Dr. James Abercrombie, pastor of Philadelphia’s Christ Episcopal Church, looked out at a congregation that included George Washington the first President of the United States. Everyone knew that the President walked out of church on communion Sundays, just before administration of the sacrament. Dr. Abercrombie mentioned no names, but he pointed out the grave responsibility of “those in elevated stations” to set good examples for lesser folk. His message did not pass Washington’s ears unheeded. Thereafter, the Father of Our Country didn’t go to church at all on communion Sundays.
Washington was a professed Christian with regular church attendance, but he did not partake in the Lord’s Supper. The European Enlightenment shaped his religious ideas. He favored an intellectual atmosphere unfavorable to symbolic rites. He was far from unique among the Founding Fathers of the American republic. All Washington’s educated contemporaries were more or less children of the Age of Reason (as Tom Paine called it). The acknowledged political leaders among them were its eminent sons.
There was no uniformity of opinion among the Founding Fathers on religion or philosophy, but a broad spectrum of sects and creeds, a reminder of the Enlightenment’s respect for dissenting opinions. Full freedom of belief was not legally protected pre-Revolution; most colonies had an established church supported by the government, but minority groups and nonconforming individuals were guaranteed wide leeway. Whatever their religious differences, all the Founding Fathers were political revolutionaries, determined to create a new model of government by consent of the governed.
Thomas Jefferson’s New Testament
Thomas Jefferson had an intense interest in religion’s relation to government. In his second term as President (1805-09) he composed for his own satisfaction a version of the New Testament called “The Life and Morals of Jesus.” He left out the Last Supper. He said he wrote it to rescue the moral teachings of Jesus from “the crazy speculations of crazy theologists, abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried.”
Jefferson called himself Christian, but rejected “the immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity, original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, etc.” He thought Christ was a great reformer, author of a “system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man” – but human not divine. To be Christian one had only to follow Christ’s system of ethics, uncontaminated by additions, adulterations, and distortions of those who came after. The “free exercise of reason” was all one needed to tell Jesus’ original teaching from the dross. Orthodox clergy called this heresy; a cheap disguise for atheism; and an easy target for Federalists in the campaign of 1800.
Yet Jefferson held a belief in a Supreme Being based on reasoned conclusions drawn from evidence and deduction, not implicit faith. He wrote to John Adams, “I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the universe, in its parts, general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition.” Newton and his contemporaries demonstrated that man lived in a universe of precise mathematical law and order; it seemed scientifically evident that such cosmic design could only come from the hand of a divine Creator.
It was not traditional Christianity, this idea of an invisible but demonstrable God whose existence was proved only by His handiwork; for “He” was now a nearly impersonal power, responsible for the origin and laws of the universe, but not interfering in its operation once the myriad wheels of the great machine had been set in motion. This was “Nature’s God,” as Jefferson phrased it in the Declaration of Independence; and to him and many others the religion appropriate to Nature’s God must be natural, not supernatural. Deism, or “natural religion,” expressed their theological creed, not a Christianity based on revelation, mystery, and miracle.
Atheism and Natural Morality
Prominent in France, Diderot, d’Alembert, Condorcet, and the Baron d’Holbach postulated an automatic universe, operating by inexorable natural laws, but utterly devoid of God or God’s purpose. Jefferson resisted such atheism, but he was not an absolutist, even on the question of God’s existence. His creed of intellectual freedom was too firm for that, and he saw no threat in atheism. He wrote: ”It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty Gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” He urged his nephew to make reason his guide, “call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there be one, he must approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”
Jefferson saw moral and material degradation in France caused by a combination of religious persecution and tyrannical government. Voltaire wrote that atheists, deplorable as they might be, made better neighbors than religious fanatics. Jefferson knew French atheists as friends, not monsters. “Diderot, d’Alembert, Condorcet, and d’Holbach,” he wrote, “are known to have been among the most virtuous of men. Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.” The basis of human morality and government intrigued Jefferson all his life.
Its essence was natural morality. “Man was destined for society,” he wrote. “He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong, merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his nature as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality. The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm.” A gift of the Creator, acknowledgement of its source was not necessary to its function. If one chose to be an atheist, “you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure for you.”
The Rock of Democratic Faith
Natural morality was the rock of Jefferson’s democratic faith. The doctrine of original sin was anathema; human nature could be trusted: all normal men were endowed by their Creator not only with unalienable rights, but also unalienable instincts, including a natural moral sense. Except in conditions of ignorance, poor education, poverty and bad social conditions, the mass would gravitate toward what was right on fundamental issues, if allowed complete freedom of conscience. Majority rule – a sacred principle to Jefferson – depended on a well-informed public, each member of which could choose among moral or political alternatives with absolute freedom from mental coercion.
An organized church was unlikely to leave men’s minds completely free. Each sect claimed special revelation of God’s will directly to its prophets or priests, or recorded in a “bible”. Religions were unwilling to give up moral (and, political) choices to the untrammeled conscience of the individual citizen. The Declaration of Independence envisaged a free society ruled by consent of the governed. Informed decision and consent needed good public education based on complete freedom of mind. Religion made the first fundamental challenge to the republic’s freedom of mind.
Madison and Freedom of Conscience
In 1776, James Madison served on a committee to draw up Virginia’s bill of rights. The chairperson was the great George Mason, major author of the bill, which was prototype for the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution. Madison and Jefferson thought Mason’s statement on religious freedom fell short in two respects: it allowed continuation of a state-supported church, and spoke of “toleration in the exercise of religion” rather than absolute freedom of conscience. Madison let the disestablishment issue pass for political reasons, but proposed wording to move forward from mere toleration (which implied the state’s right to grant or withhold religious freedom) to that of freedom of conscience as an unalienable natural right. It read: “All men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” It was a quiet yet important triumph in the struggle for complete liberty of thought in America.
In 1779, Jefferson and Madison worked for abolition of state financed religion. Government salaries for Anglican ministers were suspended, but the church still functioned as the official one in the state of Virginia, it was impossible to be legally married unless an Anglican performed the ceremony, and heresy against the Christian faith was still a crime. Jefferson’s “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom” would have swept aside all such restrictions, but it ran into fierce opposition and failed to pass.
In 1784 Virginia’s Anglican hierarchy pressed for new tax funds for church support; Patrick Henry proposed an annual assessment for “support of the Christian religion or of some Christian church,” without naming a specific sect, trying to shift from the traditional single church form of establishment to the multiple, embracing several denominations, a trend in several states. This defensive strategy has been used for over two centuries to resist government sanction for religion that has moved to a broader and less sectarian base. In 1784 Virginia Presbyterians, formerly anti-establishment joined to demand the broader form. Madison said they were as ready “to set up an establishment which is to take them in as they were to pull down that which shut them out.”
He wrote “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” (1785) to generate thousands of petition signatures to show that the majority were in no mood to forsake the religious freedom promised by the 1776 Declaration of Rights. The surprised assessment sponsors dropped the bill. Every man’s religion, Madison wrote,
“…must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right…because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds, cannot follow the dictates of other men…. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society, and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance… Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in the exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?… Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess, and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence that has convinced us….”
Important to the First Amendment, Madison and the Virginia petitioners understood “establishment of religion” as any government sponsorship of any or all religions, and not just the European pattern of an exclusive, official state church. They wanted a solid “wall of separation between church and state,” in Jefferson’s later phrase.
A last minute opposition effort to confine the law’s benefits to Christians instead of protecting even (as Jefferson noted) “the Infidel of every denomination,” failed. In 1786, Madison sent news that the most sweeping guarantee of freedom of conscience in the history of the western world was a statute of Virginia; its provisions, “have in this country extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.”
A National Bill of Rights
Revolution had blown away much restrictive custom and legislation. Most of the states passed bills of rights honoring religious freedom, although, excepting Rhode Island, New Jersey and New York, they had church establishment in multiple form.
The national Constitutional Convention in 1786, ignored religious freedom as “state” business. However, the Constitution was so more powerful than the Articles of Confederation, the rights of people had to be “the polar star of political conduct,” George Mason said. Delegates began arguing for rights and guarantees. Charles Pinckney of South Carolina urged a federal Constitutional ban on religious tests for federal officeholders; aware of their own diversity, delegates quickly adopted it as Article VI.
Madison’s amendment on religion became the First Amendment with much rewording. He first introduced it as, “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, abridged.” It goes straight to the center of Jefferson and Madison’s agreement on the relationship of religion to democratic government. The heart of the matter was absolute freedom of thought for the individual citizen without government pressure toward any system of belief whatever. Had Madison’s suggestion been adopted, official sanction for even vague theism (such as the phrase “In God We Trust” on our money, or “under God” in the national oath of allegiance, would be unconstitutional. It is sure that his wording would have supported Supreme Court decisions against the devotional use of prayers or Bible reading in public schools. It may not have shed equal light on controversial church-state issues, e.g. payment of chaplains for service in the armed forces.
In 1789 Madison unsuccessfully opposed appointment of official chaplains for Congress, because “these are to be paid out of the national taxes”; and Jefferson, as President refused to follow Washington’s and Adams’ examples in proclaiming certain days for religious observance. “I do not believe,” he wrote, “it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines. Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining of them an act of discipline.”
Fearing that it might outlaw or discourage religion altogether, the amendment was tinkered in the House and sent to the Senate worded, “Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or to prevent the free exercise thereof, or to infringe the rights of conscience.” The phrase “or to prevent the free exercise thereof” indicated a desire that the prohibition of establishment should not be interpreted as hostile to religion; conventional Christian sects were still dominant in America, despite inroads by deism.
Madison’s sharp focus on utter freedom of thought and expression as the essence of what is now the First Amendment is shown by another amendment he advanced specifically forbidding any state to infringe the rights of conscience, freedom of speech, and a free press. This addition, he thought, was “the most valuable on the whole list.”
Madison’s “most valuable” one was dropped by the Senate. They struggled over imposing neutral policy on the government, not merely preventing one sect from gaining government favor at the expense of others. The emphasis on “establish” leans toward the idea of government infringement on the “rights of conscience” although that phrase was dropped. A joint committee was formed to write the wording now part of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Madison was not pleased to see his key phrase “rights of conscience” abandoned, but he was convinced that the Bill of Rights could be reasonably interpreted as prohibiting federal support of religious activities in any form.
A Society So Free
He and Jefferson interpreted it that way during their presidencies and for the rest of their lives. They led a successful campaign for separation of church and state as an essential for democracy, but their theoretical reasons for doing so were grasped by relatively few of their countrymen. They knew their ideal was still remote: a society so free that its only ideological commitment would be to freedom of the mind. Much of the support they rallied for a wall between church and state had other sources; in part a native intellectual current against absolutism which has never – or not yet – failed to flow in America despite counteracting currents of great force. In part, from the mutual competitive mistrust of the religious sects toward one another. Always pragmatic, Jefferson and Madison saw the value of this, despite their own rejection of revealed religion. Variety of belief was a useful insurance against tyranny.
Since ratification in 1791, the First Amendment has had fluctuating interpretation. In the last half of the Twentieth Century, the Supreme Court found that the Fourteenth Amendment enjoins the guarantees of the First upon the states, for the protection of every citizen. There has been confusion and inconsistency; school children pronounce “under God” in the daily Pledge of Allegiance, but may not be led in official school prayers. Over the years the trend has been toward strict separation of church and state. The Justices have shown a strong penchant for citing Jefferson and Madison as champions of freedom in explaining and supporting Court decisions on the First Amendment.
There is nothing sacred about our founders’ ideas, but whether one agrees or not about how high and impassable the wall between church and state ought to be in a free society, they deserve to be remembered and understood as the two Founding Fathers who devoted more of their minds and lives to this great problem than anyone else. They were the center of a high-pressure area in the climate of opinion of their time, and their conclusions are strongly reflected in the Constitution as it was finally adopted.
Emerging from the matrix of the Enlightenment with such men as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, James Monroe, and even George Washington and John Adams, they were its intellectual offspring. The impact of “natural religion” on the genesis of democratic liberty, through their influence, has too often been ignored.
Writing to Dr. Benjamin Rush in 1800 before he became President, Jefferson alleged certain clerical “schemes” to breach the religion clause of the First Amendment. He would oppose them with all his power, he said, “for I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” It was “Nature’s God” that he was thinking of; and for that vow above all others the altar was not to be found, he believed, within the limits of any dogmatic creed.
ABSTRACT: E.M. Halliday, “Nature’s God and the Founding Fathers,” American Heritage. READ THE FULL ESSAY at: http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/ah/1963/6/1963_6_4.shtml