Founding fathers

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The religious right frequently uses quotes from the United States founding fathers that appear to made up out of whole cloth. These quotes purport to prove that the founding fathers were religious men intent on setting up a theocracy. The majority of these myths were created by David Barton of Wallbuilders.

  • "It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ!"
  • "It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible."
  • "Our laws and our institutions must necessarily be based upon and embody the teachings of the Redeemer of mankind. It is impossible that it should be otherwise. In this sense and to this extent, our civilizations and our institutions are emphatically Christian."
    • falsely attributed to Holy Trinity v. U. S. (Supreme Court case)
  • "We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves ... according to the Ten Commandments of God."
  • "Whosoever shall introduce into the public affairs the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world."
  • "The principles of all genuine liberty, and of wise laws and administrations are to be drown from the Bible and sustained by its authority. The man therefore who weakens or destroys the divine authority of that book may be assessory to all the public disorders which society is doomed to suffer."
  • "There are two powers only which are sufficient to control men, and secure the rights of individuals and a peaceable administration; these are the combined force of religion and law, and the force or fear of the bayonet."
  • "The only assurance of our nation's safety is to lay our foundation in morality and religion."
  • "The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next."
  • "I have always said and always will say that the studious perusal of the Sacred Volume will make us better citizens."

Web only, not made up by David Barton:

  • "Do not let any one claim to be a true American if they ever attempt to remove religion from politics."

Attitudes of Founding Fathers on Religion and Politics

It is important to remember that when talking about the founding fathers, they cannot be referred to as a unified, monolithic group. There was great debate among them on every issue that came before them in setting up the rules that the new government would operate under. With regards to church state issues, Patrick Henry was one of the most evangelical founders, and he argued that both religion and rights should not be secured or defended upon logic and reason. He said that when this happens, “Holy Religion…will be prostituted to the lowest purposes of human policy,” and that logic and reasoned defense of religion served as the foundation for religious disputes.[1] Further, he argued against the idea that rights should come from logical arguments, saying that “there are many of our most worthy citizens who cannot go through all the labyrinths of syllogistic, argumentative deductions, when they think that the rights of conscience are invaded. This sacred right ought not to depend on constructive, logical reasoning.”[2] He argued for the inclusion of God in the constitution, saying that a creator provided the rights of men. While there were undoubtedly many founders that felt like Patrick Henry, it is important to note when considering the views of the majority of the founders, every single time that arguments like this were brought up to inject God into the founding document of the American government, they was shot down, so that the final product had no mention of God anywhere.

This does not mean, however, that the founders necessarily thought that government should have a completely neutral stance toward religion. Both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison supported and wrote many “blue laws” in an effort to positively affirm that the government must protect religion. However, they did so mostly as a reaction to the excesses of religious persecution that existed in the colonies before the revolution. There was substantial debate in the colonies as to how to conceptualize the idea of religious freedom. Some put forth the notion that the rules should be written so as allow government to “tolerate” different religious practices.[3] However, many thought that this was not a strong enough positive declaration by the government establishing the freedom of all to worship or not worship as they saw fit, and thus, blue laws did get proposed and enacted at the state level in several states.

When observing the place that the founders had in mind for the role of religion in government, considering the historical religious political doctrine of Christianity is important. They had a choice of whether to side with the theocratic ideals championed by St Augustine and John of Salisbury, or the Nonoverlapping magisteria ideals expressed by Martin Luther and John Calvin. Consequentially the founders put forth arguments and enacted laws that sided more with the idea of Luther and Calvin. Several even invoke the claims and fears of Luther and Calvin with regards to the merging of church and state, such as Thomas Paine who said that such a merging would create “a sort of mule-animal, capable only of destroying, and not of breeding up.”[4] Therefore, any law passed that allowed the government to actively protect religious practices should not be constructed as a governmental decree to establish religion, or as a statement of support for any one religion over another.

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