It is still a little over a month until this country celebrates the anniversary of its independence as a nation, and I always look forward to the increased level of patriotic fervor that takes place during the Fourth of July. Social media will be awash in red, white and blue; and with pictures of eagles and flags and other images designed to inspire feelings of pride in our country and in our heritage.
It is perhaps at this time of year, more than any other, that we think about the men who led us out of bondage to a tyrannical power and into the light of liberty, and we reflect upon the ideas and philosophies that inspired them. What we notice is that it was not only their political convictions which drove them, but their religious beliefs as well.
Unfortunately, at this time of the year, we will also find other images and articles and blog posts, throughout social media, which will present to us a different history than the one that we were taught in school. We will be asked to believe that religion played no part in the founding of our nation, and in fact, our Founding Fathers were a bunch of “free-thinkers” (whatever that implies), atheists, and deists who mandated a strict separation of religious life from the political process.
What are we to believe? What evidence does history give us? Were our Founding Fathers a bunch of atheists and Deists who purposed to establish a new government totally separated from the influence of religion? Let’s take a look.
The first amendment to our constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The rest of the first amendment deals with the freedoms of speech, the press, of peaceable assembly, and of the right to petition the government.
The prohibitions mentioned in the first amendment are all placed on “congress,” not on anyone else. This was done to keep the United States from committing the same error that some of the European nations had made by establishing a state or national religion such as existed in Germany, Spain and Great Britain. In these countries, membership in the state church was necessary for economic, social or political advancement. Our Founding Fathers placed this shackle upon congress to prevent them from doing the same thing.
Then they added the second clause, which most of the people who cry, “Separation of church and state” tend to ignore. They added the prohibition that congress could not pass any laws that prohibit the free exercise of religious beliefs. There are obvious exceptions for when a religious practice is deemed harmful to individuals or to the nation as a whole.
One example would be the practice of polygamy by the Mormons. In Reynolds v. United States (1878), the Supreme Court upheld the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862, stating that the practice of polygamy tended to violate community social norms and subvert social order. Fortunately for the Mormons, they received a revelation a few years later (1890) that polygamy was no longer approved by God.
Another example of a religious practice that would not be protected by the first amendment would be the Hindu practice of sati, in which a recently widowed woman would join her husband’s body on his funeral pyre or be buried alive with him.
These exceptions aside, neither of the prohibitions mentioned in the first amendment on congress is meant to prevent religious people from being involved in the political process, from serving in public office, or from attempting to influence public policy or their elected representatives.
Furthermore, these prohibitions do not prohibit congress from passing legislation that is favorable to religious expression or religious groups, as long as it does not violate the establishment clause of the first amendment. For example:
- Congress has appointed congressional and military chaplains since before the constitution was ever written, and has continued to appoint them in every congress up to the present.
- Congress has set aside national days of prayer, thanksgiving, and fasting on numerous occasions.
- Both in the Articles of War (June 1775) and in the Rules and Regulations of the Navy (November 1775), steps were taken by congress to insure that Christian morality prevailed, even encouraging attendance in religious services.
- On Sept. 11, 1777, Congress instructed its Committee of Commerce to import 20,000 Bibles from “Scotland, Holland or elsewhere.”
- On September 12, 1782, congress endorsed the printing of the first English language Bible printed in America. (Journals of Congress, September, 1782, pages 468 and 469)
- In 1785, congress passed an ordinance for the disposition of lands acquired from Great Britain in the treaty of 1783. In this ordinance, one section in each newly laid out township was to be set aside for the support of religion.
- In July of 1787, congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, which states in part, “Religion, Morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, Schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged.” We see in this document that not only did the Founders believe that religion was “necessary” to good government, but they expected religion to be taught in the public schools!
These are just a few examples among many that show that the Founding Fathers were far from being antagonistic toward religion, but instead, supported it on numerous occasions.
Finally, with regard to the faith of the Founders; of the 204 unique individuals who are recognized as “Founding Fathers”:
- Seven of them were members of the clergy.
- There are only twenty-three of them about which we know nothing about their religious views.
- Only six were Unitarian or Deists, who although not Christian, were theists, and were favorably inclined towards religion in general.
- 175 were members of their local congregations.
Not only do we see the high regard for religion that the Founding Fathers had through the legislation that they passed, but we can read it in their own words. Here are just a few examples:
“…we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” – October 11, 1778 Message from John Adams to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Massachusetts Militia
“We have this day restored the Sovereign to whom alone men ought to be obedient. He reigns in Heaven, and with a propitious eye beholds his subjects assuming that freedom of thought and dignity of self-direction which He bestowed on them. From the rising to the setting sun, may His kingdom come!” – Samuel Adams in a speech delivered at the State House in Philadelphia, August 1, 1776
“That religion, or the duty which we owe to our CREATOR, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity, towards each other.” – George Mason in the Virginia Bill of Rights, Article XVI, June 12, 1776
“God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.” – Thomas Jefferson, Query XVIII of his Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781 (also engraved on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.)
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are ‘indispensable’ supports”. – George Washington, Farewell Address, September 19, 1796
All of this is very difficult to understand if we are to believe what we hear nowadays about the Founders all being enlightened free-thinkers who wanted to keep religion and politics as far away from each other as possible. We see by their lives, their actions, the legislation that they passed and the words that they spoke, that our Founding Fathers not only supported and encouraged religion, but the religion that they favored was not Hinduism or Buddhism or Islam, but Christianity.
Soli Deo Gloria