There is a belief abroad in many conservative circles that the U.S. is “a Christian nation”. This belief is found in perhaps its most extreme form in the Mormon doctrine that the Constitution of the United States is a divinely inspired document. Less extreme versions hold that Christian piety was an shaping influence on the thinking and writing of the Founding Fathers, and Christianity therefore has (or ought to have) a privileged position in the political and cultural life of the U.S.
The Mormon doctrine is unfalsifiable. But claims about the beliefs and intentions of the Founding Fathers are not, and the record is clear: they explicitly rejected the establishment of Christianity as the preferred or natural religion of their infant nation.
This is implied by the part of the First Amendment that has come to be known as the “Establishment clause”:
Congress shall make NO law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof
Article 6 contains this language:
“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
These are the only mentions of religion in the Constitution, which is otherwise completely devoid of religious terminology or references. The point is made much more explicit in the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli, which states:
[T]he Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion
Religious conservatives are fond of replying by pointing excitedly at the references to “Nature’s God”, “Divine Providence”, and the “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence. Let’s look at these in full:
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
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;
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.
These phrasings do, at first blush, sound rather like Christian piety. But in interpreting them, we need to bear in mind several other quotes by Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence.
(1787) Question with boldness even the existence of a God;
(1787) I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature.
(1800) [The clergy] believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly: for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man”
(1814) In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.
(1823) 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 classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.
It is very clear from these that Jefferson was hostile to Christianity and to religious authority in general. However, that phrase “on the altar of God” rings oddly with the rest. Of what “God”, if not the Christian one, was Jefferson speaking?
The answer to this question — which also explains the references in the Declaration of Independence — is that Jefferson, like many intellectuals of his time, was a Deist. The “Creator” and “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence, and the God of Jefferson’s altar, is not the intervening Christian God but the God of Deism.
Deism was an early attempt to reconcile the mechanistic world-view arising from experimental science with religion. Deists believed in a remote sort of clockmaker-God who created the universe but then refrained from meddling in it afterwards. Deists explicitly rejected faith, revelation, religious doctrine, religious authority, and all existing religions. They held that humans could know the mind of God only through the study of nature; in many versions of Deist thinking, the mind of God was explicitly identified with the laws of nature.
Thus “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God”; in Deist thought these concepts blurred together. The phrase “endowed by their Creator” could be rendered accurately as “endowed by Nature”. In modern terms, this is an entirely naturalistic account of human rights.
Jefferson was not an exception and he was not pulling a textual fast one on the other signers. The summary of Deism here observes “Many of the leaders of the French and American revolutions followed this belief system, including John Quincy Adams, Ethan Allen, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Thomas Paine, and George Washington.” Many direct quotes from these Founders substantiate this claim.
At its height, Deist thought influenced and was influenced by the theology and practices of liberal Protestant sects, especially those of the more individualist kind and most especially the Quakers (a very large and influential faction during the Revolutionary period). Thus, even though some of the Founding Fathers were not explicitly Deist, all found Deist language in the Declaration acceptable.
“Divine Providence” is a Christian Protestant term of art, not really a Deist one. But it could be read in a Deist way, as the essentially mechanical unfolding of the clockmaker-God’s design, and often was at the time. Benjamin Franklin, a leading Deist who imitated Quaker customs and dress, would have found it appealing.
It is also relevant that many of the Founders were Freemasons. The “Great Architect” God of Masonry is more readily identifiable with the Deist clockmaker-God than with Jehovah or Allah or any conventional intervening deity. In fact, it is arguable that Masonic theology is essentially a fossil relic of 18th-century Deism. In period, not only were most of the signers of the Declaration and framers of the Constitution Masons, but most of the Committees of Correspondence (the communications and propaganda apparatus of the Revolution) were attached to Masonic lodges. This connection, despite having given impetus to a great deal of paranoid conspiracy literature, remains rather important for understanding the Founders’ “God”.
Jefferson’s “altar of God” quote and the references in the Declaration of Independence are easy to misconstrue today because Deism did not long outlive the Founding Fathers. In their time it functioned as a sort of halfway house for intellectuals who rejected traditional religion but were unwilling to declare themselves atheists or agnostics. As the social risk of taking these positions decreased, Deism waned.
Deism’s detached clockmaker-God had even less appeal to the less intellectual, and was swamped by a wave of Christian revivalism (the so-called “Second Great Awakening”) in the early 1800s.
Later generations, ignorant of Deism, mistakenly interpreted the references we’ve been discussing as evidence of Christian piety. But this is what they were explicitly not; the quotes from Jefferson above show that he was violently anti-clerical, and most of his colleagues professed Deism precisely because they agreed with him in regarding Christianity as a vulgar and bloody superstition. Their confident predictions that it would wither away before the Enlightenment were, unfortunately, not to be fulfilled.