We hear over and over that the U.S. is a Christian nation. The Declaration of Independence says “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
It’s likely that the premise of the U.S. being a Christian nation is a pretty big distortion of what the founder’s intended.
The founder’s use of Nature’s God, Creator etc. refers to the deist philosophy that developed in the 17th and 18th centuries. Deists rejected organized religion but recognized a creative hand in the Universe. We know that Franklin, Jefferson, Paine, Adams and Madison accepted this philosophy over traditional theist religion.
Deists believed that the evidence of God was found in nature and life itself. I imagine that the awe of watching sunsets, oceans, mountains, etc. would trigger these feelings.
“In God we Trust” was added to by the Mint in 1865. “One Nation under God” didn’t make it into the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954. The sentiments can still be considered Deist although in usage it seems to be co-opted by Christians.
Jefferson authored the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom (written in 1779, passed in 1786) which is a statute enacted into state law by Virginia’s General Assembly that includes the statement “That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
Jefferson was a proponent of the Constitution’s first 10 amendments known as the Bill of Rights and Virginia’s statute informs the first amendment’s clause on religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
In his autobiography, Jefferson wrote of the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom, “Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting ‘Jesus Christ,’ so that it would read ‘A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;’ the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.” My emphasis is intended to point out that acceptance of non-Christian religions, specifically Judaism, Islam and Hinduism. We can only smile at the curiously worded inclusion of “infidels of all denominations”.
Another example of the early American thought regarding religion is found in a document called the Treaty of Tripoli, first signed in 1796. The Treaty was a diplomatic transaction intended to protect U.S. shipping vessels from attacks by the privateers (government-sanctioned pirates) of the Barbary Coast. The Barbary nations–Tripoli, Algiers, Morocco and Tunis–considered themselves to be at war with any nation that had not negotiated a “peace treaty” with them for a sum of money.
The text of Article 11 of the treaty states: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”
This is the text that was read and ratified before Congress but some controversy exists regarding whether it was in the original Arabic document. Regardless of that controversy, the document does demonstrate acceptance of the premise that the U.S. was not Christian in an official way in the first generation after its founding.
We see from these examples that the founders did not intend Christianity to have any State role, that is, to serve as a source of law or decision-making. Today’s religious right is a Christian movement that hopes to influence law and governance. However, it has no place in the political realm of this nation whose founders had seen religious intolerance and the subjugation of minorities by the majority and wanted to create a firewall between governance and religion.
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