America’s Secular Origins

In their effort to re-write the history of the United States in a way that puts Christianity in a favorable light, the Christian Right has waged a non-stop campaign attempting to prove that the founding fathers were all devout Christians and intended this to be a Christian county based on biblical principles. “Biblical principles”  to them means their version of Christianity, invariably a fundamentalist version based on literal interpretation of scripture.  If they are successful at this, they will then be able to turn back the clock to those halcyon days of yore when the church reigned supreme and dissidents faced the Inquisition, stocks, and burning at the stake for daring to question the “truths” of Christianity.  What today’s fundamentalist Christians want is total, unquestioned control of these United States.  Even a superficial reading of their literature will reveal this.

However, their Orwellian style of revisionist history ignores one simple fact: it’s not true!  While few if any of the founders would qualify as atheists in the modern sense of the word, virtually all of them were far removed from Christian fundamentalism.  Most were deists of some kind, believing in a god who created humankind and the universe, but then left everything alone.  In other words, the god of the founders was impersonal, and most of them also rejected the idea of a divine Jesus.  The god of deism left things to run on their own, and as a consequence most of the founders recognized to fundamental facts: one was the that the bloody history of religious warfare and sectarianism indicated that there was something inherently wrong with basing governmental principles of religious dogma and two, since we are on our own in the universe and no god is going to assist us, it is up to us to create our own laws and government.  Most of the founders were products of the Enlightenment, the time period when the stranglehold that religion held on humanity slowly began to lose some of its potency and biblical criticism became more commonplace.  In consequence many of the founders recognized the absurdities contained in the Bible and some, including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison and, most notably, Thomas Paine left various writings to this effect, as we will see.

Despite the obvious secular intent of the founders, today’s Radical Religious Right dishonestly attempts to portray them as devout Christians.  Perhaps the best-known contemporary Christian revisionist is David Barton, author of “The Myth of Separation” which was published by Wallbuilder Press in Aledo Texas.  This is a small publishing company specializing (not surprisingly) in fundamentalist religious literature; one would think if Barton were any kind of intellectual heavyweight, he would have been published by one of the major publishing houses.  The fact that he has no degrees in history or higher education and yet remains one of the highest authorities the Christian Right can muster to “validate” their cause, is a telling indictment of the paucity of documentation favorable to their view.  Barton’s strategy is a common one in the Christian Right: he ignores what the fathers actually said about religion and either creates his own quotes or else finds spurious quotes from others which he then claims were the actual words of the founders.  His lies eventually caught up with him and he retreated with his tail between his legs—for about a year: he re-emerged, spouting the same nonsense to the same audiences who lapped it all up.  So much for intellectual integrity in the Christian Right!

Of the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence, only one (John Witherspoon) was a minister, and he was most definitely a product of the Enlightenment the Christian Right opposes so vehemently today.  This is true of virtually every one of the founding fathers.  In order to get a better idea of how the founders really felt about religion, we need to let them speak for themselves.

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was perhaps the best known freethinker of his time.  His pamphlets stirred the hearts of patriots during the American Revolution, but a decade after its end, he found himself in a French prison and narrowly escaped the guillotine.  While imprisoned, he wrote his famous Age of Reason which, while not overtly atheistic, nonetheless hit organized religion hard.  Paine totally rejected Christianity and the bible, though as a deist he did believe in an impersonal creator god.   His views, which were far ahead of their time in substance and scope, were not well-received during his lifetime (1737-1809); he was treated as a pariah upon his return to the States.  What did he have to say about Christianity?  “The Christian religion is a parody on the worship of the sun, in which they put a man whom they call Christ, in the place of the sun, and pay him the same adoration which was originally paid to the sun.”  His comments on the Bible were extremely hard-hitting: “Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God.”  Strong words, and offensive to the clergy, but true nonetheless.  And: “of all the tyrannies that affect mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst; every other species of tyranny is limited to the world  we live in; but this attempts to stride beyond the grave, and it seeks to pursue us into eternity.”  If that were not enough, Paine summed up his views by stating: “I disbelieve all holy men and holy books.”

But Thomas Paine was far from the only freethinker among the founding fathers.  Wise old Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) stated “Revealed religion has no weight with me.”  His views on faith were also made clear when he wrote: “the way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.”  Surprisingly, Franklin did suggest as Secretary of the Constitutional Congress that each session be opened with a prayer; this was rejected by all present, except for three or four delegates, as unnecessary.  If only today’s political leaders were of a like mind!

The general who won the American Revolution and became our first president, George Washington (1732-1799) spoke on an issue that is of increasing relevance today: “Religion is a matter which belongs to the church, and not to the state.”  Not surprisingly, neither David Barton nor any of today’s Christian Right leaders ever mentions this particular statement.  In all his surviving correspondence, there is not a single instance in which he refers to himself as a Christian, although Barton and others have dishonestly published invented quotes to that effect.  In addition to his views on total separation between religion and government, Washington refused to kneel during church services or during the famous winter at Valley Forge, and at his death steadfastly refused to have clergy present or to take last rites.

John Adams (1735-1826), our second president, was even more outspoken on religion than his predecessor: “The divinity of Jesus is made a convenient cover for absurdity.”  And: “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!”  Adams was extremely skeptical of any sort of supernatural claims; he did not believe in biblical prophecy or in miracles.

Adams’ successor, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was the author of the Declaration of Independence and a thoroughgoing skeptic; he was perhaps the most outspoken freethinker among the founding fathers.  In a letter to a nephew, he stated “Question with boldness even the existence of a God, because if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.”  As for the god of the New Testament, Jefferson minced no words: “The Christian god is cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.”  The term “wall of separation” between religion and government was coined by Jefferson in his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802: “I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law rejecting an establishment of religion of prohibiting the free exercise thereof’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”  Jefferson referred to the author of the book of revelation as “the ravings of a maniac.”  Commenting on Christianity as a whole, Jefferson stated:  “I have examined all the known superstitions of the world, and I do not find in our particular superstitions of Christianity one redeeming feature.  They are all alike, founded in fables and mythology.  Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned.  What has been the effect of this coercion?  To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites, to support roguery and error all over the earth.”  Finally, looking to the future, Jefferson noted: “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classified with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”  As president, Jefferson refused even to issue Thanksgiving day proclamations.  Far from mellowing with age, Jefferson in  1814, five years after leaving the presidency, wrote in a letter to Horatio Spafford: “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty.  He is always in alliance with the despot.”  The Vatican’s signing of concordats with Mussolini in 1922 and Hitler in 1933 are excellent examples of this trend.

Our fourth president, James Madison (1751-1836) was also the father of the Constitution which is a totally secular document; its only references to religion are exclusionary, saying what religion cannot do.  The word “god” appears nowhere, nor does the name “Jesus Christ.”  This is indeed strange if, as the Christian Right would have us believe, the United States was intended to be a Christian country.  Looking at the entirety of Christian history, Madison noted: “During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of religion been on trial.  What have 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.”  As to the role of the church, Madison notes: “In no instance have…the churches been guardians of the liberties of the people.”  Perhaps most tellingly, Madison notes the dangers of accepting religious doctrines piecemeal into secular law: “I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpation.”  Madison, as president, opposed paying for a Congressional chaplain and sponsoring of “days of prayer,” noting that much blood has been spilled over religious differences.  He also was opposed to any subsidies for religion, even for “three pence” of tax money.  Madison certainly would be appalled to know that, in our time, the tax-exempt status accorded the church costs the average taxpayer over a thousand dollars per year.

Finally, as if all this were not enough, there was the famous Treaty of Tripoli dating from 1797, which dealt with the United States and the raids of the Barbary Coast pirates.  Not wishing to instigate any religious conflict with the Muslim nations, the treaty noted that “the government of the United States is not in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”  This was unanimously approved by congress, without a single suggested word change, and signed into law by President Adams.  As with other discomforting facts, the Christian Right conveniently ignores this inconvenient piece of history.

Considering all this, the Christian Right proves itself to be fundamentally dishonest in its attempt to portray the founders as right-wing Christians.  In contradistinction to today’s religiously saturated politicians of both parties, none of the founders would have had the colossal arrogance to state that their views had the support of god, Jesus, or the Bible.  The lies of the Christian Right fly in the face of all the known facts.  Not at all dissuaded by this, they continue to spew their historical nonsense and religious dishonesty and immorality on an increasingly illiterate public.  No matter how many times they are refuted, the lies return over and again, reminding us of a great historical truism: that the “big lie,” if repeated often enough, will eventually be accepted as the truth.  The agenda of the Religious Right and their political allies is crystal clear: to undo everything the founders did and return the United States to a pre-rationalist country in which they have ultimate control over the lives of all citizens.

America, beware!


  1. The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine.  Published 1984 by Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY
  2. George Washington and Religion by Paul F. Boller, Jr.  Published 1963 by Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas TX
  3. Thomas Jefferson, An Intimate History by Fawn Brodie.  Published 1974 by W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., New York, NY
  4. Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy And Democracy by Frederick Clarkson.  Published 1997 by Common Courage Press, Monroe, Maine
  5. The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America edited by Kimberly Blaker.  Published 2003 by New Boston Books, Inc., New Boston, MI

Categories:   America, Religion In America