Last modified on 19 September 2008, at 03:56

Debate: Did the Founding Fathers intend to apply their personal faith to the nation "As an institution"?

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There has been much talk on Conservapedia over Sarah Palin's comment about the phrase "One nation, under God" being in the Pledge of Allegiance. Her reply included the statement "If it was good enough for the founding fathers, it's good enough for me", and many have taken that to be a mistake since the Pledge of Allegiance was written about 100 years after the founding of the nation, and the phrase "under God" only added in the 1950's.

In her defense, some have pointed out references to God that were made by various founding founders, and the specific use of the phrase "under God" by George Washington, as evidence that the founders did in fact conceive of the institution of the United States as being "a nation under God". However others contend that despite the deep faith held by many of the founding fathers, they deliberately established the government of the United States of America as a secular institution, leaving faith as an individual matter and ensuring that all citizens have the freedom to practice those faiths.

This debate page is not about whether Governor Palin made a historical error or not, so please post opinions on that elsewhere. The specific question to be addressed on this page is whether or not the founding fathers intended to apply their personal faith to the nation as an institution , to deliberately establish "a nation under God".

Yes, they intended to establish the U.S.A. as "One nation under God"

There were no religious detractors in that day and age, unlike today. You were either a good, God-fearing man (thus respected) or you were a nobody. Much public record exists, not only the Founding Father's religious comments as it relates to the institutions of America, but from all walks of life in that period.

Two historians at the University of Houston did a 10-year study of the ideas that shaped our republic. They started with 15,000 documents from the Colonial era, which were boiled down to 3,154 statements. The three most quoted individuals were French philosopher Montesquieu (8.3 percent), English jurist William Blackstone (7.9 percent) and English philosopher John Locke (2.9 percent). But Biblical citations dwarfed them all. Ninety-four percent of the founding fathers quotes were based on the Bible, 34 percent directly from its pages and 60 percent from men who had used the Bible to arrive at their conclusions. -- 50 star flag.png jp 12:20, 6 September 2008 (EDT)

That's a good reference, but the premise of the debate does not suggest that religion did not influence the ideas behind the founding of this nation. What is in question is whether the founders made religion and the concept that this is "a nation under God" part of the institution of the country itself. That's the basis of why some want the phrase "under God" reverted from the pledge of allegiance, and "in God we trust" removed from the currency. Those phrases reflect the principle that this nation was formally established under the auspices of the Judeo-Christian God, when it was not. It was founded by men who were free to pursue their religious faith without the government endorsing any religion over any other as shown below. When we incorporate references to the Judeo-Christian God in the currency and pledges to our nation we are no longer adhering to the principle of the First Amendment. We can have a secular government without it being implied as an attack on Christianity. --DinsdaleP 13:04, 6 September 2008 (EDT)
"formally established under the auspices of the Judeo-Christian God, when it was not." In your op. There are literally 100's of examples otherwise. Samuel Adams "We have this day restored the Sovereign to whom alone men ought to be obedient. From the rising to the setting of the sun may His kingdom come." Benjamin Franklin, June 28, 1787. He said, "I have lived, sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth: that God governs in the affairs of man. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings that except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it." John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, said, "Let us humbly commit our righteous cause to the great Lord of the Universe." DinsdaleP, you can nitpick these all you want. The Founders were not interested in a secular society. -- 50 star flag.png jp 17:13, 6 September 2008 (EDT)
One more addition. The founding fathers expected officeholders to be Christians. The Delaware Constitution of 1776 is a perfect example. Everyone appointed to public office had to say: "I do profess faith in God the Father, and in the Lord Jesus Christ His only Son, and in the Holy Ghost, one God, blessed forevermore; and I do acknowledge the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be given by divine inspiration."
Okay, two quick replies. First, I never said the founders wanted society to be secular - only the institution of the government that all of society lives under. Their intent was to create a society where each individual has the maximum freedom to practice his or her faith, and that is not a secular society. Second, this debate addressed the founding of the federal government, not the founding of any state governments. As I point out in my reply below, Article VI of the Constitution was created in part to ensure that religion would never be a test in holding Federal office. That says a lot about the founders' intent when forming the national government, regardless of their views expressed in speeches and in private. --DinsdaleP 19:00, 6 September 2008 (EDT)
"was founded by men who were free to pursue their religious faith without the government endorsing any religion over any other as shown below." It is not about endorsing any religion. It was about the right of religious faith without government interference aka Church of England. You want history to show that "Under God" wasn't meant to mean the nation was a Christian state. You want to seperate the ideas and inspirations of the Founders from the countries formation. You can disregard state constitutions of the era because it is not federal. I am trying to input that Judeo-Christianity WAS the Founder's intentions. Though, they didn't form The Church of America, they had every intention of combining scripture and government.-- 50 star flag.png jp 19:17, 6 September 2008 (EDT)
I appreciate the reply, jp, but this keeps going in the same circles. I never tried to separate the ideas and inspirations of the founders from the formation of the nation - when you read my comments here and in related threads, I state the opposite. However, there's a difference between the inspiration one has, and what one does once inspired. The founders never used the phrase "under God" or included Biblical scripture in the Constitution, and explicitly removed tests of faith as a prerequisite for service in the Government.
Did the faith of the founders inspire them? Certainly. Did their faith lead to the intention to architect a government of based on morals, fairness, tolerance and respect? I'm sure it did. Did the each of the Christian founders believe that God was the ultimate authority under who's providence this nation was founded? I'm certain that was their stated belief as individuals. However, when they had the chance to formalize this acknowledgment with something as simple as a mention of God in the preamble to the Constitution, they did not. "In God we trust" was added to currency years later by others, and the Pledge of Allegiance was altered in the 1950's. The actions of later generations doesn't alter the fact the in the actual, final establishment of the U.S. government, the founders intended that government to be secular in nature because of a belief in the principle that religion may inspire good government, but should not be institutionalized in government. I'm open to being convinced otherwise, so please show me evidence of the founders making religion part of the operating framework of the U.S. government. --DinsdaleP 21:36, 6 September 2008 (EDT)
You are right, this conversation is going in circles. You want me to prove "Christianity in the Constitution" , which has none. You want me to say the Founders views were separated from legislation created, which I will not. A Republic was created not a Theocracy. I will end my last reply on a few quotes. James Wilson, George Washington's appointment says "Christianity is part of the common-law." and Supreme Court Justice appointed by President James Madison, Joseph Story called America a "Christian country." Patrick Henry, "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 Gospels of Jesus Christ." Plus, the secular government that would not infringe on the religion of others...The Continental Congress, in 1777, recommended and approved that the Committee of Commerce "import 20,000 Bibles from Holland, Scotland, or elsewhere," because of the great need of the American people and the great shortage caused by the interruption of trade with England by the Revolutionary War.-- 50 star flag.png jp 22:52, 6 September 2008 (EDT)
First off, the resolution you refer to took place during the Continental Congress, the entity that existed before the Constitution was written and ratified, so this is not an example of the actions of the government the U.S. government founders finally agreed to. That aside, this was a committee recommendation that Congress vote on importing Bibles instead of printing them - in short, it was a committee vote to approve the next step in the approval process. Also, the whole effort was in response to price gouging of Bibles during the war, not because the Continental Congress felt it should be in the business of issuing Bibles to the citizens as policy. The committee vote on the motion was close – seven states voted yes; six voted no. A second motion was then made to pass a resolution to import the Bibles, but this was postponed and never brought up again. No Bibles were imported. Will devout Christians state that they and their fellow Americans live under God in a Christian nation? Of course, but that doesn't make it a fact, least of all to their fellow citizens and patriots who don't happen to be Christian. I still retain an open mind to being shown evidence of the actual founding, in law, of the United States of America as a Christian nation. --DinsdaleP 10:55, 7 September 2008 (EDT)
Well, I guess you can separate the Christians behind the Continental Congress from the Christians who made the Constitution. Here's one that may work in favor of my op. Isaiah 33:22 The Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king. Can the constitutions' separations of powers come from this line? Judicial- Judge, Legislative- Lawgiver, Executive- King. Or is that just a case of coincidence, not meant to be taken from the bible? -- 50 star flag.png jp 17:46, 8 September 2008 (EDT)
That one gives a person pause for thought, because there's certainly a parallel. What matters in the end, though, is whether principles of Judeo-Christian faith like this became part of the institution of the U.S. government itself. This last example is interesting, but exactly the opposite of how the U.S. government was designed in terms of a separation of powers. In Christianity, God is the central authority to which all are accountable. In our government, the Executive, Judiciary and Legislative branches are designed to be checks against abuse by any of the others. If the founders wanted to emulate the authority of God in the institution of the U.S. government, we'd have wound up with a monarchy or dictatorship where power and authority channel from a single, absolute source whose will cannot be questioned. --DinsdaleP 20:05, 8 September 2008 (EDT)

No, they did not intend to establish the U.S.A. as "One nation under God"

Many of the founding fathers were men of faith, and you will find references to God and "the Creator" in documents written by them about the issues involved in the forming of the new nation. Did their faith shape their outlook and values, and in turn shape their statements on what the institution of a new Federal government should be like? Certainly. The Declaration of Independence includes references to God, but that profound document didn't actually establish this nation or its government - it was the colonies' statement of secession from British rule.

When the founding fathers met to work out the actual institution of government the new nation would be operated under, the Constitution, they deliberately chose not to assert that this nation was founded "under God" - words like "God" and "Creator" do not appear in the text of the Constitution or any of its amendments. In fact, there are only two references to religion in the Constitution at all, and the first reference is not the one most people are familiar with.

  • The first reference is in Article VI, "Debts, Supremacy, Oaths". The third paragraph states "The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." If the founders intended to establish the U.S.A. as a nation "under God", it's hard to imagine why they deliberately chose to remove religion as a litmus test for holding a public office or trust. In theory, an atheist or even a Satanist could serve as President, because the founders felt that one's religIous beliefs (or non-belief) had no bearing on one's fitness to serve if the people electing/appointing you considered you qualified.
  • The second reference is the First Amendment, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Some feel that this amendment simply prevents the U.S. government from establishing a religion, but these were among the most intelligent men of their time, and they used the phrase "respecting an establishment" deliberately. Some of the first colonies were founded by different groups seeking religious freedom from persecution that was often institutionalized the in the governments they left behind. The Pilgrims, for example, were Christians fleeing persecution from institutions that practiced Christianity differently.

One of the main challenges the founders faced in convincing the citizens of the various colonies to cede power to a central government was to assure them that they would not be losing some of the very core freedoms they sought in founding those colonies. The intent of the founders, then, was to embrace the principle of tolerance and define the institution of the United States as a nation of people united regardless of their faith, and administered under a government that is secular in nature.

Some equate the concept of secularism to being anti-religion, but it's not. A secular government is one that's indifferent to religion, not against it. The wisdom and vision of the founding fathers with regard to religion was their realization that if you wanted to take different groups of devoutly religious people and unite them as "One Nation under God", it was best accomplished by keeping religion out of government and guaranteeing every citizen the freedom to worship God without interference as they saw fit. --DinsdaleP 12:03, 6 September 2008 (EDT)

It's also worth noting that the table in the Colonial History section of this page clearly shows how several of the colonies were founded by people seeking freedom from religious persecution, where religion was institutionalized into the governments they were leaving behind. --DinsdaleP 00:54, 10 September 2008 (EDT)

Disregarding the massive amounts of evidence that many of the founding fathers were Deists, I'll provide actual proof with regards to their intention: Article 11 of the treaty with Tripoli ("Authored by American diplomat Joel Barlow in 1796, the following treaty was sent to the floor of the Senate, June 7, 1797, where it was read aloud in its entirety and unanimously approved. John Adams, having seen the treaty, signed it and proudly proclaimed it to the Nation.") "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen [Muslims]; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Mohammadean] nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries." —The preceding unsigned comment was added by DLerner (talk)

Well, that sure makes a statement. --DinsdaleP 20:31, 10 September 2008 (EDT)
Anyone else, or did I just win the debate? DLerner 22:37, 11 September 2008 (EDT)
No, you did not win, unless we are to read those sites based in atheistic "freethinking". This website [1] thoroughly researched the issue, and contains this pro-Christian statement from John Adams: The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were. . . . the general principles of Christianity. . . . 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. Karajou 22:56, 11 September 2008 (EDT)
That refutation doesn't hold up for two reasons. First, the quote used from Adams is from a private letter to Jefferson, not an official government document. No one is debating the religious views of any specific founder, or that they expressed those views openly as individuals. Second, the defense that the U.S denied it's Christian nature for the sake of negotiating with Muslims states is not an effective one. No other official documents defining the government of the U.S. define it as a Christian nation, so if anything this is an affirmation of the secular nature of the U.S. government, not a denial of its Christian nature for the sake of convenience. Also, we would be a poor example of a "Christian Nation" if it was the policy of that nation to deny its Christian nature when it was convenient, instead of standing up for it on principle. --DinsdaleP 14:41, 13 September 2008 (EDT)
That's a strange analogy. Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter as a private citizen to the Danbury Church, yet it is used continually as though it were official policy concerning the separation of church and state, yet the same priviledge seems to be denied to Adams here. Karajou 02:12, 17 September 2008 (EDT)
Actually it's not that strange an analogy at all. I read up on the Danbury letter using the links on the article page here, and in the reference from the National Archives there's a nice bit of background. Jefferson wrote to the Church in the capacity of U.S. President, not as a private citizen, and was doing so in response to citizens asking if the First Amendment offered protections from the government imposing the views of one faith/denomination on others. The source even shows Jefferson's text from the working draft of his letter, and explains how his choice of words and the metaphor of a wall separating Church and State were chosen with care. In short, this was President who was intimately involved in the founding of the nation, writing deliberately to emphasize that while the founders were men of God, they founded an institution of government that was secular by intent. --DinsdaleP 21:53, 17 September 2008 (EDT)
The govenrment cannot do two things regarding religion: they cannot set up a "national church" much like England did which drove the Mayflower pilgrims away in 1620; and they cannot set up any law which restricts the free exersize of religion. At best, the government is to remain neutral in the matter. Anyway, this debate caused the creation of the above article, and I think it would be a good idea to post related material on the subject. Karajou 22:09, 17 September 2008 (EDT)
Which related material did you want to post? I wasn't sure from the last response. --DinsdaleP 08:22, 18 September 2008 (EDT)
Jefferson letters and writings, assembled into good articles. Karajou 23:56, 18 September 2008 (EDT)