Should Jefferson’s God Be Your God Just Because He Was Jefferson’s God?

A recent New York Times article entitled “How Christian Were the Founders?” analyzes the current attempt by the Texas Board of Education and Christian fundamentalist activists in general to cast the founders of the US in explicitly Christian terms.  There is, unsurprisingly, quite a bit of debate about this issue.  Were the people who founded the US Christian?  Like everything else in history, it is a complicated question.  On the one hand you have early documents like the Mayflower Compact that make explicit reference to the Christian God, and you have words like “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence, which, while not the Constitution, is unarguably relevant to the ideas of the “founding fathers.”  On the other side you have Jefferson, the person who penned the Declaration of Independence, writing to concerned Baptist ministers about the First Amendment,

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.

Saying there is a “wall of separation” seems to make it pretty clear that the intent behind that part of the Constitution was to, well, create a wall between church and state.  However, that does not even come close to the (in)famous language in the Treaty of Tripoli.  It is here that we find most of the same people who founded the US ratifying a treaty that claims “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”  It’s hard to get much more explicit than that.

All that said, I’m not really interested in that debate.  I am much more interested in the motivation on the part of these Christian fundamentalist activists for pushing the idea that the founding fathers were all devout Christians who created this country with the explicit intent of furthering the Christian faith.  It seems that the only reason for this has to be an attempt to make some sort of bizarre argument from authority to justify and ground Christianity now.  It comes off as being something like this:

  1. The US was founded to further Christianity and Christian values.
  2. We live in the US.
  3. Hence, we should further Christianity and Christian values.

But does this make any sense at all?  I don’t see how it does.  Further, I don’t think that these activists think this makes any sense, either.  It seems wildly unlikely that they would make the argument that, were they in a country that was founded on some other religion, they should then further that religion’s articles of faith and values.  That would remove any concern about the truth of such articles from having any place in one’s reasoning on the subject.  The religion and fervor to one’s religion would be reduced to an accident of birth that hinged upon time and geographic location.  Surely, none of these activists think that is right.  Further, it means that whatever the religion of these founding fathers was, that’s what the activists’ religion should be as well.  So, if it happened that we found some sort of incontrovertible evidence that, in fact, the founding fathers were all devout followers of Satan who formed the US in line with some nefarious plan to deliver to the Great Lord of the Dark all of the future souls of this nation, then, given the reasoning above, these activists should leave behind their allegiance to God and Jesus and, instead, set up black alters to ol’ Scratch.  And that is clearly absurd.

The point here is that the religious persuasions of the founders of the US are wholly irrelevant to the truth of any particular religion.  Simply pointing to the beliefs of some group of people as your justification for your own beliefs without concern for the grounding of the beliefs in the first place is ridiculous.  Just because your parents believed something doesn’t make it right, and that goes for the founders of your country as well.

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3 Responses to “Should Jefferson’s God Be Your God Just Because He Was Jefferson’s God?”

  1. Dan Says:

    If we are charitable to these folks we may interpret their reasoning to be something like this:
    1) We should have a christian nation because it would be good to have one. (or: We have religious duty to make our nation Christian.)

    2) The founders knew this moral/religious truth and built this requirement into the legal framework of our government.

    3) Hence: We have legal authority to take the steps necessary to make this country Christian…We are conservatives and not radicals.

    Now I think each premise is false, and not surprisingly, I deny the conclusion, but I am sure, if I wasn’t lazy I could construct a valid argument here. Hence I think the motivation of the “Christian founding fathers argument” isn’t to validate christianity, (which you are right, it can’t possibly do) rather it is to validate their promotion of an American christian theocracy as patriotic and not treasonous.

    • Jim Says:

      Your point is well taken, and I think you’re right. I agree that there is also that aspect of it, so I want to say that there are dual motivations in the minds of these activists. The first is justifying things like having public school teachers lead their students in prayer to the Christian God, the line you’re highlighting, but I also think there is this other line in their minds, that the fact that these well-respected men were Christians helps to justify Christianity in general. I say this because I have heard several people speak on this, and that is one of the points they have made. More explicitly, the issue has been that “the liberals” have wanted to dilute American children’s faith in God by taking away the Christian-ness of American heroes. They further say that if the idea can be made that this is not a Christian nation founded on Christian ideals, then it is easier for children to walk away from their Christian upbringing, the implication clearly being that if this is a Christian nation, then there is less reason to leave the religion behind, and that is a clear attempt to use the purported Christian-ness of the founders to justify, at least to some degree, being Christian. This is explicitly what is being taught in evangelical churches. So that’s the line of reasoning at which this post was aimed.

  2. Sean Says:

    Great post Jim. I find it fascinating that so many people do not appreciate the value of the separation of church and state. I look forward to your next posting

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