the New Testament- removing anything of a supernatural nature.  If he were alive today, he would’ve taken Jar Jar Binks out of the Phantom Menace

James Madison had a lot to say about religion.  “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.” and also “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, superstitioin, bigotry, and persecution.”

Maybe creationist Moms should not be meeting at a science museum and exposing their children to the devil’s playground.  Instead, they can plan all their fun at The Creation Museum where their fantasies about our founding fathers can come true.  I really don’t want to impose my beliefs on them any more than I want them to do such a thing to me, but I won’t let them spread lies about our secular government.   The heathen founders of the U.S. are one reason I’m proud to be an American. 



  1. Whoaaaaa Nellie. Hold thy horses there for but a moment.

    1. The Washington quote confirms that, at least, Washington was tolerant of other faiths. But we hardly needed this as confirmation. The first ammendment is, at least, a note about tolerance. We cannot, however, extrapolate to the other end of the spectrum to say that he was not guided by principles that he took to be Christian, or that anyone else would take to be Christian. Refusing communion is a rejection of trappings of Christianity as emobodied by Catholic and Protestant sects; but it’s not a rejection of what someone might call a Christian philosophy. It’s the question of what moral philosophy the country was founded on that’s interesting and important; not the somewhat inane question of what Metaphysical philosophy the country was founded on. Some people might confuse the one for the other, and end up defending one when they ought to be defending the other, or attacking the one when they ought to be attacking the other. But don’t you be one of them. Slow thy roll.

    2. The Adams quote is awesome, and says even more than it appears to. In contrast to the Washington quote, which we must remain agnostic in our interpretation of, the Adams quote is almost certainly a rejection of even the idea of God. The “best of all possible worlds” line is a reference to Leibniz’s influential 18th century view of God and creation. And a rejection of that “best of all possible worlds” in the vein of Voltaire’s Candide, amounts to a rejection of all versions of an omnipotent being. So the Adams quote seems to suggest quite strongly that Adams was an atheist. We seem to be able to say more on Adams’ behalf based on this line than we can on George’s behalf based on his.

    3. Jefferson’s reference to Platonisms is a reference to Augustine’s infection of Christian doctrine with Plato’s universals and other Platonic notions. This infection persisted and shaped the Catholic, and later Protestant sects of Christianity. But by rejecting the Platonic version of Christianity Jefferson isn’t declaring that he isn’t himself a Christian. He could just be saying that he’s a horse of a different colour. As with George, we should be careful to not put too many words in his mouth other than those he clearly intends. Jefferson, like Washington, may very well have taken himself to be a Christian philosopher, creating a nation founded on the best moral principles, which just so happened to be his own, which just so happened to be what he would take to be Christian.
    4. The Madison quote seems to be directed at the institution and not the philosophy.

    So of the four, it seems to me that based on the quotes provided anyway, only Adams comes off as rejecting Christian moral philosophy; and even with him it’s only by virtue of him also rejecting God in the Leibnizian sense of God. Perhaps even he viewed himself as a Christian, but secular, philosopher. In which case his moral prinicples, and then those that inform the Constitution, could very well be Christian.

    In conclusion: I think the moms are probably right that the country was founded on Christian principles. But they are almost assuredly wrong about which principles those are. They are most likely not metaphysical principles about heaven, hell, creation, armageddon, sin, and redemption. They are most likely principles of a secular Christian moral philosophy drastically informed by 18th century humanism. Be annoyed at them for the mistake they make, but don’t aggravate it with possibly one of your own.

    Now. I’m not American-by-schooling. I’m not a constitutional historian. I am an historian of philosophy, so my guesses are based on that knowledge and not anything to do with the founding fathers. There might very well be other writings of the fathers that are more convincing as evidence of their rejection of Christian principles. But these ones didn’t move me. I remain skeptical of your conclusion.

  2. I don’t want to say that the founding fathers were not religious at all. They were deists, unitarians, christians, and some (like Thomas Paine) were atheists. My point is to really say that they would never have believed the absurdities of today’s creationists, nor would they have rebuked America’s secular legacy.

    George Washington may or may not have been christian in the latter half of his life. I’m willing to accept information that would correct my claim that he was not as religious as creationists would claim. I did find this quote, “The blessed Religion revealed in the word of God will remain an eternal and awful monument to prove that the best Institutions may be abused by human depravity; and that they may even, in some instances, be made subservient to the vilest of purposes.”

    Jefferson actually re-wrote the gospels and took out all the supernatural miracles attributed to Jesus- editing out any mention of a virgin birth, a resurrection, angels, miracles, etc. I’d say he was, at the least, not a christian and certainly not a creationist.

    James Madison fought hard for the separation of church and state. I couldn’t find much else about his personal religion. I did find a tolerance toward atheists in this quote,

    “Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us. If this freedom be abused, it is an offense against God, not against man:To God, therefore, not to man, must an account of it be rendered”

  3. Good. I agree with that. The moms have confused “religious principles” with “a particular metaphysics” and then they draw wonky conclusions and it drives them to absurd defenses and attacks on the more secular ideas that clearly ARE embedded in the Constitution.

  4. Ticktock, while I think that I agree with your sentiments in general, to a certain extent, I’d like to point out that your John Adams quote is taken out of context. What he actually wrote was:

    “Twenty times, in the course of my late reading, have I been on the point of breaking out, ‘this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!’ But in this exclamation, I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion, this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in public company — I mean hell.”

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