An organization with a website called “NoSeparation.org” has been setting billboards all over the Tampa, Florida, area suggesting that the concept of separation of Church and State is a lie. The billboards feature quotes from four Founding Fathers and one Supreme Court case about God, Jesus and Christianity.
NoSeparation.org, and its parent body, the Community Issues Council, want us to believe that the Founders intended the USA to be a “Christian Nation.”
Well, they didn’t. In fact, the architects of the Revolutionary War and the Constitution intended government to be as widely separated from religion as much as possible. Many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were acutely aware of the dangers a state religion presented a free society. They had come from European countries with dominant state churches, and some had lived in colonies dominated by religious dogma.
But nothing like facts has ever let Christian revisionists from rewriting history to suit their purposes. The Dominionists have a cottage industry going in which someone quotemines a document from two centuries ago and argues that the fragmented quote proves their “Christian Nation” thesis. [See! Washington said “God!” Jefferson said “religion!” That means the USA is a Christian Nation!]
The quotes, usually taken out of context, then get repeated over and over again on bazillions of right-wing and fundamentalist Christian websites — examples of the precept that if you repeat the same lie ad infinitum, it will somehow become true.
And the quotes are not just on websites. Some are on those billboards in Florida. Others are in books written by historical revisionists like David Barton.
Chris Rodda writes for Talk To Action, an organization that monitors the wacky world of the Christian Right. Rodda ended up writing a book, contradicting point-by-point every contention by Barton and his cronies.
Barton, by the way, is on a review panel for the Texas State Board of Education’s social studies curricula.
While Rodda has done a wonderful job debunking Barton’s premise of a Christian Nation, one more protesting voice can’t hurt. So I decided to spend some time tracking down the origins of the quotes used on the Tampa billboards.
Since I’m in China right now, I can’t just run to my local university library and look for the works of George Washington, John Adams, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson and the Supreme Court of 1892. No, I had to use the Internet, which while convenient presents its own challenges.
Googling the billboard quotes brings up those bazillions of right-wing, fundie websites. I had to really cut my way through that jungle of inanity to get to the original sources, a task I suspect most casual Internet users would not have the patience (or motivation) to try.
To its credit, NoSeparation.org does link to the full quotes for the first two snippets I discuss below. But I had to go hunting for the origins of the others.
Emblazoned over the top of the NoSeparation.org website is this fragment of a quote:
” …. this is a Christian nation.” — U.S. Supreme Court, 1892 – Holy Trinity Church vs U.S.
Well, that seems pretty explicit, but we should investigate the context in which it was used. The case before the Court at the time, Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, involved a legal dispute over the employment of British preacher.
There was a federal law at the time that prohibited “the importation and migration of foreigners and aliens under contract or agreement to perform labor in the United States, its territories, and the District of Columbia.” The Church was charged with violating the law, and sought redress in federal court.
The U.S. Circuit Court for the Southern District of the New York, however, ruled that the church was bound by the law, but the Supreme Court overruled the Circuit Court and said instead that the preacher was not a foreign laborer, although he was a foreigner. The Court essentially argued that the spirit of the law in question was not to prohibit hiring foreign ministers.
Associate Justice David Josiah Brewer wrote the unanimous opinion of the Court. Almost half the opinion refers to the Christian identity of the United States and the Christian elements contained in its common law, because the Justices argued that Congress could never have intended shutting out foreign ministers in writing the federal law being challenged.
(Brewer was, incidentally, the son of Congregationalist missionaries and was born in Turkey. I wonder if the Senators debating his appointment accused him of being secretly a Muslim.)
Here is the paragraph from which the billboard snippet was taken:
If we pass beyond these matters to a view of American life, as expressed by its laws, its business, its customs, and its society, we find every where a clear recognition of the same truth. Among other matters, note the following: the form of oath universally prevailing, concluding with an appeal to the Almighty; the custom of opening sessions of all deliberative bodies and most conventions with prayer; the prefatory words of all wills, “In the name of God, amen;” the laws respecting the observance of the Sabbath, with the general cessation of all secular business, and the closing of courts, legislatures, and other similar public assemblies on that day; the churches and church organizations which abound in every city, town, and hamlet; the multitude of charitable organizations existing every where under Christian auspices; the gigantic missionary associations, with general support, and aiming to establish Christian missions in every quarter of the globe. These, and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation. In the face of all these, shall it be believed that a Congress of the United States intended to make it a misdemeanor for a church of this country to contract for the services of a Christian minister residing in another nation?
OK, so does all this verbiage make the USA a “Christian Nation?” Not at all, since that question was not the one the Supreme Court was debating in 1892. Brewer and his fellow Justices may have felt the US was steeped in Christian tradition and customs, but they did not say — as revisionists now do — that the laws of the United States were Christian in origin. Common law is not the same as the Constitution and federal law.
Next up is this quote from George Washington:
“Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
This snippet comes from Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796. His speech touches on many themes, one of which was the role of religion and morality in political prosperity. We should take note that Washington does not refer to to Jesus or Christianity. but only to morality and religion.
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And 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.
It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?
Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.
(The last paragraph doesn’t really pertain to religion and morality, but I thought it telling that Washington also recognized the need to have a well educated public. It’s a shame that not everyone seems to share that belief nowadays.)
So, did Washington say the US is a Christian Nation? Nope. He says religion and morality form the foundation of a successful, free government. He doesn’t say religion and morality should be government.
“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.”
This quote comes from a letter Adams wrote on 11 October 1798 to the officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts. It’s a pretty obscure resource, suggesting the revisionists really have to scrape the bottom of the barrel to get what they need.
TO THE OFFICERS OF THE FIRST BRIGADE OF THE THIRD DIVISION OF THE MILITIA OF MASSACHUSETTS.
11 October, 1798.
I have received from Major-General Hull and Brigadier-General Walker your unanimous address from Lexington, animated with a martial spirit, and expressed with a military dignity becoming your character and the memorable plains on which it was adopted.
While our country remains untainted with the principles and manners which are now producing desolation in so many parts of the world; while she continues sincere, and incapable of insidious and impious policy, we shall have the strongest reason to rejoice in the local destination assigned us by Providence. But should the people of America once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another, and towards foreign nations, which assumes the language of justice and moderation while it is practising iniquity and extravagance, and displays in the most captivating manner the charming pictures of candor, frankness, and sincerity, while it is rioting in rapine and insolence, "because we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
An address from the officers commanding two thousand eight hundred men, consisting of such substantial citizens as are able and willing at their own expense completely to arm and clothe themselves in handsome uniforms, does honor to that division of the militia which has done so much honor to its country.
Oaths in this country are as yet universally considered as sacred obligations. That which you have taken and so solemnly repeated on that venerable spot, is an ample pledge of your sincerity and devotion to your country and its government.
Adams was a deist, meaning he accepted the idea of a Creator god but not necessarily the divinity of Jesus, and a universalist. That is, he recognized that all religions preach essentially the same moral code. His statement that the Constitution was made only for a “moral and religious people” suggests that Adams meant adherence to the Constitution depended on an ethical and dispassionate people accepting the principles contained in it. An unethical, overly emotional people could not be governed under it. (He may have had in mind France, which in 1798 was nearing the end of its own rather bloody Revolution.) Like Washington, he does not use the words “Jesus” or “Christianity,” or “Christian nation.” Rather, he is speaking about morality of a more general nature.
“God who gave us life gave us liberty.”
This remark is also on the walls of Monticello, and comes from Jefferson’s 1774 plea to the King, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America.” Jefferson argues that, to avoid further conflict with the homeland, the colonists were willing to do anything reasonable, but at the same time, the King should also exercise some restraint. In this selection, we can find the “inalienable right” of liberty that Jefferson later included in the Declaration of Independence.
We are willing on our part to sacrifice every thing which reason can ask to the restoration of that tranquility for which all must wish. On their part let them be ready to establish union on a generous plan. Let them name their terms, but let them be just. Accept of every commercial preference it is in our power to give for such things as we can raise for their use, or they make for ours. But let them not think to exclude us from going to other markets, to dispose of those commodities which they cannot use, nor to supply those wants which they cannot supply. Still less let it be proposed that our properties within our own territories shall be taxed or regulated by any power on earth but our own. The god who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time: the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them. This, Sire, is our last, our determined resolution: and that you will be pleased to interpose with that efficacy which your earnest endeavors may insure to procure redress of these our great grievances, to quiet the minds of your subjects in British America against any apprehensions of future incroachment, to establish fraternal love and harmony thro’ the whole empire, and that that may continue to the latest ages of time, is the fervent prayer of all British America.
Jefferson was quite definitely a deist, and had read widely about other religions. His concept of God was perhaps more abstract than that of modern-day Christian revisionists. Like other thinkers of the Enlightenment, Jefferson believed that all humans had certain inalienable rights given to them by their creator. Again, he does not use the word “Christian” or “Jesus.”
John Adams again:
“The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity.”
This one comes from a 28 June 1813 letter to Jefferson, and refers to a 1798 address from “the young men of Philadelphia” and his reply to it on 7 May 1798.
Ironically, Adams’ letter to Jefferson begins with a criticism of the “priesthood” and its attacks on freedom of religion, then segues into talking about politics. He refers to the 1798 address, and his reply to it, suggesting that the young men, diverse in their religion or lack thereof, could find common ground only on the general principles “on which the fathers achieved independence.” And those were “the general principles of Christianity, in which all those those Sects were united,” and the general principles of English and American Law.
Quincy, 28 June, 1813.
It is very true that the denunciations of the priesthood are fulminated against every advocate for a complete freedom of religion. Comminations, I believe, would be plenteously pronounced by even the most liberal of them, against atheism, deism,—against every man who disbelieved or doubted the resurrection of Jesus, or the miracles of the New Testament. Priestley himself would denounce the man who should deny the Apocalypse, or the prophecies of Daniel. Priestley and Lindsey have both denounced as idolaters and blasphemers all the Trinitarians and even the Arians. Poor weak man! when will thy perfection arrive? Thy perfectibility I shall not deny, for a greater character than Priestley or Godwin has said, “Be ye perfect,” &c. For my part, I cannot “deal damnation round the land” on all I judge the foes of God or man. But I did not intend to say a word on this subject in this letter. As much of it as you please, hereafter; but let me now return to politics.
With some difficulty I have hunted up or down the “address of the young men of the city of Philadelphia, the district of Southwark, and the northern liberties,” and the answer.
The addressers say, “actuated by the same principles on which our forefathers achieved their independence, the recent attempts of a foreign power to derogate from the rights and dignity of our country, awaken our liveliest sensibility and our strongest indignation.” Huzza, my brave boys! Could Thomas Jefferson or John Adams hear these words with insensibility and without emotion? These boys afterwards add, “we regard our liberty and independence as the richest portion given us by our ancestors.” And who were these ancestors? Among them were Thomas Jefferson and John Adams; and I very coolly believe that no two men among these ancestors did more towards it than those two. Could either hear this like a statue? If, one hundred years hence, your letters and mine should see the light, I hope the reader will hunt up this address, and read it all, and remember that we were then engaged, or on the point of engaging, in a war with France. I shall not repeat the answer till we come to the paragraph upon which you criticized to Dr. Priestley, though every word of it is true; and I now rejoice to see it recorded, though I had wholly forgotten it.
The paragraph is, “Science and morals are the great pillars on which this country has been raised to its present population, opulence, and prosperity; and these alone can advance, support, and preserve it. Without wishing to damp the ardor of curiosity, or influence the freedom of inquiry, I will hazard a prediction, that after the most industrious and impartial researches, the longest liver of you all will find no principles, institutions, or systems of education more fit, in general, to be transmitted to your posterity than those you have received from your ancestors.”1
Now, compare the paragraph in the answer with the paragraph in the address, as both are quoted above, and see if we can find the extent and the limits of the meaning of both.
Who composed that army of fine young fellows that was then before my eyes? There were among them Roman Catholics, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anabaptists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists, Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants, and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists, and Protestants “qui ne croyent rien.” Very few, however, of several of these species; nevertheless, all educated in the general principles of Christianity, and the general principles of English and American liberty.
Could my answer be understood by any candid reader or hearer, to recommend to all the others the general principles, institutions, or systems of education of the Roman Catholics, or those of the Quakers, or those of the Presbyterians, or those of the Methodists, or those of the Moravians, or those of the Universalists, or those of the Philosophers? No. The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were the only principles in which that beautiful assembly of young men could unite, and these principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer. And what were these general principles? I answer, the general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects were united, and the general principles of English and American liberty, in which all those young men united, and which had united all parties in America, in majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her independence. Now I will avow, that I then believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system. I could, therefore safely say, consistently with all my then and present information, that I believed they would never make discoveries in contradiction to these general principles. In favor of these general principles, in philosophy, religion, and government, I could fill sheets of quotations from Frederic of Prussia, from Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Rousseau, and Voltaire, as well as Newton and Locke; not to mention thousands of divines and philosophers of inferior fame.
I might have flattered myself that my sentiments were sufficiently known to have protected me against suspicions of narrow thoughts, contracted sentiments, bigoted, enthusiastic, or superstitious principles, civil, political, philosophical, or ecclesiastical. The first sentence of the preface to my Defence of the Constitution, vol. i., printed in 1787, is in these words: “The arts and sciences, in general, during the three or four last centuries, have had a regular course of progressive improvement. The inventions in mechanic arts, the discoveries in natural philosophy, navigation, and commerce, and the advancement of civilization and humanity, have occasioned changes in the condition of the world, and the human character, which would have astonished the most refined nations of antiquity,” &c. I will quote no farther, but request you to read again that whole page, and then say whether the writer of it could be suspected of recommending to youth “to look backward instead of forward,” for instruction and improvement. This letter is already too long. In my next, I shall consider “the terrorism of the day.”
So here again, Adams is speaking of general religious principles that were shared not only by the young men of Philadelphia but also the Founding Fathers themselves. They also shared common knowledge of British and American law. Both the religious and legal principles informed them and enabled them to find common ground, despite their different backgrounds. In a word, Adams recognized that the USA was a pluralistic society resting on a common philosophical and legal foundation. He says nothing about the USA being a Christian nation.
Adams also praises the role of science and the arts in the continuing progress of the nation. I suspect he would have accepted Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species as an example of such progress, as well.
Back to Jefferson now:
” … we all agree on our obligations to the moral precepts of Jesus.”
Jefferson, like Adams, was a deist and a universalist, which I suggest would make both men unpopular among the current crop of fundamentalist Christians. In his letter to his friend, James Fishback, Jefferson bewails the schisms of Christianity and the petty details that separate co-religionists. Though he mentions Jesus by name, his questioning the divinity of Jesus and the Immaculate Conception would probably horrify conservative Christians reading the fuller quote.
We all agree in the obligation of the moral precepts of Jesus; but we schismatize and lose ourselves in subtleties about his nature, his conception maculate or immaculate, whether he was a god or not a god, whether his votaries are to be initiated by simple aspersion, by immersion, or without water; whether his priests must be robed in white, in black, or not robed at all; whether we are to use our own reason, or the reason of others, in the opinions we form, or as to the evidence we are to believe. It is on questions of this, and still less importance, that such oceans of human blood have been spilt, and whole regions of the earth have been desolated by wars and persecutions, in which human ingenuity has been exhausted in inventing new tortures for their brethren. — from a 1809 letter to James Fishback
Jefferson would be an unlikely candidate for someone to espouse a “Christian Nation,” just based on this quote alone. In Jefferson’s day, different Christian sects didn’t just disagree with one another, they literally fought one another. Imagine the Assembly of God church taking up arms (or gardening tools, whatever is on hand) and clobbering the bejesus out of the Baptists down the block, or the Catholics, or whoever. The “Christian Nation” espoused by Barton and his ilk is narrowly defined, a country with laws based on Biblical principles (a scary thought, if you have read the Old Testament) and a dominant state religion. (Think modern day Saudi Arabia, and consider if Jefferson and Adams wanted their new nation to be like that.)
The last billboard quote comes from John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court:
“… It is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.”
Unike the more universalist, deist Adams and Jefferson, Jay was definitely sectarian, a devout Episcopalian. While he worked hard as governor of New York to abolish slavery in that state, he also wanted to prohibit Catholics from serving in public office. He probably would have been one of those opposing John F. Kennedy’s candidacy as president, were Jay alive then.
The quote comes from a letter Jay wrote to Pennsylvania state representative, John Murray, on October 12, 1816. Again, this resource is pretty obscure. Considering Jay’s religious beliefs, one might expect he would have written about a Christian Nation quite a bit. That he didn’t suggest he wasn’t as theocratic as the modern day revisionists would prefer to believe.
It certainly is very desirable that a pacific disposition should prevail among all nations. The most effectual way of producing it, is by extending the prevalence and influence of the gospel. Real Christians will abstain from violating the rights of others, and therefore will not provoke war.
Almost all nations have peace or war at the will and pleasure of rulers whom they do not elect, and who are not always wise or virtuous. Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest, of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.
Well, the first paragraph tells us Jay was either very naïve or in a state of denial. His statement that “real Christians” would not violate others’ rights or provoke war sounds like he could join one of those mainstream, liberal, tree-hugger churches (as fundies call them), like, hm, the Episcopalians.
Anyway, given Jay’s anti-Catholic sentiments, he probably meant Episcopalians or other Protestants were suitable “rulers.” But note that he says the nation “selects and prefers” Christians, which was certainly the case in his lifetime. That’s a far cry from insisting they must be Christian. That Jay refers to the USA rhetorically as a Christian nation does not mean that it was, or is. Jay was a learned and influential legal scholar. If this letter is the only reference he makes to a Christian nation or Christian leaders, he must not have been too enthusiastic about the idea.
The Founding Fathers were all well educated men, and by virtue of their backgrounds, were conversant with the ideas and principles of Christianity. They also were aware of the failures of Christians to follow those same ideas and principles. They need only look at the history of the Puritans in Massachusetts to see an example of a runaway theocracy, and reflect on their common British history to find examples of a state church’s abuse of power. While they may have respected Jesus’ teachings, Christianity’s “general principles,” and the beliefs of other religions, no intelligent person reading through their writings could ever conclude they wanted the USA to be a “Christian Nation” in the sense that Barton and others share.
The Christian Nationalists want to scrap the Constitution for a federal law based on Scripture, thereby ditching a few thousand years of English, Greek and Roman law. They want a national religion, presumably one that they share but that most of us do not. They undoubtedly want a return to the days of blue laws, strict “moral” behavior (mostly having to do with sex), prayer and Bible study in the schools, and authoritarianism (as opposed to a secular democracy).
They want what Jefferson, Adams, and Washington, and yes, probably Justices Jay and Brewer, too, would never have wanted. The Founding Fathers designed a secular democracy. They rejected theocracy. End of story.