In the debate over “culture war” issues and state-church separation taking place in America today, we frequently hear a number of assertions from religious groups, and those who advocate a greater role for religion in public affairs:

  • America is a Christian nation…
  • The United States was founded upon Judeo Christian principles…
  • The separation of state and church is a myth, with no basis in law…

Is America a nation founded upon a religious, Christian foundation? The answer lies at a the root of a culture war battle dividing separationists and religious groups. For the latter, the wave of recent amendments and other legislation pouring out of the House of Representatives, especially a measure which gives States the right to display copies of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms and other government venues, is all simple confirmation that this nation is firmly established on Judeo-Christian principles. They point to founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence, to the fact that the President of the United States takes the oath of office while resting a hand on the Holy Bible, even to the U.S. Supreme Court where there is a bas relief of the Mosaic code displayed on the wall of the main chamber.

But the historical record may be more complex, and less suggestive of the claim that America is a “Christian nation” founded upon Biblical principles. The most often cited passage of this argument is found in the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…” The author was Thomas Jefferson, a Founder considered by many historians to have been a Deist. The term likely describes other early American luminaries, including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and even George Washington.

Popular Deism was an intellectual byproduct of the Enlightenment which percolated through Britain, Europe and the United States, although as a creed it originated before the Philosophes. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Macmillan, 1967, ed. Paul Edwards) notes that the term is “etymologically cognate to theism … both words denoting belief in the existence of a god or gods and, therefore, the antithesis of atheism.” But Deism “acquired a connotation of religious unorthodoxy and ultimately reached the pejorative.” Christian critics of Deism feared that it was intertwined with Skepticism, an intellectual position which, if left unchecked by faith, could lead to atheism or other heresy. The earliest Deists such as Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648) postulated certain principles of their creed including belief in a Supreme God which should be worshipped, the notion that virtue and piety are part of that worship, and that a divine force dispenses mercy and punishment.

In their book “The Godless Constitution,” Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore report that Deism was “a nondoctrinaire religion that rejected a supernatural faith built around an anthropomorphic God who intervened in human affairs, either in answer to prayer or for other inscrutable reasons.” Particularly in the Enlightenment period, Deism postulated a “religion of nature and nature’s god,” a First Cause which had set up the universe in accordance with rational and scientific laws. It is likely that in some cases the Deism of some founders dovetailed with certain Judeo-Christian teachings. Many of the founders were also Freemasons, a doctrinal and fraternal movement which embraced God as “The Great Architect of the Universe,” and taught the need for tolerance of diverse religious beliefs.

Rev. D. James Kennedy, Christian fundamentalist founder of the Coral Ridge Ministries in Florida, for instance, often cites George Washington as a committed Christian who supposedly kissed the open Bible after taking his oath as the nation’s first president. But Washington also becomes evidence for those who argue that he was a Deist of some sort; the Masonic movement enshrines Washington as an example of their influence in Colonial and Revolutionary America. Historian Paul Boller observes that Washington never used terms like Jesus or Christ; Boller told the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star newspaper recently that the president “referred to God in general terms that would have been as acceptable to Deists as to Christians.”

In her book “Freedom Under Siege” (Tarcher, Los Angeles, 1974), Madalyn Murray O’Hair defined Deism as “the system of thought that advocated a natural religion, divorced from the Judeo-Christian Bible, based on reason rather than revelation, emphasizing nature’s harmony and intelligibility, and rejecting the idea that the Creator could interfere with the laws of nature and the matters of mankind on earth.” She cited Thomas Paine, George Mason, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, John Quincy Adams and, of course, Thomas Jefferson, as early American Deists. Paine had authored “The Age of Reason,” and declared, “I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.” He added that, “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”

Colonel Ethan Allen, the revolution hero of the battle of Fort Ticonderoga , was even more critical of orthodoxy. In the preface to his book “Reason the Only Oracle of Man,” he insisted, “I am no Christian, except infant baptism make me one.” He added that, “Prayer to God is no part of a rational religion, nor did reason ever dictate it.”

Jefferson locked horns with the establishment clergy, and in 1800 wrote, “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” His letter to the Danbury Baptist Association is often cited as a defense of First Amendment rights, especially his reference to a “wall of separation” between the church and state. On the subject of religion, Jefferson was skeptical of orthodox creeds and claims. O’Hair observed, “Few people know that Jefferson was so disenchanted with organized Christian religion that he attempted to create his own Bible. He introduced it as a ‘wee little book,’ and called it ‘The Philosophy of Jesus Christ.’ ”

Benjamin Franklin’s life was, in part, an intellectual quest to examine the question of God and his alleged existence. At age 19 he wrote an essay in defense of Deism, but later penned another in support of prayer. Though he was a churchgoer, he frequently attacked establishment religions and preachers. Describing Christianity, Franklin lamented, “I wish it were more productive of good works. I mean really good works, not holyday keeping, sermon hearing, or making long prayers filled with flatteries and compliments desired by wise men…” Historian James Stifler, in his work “The Religion of Benjamin Franklin,” suggests that the polymath was “neither a Deist nor an orthodox churchman,” and that “no label will stick.”

Despite this and other historical evidence, though, many Christian fundamentalists continue to insist that the Founders were deeply religious Christians who desired to create a religion-based government and society. Foremost among these advocates is David Barton of the “Wall Builders” group. Barton has authored books and pamphlets, including “The Myth of Separation” which argues that the notion of separation between church and state “has no basis in American history or law,” and is essentially the product of judicial activism. Barton, like those who emphasize the Deism of the Founders, culls the historical record for his evidence. He even suggests that the First Amendment cannot be used to prevent states from giving public money to churches, or demanding a religious test for public office. Barton’s scholarship has been attacked, though, and some critics have charged that he has used invented or highly questionable quotes in support of his thesis.