Updated February 24, 2017—Item #5 was added.
1. Although there were several earlier non-native settlements (mainly Roanoke and Jamestown), it was the story of the Pilgrim Fathers, who established the first permanent settlement, that is revered in early American history. Only a third of the occupants of the Mayflower were Protestant Separatists; most of the others were crew, support tradesmen & security but many other folks seeking freedom to practice their religion did join the Plymouth colony shortly after 1620. Not all the early settlers who came to the U.S. did so for religious reasons but it is fair to say for many of the early immigrants, freedom to practice their version of the Christian faith was a primary factor.
2. Not all the Founding Fathers were Christian believers. Some of them were deist and a few of them may have been closet agnostics. The group were probably influenced by the Age Enlightenment as much, if not more, than the principals of Christianity, but at that time Enlightenment principals and Christian principals overlapped in many ways.
3. Thomas Jefferson was a deist and a product of the Age of Enlightenment but he was devoted to the teachings of Jesus. The Smithsonian holds a New Testament Bible of Jefferson that has all the sections he didn’t agree with cut out (literally). He removed any kind of divine intervention, miracles, etc. but he kept the morals of Jesus and called it his denuded New Testament.
4. Historian M.E. Bradford continues that, “references made by the Framers to Jesus Christ as Redeemer and Son of God… are commonplace in their private papers, correspondence and public remarks—and in the early record of their lives”. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton ‘regularly led their households in the observance of family prayers.’ It’s also worth noting that a significant majority of the citizens of the newly founded country were Christians also.
5. The context for the two ‘clauses’ of First Amendment of the Constitution was primarily a reaction to states favoring a particular Christian denomination and persecuting other Christian groups—for example, Baptists being unfairly treated by Congregationalists (look up “Danbury Baptists”). The goal was to keep the government from interfering with religious groups, and keep religious groups from implementing an official designated federal religion. There were some minority groups with other belief systems, such Muslims, Jews, Deists, etc. at the time—and the Founders, especially Jefferson, were aware of them. The genius of the Constitution, intended or otherwise, was that the First Amendment works regardless of belief system. Of course, boundaries between church and state are not always as clear as we would hope, but the First Amendment certainly helps provide a good starting point.
6. ”There was a consensus among the Founders that religion was indispensable to a system of republican self-government,” says Daniel Dreisbach. “The Founders looked to religion (and morality informed by religious faith) to provide the internal moral compass that would prompt citizens to behave in a disciplined manner, and thereby promote social order and political stability.” Daniel Webster put it this way in 1820: “Whatever makes men good Christians, makes them good citizens.
7. Virtually every Founder was agreed was that religion played an essential role in the regime of political self-government. ”Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.” John Adams once said, “It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”
8. In his first inaugural address George Washington sounded a similar note, “the propitious smiles of heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which heaven itself has ordained.”
9. In God We Trust is a later addition to the U.S. religious culture. It first appeared on a 2cent coin at the time of the civil war. It didn’t appear on other currency until 1883. It only became a motto of the U.S. in 1956 due to an act of Congress. It’s actually a little know verse from the star-spangled banner – the 4th verse.
10. Again, ‘One Nation Under God is a later addition to the U.S. religious culture. On Feb. 7, 1954, Rev. George Docherty was speaking at his church in D.C. telling them he had grown up in Scotland singing “God Save Our King”. And that he was surprised that the Pledge of Allegiance, unlike the Gettysburg Address and Declaration of Independence, contained no reference to God. He said the pledge was missing “the characteristic and definitive factor in the American way of life,” the “fundamental concept” of the Founding Fathers that the country exists because of God and through God”. Pres. Dwight Eisenhower was in the audience that day. A bill was introduced and passed in the summer of 1954.
11. The Founders did not intend to establish a ‘Christian country’. The Constitution was built using both Christian and Enlightenment principals. Freedom to practice religion, including non-Christian religions, was fiercely protected.
12. That said, without doubt Christianity heavily influenced the foundation of its structure, and religion and morality were seen vital to the success of a democratic nation. In addition, the majority of the Founders and its citizens were practicing Christians.
This post reflects the views of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
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