In the early days of the Revolutionary War one of the American generals, Nathanael Greene, expressed his desire for America to be an independent nation from Britain. His sentiments echoed that of many others of his day. Gen. Greene wrote:
“Heaven hath decreed that tottering empire Britain to irretrievable ruin and thanks to God, since Providence hath so determined, America must raise an empire of permanent duration, supported upon the grand pillars of Truth, Freedom, and Religion, encouraged by the smiles of Justice and defended by her own patriotic sons…. Permit me then to recommend from the sincerity of my heart, ready at all times to bleed in my country’s cause, a Declaration of Independence, and call upon the world and the great God who governs it to witness the necessity, propriety and rectitude thereof.” (as cited by D. McCullough in 1776, Simon & Schuster, 2005; emphasis added).
Contrary to the beliefs of many who are foes of organized Christian religions, the United States of America was founded upon religious principles and to some extent, religion. Our nation was not founded upon a particular religious sect but it certainly was never meant to be “free from” religion. There are movements that would remove any mention of religion from public discourse, especially in government. This is completely at odds with the Constitution. I recognize that Gen. Greene was not one of the Founding Fathers, per se, but his sentiments were in line with many others of his day.
Some feel justified in attacking religion in part because of a few words Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson believed in God but He did not believe in the Divinity of Jesus Christ. He was also critical of some of the prevailing religions of his day. He was also critical of nations that had state religions – many people in the soon to be United States were; after all, that is why many of their fathers had come to America, for the freedom to practice religion as they saw fit. Here is the problem with building so much on Thomas Jefferson’s few sayings and writings that were critical of religion – Thomas Jefferson was merely one of the Founding Fathers. He was very influential, he wrote the Declaration of Independence and was involved in the framing of the Constitution, but he was only one voice out of many. But here is the more important issue – Thomas Jefferson did not write the Constitution; James Madison wrote most of it. A number of other men had their input (and all states’ representatives had to ratify it) but it was largely written by Madison.
John Adams, who was very religious, and Thomas Paine, who was deist like Jefferson also had a lot of input to the Constitution. In any case, none of the Founding Fathers were atheist. Those who were critical of the religions of their day grew up in a time when there was little religious freedom. America was in practice the only ‘civilized’ place on earth where there was relative religious freedom. Some religions had become oppressive and none of the Christian religions were quite like the religion Jesus Christ had established [I focus on Christian religions because at the time that was mainly what there was in America]. In light of this, the critical statements and beliefs were understandable. However, none of the Founding Fathers ever called for the abolishment of religion – most were religious, God-fearing men.
Those who would remove religion from public discourse (and even the government) would remove one of the pillars of our great nation. Religious principles played and play a large role in our government. Judeo-Christian beliefs are at the foundation of our legal system. This does not discount the influence of philosophers such as John Locke but neither should we discount the influence of Judeo-Christian principles. The Bill of Rights explicitly protects religions in the 1st Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This means that just as there should not be a state religion (like there was and is in Britain) there also should not be freedom from religion. Again, religions are protected by this clause. Christian religions are the some of the staunchest defenders of liberty; a nation without religion would not be a free one.