The suggestion that America is a Christian nation and that the ‘Founding Fathers’ were all ‘good Christian men’ with this intention, is a lie perpetrated by the Religious Right in their unceasing attempt to form a Dominionist United States and force an intolerant, fundamentalist Christian doctrine upon the American people. Had the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution been entirely Congregationalists from Massachusetts, heirs to Puritanism, this might be a plausible conjecture. This is not the case. The authors of America’s unique bases of its Republic were a very diverse group with a cultural memory of religious intolerance and pogroms. Certain members of the group were among the most brilliant and best educated men ever to have lived. Madison was especially proficient in Latin. His studies included Greek, the sciences, mathematics, philosophy, and rhetoric. At Princeton he studied Hebrew and political philosophy. Benjamin Franklin was regarded as a true renaissance man and one of the foremost scientific minds of his day. A prodigious inventor, he created the lightning rod, the Franklin stove, bifocal glasses, and even the flexible urinary catheter. Jefferson was a scholar until the day he died, mastering such unrelated fields as horticulture and architecture. He spoke five languages and was deeply interested in science and political philosophy. Several other signers of the Constitution became US Supreme Court Justices. Men of this caliber are rarely ever philosophically exclusive or narrow in their vision.
Defining ‘Founding Fathers’ is essential. The term was initiated by Warren G. Harding while a senator from Ohio, in his 1916 address to the Republican National Convention. It was used again in Harding’s 1921 inaugural address as President of the United States. An emotional association, the term is used to defend any point made by anyone seeking to balustrade himself against opposition to his assumed patriotic position. Compared to the late eighteenth century, the year 1916 is fairly recent. The idiom is thereby disassociated from the existence and prospectus of any of the ‘Founders’. It attempts to deify through tradition, ordinary mortal men, irrespective of their assumed individual brilliance, culture, and education. They are turned into a collective of semi-sacred figures, a faceless emblem of a conceived prior greatness. Harding’s ‘Founding Fathers’ is divided by historians into two groups, those who signed the Declaration of Independence, and those who drafted the Constitution. Examination of each man’s personal spirituality clarifies his individual socio-political influence.
Three were Roman Catholic. A larger minority, seven, were Congregationalist, a sect descended from the Puritan religion of the original New England colonists. Two were Lutheran. Two were Dutch Reformed. The remaining Protestant members included twenty eight Anglican, eight Presbyterian, and two Methodist. At least one was a Unitarian. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were anti-clerical. Franklin was a declared Deist.
Most, though not all, of the 1787 delegates were natives of the Thirteen Colonies. Their individual, regional world views were paramount. Butler, Fitzsimons, McHenry, and Paterson were born in Ireland. Davie and Robert Morris were from in England. Wilson and Witherspoon were Scots. Hamilton was born in the West Indies. Dissimilarity, therefore, reigned supreme.
A commonality shared by all these men was a cultural memory of religious persecution under the Tudors. With an average one hundred twenty five years separating a random sampling of the births of signers of the US Constitution from the death of Elizabeth, this places the signers approximately two generations from her pogroms. English religious persecution was endured by the grandparents’ generation of men like Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin.
Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, had been a candidate for the Roman Catholic priesthood. His ascension to the throne after the death of his older brother magnified his fear of another civil war. Should he not produce a male heir, his realm could easily plunge into a state of anarchy like the one experienced by his own father. England, at the beginning of Henry’s reign, was bankrupt from the years of strife during the Wars of the Roses. Further civil war would be the demise of the nation. This is the reason Henry sought divorce from Catherine of Aragon. It was not due to his famous promiscuity. Renaissance European monarchs were legendary for their multiple extra-marital dalliances. Insulting the Holy Roman Emperor by making his sister a harlot and her daughter a bastard, merely for an extramarital fling, would hardly be a prudent choice. Additionally, Henry feared eternal damnation for committing incest with his deceased brother’s wife, by Canon Law, his own sister. Henry was King, but he could not escape his education as a priest. The decision to divorce Catherine was more a necessity of state and of dogmatic religiosity than one of personal convenience.
Henry has become a hero of the Protestant Reformation in much written history. He was anything but. At one time, he put a price on Martin Luther’s head and attempted to lure Luther into the English realm so he could execute him. Henry believed Martin Luther to be a heretic and wished to burn him at the stake. After divorcing Catherine and breaking away from Papal authority, Henry merely replaced the Pope as head of the Church with the English monarch. It was not a matter of religious persuasion. It was political. England remained Catholic; Anglican Catholic. Englishmen must decide whether they were loyal to the King of England or the Prince of Rome. Purges of those loyal to Rome occurred throughout the remainder of Henry’s reign, and included the raising of many monasteries.
Because it was a matter of politics and not of religious faith, non-Roman Catholic sects were finally allowed to develop and flourish in England. Just by not being Papist, was one’s loyalty to the Crown demonstrated. As Henry aged, many non-Catholic sects had developed into established religions. The population had assumed a paradigm shift.
Upon the King’s death, Mary, Catherine and Henry’s daughter, and a staunch Roman Catholic, inherited the English throne. She vigorously persecuted Protestants as heretics with an ideological fervor. History recalls her as ‘Bloody Mary’. The years of Mary’s reign were a time of tremendous suffering and fear for anyone who had renounced Roman Catholicism. At Mary’s death, Protestant Elizabeth became queen. Tolerant of religious differences at the beginning of her reign, because of her own vulnerability and near execution under Mary, this ended after Pope Pius V excommunicated her, placing all English subjects under interdict. The resultant damnation of all Roman Catholic English subjects to hell, along with an inability to be married or obtain a burial caused Roman Catholic plots of regicide to be common enough for Elizabeth to declare war on her Roman Catholic countrymen. The Queen turned the tables, chasing down Roman Catholic rebels as if they were game in a massive hunt. Roman Catholicism was outlawed; its prominent practitioners doomed to a short residence in the Tower. Less important members of society were hanged or put to the sword, their families’ properties confiscated by the Crown. Many common people were fortunate enough to only face profound discrimination. William Shakespeare’s family had been significant in city government in Stratford, even Aldermen. Roman Catholic, political significance ended with Elizabeth’s reign. Impoverishment in his boyhood home may be a reason young Will Shakespeare migrated to London. Stratford’s ancient parish church was required by the crown to destroy its famous illustrations on the interior of the very church walls. The people of Stratford chose simply to paint over them. Future generations could wash away the paint, and the ancient illustrations again would be seen. During Elizabeth’s reign, however, no trace nor memory of Roman Catholicism was to survive. A page had been turned. England would forget its Roman Catholic past and embrace the modern doctrine of Protestantism. In this way could the English throne be protected from threats by Rome. History has shown Elizabeth’s secret police to be every bit as efficient and insidious as the Gestapo. Ironically, it was at Elizabeth’s insistence that the Anglican Mass remain conducted in Latin. Tolerance of the various Protestant sects held sway in lieu of discrimination against Roman Catholics, and the Crown remained Catholic in its own right, just not Papist.
At Elizabeth’s death in 1607, James of Scotland ascended the British throne, bringing Scotland into the fold of the United Kingdom. James was a Stuart, a family with a long Roman Catholic tradition. His tutor, however, had been a man of stalwart Protestant conviction, and James ‘ spirituality was even further removed from that of Rome. Though not as intolerant of Roman Catholicism as under Elizabeth, England under James was an officially Protestant nation, and English Papists were a small minority.
While the castles and armour of Renaissance England seem far off in the mists of history, reminiscent of a fairy tale, it must not be forgotten that Virginia was named for Elizabeth, and Jamestown was named for her immediate successor. It must, furthermore, be reinforced that the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were approximately only two generations from the religious persecutions of the Tudors. This was a significant memory. To ensure freedom from religion as well as freedom of religion, the US Constitution states:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Freedom from religion was clearly necessary in the New World after Roger Williams was forced out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony because he advocated freedom of religion and separation of church and state. He founded Providence Plantations as a free proprietary colony in what is present day Rhode Island. Maryland had to be formed by Lord Baltimore, so that Roman Catholics could have a colony. Such was the intolerance brought to the Americas. Not only were the ‘Founding Fathers’ not all ‘good Christian men’, a term often used by the religious right, to determine persons of their persuasion, they were from a spiritually dissimilar population, which precluded any determination of religious preference. In an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, a religious minority in Connecticut who experienced discrimination by the majority Congregationalists, Jefferson wrote “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their ‘legislature’ should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”
John Adams signed the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797, denying the intention of an American crusade to the Islamic peoples of North Africa, wherein it was stated, “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 tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan 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.”
James Madison is reputed to be the primary author of the Constitution and the author of the Bill of Rights. In a letter to Robert Walsh, in 1819, he called for a total separation of the church from the state. In Monopolies Perpetuities Corporations—Ecclesiastical Endowments, he wrote, “Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion & Govt in the Constitution of the United States,…” In an 1811 letter to Baptist Churches, he declared, “Practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government is essential to the purity of both, and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.”
Clearly, no commonality of religious sectarianism existed in the men responsible for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Rather than desire a state religion, they strove to assure future generations of Americans freedom from the same sort of persecution and pogroms their ancestors had endured. America was never intended to be a ‘Christian nation’. This reality was to be avoided at all cost.
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