|The Founding Fathers in Their Own Words
What did they have to say about the separation of church and state?
Did they intend for the United States to be a "Christian nation" based on
"Christian (or Judeo-Christian) values"?
Did they even hold religious views compatible with the views that
fundamentalists are currently attempting to codify into law?
|First of all, misconceptions abound regarding what the Constitution says about Christianity, God, and
The writing of the Constitution took place in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The
delegates to the Convention drew upon their experiences with Great Britain, state constitutions, and their
study of the history of government. Many of these men were students and advocates of the Enlightenment.
They did indeed believe in the virtues of education, general knowledge, scientific advancements, and
practicality in government. But religion as a guiding principle for government? Here is the entirety of what
the original Constitution says about religion:
"no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the
United States." Article VI, United States Constitution.
That's it. That is the entirety of what the Founders deemed necessary to include in the Constitution regarding
religion. This is certainly not consistent with many of today's claims, and much of today's political rhetoric.
What about the Bill of Rights, and the rest of the amendments? The entire text from the amendments
regarding religion can be found at the very beginning of the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion"
Nothing in the entire document, including all of the amendments, about the United States being a Christian
nation. What the Constitution does say about religion does not support such a claim.
When I point this out, I hear things like, "yeah, but they put all of that in the Declaration of Independence. That
document is loaded with many references to Christianity and makes it clear that we are to be a Christian
nation." Really? The Declaration of Independence makes exactly four references of appeal to a singular
higher power, none of which is in the same context as today's rhetoric about the United States as a Christian
nation. Here they are, word for word:
"the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them"
"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"
"appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions"
"And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence"
Those four references are the only mentions of God in the Declaration of Independence. So much for the
notion that it is loaded with proof that they created a Christian nation.
The entire text of the Constitution, including amendments, can be found here. For the full text of the
Declaration of Independence, click here.
Now, on to other words from the founders. The Declaration of Independence was penned by Thomas
Jefferson. He is the most widely quoted of the Founders on the subject of religion and government. I have
included quotes from Jefferson on the subject of the separation of church and state, as well as many on the
subject of his personal religious beliefs, so that they can be compared to the views of those who want to
impose some sort of religious laws on the citizens of the United States.
|“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.”
-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Danbury Baptist Association, CT. (1 January 1802) This statement is the origin of
the often used phrase "separation of Church and State”.
|“Religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”
-James Madison, Letter to Edward Livingston (1822-07-10)
|“Besides the danger of a direct mixture of religion and civil government, there is an evil which ought to be
guarded against in the indefinite accumulation of property from the capacity of holding it in perpetuity by
ecclesiastical corporations. The establishment of the chaplainship in Congress is a palpable violation of equal
rights as well as of Constitutional principles. The danger of silent accumulations and encroachments by
ecclesiastical bodies has not sufficiently engaged attention in the U.S.”
-James Madison, "Monopolies, Perpetuities, Corporations, Ecclesiastical Endowments" an essay probably
written sometime between 1817 and 1832. It has sometimes been incorrectly portrayed as having been
uncompleted notes written sometime around 1789 while opposing the bill to establish the office of
Congressional Chaplain. It was first published as "Aspects of Monopoly One Hundred Years Ago" in 1914 by
Harper's Magazine and later in "Madison's Detached Memoranda" by Elizabeth Fleet in William and Mary
|“The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right
of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.
Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions,
may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? that the
same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any
one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?
We hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, “that Religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and
the Manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” The
Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of
every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable;
because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds, cannot
follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also; because what is here a right towards men, is a duty
towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage, and such only, as he
believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent both in order of time and degree of obligation, to the
claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered
as a subject of the Governor of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, who enters into any
subordinate Association, must always do it with a reservation of his duty to the general authority; much more
must every man who becomes a member of any particular Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to
the Universal Sovereign. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the
institution of Civil Society, and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance. True it is, that no other rule
exists, by which any question which may divide a Society, can be ultimately determined, but the will of the
majority; but it is also true, that the majority may trespass on the rights of the minority.
The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled
the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the
consequences by denying the principle. We revere this lesson too much soon to forget it. Who does not see
that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with
the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? that the same authority which
can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment,
may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?
It is moreover to weaken in those who profess this Religion a pious confidence in its innate excellence and
the patronage of its Author; and to foster in those who still reject it, a suspicion that its friends are too
conscious of its fallacies to trust it to its own merits.
During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity 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.
What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have
been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been
seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the
liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established Clergy
convenient auxiliaries. A just Government instituted to secure & perpetuate it needs them not.
[A]ttempts to enforce by legal sanctions, acts obnoxious to go great a proportion of Citizens, tend to enervate
the laws in general, and to slacken the bands of Society. If it be difficult to execute any law which is not
generally deemed necessary or salutary, what must be the case, where it is deemed invalid and dangerous?
And what may be the effect of so striking an example of impotency in the Government, on its general authority?
Because finally, “the equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his religion according to the dictates of
conscience” is held by the same tenure with all his other rights. If we recur to its origin, it is equally the gift of
nature; if we weigh its importance, it cannot be less dear to us; if we consider the “Declaration of those rights
which pertain to the good people of Virginia, as the basis and foundation of government,” it is enumerated
with equal solemnity, or rather studied emphasis. [Often misquoted as “Religion is the basis and foundation of
We the Subscribers say, that the General Assembly of this Commonwealth have no such authority: And that no
effort may be omitted on our part against so dangerous an usurpation, we oppose to it, this remonstrance;
earnestly praying, as we are in duty bound, that the Supreme Lawgiver of the Universe, by illuminating those to
whom it is addressed, may on the one hand, turn their Councils from every act which would affront his holy
prerogative, or violate the trust committed to them: and on the other, guide them into every measure which
may be worthy of his [blessing, may re]dound to their own praise, and may establish more firmly the liberties,
the prosperity and the happiness of the Commonwealth.“
-James Madison, "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments" (1785), opposing a "Bill
establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion"
|“Let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be
conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both
forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
-George Washington, Farewell Address
|“As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his
Religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received
various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his
divinity; tho' it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and I think it needless to busy
myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.”
-Benjamin Franklin, As quoted in Benjamin Franklin: An Exploration of a Life of Science and Service (1938) by
Carl Van Doren, p. 777
|“All persons shall have full and free liberty of religious opinion; nor shall any be compelled to frequent or
maintain any religious institution.”
-Thomas Jefferson, Draft Constitution for Virginia (June 1776)
|“In the middle ages of Christianity opposition to the State opinions was hushed. The consequence was,
Christianity became loaded with all the Romish follies. Nothing but free argument, raillery & even ridicule will
preserve the purity of religion.”
-Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Religion (October 1776), published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve
Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1904, Vol. 2, p. 256.
|The Founders clearly intended to establish a
nation free from government advocacy of any
religion. They received their "values" from
many sources, some Christian and some not.
They believed that religious matters were
deeply personal and government had no role
to play. They were not unanimous in their
personal religious views, and many of these
personal views differed widely from those
that many people want to impose on us today
The Founding Fathers believed that both
religion and government would be stronger
with a complete separation of the two.
The concept of the separation of church and
state has been present from the beginning.