President Obama described his country in his 2008 inaugural address as a nation of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Unbelievers. The Founding Fathers designed it that way. Although the United States has a Christian majority it is not and never has been a Christian nation. The United States Constitution which is the basic law of the land mentions religion but does not mention God, Jesus or Christianity.
There have been attempts by the Christian religious right in recent years to rewrite history and deny the secular nature of the United States. Their purpose is to impose their beliefs.
James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers which was both an argument for the US Constitution and an explanation of the ideas behind it. Like the Constitution the Federalist Papers mention religion but do not mention God, Jesus or Christianity.
The authors of the Federalist Papers mentioned religion as neither a source of inspiration nor wisdom. James Madison in paper 10 (“The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection”) referred to religion as one of the divisive forces threatening the new nation:
A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.
The English speaking colonists in North America were not immune to the religious hatreds and paranoia sweeping Europe. Witch hunts reached Massachusetts. The Puritans of Massachusetts executed “witches” by such barbaric methods as crushing them under weights. They hanged Quakers. The Founding Fathers wanted no more of such madness.
An early American proponent of religious freedom and the separation of church and state was the Protestant theologian, Roger Williams (c. 1603-1683). Williams was expelled from the Massachusetts colony and established Providence as a place where separation of church and state could be practiced. The General Baptists in England had advocated separation as early as 1611, and the first two pastors of the first Baptist church in England died in prison for these beliefs. Williams declared that the state could legitimately concern itself only with matters of civil order, but not religious belief.
Although some present day Baptists would break down the separation of church and state others hold it dear. They founded Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State in 1947 (AU). The organisation is currently known as Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Barry W. Lynn, current head, is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and other clergy are involved. I belonged when I lived in the United States.
AU opposes religion in public life and public schools, teaching of the intelligent design in public school science classes, school-voucher initiatives in the states, and “faith-based” initiatives in the federal government and in the states.
Unfortunately the bigotry of Massachusetts was repeated in other colonies. Maryland was an English colony in North America established by Lord Baltimore in 1632 as a haven for English Catholics in the new world at the time of the European wars of religion. Maryland was not only a haven for Catholics but had freedom of religion for all. In 1689 following the Glorious Revolution, John Coode led a Protestant rebellion that expelled the Baltimores from power in Maryland. The new government then restricted the voting rights of Catholics.
The Founding Fathers shared Roger Williams’ and Lord Baltimore’s distaste of religion as an instrument of oppression.
James Madison, later fourth president of the United States, expressed in a letter to William Bradford, January 24, 1774, his feeling towards religious oppression:
That diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution rages among some and to their eternal Infamy the Clergy can furnish their Quota of Imps for such business.
James Madison in another letter to William Bradford, April 1, 1774:
Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprize, every expanded prospect.
George Washington led the revolutionary armies, presided over the Constitutional Convention and was the first president.
The only religious reference in the original Constitution follows:
... no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
On March 4, 1789, the new government under the Constitution began operating. James Madison introduced the Bill of Rights to the First United States Congress in the same year, and they came into effect on December 15, 1791. The First Amendment contains the only other mention of religion.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Former Supreme Court Justice O’Connor commented on this amendment:
In my opinion, the First Amendment is the single most important part of the Constitution. It protects some of the most basic human rights and reflects a view of the dangerous places government might tread.
Some of the first colonists of the nation for which the Constitution was written had been seeking to escape religious persecution. The constitutions of several of the states prohibited public support of religion (though some did explicitly support or demand adherence to Christianity). Above all, the many varying sects of Christianity in America required that to be fair to all, there could be preference to none. It would have been disgraceful for anyone to wish to leave the United States because of religious persecution. So the authors decided it best to keep the government out of religion. This is not to say that the United States was not or is not a religious nation. Religion plays a big role in the everyday life of Americans, then and now. But what the authors were striving for is tolerance ... something I fear contemporary Americans are lacking.
George Washington was not a Christian. He was, like many men of the Enlightenment, a Deist. Deists believed in God as a Creator who rules the world by rational laws, and that humans are rational beings, capable of guiding their lives by the light of reason. Deists rejected the claims of supernatural revelation and took no share in formal religious practices. Washington attended church with his wife but refused to take communion.
Washington had a vision of the United States as a diverse polity. Three minorities in the new nation were the Irish Catholics, the Jews and the blacks. Washington expressed his vision of multiculturalism in an address to the Members of the Volunteer Association of Ireland, December 2, 1783:
The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.
Washington wrote the Newport, Rhode Island Hebrew Congregation, August 17, 1790:
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
Jews in the United States unlike in any other country in the world at that time could attain high rank in the military. Uriah Levy (1792-1862) was a Commodore of the United States Navy and a veteran of the War of 1812. Commodore was roughly equivalent to the current rank of Admiral.
Washington was a Virginia slaveholder but, unlike other slaveholders, he freed all his slaves and replaced them with paid servants. Virginia law at that time required those who freed slaves to provide them with sufficient resources so they would never be a burden on the public purse. Washington not only did that but also saw that the slaves were taught trades so they could be self-supporting. After that Virginia made it more difficult to free slaves.
Washington could have been re-elected president for life but chose to step down after two terms thereby establishing a precedent.
Under the second president of the United States, John Adams, the Treaty of Tripoli signed at Tripoli on November 4, 1796, ratified by the US Senate on June 7, 1797 and signed by President John Adams on June 10, 1797 declared that the United States was not a Christian nation.
Article 11 of that treaty:
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.
The Senate's ratification was only the third recorded unanimous vote of 339 votes taken. The treaty was printed in the Philadelphia Gazette and two New York papers, with no evidence of any public dissent.
The third president, Thomas Jefferson, was also a Deist. However, he did not expect others to share his belief. He wrote in “Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 17, 1782”:
The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
Jefferson was the first to use the phrase “separation of church and state”. In a letter to a Committee of the Danbury Baptist Association, Connecticut, January 1, 1802, he wrote:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and State.
Devout Christians such as Anabaptist Balthazar Hubmaier, Catholic Lord Baltimore and Puritans Roger Williams, John Milton, and John Locke have supported separation of church and state. Some Christian supporters appeal to the words of Jesus. Matthew 22:21 ... render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.
Spinoza, the great Jewish philosopher, supported secularism based on his reading of the Jewish Bible.
Those anxious to keep peace in a society with many different beliefs favour it.
Those who have beliefs which are in a minority favour it as they wish to be left in peace to worship as they will.
It serves both state and church. The United States has the highest proportion of religiously observant people of any developed country. Although there have been outbreaks of religious bigotry the United States has been fairly free of it. People of any faith or none are free to say or do what they will as government has no authority in that area unless there is a violation of law.
Unfortunately there are those who wish to tear down the separation to be free to impose their beliefs on others.
Separation of church and state has served the United States well, and I think that it would further both freedom and peace if other countries adopted it.