All Those Christian Presidents
Portions of this were originally published in the American Rationalist.
George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and would not tell a lie about it. Abraham Lincoln freed all the slaves. John Kennedy ushered into the White House all the glory of King Arthur's Camelot. And I know how to turn iron into gold.
We so often believe what we want to believe, ignoring clear-cut evidence as we do so. This is especially true of our country's supposed Christian origins. You can find this topic almost daily in op-ed pages all across the country, as Christian fundamentalists strive mightily to turn America into the Christian nation they claim it once was. The rhetoric flows fast and thick, and after a while some of us begin to believe it. A lie told often enough.
But we must look at our history objectively and resist the temptation to rewrite it to suit our opinions of what our heritage ought to have been. This admonition applies to freethinkers as well. If our nation indeed has Christian roots, then we'll just have to accept it and move on from there. So-does it?
The obvious first step in seeking out our nation's origins is to read its founding documents. In doing so, one is struck immediately by the total absence of any mention of Jesus, Christ or Christianity. There is also no reference to any Christian church-Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Calvinist-nothing. Not a word, nor a hint. If our Founding Fathers had intended to make this a Christian nation, they could not have hidden that intention more completely, or done a worse job of it.
The Declaration of Independence refers only to "Nature's God," "divine Providence" and a "Creator." All of these terms are so vague that they could be used comfortably by any faithful Muslim. Moreover, "Nature's God" was part of a passage that reads, "the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them." You'll notice "God" got second billing. And not only did the Founders feel that the word "God" required an adjective, but the modifier they chose, "Nature's," couldn't be further removed from Christianity, and is in fact a precise definition of the God of Deism. (Deism: The belief that an unknowable God created everything, and then just walked away from it all, leaving all things to work out their own destinies, from atoms to apples.)
The U.S. Constitution, with its Bill of Rights, fares even worse in the Christian roots theory. No deity at all is mentioned, let alone a Christian one. The wildest, broadest interpretations imaginable cannot make the Constitution a Christian document. Its only mention of religion at all is where it forbids Congress from making any laws establishing or prohibiting it, and where it forbids religious tests for holding public office. So the Constitution's two brief mentions of religion strictly emphasize the need to keep it out of government.
So, then, where did all this "Christian nation" stuff come from? Our Founders went out of their way, very wisely, to avoid religion altogether. When freethinkers point to this shrieking silence about religion, Christians often attack that point by calling it an "argument from silence," one of the weakest arguments available. Generally speaking, arguments from silence are weak. In this case, though, it is one of the strongest arguments available. Other than bluntly and specifically repudiating Christianity, which they were also wise enough to avoid, the Founders could not have made more plain their desire to separate their new government from religion. Their silence about Christianity chimes loudly and clearly. If they had wanted to mention it, they would have. But they did not.
Deathbed and trauma-induced Christian conversions of historical figures are very popular grist for Christian mills. But are they true? The first Life of Washington, for example, from which we received the ridiculous cherry tree story, was written by Mason Weems, a Christian minister and therefore hardly an objective source. He presents Washington as a devout Christian. However, Washington's own diaries record that in 1769 he attended church only ten times, in 1770 nine times, in 1771 and 1772 six times, and in 1773 five times. Devout? Hardly. Such sporadic church attendance reflects, at best, a half-hearted attempt at conforming to social proprieties. It does not reflect a devout Christian.
John Adams was a Unitarian and flatly denied the doctrine of eternal damnation-obviously not a Christian. John Quincy Adams was likewise a Unitarian. The brilliant Thomas Jefferson was an out and out freethinker, and even urged his nephew to "Question with boldness even the existence of a God." These are not the words of a Christian.
James Madison early on studied to become a minister, but inexplicably did not. He expressed his indignation that people were being jailed in Virginia merely for criticizing the Episcopal Church, then the established Church of Virginia. The state laws of the time called for the death penalty for the following:
(Surely this is a lesson in why not to allow theocracies. But why is it, anyway, that as soon as religions get a foothold, they immediately begin to persecute other religions?! Is oppression a necessary component of religious belief? It certainly rears its ugly head often enough to make you think so.) Madison of course went on to become a fierce advocate of church/state separation, and as an adult he simply refused to discuss religion at all. This fact alone makes his Christianity highly unlikely, living as he did in a society that smiled favorably on it.
Abraham Lincoln was a Deist in his youth, but was subsequently, and probably wisely, advised against advertising that fact if he wanted to succeed in politics. Legend has him converting to Christianity, though Lincoln himself never bothered to mention it to anyone. No one else mentioned it either until long after Lincoln's death. And no one agrees on where or when this supposed profound life-change took place. Depending on the source, it was either in Illinois or Washington, in 1848, 1858, 1862, or 1863. Such large discrepancies make "never" the most likely.
Lincoln's closest friend and law partner for over twenty years, William H. Herndon, claimed that Old Abe had no religious beliefs at all. Lincoln's own silence on the subject makes his friend's observation seem probable.
Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine were thoroughgoing freethinking Deists. Though not Presidents, they were strongly influential in forming our early republic. Thomas Paine was a champion of reason. Highly praised for The Rights of Man, he was equally vilified for his The Age of Reason. A glittering testimonial to freedom of thought, The Age of Reason excoriated Christianity. Paine bravely put pen to paper in a way that guaranteed censure in the year of 1795. He was praised for glorifying political freedom, but cursed for applauding religious freedom. It is to history's shame that this beacon of reason and rationality suffered so tragically at the end of his life. He was a man ahead of his times.
What most of us fail to recognize in these discussions, however, is that it wouldn't matter if every single President since Washington had been a Bible-toting, evangelical Christian. They weren't, of course, but even if they had been, it still would not change the secular foundation of our republic. Christians like to quote various Presidents or Supreme Court Justices who (quite incorrectly) have referred to our "Christian nation." But what do those quotes prove? I could quote Richard Nixon, but would that prove that ours was intended to be a nation of crooks?
Our Founders' clearly created a secular government that was carefully separated from religion. You can peer and probe and dissect to your heart's content, but you will never find Christ or Christianity referred to, even obliquely, in our admirable founding documents. It is because of those documents that Christians are free to worship as they please, a priceless freedom enjoyed in precious few countries throughout history. Christians should be grateful for that freedom and stop trying to force their beliefs, posthumously, on our Founders (and on the rest of us-today!). We the People are truly a diverse group, and this has always been one of our greatest strengths. We never were, were never intended to be, and hopefully never will be, a "Christian" nation.
© 1997 Judith Hayes
See the following in three parts: