Many of the citizens of the original thirteen colonies, or their pioneering forebears, fled religious persecution in Europe. As a consequence, America’s Founding Fathers believed strongly in a separation of church and state. But what did this mean for early Americans insofar as the government and Christian worship were concerned? More precisely for judging the accuracy of this meme, what did the Framers say in this regard?
The Founding Fathers were mostly concerned with preventing any one Christian sect from dominating another. They wished to avoid the centuries of religious warfare that wracked mainland Europe, pitting Protestants against Catholics, or Baptists against Quakers. University of Delaware professor Christine Leigh Heyrman explains this history:
Those steeped in the ideals of the Enlightenment were determined to ensure that the religious wars which had wracked Europe would not engulf the new republic and that its clergy and churches would not acquire the wealth and influence which would enable them to play a prominent role in civil government. At the same time, many Americans who cleaved to Christian orthodoxy—especially those who dissented from former or current religious establishments—were determined to ensure that no denomination would enjoy the unfair advantage of government support.
In the 18th century, America was dominated by protestants of many different sects. There was a genuine fear that any measures taken to stifle religion from public life would result in the rise of foreign, unfamiliar religions. Heyrman explains:
Anti-Federalist critics of the proposed Constitution warned that abolishing religious tests would allow Jews, Catholics, and Quakers—even “pagans, deists, and Mahometans [Muslims]”—to hold federal office, perhaps even to dominate the new national government. And many evangelical religious leaders, like the group of Presbyterian elders who took their concerns to George Washington in 1789, objected that the Constitution failed to acknowledge “the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom he hath sent.” (Washington evenly replied, “The path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction.”)
Remember that America experimented with the Articles of Confederation for over a decade before adopting the Constitution in 1789. During this time, many states mandated religious tests and levied taxes in order to support local Christian churches. Once again, Heyrman explains:
The first challenge loomed with the meeting of the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in the spring of 1787. At that time, nearly all state constitutions required office-holders to swear to their belief in either the divine inspiration of the Old and New Testaments or the truth of Protestant Christianity, and one-third of the states still levied taxes to support Christian churches. Yet the delegates at Philadelphia wished to avoid protracted controversy over religious matters—which, in any case, most believed should be left to the states—and hoped to reach consensus on the Constitution as quickly as possible. So the Convention spent little time debating the proposed Constitution’s two brief provisions regarding religion, one (in deference to the Quakers) allowing those assuming federal posts to “affirm” rather than to swear an oath of office, the other barring religious tests for those officeholders. More surprisingly, none of the delegates objected that the proposed Constitution did not refer to God. That omission marked a departure from the founding documents of 1776: the Declaration of Independence invokes the “Creator” in setting forth the basis of human rights and the Articles of Confederation alludes to the “Great Governor of the World.”
The separation of church and state, pursued with such vehement energy in contemporary America, meant something entirely different in the 18th century. Indeed, Heyrman elaborates on the Founder’s belief in applying religion to civic life.
Designating the appropriate role of religion in the early republic’s civic life also presented a challenge. Most of the Founders believed that religion would promote public morality, which in turn would strengthen both republican society and government in the United States. That being the case, what constituted an appropriate inclusion of religious ideas and rituals in the conduct of civic life? In wrestling with that question, presidents from Washington to Madison played a delicate game of brinksmanship [sic]. All of them strove to keep religion from becoming the fodder for controversy by affirming that expressions of spirituality had a legitimate place in the public square while also upholding what they regarded as a due separation between church and state.
In their efforts to strike the right balance, George Washington and John Adams proclaimed national days of thanksgiving and fasting during their administrations and voiced no objections to the appointment of salaried Congressional chaplains, who opened legislative sessions with prayers. In their public addresses, too, they often expressed confidence in the power of divine providence to guide the new republic.
It is just as easy to prove that the Founding Fathers believed that they were giving rise to a Christian by reading their recorded words on the subject.
Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law book and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited. . . . What a Eutopia – what a Paradise would this region be.
The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity. I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God.
John Quincy Adams
My hopes of a future life are all founded upon the Gospel of Christ…
In the chain of human events, the birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birthday of the Savior. The Declaration of Independence laid the cornerstone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity
I conceive we cannot better express ourselves than by humbly supplicating the Supreme Ruler of the world . . . that the confusions that are and have been among the nations may be overruled by the promoting and speedily bringing in the holy and happy period when the kingdoms of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ may be everywhere established, and the people willingly bow to the scepter of Him who is the Prince of Peace.
Sensible of the importance of Christian piety and virtue to the order and happiness of a state, I cannot but earnestly commend to you every measure for their support and encouragement.
Righteousness alone can exalt [America] as a nation…Whoever thou art, remember this; and in thy sphere practice virtue thyself, and encourage it in others.
Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.
In proportion as the genuine effects of Christianity are diminished in any nation… in the same proportion will the people of that nation recede from the blessings of genuine freedom… Whenever the pillars of Christianity shall be overthrown, our present republican forms of government – and all the blessings which flow from them – must fall with them
Caleb Strong, called upon the people of Massachusetts to pray that:
. . . all nations may know and be obedient to that grace and truth which came by Jesus Christ.
Given the weight of the evidence gathered during this quest for Truth, it is safe to say that this meme is…
And this evidence very clearly discredits these:
BUSTED! BUSTED! BUSTED!