I wrote this in response to an article published in the Boulder Daily Camera on August 1, 2015 titled, “Founders’ Religious Beliefs.” My published response can be found at this link:
The article I was responding to can be found at this link:
Spencer Nelson’s guest opinion August 1 titled “Founders’ Religious Beliefs” though well-written seems to be a bit misleading regarding what our founding fathers actually believed about God. Though many of our nation’s founders may have been influenced by Deism, trying to put them all in the same boat regarding their beliefs about God, Jesus or Christianity is a bit disingenuous. George Washington for example seems to have been a devoted member of the Anglican church but was very private with regards to his personal faith. Although he frequently used “Providence” in lieu of “God” when referring to God in his communications, it seems that he did believe in God’s personal involvement in the affairs of man and that humans were not passive actors when it came to discerning and following His will. His infrequent references to the name of Jesus in private correspondence may have more to do with the conventions of his day and the traditions of his faith rather than his personal beliefs about Jesus.
Regarding Thomas Jefferson’s statement that a “wall of separation exists between church and state,” this phrase shows up in a letter Jefferson wrote to the Danbury, Connecticut Baptists in 1802. The purpose of this letter was to reassure Baptists that “the legitimate powers of government reach actions only and not opinions.” The 2nd amendment which says that the government may “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” created according to Jefferson a “wall of separation between church and state” that was meant to keep the government from intruding into religion, matters that lie solely “between a Man and his God.” It wasn’t until the middle of last century that this phrase was reinterpreted as a mandate to keep the church from affecting the state rather than as a promise to protect the church by the state and in some cases, from it.
Nelson credited John Adams with a statement that “The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” The origin of this statement does not appear to be from John Adams himself, however, but is found in translations of a treaty between the Barbary Pirates and the United States in 1797 that was originally written in Arabic. The purpose of this statement was not to describe the founding principles of our nation but was to reassure the Muslim state that secular laws and not Christian views would be used to interpret and enforce the treaty. This phrase was controversial even in its day and was dropped in a later version of the treaty between the two parties ratified by Congress in 1805 that superseded and effectively nullified what was written and approved earlier.
Nelson said that the founders of our nation “were resolute that ours be a secular government devoid of religious influence of any kind.” But in his farewell address delivered in 1796, George Washington said, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports… Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion … Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” George Washington recognized the important part religious views play in making moral decisions; that good governments must be moral but that morality cannot exist in the absence of religious principles. It seems to me that religious views serve as a moral compass for a nation, one that if absent can leave a nation rudderless and send it adrift. If this is true, then the question is not should religious views affect our political decisions but rather which ones do we need to take into consideration.
Benjamin Franklin who Nelson says “did not adhere to Christianity at all or [if so] did so only lightly” thought that the moral teachings of Jesus are “the best the world has ever seen.” If this is so, then maybe the teachings of Jesus ought to be play a bigger part in the process we use for making moral decisions today, not less.