Religion and the FoundersThe Founding Fathers were not devout by the standards of many of today's fundamentalist Protestants. To carefully examine wri
November 14, 2004

Religion and the Founders

The Founding Fathers were not devout by the standards of many of today's fundamentalist Protestants. To carefully examine writings by the principal framers (Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Washington and Madison) is to note the striking degree to which they all shared attitudes toward religion that would disqualify them as "Christians" in the eyes of the religious right, even though they described themselves as such. All these men emphasized the supreme importance of individual reason and conscience--not ecclesiastical authority and dogma--in shaping personal faith. To be sure, they recognized religion's valuable social role, but the assertion heard so often these days, that America was founded as a 'Christian nation', simply is not true.

Census figures and other historical documents show that on the eve of the Revolution only about 17% of the colonists were "churched." None of the founders were what could be described as orthodox (a profoundly unbiblical term). Franklin wrote that he doubted Jesus' divinity. Adams, like many educated men of the period, was a Unitarian who rejected the notion of the Trinty as superstition and with it the divinity of Jesus. Washington wrote to Lafayette that he didn't care if people who came to America were Christian or not "if they are good workmen...they may be Mohammedans, Jews, Christians or atheists." Madison stated that "the religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man." He also declared that "belief in a God All Powerful, wise and good is essential to the moral order of the world and to the happiness of man, that arguments which enforce it cannot be drawn from too many sources." Yet they all cherished the separation of church and state.
"There is not a shadow of right in the general government or its institutions to intermeddle with religion," Madison affirmed. "Its least interference with it would be a most flagrant usurpation." Madison inserted a "freedom of conscience" article in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates he vigorously opposed a 1784 resolution to tax citizens "for the support of the Christian religion." Shortly thereafter both he and Jefferson fought a Virginia bill that would have made Anglicanism an established state church; Madison's petition against church establishment won such solid public backing that it spelled the end for state support of churches or of state sponsored religious education in the U.S. Comparing state established churches to the Spanish Inquisition, Madison wrote that "they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny" that in turn upholds "the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people."
by Mike Finnegan, co-founder of "Crook and Liars"

Can you help us out?

For 18 years we have been exposing Washington lies and untangling media deceit, but now Facebook is drowning us in an ocean of right wing lies. Please give a one-time or recurring donation, or buy a year's subscription for an ad-free experience. Thank you.


We welcome relevant, respectful comments. Any comments that are sexist or in any other way deemed hateful by our staff will be deleted and constitute grounds for a ban from posting on the site. Please refer to our Terms of Service for information on our posting policy.