Founding Fathers Religios Beliefs

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     There are many in this country today who claim the Founding Fathers were Christians who were attempting to create a Christian nation, and to this end build Christian principles into the Constitution.  The evangelical right uses this argument to push for a Christian-centered government in the United States today, with Christian-centered policies.  They argue that the separation of church and state in the Constitution was not meant to be as absolute as later court decisions have ruled it to be.  While the Founding Fathers did undoubtedly have Christian beliefs, however, their beliefs were not what the standard evangelical Christian of today believes.  Most evangelicals today would be quite shocked if they understood the true religious beliefs of our Founding Fathers.  Further, the Founding Fathers believed in a government built on civil principals, not religious ones, and structured the Constitution accordingly.

     In order to understand how and why the Constitution was structured as it was, it is first necessary to understand the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers.  Thomas Jefferson is a prime example of a Founding Father who believed in God and Jesus of Nazareth, and who considered himself a Christian, but whose beliefs were a far cry from the fundamentalism of today.  Jefferson was what is now referred to as a deist.  A deist believes in God, but believes that God does not interfere directly in human affairs.  To that end, Jefferson believed in the historical person that was Jesus of Nazareth, believed him to be a good, moral man, and believed in his teachings.  In that regard, Jefferson considered himself a Christian, and admitted as much.  However, Jefferson believed that the Christianity practiced in his time was corrupted, changed from its original form and Jesus’s original intent.  Jefferson, at one point, went through the four Gospels of the New Testament with a razor, cutting out the parts he wished to keep, and pasting these sections into a blank book.  What resulted was an abridged form of the Gospels that completely eliminated the story of the virgin birth, any references to Jesus’s divinity, the miracle stories, and the resurrection (Smith 2003).  This collection was published in 1820 under the title, “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.”

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     What can be inferred from this exercise on Jefferson’s part is that he believed Jesus to have been a man with sound moral teachings, and that those teachings were worthy of being followed. As to anything else dealing with the spiritual or supernatural, Jefferson was skeptical.  Jefferson was not tied to any one church, and in fact contributed financially in equal amounts to every denomination in his town.  If he leaned more toward one denomination than another, it was to the Unitarian church, which was and is still known for its broad interpretation of Christianity that leaves room to include just about anyone’s beliefs regarding it.  In fact, Jefferson was so enthusiastic about Unitarianism that he once declared that he thought every man in the United States would eventually become a Unitarian.

     John Adams, the second president of the United States and a key figure in the push for declaring independence from Great Britain, possessed theological ideas that were nearly identical to Jefferson’s.  Though some religious groups have attempted to re-write history by declaring Adams was a born again Christian who believed the Bible was the absolute word of God, a reading of Adams’s writings will clearly show that this was not the case.  Adams, like Jefferson, believed in God and in Jesus of Nazareth.  Adams believed that Jesus was a sound moral philosopher and admired Jesus’s teachings.  However, Adams once said that he thought the notion of Jesus’s divinity was an “awful blasphemy.” (Witte 2000)  Further, he openly rejected the very important Christian concept of the Trinity, and also rejected the concepts of atonement and election (which were key Christian concepts to the colonial Congregational churches, which were the descendants of the Puritan churches of a century before).  Adams stated a belief that ministers who pretended to sanctity were foolish, and also said that he believed all good men could be called Christians, regardless of their personal religious beliefs.  Like Jefferson, Adams was a Deist and a member of a Unitarian church.  While he certainly believed in a divine power, he looked upon notions that this power mingled with human affairs in any way to be pure folly.

     When it came to religion, famous Founding Father Benjamin Franklin also had Deist beliefs, like Jefferson and Adams.  Franklin believed in God, but did not believe God interfered in human affairs, and had serious doubts about the divinity of Jesus (Bruce 1917).  Franklin did not belong to any particular church as an adult, though he had been raised as a Presbyterian.  He believed that religion promoted good moral attitudes and behavior, and, like Jefferson, contributed equally to any denomination that asked him for money.  However, like Madison, he was suspicious of religion that attempted to get involved in governmental affairs, and cited the long history of persecution and corruption that this mingling of religion and government had produced across the world.  Franklin, like Madison, believed that government and religion worked best when they each stayed out of the affairs of the other.

     Perhaps the most striking example of the effect the beliefs of the Founding Fathers had on the Constitution can be found in James Madison, the fourth president of the United States and the author of much of the Constitution.  Madison was well known for his suspicion of any mingling of religion with governmental matters.  There are many instances of him publicly stating that mixing religion and government never led to any good, and had, in fact, led to tyranny over and over again throughout the centuries.  Madison was a strident proponent of separation of church and state, and he believed that separation should be absolute, stating in 1819 that “Civil government functions with complete success by the total separation of the church from the state.” (Samples 2002)  Madison realized that religion and government will have a natural inclination to interfere in the business of each other, and to that end recommended that government keep completely out of religious matters, except for the purpose of maintaining public order.  Madison believed that government should not just be tolerant of all religions, but should have no opinion on religion at all, and leave it entirely to the conscience of each person to worship as they saw fit.  Since Madison was the author of most of the Constitution, the First Amendment provision of Congress making no law establishing a religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion, can be taken to mean that Madison intended for their to be very little interaction between the state and religion in our country.

     As can be seen, these four Founding Fathers were not Christians in the way we view Christianity today.  If anything, they looked upon traditional Christianity with suspicion, while still finding good, moral teachings in the sayings of Jesus.  The Founding Fathers very much looked to earthly things for inspiration, and thus admired the teachings of Jesus the man, while finding much to doubt in the notion of Jesus as a divine being.  While they believed in God, they believed in a distant, hands-off God that left humankind entirely to its own affairs.  While they may have gone to church, when they went, it was to Unitarian churches, which were as notoriously liberal in their beliefs then as they are now.  The Founding Fathers were suspicious of attempts to mingle religion and government, and believed that neither should interfere in the affairs of the other.  Therefore, when the Constitution states that Congress shall make no law establishing a religion or interfering in the free exercise of religion, one can be sure that they did not intend for this to be a nation built on Christian principals.  Rather, the Founding Fathers intended for this to be a nation built upon principals of freedom for all, including the freedom of everyone to believe as they chose, without those beliefs interfering in the business of a democratic government.


Bruce, William Campbell.  1917. Benjamin Franklin, Self- Revealed: A Biographical and Critical Study Based     Mainly on his Own Writings, Vol. 1.  New York: Putnam.

Samples, John. 2002. James Madison and the Future of Limited      Government.  New York: The Cato Institute.

Smith, Douglas G.  2003. Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of      Separation Between Church and State.  Harvard Journal   of Law and Public Policy, Vol. 26. 2003.

Witte, John, Jr. 2000. Religion and the American    Constitutional Experiment: Essential Right and Liberties. New York: Westview Press.


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