America was not established as a Christian nation, and it would be dangerous if it were. The Founders warned against connecting religion and government because they knew only too well the problems with religious control of the state.
Most of the leading Founders were strongly deistic, including Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, believing in a universal religion that required membership in no particular denomination or no special grace, whose God did not condemn other Christians and non-Christian groups but sanctioned a natural morality apparent to all humans.
Thus, Franklin, for instance, avoided church services because of their narrow doctrines and intolerances.
The Founders knew that two centuries of religious wars – Protestant versus Catholic, Protestant versus Protestant – had devastated Europe, that, even in the colonies, churches persecuted and executed heretics, banned and burned books and wrote into law required doctrinal and moral beliefs – as they try to do today with anti-abortion, anti-contraception and anti-gay statutes.
They wanted to avoid theocracies, like those we see in current Islamic states, to which some Christians would return us.
Madison omitted mention of God in our Constitution, and Jefferson’s reference in the Declaration of Independence to “nature and nature’s God” is clearly deistic, not standard Christian terminology. Given the divisive, despotic tendencies they saw in the history of Christianity, their First Amendment is beautifully clear: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
This separation of church and state may have allowed religions the freedom to flourish more here than in largely irreligious Europe, where religion’s identity with the state caused anti-clericalism and furthered disbelief.
Contrary to our Founders, though, some today favor the state imposition of their beliefs more than they do our tradition of liberty.
However, Christians today are much more tolerant of each other and of other Western religions, including Judaism, than when I grew up after World War II.
I was warned not to be friends with Christians of other denominations and especially not to marry outside of my church. The parents of my friend Bill disapproved of our friendship because our religions differed.
And my religious leaders told our laity that all those not baptized in our faith – the majority of the world’s people – would suffer eternal punishment for this indiscretion.
Not many American Christians are this parochial anymore. In fact, a Pew Forum survey a few years ago found that 70 percent of Americans affiliated with an organized religion accept today’s pluralism of religious beliefs.
It’s obvious that Christians in our culture, inspired by their religious beliefs, unselfishly provide generous emotional and financial assistance to others. Churches are often organized around this ideal of community service.
However, Christians sometimes have a problem accepting that those without standard Christian beliefs even have a morality or can live good lives, and they think that the Bible, or their church’s interpretation of it, is the sole guide to good works. Thus, non-Christians, for example, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or nonreligious, such as humanists, agnostics or atheists, are considered suspect, or mistakenly thought to have a perverted “pagan” morality – or no morality at all.
They are condemned for their differences and thought incapable of goodness without the prescribed belief, no matter how admirable and high their moral standards and lives.
Our Founders’ deistic beliefs, inspired by the European enlightenment and science, highlighted the democratic faith that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and thus not from any divine authority. Jefferson, who wrote our Declaration of Independence, also helped write the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which he said brought “freedom for the Jew and Gentile, the Christian and Mohammeden, the Hindu and the infidel,” every belief and disbelief. And our Constitution (which does not mention God), written largely by Madison, stipulates that “no religious test shall ever be required as Qualification to any office or public Trust under the United States.”
The Founders’ tolerant beliefs were not always observed by the various states, which frequently rejected the rights of Catholics and Jews, for example, to hold office, and often tried to foist Protestant beliefs and prayers on citizens and school children.
Many would do this today.
But our Founders’ philosophy challenged the traditional Protestant creed that faith was more important than good works. Their conviction was that in a democratic society, we don’t force beliefs on anyone. Citizens are allowed to make up their own minds.
Jim Scofield of Richland Township is a professor emeritus of English at Pitt-Johns-town.