More today than ever, the religious right seems to have the mistaken impression that it can simply foster misinformation about the ‘founding fathers’ to prove an ill-conceived notion that this country was founded upon Christian principles. In this attempt it has tried to interpret what the founders “may have meant,” what their “real intention” was, “how it should have been,” or the mistaken idea that just because the founders may have been Christian (most were, some were not) we should take this to mean they wanted the new country to be established as a Christian nation.
Relying long on rhetoric and very little on factual information to support its claims, the religious right attacks the separation principle as being faulty, claiming that the founders did not mean total separation of church and state. Even though the religious right has no substantial evidence to prove its contention, the hope seems to be that the uninformed will buy into this nonsensical idea.
Yet, hard evidence in the matter of disestablishment and separation does exist and the historical documents bear this out: this government was founded to be free from any religious entanglement, Christian or otherwise. This proof is unequivocal. That the founding documents that preceded the constitution bear this out is beyond criticism.
The major documents of influence are The Massachusetts Circular Letter, Feb. 11, 1768; Virginia Instructions to the Continental Congress, Aug 1, 1774; Galloway’s Plan of Union, Sept 28, 1774; Declaration and Resolve of the First Continental Congress, Oct. 14, 1774, The Association, Oct. 20, 1774; Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms, July 6, 1775; The Movement for Independence, May 27, 1776; Mecklenburg County Resolutions, May 31, 1776; Resolution for Independence, June 7, 1776; Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776; Virginia Bill of Rights, June 12, 1776; Massachusetts Bill of Rights, 1780; Articles of Confederation, Nov. 15 1777; Religious Liberty in Virginia, Oct. 24, 1776; A Memorial and Remonstrance” (1785) Madison; Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty, Jan. 16, 1786; Northwest Ordinance, July 13, 1787; The Annapolis Convention, Sept. 14, 1786; The Virginia or Randolph Plan, May 29, 1787; The Patterson or New Jersey Plan, June 15, 1787; Hamilton’s Plan of Union, June 18, 1787; The Federalist Papers, 1787 and 1788; and The Constitution of the United States, Sept. 17, 1787.
Each and every one of these documents had a profound impact upon the founding principles of this country. Certainly we should find evidence of the desire to establish Christian principles as a fledgling nation’s religious underpinnings within the context and content of these extraordinary proclamations, yet none of these founding documents makes any mention of the Bible, contains any Biblical quotes, and only one expressed any Christian sentiment at all (see below). None refer to The Ten Commandments, and none mention any Biblical characters, the ministry of Jesus, or The Great Commission of the New Testament. None remotely suggests that this country should find its foundations in any Christian principles; if anything, these documents eschew and ignore Christianity and its precepts.
Out of all these documents, only the Virginia Bill of Rights (1776) ‘urges’ (after stating “free exercise of religion…according to the dictates of conscience”) the practice of Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other”–hardly a declaration of our foundation being Christian nor of ideas unique to only that religion.
A few of the proclamations and resolutions do mention God in the context of “nature’s God,” “Divine Providence,” or the “great legislator of the universe,” as well as a duty to worship according to individual religious sentiments. However, all references to God are clearly Masonic in nature, not Christian.
The Massachusetts Bill of Rights states that one will not “obstruct others in their religious worship.” Even more telling in this document is the statement “no subordination of any one sect [of Christians] or denomination to another shall ever be established.”
The Religious Liberty in Virginia document states, “[there is] no argument in favour of establishing the Christian religion…with equal propriety for establishing the tenets of Mahomed by those who believe in the Alcoran…it is impossible…to adjudge the right of preference among the various sects that profess the Christian faith, without erecting a chair of infallibility, which would lead us back to the church of Rome.”
Jefferson writes in the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty, “Uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others,” and “[N]o man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place of ministry once so ever,” “[s]uch an act will be an infringement of natural right.”
The above documents countermanded years of statements and proclamations that tried to enforce Christian principles in government, such as the New England Confederation, May 19, 1643; The Cambridge Platform, 1648; and The Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges, Oct. 28, 1701–all which specifically refer to Christendom, and compulsory religious dictates. Our founding fathers reversed over 200 years of religious oppression and established a government that virtually stopped the establishment and separated religion and government.
Lost in most of these arguments is James Madison, commonly hailed as the Father of our Constitution. Madison had more to do with its conception than did any other man. Madison was a member of the Virginia constitutional committee, a body that drafted Virginia’s first constitution and Bill of Rights (see above) which later became a model for the Bill of Rights amended to the U.S. Constitution. A lifelong partner and friend of Jefferson, Madison very actively supported religious toleration and was a leading advocate for the separation of church and state.
In A Memorial and Remonstrance (1785) Madison writes:
What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; on many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not. [and] Experience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.
This document had tremendous influence on the disestablishment of government-supported religion, and on the final resolution that is our First Amendment.
Our founders recognized one very important fact of human nature that every American needs to accept: the government cannot support one religion because it would prevent us from the freedom of religion. The government cannot support many religions as a preference of one over another. Therefore the government supports no religion and leaves religious matters solely to the individual.
Those wishing to tear down the Establishment Clause and have the government support and endorse Christianity have no reasons other than selfishness and intolerance toward others. All things considered, they are wrong about our founding fathers’ intentions, wrong about the influence of Christianity, wrong about the separation principle, and wrong in trying to force us to believe things counter to our conscience. The historical documents bear this out and the religious right has no documentation whatsoever to expressly suggest the opposite.