Deism and the Founding of America

Declaration-of-Independence-DayIt’s popular among American Christians, especially conservative ones, to claim our country was founded on Christian values, or on Christianity itself, or by Christians. On some level, there is a bit of truth to this, but the values our country was founded on are not things that solely belong to Christianity, and many of the men who created our founding documents were not Christians.

In fact, the truth is almost the opposite. The inspiration for the personal freedoms outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution came from an opposition to Christianity, which at the time was a major political force in much of Europe. Several of our founding fathers clearly stood against early American Christians who sought to inject their religion into the government.

I grew up thinking Thomas Jefferson was a Christian. It’s a popular revision of history, likely because he drafted the Declaration of Independence, the second sentence of which is this: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Jefferson, however, was a deist, and his original version of that sentence sounded a bit less Christian, though it still referred to people as being “created”. He’s pretty well-known for cutting out the parts he liked from the New Testament to make his own bible. He did not believe in the trinity, the virgin birth of Jesus, the divinity of Jesus, and so on.

Other famous deists of the time include Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison. A Presbyterian minister named Ashbel Green who knew Washington personally is quoted as saying: “…while [he] was very deferential to religion and its ceremonies, like nearly all the founders of the Republic, he was not a Christian, but a Deist.” Washington was certainly devoutly religious, in his own way, but there is little evidence that he agreed with traditional Christianity, and he was private about what exactly he believed.

In 1796, President John Adams submitted and signed a treaty with Tripoli, which includes this quote in Article 11: “…the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” It was accepted unanimously by Congress with that wording. Adams has several interesting quotes in which he characterizes Christianity as absurd, foolish, blasphemy, and “the most bloody religion that ever existed”. He also said in a letter to Jefferson, “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 at all!!!” But in this exclamation I would have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly.”

All of these men saw religion–particularly Christianity–as a possible threat of tyranny. Jefferson opposed Christian clergy who sought political power, Paine called the bible “the word of a demon”, Madison thought religion “shackles and debilitates the mind”.

When Jefferson was elected President, some people proceeded to hide their bibles, fearing they’d be confiscated and that his election would “call down God’s vengeance on the United States”, based on the attacks made against Jefferson by his opponents who called him an “infidel” and an “atheist”. It seems that little has changed in the past two centuries. Religious people have always been paranoid that the government is out to get them. They’ve always been warning of divine judgment if the government doesn’t do exactly what they want.

At the same time, these men still respected religion. The Baptists were fans of Jefferson because of his stance on religious freedom, and this quote can be found in a letter he wrote them in response: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & 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 & State.”

There is no doubt that at least most of the founders of America believed in a god, and a few members of the early government were in fact Christians. But the men most instrumental in creating our country were deists, opposed to traditional Christianity, and that is why we have religious freedom today instead of an oppressive religious government like the English one that prompted the American Revolution. Jefferson deserves credit for being one of the most instrumental leaders in ensuring personal and religious freedom.

The claim that America was founded on Christianity is a lie. As upset as Christians may be about this, they have deism to thank for their religious freedom.

You’re welcome.

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