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:
- The US was founded to further Christianity and Christian values.
- We live in the US.
- 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.