Since the 1980s, it’s been a popular refrain to refer to America’s founding as secular in nature. Proponents of secularism often use selective quotes to promote their nonreligious agendas (1). Many Founding Fathers are now considered “Deist” (read: agnostic, atheist). These include heavyweights like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine and George Washington.
Perhaps we should let America’s Founding Fathers speak to the nature of our national origin.
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.”
JOHN QUINCY ADAMS: “In the chain of human events, the birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birthday of the Savior. The Declaration of Independence laid the cornerstone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity.”
PATRICK HENRY: “The great pillars of all government and of social life [are] virtue, morality, and [Christian] religion. This is the armor, my friend, and this alone, that renders us invincible.”
JOHN JAY: “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.”
JAMES McHENRY: “Public utility pleads most forcibly for the general distribution of the Holy Scriptures. Without the Bible, in vain do we increase penal laws and draw entrenchments around our institutions.”
GOUVERNEUR MORRIS: “There must be religion. When that ligament is torn, society is disjointed and its members perish… [T]he most important of all lessons is the denunciation of ruin to every state that rejects the precepts of religion.”
JEDIDIAH MORSE: “To the kindly influence of Christianity we owe that degree of civil freedom and political and social happiness which mankind now enjoys. All efforts made to destroy the foundations of our Holy Religion ultimately tend to the subversion also of our political freedom and happiness…Whenever the pillars of Christianity shall be overthrown, our present republican forms of government – and all the blessings which flow from them – must fall with them.”
DR. BENJAMIN RUSH: “I do not believe that the Constitution was the offspring of inspiration, but I am as satisfied that it is as much the work of a Divine Providence as any of the miracles recorded in the Old and New Testament.”
DR. BENJAMIN RUSH: “The only means of establishing and perpetuating our republican forms of government is the universal education of our youth in the principles of Christianity by means of the Bible.”
GEORGE WASHINGTON: “You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are.”
DANIEL WEBSTER: “Whatever makes men good Christians, makes them good citizens.”
NOAH WEBSTER: “The Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children under a free government ought to be instructed. No truth is more evident than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people.”
Other than Thomas Paine, who did subscribe to agnostic French Deism, the rest of the Founding Fathers were quite Christian in their lifestyles, values and beliefs. Heavyweight founders like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington all attended church (Franklin is buried at Christ Church in Philadelphia, PA). Several of the Founders were clergymen.
So no, America was not founded as a secular nation.
Rather America was designed to reflect “CHRISTIAN” ideals and biblical values, namely liberty, justice and equality for all U.S. citizens.
In post-Christian (secular) America, we are told (and sold) a different narrative by our modern-day history educators, politicians and media, but that doesn’t change the TRUTH.
Founding Father JOHN ADAMS even imagined a wholly CHRISTIAN nation in a 1756 diary entry: “Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law book and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited. . . . What a Eutopia – what a Paradise would this region be!”
If America was founded as a secular nation (like France), it would’ve been evident in early America.
However, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville discovered the opposite to be true in 1831.
He penned: “Upon my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things, to which I was unaccustomed. In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country…”
Alexis de Tocqueville observed how our “notions of Christianity and of liberty” were so deeply intertwined that it was “impossible to…conceive one without the other.” He noted in his travels how our Puritan forefathers immigrated and established both a “democratic and republican religion.”
He summarized how “religion in America…must be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions of that country…[imparting] a taste for freedom.” Alexis confessed his inability to “know whether all Americans [had] a sincere faith” but was “certain” that we fully accepted religion and all other institutions being connected. “This opinion,” he wrote, “is not particular to a class of citizens or a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society.”
In the early 1850s, there were some who wanted to introduce secular philosophy and values into America.
It provoked a Congressional Judiciary Committee to study the matter in 1854. This select committee investigated Founding documents, speeches, journals, biographies, reports and other writings. Their conclusion:
“Had the people, during the Revolution, had a suspicion of any attempt to war against Christianity, that Revolution would have been strangled in its cradle… In this age, there can be no substitute for Christianity… That was the religion of the founders of the republic and they expected it to remain the religion of their descendants.“
Of course, nearly 250 years after the fact, that hasn’t happened.
America is no longer a “Christian nation.”
But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t once such a nation. Consequently, those who teach, dispute and promote a secular origin view for the United States of America are simply misguided. Unfortunately, many Americans, particularly younger generations, promote this national myth out of ignorance (and/or spite). It’s all they’ve heard or learned in their history education (which flipped this historic narrative in the 1980s).
This popular (and wrong) narrative reveals why a good history education demands humility, respect and openness. Sometimes we don’t need a novel, “new” truth to sell a book or push an agenda, but rather a revelation of an “old” truth to remind, guard and sustain “who we really are.” American Christians have always made room for those who believed differently, from the Jew to the Muslim, from the irreverent to the irreligious.
Yes, America the “secular” has become the reality of our day.
But it wasn’t the reality in 1776 or 1876 or even 1976.
The times might change, but the TRUTH always marches on.
1. An excellent example of this “selective” quoting is by the liberal Center for American Progress. They lifted a quote from Article 11 of a treaty with Muslim Tripoli that stated “America…was not founded on the Christian religion.” It’s true this statement appeared in the treaty, but it was included to assuage and appease Muslims who were violently anti-Christian and anti-Jew. The phrase was to “politically” communicate that while America was a RELIGIOUS nation, there’s no official STATE religion. This was in effect, true. But even at the time there were those who opposed that language (“America not founded as a Christian nation”) in the treaty. The Secretary of War James McHenry, protested the language of Article 11 before its ratification. He wrote to Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott Jr., September 26, 1800: “The Senate, my good friend, and I said so at the time, ought never to have ratified the treaty alluded to, with the declaration that ‘the government of the United States, is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.’ What else is it founded on? This act always appeared to me like trampling upon the cross. I do not recollect that Barlow was even reprimanded for this outrage upon the government and religion.”
2. John Adams Quote: Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington D. C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), Vol. XIII, p. 292-294. In a letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson on June 28, 1813.
3. John Quincy Adams Quote: John Quincy Adams, An Oration Delivered Before the Inhabitants of the Town of Newburyport at Their Request on the Sixty-First Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1837 (Newburyport: Charles Whipple, 1837), pp. 5-6.
4. Patrick Henry Quote: Patrick Henry, Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence and Speeches, William Wirt Henry, editor (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891), Vol. II, p. 592, to Archibald Blair on January 8, 1799.
5. John Jay Quote: William Jay, The Life of John Jay (New York: J. & J. Harper, 1833), Vol. II, p. 376, to John Murray Jr. on October 12, 1816.
6. James McHenry Quote: Bernard C. Steiner, One Hundred and Ten Years of Bible Society Work in Maryland, 1810-1920 (Maryland Bible Society, 1921), p. 14.
7. Gouverneur Morris Quote: Collections of the New York Historical Society for the Year 1821 (New York: E. Bliss and E. White, 1821), pp. 32, 34, from “An Inaugural Discourse Delivered Before the New York Historical Society by the Honorable Gouverneur Morris, (President,) 4th September, 1816.”
9. Dr. Benjamin Rush Quote: Benjamin Rush, Letters of Benjamin Rush, L. H. Butterfield, editor (Princeton, New Jersey: American Philosophical Society, 1951), Vol. I, p. 475, to Elias Boudinot on July 9, 1788.
10. Jedidiah Morse Quote: Jedidiah Morse, A Sermon, Exhibiting the Present Dangers and Consequent Duties of the Citizens of the United States of America, Delivered at Charlestown, April 25, 1799, The Day of the National Fast (MA: Printed by Samuel Etheridge, 1799), p. 9.
11. George Washington Quote: George Washington, The Writings of Washington, John C. Fitzpatrick, editor (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1932), Vol. XV, p. 55, from his speech to the Delaware Indian Chiefs on May 12, 1779.
12. Daniel Webster Quote: Daniel Webster, The Works of Daniel Webster (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1853), Vol. I, p. 44, A Discourse Delivered at Plymouth, on December 22, 1820.
13. John Adams, Works, Vol. II, pp. 6-7, diary entry for February 22, 1756.
14. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume 1 (New York: George Adlard Publishing, 1839): 304-307.