We receive numerous requests from across the country to answer various editorials
and letters-to-the-editor. The subject usually involves the religious persuasions
of the Founding Fathers, the “separation of church and state,” the “Religious
Right” & theocracy, etc. The following are but a few of many possible
replies to such editorials. (Note: Unfortunately, we do not have the resources
to respond to individual editorials or articles from newspapers all across the
U.S., and we have found it is typically much more effective if local people
respond to editorials in their own community. David Barton’s book, Original
Intent, and the Library
section of our website contain information that is very useful in successfully
refuting the vast majority of negative editorials encountered.)
“The Founding Fathers & Deism”
I notice that your newspaper has an ongoing debate concerning the religious
nature of the Founding Fathers. A recent letter claimed that most of the Founding
Fathers were deists, and pointed to Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Paine,
Hamilton, and Madison as proof. After making this charge, the writer acknowledged
the “voluminous writings”” of the Founders, but it appears that she
has not read those writings herself. However, this is no surprise since the
U. S. Department of Education claims that only 5 percent of high schools graduates
know how to examine primary source documentation.
Interestingly, the claims in this recent letter to the editor are characteristic
of similar claims appearing in hundreds of letters to the editor across the
nation. The standard assertion is that the Founders were deists. Deists? What
is a deist? In dictionaries like Websters, Funk & Wagnalls, Century, and others,
the terms “deist,” “agnostic,” and “atheist” appear
as synonyms. Therefore, the range of a deist spans from those who believe there
is no God, to those who believe in a distant, impersonal creator of the universe,
to those who believe there is no way to know if God exists. Do the Founders
fit any of these definitions?
None of the notable Founders fit this description. Thomas Paine, in his discourse
on “The Study of God,” forcefully asserts that it is “the error
of schools” to teach sciences without “reference to the Being who
is author of them: for all the principles of science are of Divine origin.”
He laments that “the evil that has resulted from the error of the schools
in teaching [science without God] has been that of generating in the pupils
a species of atheism.” Paine not only believed in God, he believed in a
reality beyond the visible world.
In Benjamin Franklin’s 1749 plan of education for public schools in Pennsylvania,
he insisted that schools teach “the necessity of a public religion . .
. and the excellency of the Christian religion above all others, ancient or
modern.” Consider also the fact that Franklin proposed a Biblical inscription
for the Seal of the United States; that he chose a New Testament verse for the
motto of the Philadelphia Hospital; that he was one of the chief voices behind
the establishment of a paid chaplain in Congress; and that when in 1787 when
Franklin helped found the college which bore his name, it was dedicated as “a
nursery of religion and learning” built “on Christ, the Corner-Stone.”
Franklin certainly doesn’t fit the definition of a deist.
Nor does George Washington. He was an open promoter of Christianity. For example,
in his speech on May 12, 1779, he claimed that what children needed to learn
“above all” was the “religion of Jesus Christ,” and that
to learn this would make them “greater and happier than they already are”;
on May 2, 1778, he charged his soldiers at Valley Forge that “To the distinguished
character of patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished
character of Christian”; and when he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief
of the military on June 8, 1783, he reminded the nation that “without a
humble imitation” of “the Divine Author of our blessed religion”
we “can never hope to be a happy nation.” Washington’s own adopted
daughter declared of Washington that you might as well question his patriotism
as to question his Christianity.
Alexander Hamilton was certainly no deist. For example, Hamilton began work
with the Rev. James Bayard to form the Christian Constitutional Society to help
spread over the world the two things which Hamilton said made America great:
(1) Christianity, and (2) a Constitution formed under Christianity. Only Hamilton’s
death two months later thwarted his plan of starting a missionary society to
promote Christian government. And at the time he did face his death in his duel
with Aaron Burr, Hamilton met and prayed with the Rev. Mason and Bishop Moore,
wherein he reaffirmed to him his readiness to face God should he die, having
declared to them “a lively faith in God’s mercy through Christ, with a
thankful remembrance of the death of Christ.” At that time, he also partook
of Holy Communion with Bishop Moore.
The reader, as do many others, claimed that Jefferson omitted all miraculous
events of Jesus from his “Bible.” Rarely do those who make this claim let
Jefferson speak for himself. Jefferson’s own words explain that his intent for
that book was not for it to be a “Bible,” but rather for it to be
a primer for the Indians on the teachings of Christ (which is why Jefferson
titled that work, “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth”). What
Jefferson did was to take the “red letter” portions of the New Testament
and publish these teachings in order to introduce the Indians to Christian morality.
And as President of the United States, Jefferson signed a treaty with the Kaskaskia
tribe wherein he provided—at the government’s expense—Christian missionaries
to the Indians. In fact, Jefferson himself declared, “I am a real Christian,
that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” While many might
question this claim, the fact remains that Jefferson called himself a Christian,
not a deist.
James Madison trained for ministry with the Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon, and
Madison’s writings are replete with declarations of his faith in God and in
Christ. In fact, for proof of this, one only need read his letter to Attorney
General Bradford wherein Madison laments that public officials are not bold
enough about their Christian faith in public and that public officials should
be “fervent advocates in the cause of Christ.” And while Madison did
allude to a “wall of separation,” contemporary writers frequently
refuse to allow Madison to provide his own definition of that “wall.”
According to Madison, the purpose of that “wall” was only to prevent
Congress from passing a national law to establish a national religion.
None of the Founders mentioned fit the definition of a deist. And as is
typical with those who make this claim, they name only a handful of Founders
and then generalize the rest. This in itself is a mistake, for there are over
two hundred Founders (fifty-five at the Constitutional Convention, ninety who
framed the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights, and fifty-six who signed the
Declaration) and any generalization of the Founders as deists is completely
The reason that such critics never mention any other Founders is evident.
For example, consider what must be explained away if the following signers of
the Constitution were to be mentioned: Charles Pinckney and John
Langdon—founders of the American Bible Society; James McHenry—founder of the
Baltimore Bible Society; Rufus King—helped found a Bible society for Anglicans;
Abraham Baldwin—a chaplain in the Revolution and considered the youngest
theologian in America; Roger Sherman, William Samuel Johnson, John Dickinson,
and Jacob Broom—also theological writers; James Wilson and William
Patterson—placed on the Supreme Court by President George Washington, they had
prayer over juries in the U. S. Supreme Court room; and the list could go on.
And this does not even include the huge number of thoroughly evangelical
Christians who signed the Declaration or who helped frame the Bill of Rights.
Any portrayal of any handful of Founders as deists is inaccurate. (If this
group had really wanted some irreligious Founders, they should have chosen
Henry Dearborne, Charles Lee, or Ethan Allen). Perhaps critics should spend
more time reading the writings of the Founders to discover their religious
beliefs for themselves rather than making such sweeping accusations which are
so easily disproven.
(For more on this topic see: Thomas
Paine Criticizes the Current Public School Science Curriculum, Franklin’s
Appeal for Prayer at the Constitutional Convention, Was
George Washington a Christian?, The
Founders and Public Religious Expression, & James
Madison and Religion in Public)
“Thomas Jefferson & the ‘wall of separation between
church and state.’”
In a recent letter on religion, the writer put supporters of public religious
expression on one side and Thomas Jefferson on the other. This is logical given
what most know about Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and
Jefferson penned that phrase to reassure the Danbury (CT) Baptist Association
that because of separation of church and state, the government would never interfere
with their public religious expressions. For the next 150 years, federal courts
followed Jefferson’s intent and attached his separation metaphor to the Free
Expression Clause of the First Amendment, thus consistently upholding public
religious expressions. However, in 1947, the Supreme Court reversed itself and
began applying the phrase to the Establishment Clause instead, thus causing
federal courts to remove rather than preserve public religious expressions.
The proof is abundant that this was not Jefferson’s intent. For example, two
days after Jefferson wrote his separation letter, he attended worship services
in the U. S. Capitol where he heard the Rev. John Leland preach a sermon. (As
President of the Senate, Jefferson had personally approved the use of the Capitol
Building for Sunday worship services.) The many diaries of Members of Congress
during that time confirm that during Jefferson’s eight years, he faithfully
attended church services in the Capitol. In fact, he even ordered the Marine
Band to play the worship services there. Jefferson also authorized weekly worship
services at the War Department and the Treasury Building.
And on December 23, 1803, Jefferson’s administration negotiated – and the
Senate ratified – a treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians that stated “the
United States will give annually for seven years one hundred dollars for the
support of a priest” to minister to the Indians (i.e., federal funds for
Christian evangelism!) Jefferson also signed presidential documents, closing
them with the appellation, “In the Year of our Lord Christ.” There
are many similar surprising facts about Jefferson that are fully documented
historically, but that have been ignored for the past 50 years.
So would religious conservatives and Thomas Jefferson really be on opposite
sides of the church/state issue? Probably, for I doubt that conservatives would
agree with using federal dollars for evangelization.
(For more on this topic see: The
Separation of Church and State, The
Founders and Public Religious Expression, & Letters
Between the Danbury Baptists and Thomas Jefferson)
In a recent letter, the writer took the same position as Americans United for
Separation of Church and State (AU) and parroted AU’s offensive mantra, associating
a theocracy or theocratic state with the “Religious Right.” Such claims
are patently false.
First, to have a theocracy in America, the Constitution must be replaced with
a totalitarian dictator who speaks on God’s behalf (i.e., a revival of “the
Divine Right of Kings” doctrine). I challenge AU, or anyone else to identify
which part of the “Religious Right” is calling for such a government.
Second, the “Religious Right” leaders (Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson,
Jim Dobson, et. al) are calling for an increased respect for the Constitution
and its actual wording, urging citizens to exercise their constitutional right
to vote. The real “crime” of these leaders is not that they want a
theocracy (which they don’t) but that they rightfully want legislators to make
national policy instead of judges. Should that occur, AU or groups like them
could not win another battle, for Americans overwhelmingly reject their policies
(e.g., “under God” in the Pledge – a phrase opposed by AU but supported
by 87% of Americans).
The rabid opposition to public religious expressions is often irrational,
In fact, a New Jersey bill proposing that students begin each day by reciting
the first 56 words from the Declaration of Independence was loudly denounced
as “a thinly-veiled attempt to put prayer in schools” – the first
step on the road to a – you guessed it – “theocracy!” Reading the
actual wording of the Declaration of Independence leads to a theocracy??? It
is time for that term to become anathema in public discourse.
During the Civil Rights Era, we gradually learned that if certain pejoratives
were invoked, the individual doing so was a racist. Similarly, today we need
to learn that when the emotive and pejorative term “theocracy!” is
invoked, it is usually by an intolerant secularist who wants all public religious
expressions expunged from society.