The Founders knew acutely the pains of centuries of religious warfare in modern Europe and resoundingly did not want that for their new nation. Many of them moreover knew religious persecution intimately — some whose families fled the Church of England for fear of being imprisoned, burned at the stake, or worse. Is America a Christian nation? Although many Christians certainly have come here, in a legal and political sense the nation’s founders wanted precisely the opposite of the “Christian nation” they were breaking with by pursuing independence from the British.
Contrary to the disinformation spread by Christian nationalists today, the people who founded the United States explicitly saw religious zealotry as one of the primary dangers to a democratic republic. They feared demagoguery and the abuse of power that tilts public apparatus towards corrupt private interest. The Founders knew that religion could be a source of strife for the fledgling nation as easily as it could be a strength, and they took great pains to carefully balance the needs of religious expression and secular interests in architecting the country.
Americans sought religious freedom
The main impetus for a large percentage of the early colonists who came to the Americas was the quest for a home where they could enjoy the free exercise of religion. The Protestant Reformation had begun in Europe about a century before the first American colonies were founded, and a number of new religious sects were straining at the bonds of the Catholic Church’s continued hegemony. Puritans, Mennonites, Quakers, Jesuits, Huguenots, Dunkers, Jews, Amish, Lutherans, Moravians, Schwenkfeldians, and more escaped the sometimes deadly persecutions of the churches of Europe to seek a place to worship God in their own chosen ways.
By the late 18th century when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, many religious flowers were blooming within the 13 colonies. He had seen for himself the pitfalls of the experiments in which a unitary control of religion by one church or sect led to conflict, injustice, and violence. Jefferson and the nation’s other founders were staunchly against the idea of establishing a theocracy in America:
- The founding fathers made a conscious break from the European tradition of a national state church.
- The words Bible, Christianity, Jesus, and God do not appear in our founding documents.
- The handful of states who who supported “established churches” abandoned the practice by the mid-19th century.
- Thomas Jefferson wrote that his Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom was written on behalf of “the Jew and the gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindu and the infidel of every denomination.” In the text he responds negatively to VA’s harassment of Baptist preachers — one of many occasions on which he spoke out sharply against the encroachment of religion upon political power.
- The Constitution explicitly forbids a religious test for holding foreign office.
- The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights guarantees that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
- There is a right-wing conspiracy theory aiming to discredit the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” by claiming that those exact words aren’t found in the Constitution.
- The phrase comes from Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, wherein he is describing the thinking of the Founders about the meaning of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which Jefferson contemplates “with sovereign reverence.”
- The phrase is echoed by James Madison in an 1803 letter opposing the building of churches on government land: “The purpose of separation of Church and State is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries.”
- The 1796 Treaty of Tripoli states in Article 11: “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” — President George Washington first ordered the negotiation of a treaty in 1795, and President John Adams sent the treaty to the Senate for ratification in 1797, with this article widely interpreted to mean a reiteration of the purpose of the Establishment Clause to create a secular state, i.e. one that would not ever be going to holy war with Tripoli.
The Founders were Deists
For the most part, the prominent Founders were Deists — they recognized the long tradition of Judeo-Christian order in society, and consciously broke from it in their creation of the legal entity of the United States, via the Establishment Clause and numerous other devices. They were creatures of The Enlightenment, and were very much influenced by the latest developments of their day including statistics, empiricism, numerous scientific advancements, and the pursuit of knowledge and logical decision-making.
- They distrusted the concept of divine right of rule that existed in Europe under monarchies. We fought a revolution to leave that behind for good reason.
- They disliked the idea of a national church, and were adamant about the idea of keeping the realms of religion and politics independent of each other.
- Thomas Paine lamented that “Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law.”
- Paine also pushed the envelop even further, asserting his belief that the people would eventually abandon all traditional religions in favor of the “religion” of nature and reason.