Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A christian Nation?

      Of all the outright lies that infect our political discourse, none is more blatantly untrue, nor as potentially damaging, than the often-played to assumption that America was founded by christians, as a christian nation. This lie has only been gaining ground, as cynical charlatans on the religious right pander to the fears of the most powerful majority in the country, white christians, that they are somehow an excluded minority who are in danger of being overrun by hordes of brown-skinned heathens. This lie taints American policy, both foreign and domestic, while also serving to delegitimatize the voices of citizens of other beliefs and non-belief. The ability of these snake-oil salesmen to pass off this untruth as fact stems, as these things often do, from the average citizen's ignorance of historical fact.

      The founding fathers of this country were not christian. They were deists. In short, deism is the belief that a supreme being, if truly perfect, would not require magical revelations (the torah, bible, koran, etc.) to reveal himself to the world, nor would he, if infinitely intelligent and knowing, need to meddle in his creation with miracles and magic (original sin, destroying everything he made because he screwed up, sending his son or angels, etc.). If he were as perfect as the religions claimed he was, his creation would be perfect and he wouldn't need to interfere once he set it in motion, and everything one wanted to know about him could be discovered by examining his handiwork, nature. In short, by doing science. 

      This is true of all the major figures of American independence; Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Franklin and Paine. The country they set out to found reflected their beliefs., although they occasionally met resistance from lesser men who were more interested in reelection by catering to the superstitions of the masses. Jefferson's original opening of the Declaration of Independence was written, "All men are created equal and independent. From that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable." (These same men also removed his, somewhat hypocritical, condemnation of slavery. Verrry christian.) The constitution, (the other document they love to pretend is infallible, as it saves them the trouble of actually thinking and solving problems in the real world- remember blacks being 3/5ths of a human being?) never once mentions religion, except in exclusionary terms. The words "jesus christ," "christianity," bible" and "god" are not mentioned in the Constitution, not even once. In fact, the 1796 Treaty with Triploi states that the United States was " in no sense founded upon the christian religion." By 1831, sermons were complaining that up until that point, America hadn't had a christian president, "Among all our presidents from Washington downward, not one was a professor of religion, at least not of more than Unitarianism." (Bird Wilson, Albany, NY, 1831). This last bit is particularly ironic given the fuss that was made of Kennedy being from a different sect of christianity.

     The founding fathers were men of science, reason and doubt. Their beliefs were based on the best available knowledge of the natural world that the 18th century had to offer. If they were alive today, following the discoveries of Darwin, Einstein, Heisenberg, Planck, Schrodinger, and the rest, which together offer a more than ample explanation for the natural occurrence of the universe and life within it, these same men would almost certainly be atheists, or agnostic.

      In fact, if the founding fathers were good, bible-reading, god-fearing men, there wouldn't even have been an American Revolution. The divine right of kings to rule had been a staple of European politics for centuries, and was based on very explicit biblical passages:

     "For rebellion as is the sin of witchcraft."  1 Samuel, 15:23

      1 Peter 2:13:  "For the Lord's sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right."

      Paul wrote in Romans 13:1:  "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resist authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment."

      This is hardly in concurrence with Jefferson writing in The Declaration of Independence: 

"...when a long train of abuses and usurpations... evinces a design to reduce (the people) under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security..."

      If there are readers who are still exercising their right to doubt what I have said above, here are some quotes from each of the founding fathers that should help settle the issue. Washington, being an exceedingly private man, was the most taciturn about his beliefs, but the remainder are pretty blatant.

      Our First President, George Washington:

"Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause.  Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by the difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be depreciated.  I was in hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far that we should never again see the religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of society."
                            - letter to Edward Newenham, 1792 

      Written about Washington by historians and contemporaries:

Historian Barry Schwartz writes: "George Washington's practice of Christianity was limited and superficial because he was not himself a Christian...  He repeatedly declined the church's sacraments.  Never did he take communion, and when his wife, Martha, did, he waited for her outside the sanctuary...  Even on his deathbed, Washington asked for no ritual, uttered no prayer to Christ, and expressed no wish to be attended by His representative." [New York Press, 1987, pp. 174-175]
Paul F. Boller states in his anthology on Washington: "There is no mention of Jesus Christ anywhere in his extensive correspondence." [Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1963, pp. 14-15]

"Gouverneur Morris had often told me that General Washington believed no more of that system (Christianity) than did he himself."
                                -Thomas Jefferson, in his private journal, Feb. 1800

      Our Second President, John Adams:

"As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation.  But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?"
                    -letter to F.A. Van der Kamp, Dec. 27, 1816

"I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved-- the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!"
                            -letter to Thomas Jefferson

"The question before the human race is, whether the God of Nature shall govern the world by his own laws, or whether priests and kings shall rule it by fictitious miracles?"

"God is an essence that we know nothing of.  Until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there will never be any liberal science in the world."

      Our Third President, and author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson:

"Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced an inch towards uniformity.  What has been the effect of coercion?  To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites.  To support roguery and error all over the earth."
                             - "Notes on Virginia"

"On the dogmas of religion, as distinguished from moral principles, all mankind, from the beginning of the world to this day, have been quarreling, fighting, burning and torturing one another, for abstractions unintelligible to themselves and to all others, and absolutely beyond the comprehension of the human mind."
                              - to Carey, 1816

"The priests of the superstition, a bloodthirsty race, are as cruel and remorseless  as the being whom they represented as the family God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, and the local God of Israel.  That Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God,   physically speaking, I have been convinced by the writings of men more learned than myself in that lore."
                                 - to Story, Aug. 4, 1820

      Our Fourth President, the Father of the Constitution, James Madison:

"Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise."
                            -letter to Wm. Bradford, April 1, 1774

"The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries."
         -1803 letter objecting use of gov. land for churches

      And two men who were never President, but without whose ceaseless efforts, this country would not exist, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine:

"I cannot conceive otherwise than that He, the Infinite Father, expects or requires no worship or praise from us, but that He is even infinitely above it."
            - "Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion",  1728

"The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason."
                                -in Poor Richard's Almanac

"Lighthouses are more helpful than churches."

"Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half of the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God.  It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind."

"I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church,  nor by any Church that I know of.  My own mind is my own Church.  Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all."

      And my personal favorite from Paine-
"The study of theology, as it stands in the Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authority; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion."

       More quotes can be found here, (where I indeed drew many of these from.) But I think the ones selected give ample support to the case made above. If you are an American who does not subscribe to any particular superstitions or belief in magic and miracles, know that you live in the right country. While the magnificent tradition of the founding fathers is currently being falsified, bastardized and corrupted by individuals intent on using religion for the only thing it has ever really been successful at, to concentrate power in the hands of the few, informing ourselves of historical facts and not allowing them to be distorted in the public arena is a vital part of defending America's original ideological tradition.



  1. There are few things more absurd than when people try to claim that we are a Christian Nation. America was founded in the crucible of the Age of Reason, an enlightenment where the major thinkers had more in common with the Greeks and Romans of pre-Christian times than intellectual influence from Christian scholars. The cities of democratic Athens, Sparta and Rome as a republic were much more on their minds than Jerusalem or Rome under the Catholics, with the latter being the antithesis of what they were looking to create.

  2. Thanks for chiming in, as always.

    While I think the work you are doing on your book is absolutely vital, since I have started this blog about things you and I discussed a decade ago, I think that fact that I am mired down in here in Maine in the snow, grinding out the pragmatic effects of faith and skepticism, and you are up in the mountains of Nepal sorting out the reality of the self and an ethical basis for living... it think there is something symbolic there.

    But we're both right where we want to be.