It is not really a claim which needs to be refuted since, the simple fact of the matter is, America was the first country founded on the principle that all religions deserved equal respect and none deserved unrequited favor. The Christian doctrine of exclusivity was, to the minds of the founding fathers, incompatible with their loftier principles of a united republic, a United States. The vision they had was one of an autonomous nation where your religion was just one part of what defined you–but at the end of the day–each and every citizen, man or woman, could proudly call themselves free–they could call themselves–Americans.
In the minds of Christians, however, many tend to make-believe an alternative history where America was founded as a Christian nation and the term American is just a synonym for Christian. This could no more be further from the truth than if I were to claim that a centimeter was just a synonym for an inch. Yet such falsehoods are often preached as a matter of fact within the folds of the Christian faith. Sadly, the insistence of these falsehoods as truths has persuaded many to believe it and perpetuated the myth that America is a Christian nation.
In the first part of this series I will investigate a few of the founding fathers in order to follow up on the question whether or not all of the founding fathers were Christian. It stems to reason that if America was truly founded as a “Christian Nation” then all of the founding fathers would ubiquitously subscribe to the religious and moral ideals of Christianity. If we should find exception to this rule, then it would be safe to assume that, contrary to popular opinion, the United States was not founded as a Christian nation, let alone on Christian principles. The claim would hence be refuted.
The freethinker Thomas Paine was one of the primary voices of reason in the early United States. His letters urging Thomas Jefferson to emancipate the slaves in lieu of the booming sugar trade, as well as his writing calling for equal rights for man, something Paine believed to be common sense, would greatly affect the thinking of the founding fathers. Paine’s personal calls for the abolition of slavery also greatly impacted Abraham Lincoln who wrote a defense of Paine in 1835 (Lincoln by the way was, as far as anyone knows, a nonbeliever–at least after the death of his son–and claimed he did not belong to any Christian denomination and had to face charges of impious infidelity).
Spending most of the 1790’s in France, Paine was deeply involved in the French Revolution. Upon being arrested and imprisoned, Paine suspected he would be executed as a revolutionary radical, and so was motivated to write his scathing attack on the Christian religion, his last hurrah so to speak. This infamous book is better known as The Age of Reason. In this influential work Paine calls for “free rational inquiry” into all subjects. Paine was a self professed Deist.
Here we shall look at some of Paine’s most recognizable quotes and see whether or not he adhered to Christian principles to help us discover whether this founding father was of the mind of someone who would help forge a nation in the name of Christianity.
When asked by Dr. Manley, “Do you believe, or do you wish to believe, that Jesus Christ is the son of God?”
Thomas Paine succinctly replied, “I have no wish to believe on that subject.” (As quoted by Robert G. Ingersoll in A Vindication of Thomas Paine, 1891)
Paine once stated that Christianity was merely “atheism dressed up as mannism.” This scathing remark was followed by his comment that, “The christian religion is a parody on the worship of the Sun, in which they put a man whom they call Christ, in the place of the Sun, and pay him the same adoration which was originally paid to the Sun.”
As for the Holy Scripture, the religious text all Christians revere as divinely inspired truth, Paine had this to say:
“It is from the Bible that man has learned cruelty, rapine, and murder; for the belief of a cruel God makes a cruel man.” (A Letter: Being an Answer to a Friend, on the publication of The Age of Reason. The Age of Reason. Boston: Josiah L. Mendum. 1797-05-12. p. 205)
These (above) quotes are telling for several reasons. It proves that Paine did not believe in Jesus Christ as anything other than a mere mortal and that he despised the teaching of the Bible, renouncing it as contemptible, cruel, and vile.
Many of Paine’s quotes echo the sentiments of modern day atheist and religious critics. It should come as no surprise, for the shared belief among all freethinkers of any age has been that of free and rational inquiry, which has always, in every age, rubber religion the wrong way.
Paine once prophetically quipped:
“Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity. Too absurd for belief, too impossible to convince, and too inconsistent for practice, it renders the heart torpid, or produces only atheists and fanatics.” (The Age of Reason, Chapter III: Conclusion)
So clearly Paine was nothing like the Christian theists of today. In many instances Thomas Paine sounds more like the atheists, freethinkers, and skeptics of today.
The question becomes–was Thomas Paine likely to have sponsored, let alone allowed, for the United States to be founded as a “Christian Nation” knowing his sheer repugnance toward Christianity? It doesn’t seem likely. With respect to Christianity, Paine was an atheist. He did not believe in its god or its message.
Before we proceed with our investigation of the founding fathers, and what they purportedly believed, I wish to share two of my favorite Thomas Paine quotes:
“It is a fraud of the Christian system to call the sciences human invention; it is only the application of them that is human. Every science has for its basis a system of principles as fixed and unalterable as those by which the universe is regulated and governed. Man cannot make principles, he can only discover them.” (The Age of Reason Part 1, 1793)
“The study of theology as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and admits of no conclusion. Not any thing can be studied as a science without our being in possession of the principles upon which it is founded; and as this is not the case with Christian theology, it is therefore the study of nothing.”
(The Age of Reason, Chapter III: Conclusion)
[Note: Clearly Paine believed [G]od could be discovered by the tools of science. A deist, in the proper sense, but one who was highly critical of Christianity none-the-less.]
If Thomas Paine, “a corsetmaker by trade, a journalist by profession, and a propagandist by inclination,” was our archetypal religious critic, then Thomas Jefferson was our archetypal freethinker. What was Jefferson’s mind when it came to Christianity?
Jefferson writes in his correspondence that his greatest success was in drafting the the Virginia statute, the article which would go on to provide the basis for America’s Constitutional division between Church and State. This separation of Church and State is commonly referred to as: “The Wall of Separation between Church and State.”
It is no secret that Jefferson placed a higher importance on the difference of opinion than on the orthodox conformity to a dogmatically conditioned like-mindedness.
“Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth. Let us reflect that it is inhabited by a thousand millions of people. That these profess probably a thousand different systems of religion. That ours is but one of that thousand. That if there be but one right, and ours that one, we should wish to see the 999 wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force. Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free enquiry must be indulged; and how can we wish others to indulge it while we refuse it ourselves?” (From Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVII)
Still, I have been privileged, if you could call it that, to meet several Christians who have told me to my face that Thomas Jefferson was a Theist in tune with Christian morals and thought. Many people have often used the following quote to prove Jefferson was a Christian:
“I am a Christian, in the only sense he [Jesus] wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.” (Letter to Benjamin Rush, 12 April, 1803)
[Note: technically speaking, by his admission that Jesus was merely human and not divine, Jefferson would be deemed a “Gnostic,” which by orthodox Christian standards is viewed as heretical.]
Apparently modern Christians weren’t the only one who made the mistake of thinking Thomas Jefferson to be a Christian though. A reporter made the same mistake, to which Jefferson wrote a letter to set the record straight, informing, “Now this supposed that they knew what had been my religion before, taking for it the word of their priests, whom I certainly never made the confidants of my creed. My answer was “I say nothing of my religion.” (Letter to John Adams, 11 January, 1817)
Those familiar with Jefferson’s original writing will be keen to note that in his original writings Jefferson never capitalized the term god. It is always written in the lowercase. Only later did editors correct for this obvious “error” to put the proper reverence back into the term, and so too Jefferson’s own writings, once again, wrongly assuming he believed in their concept of god. He did not. Luckily, the original writing, in his own hand, has survived for posterity so as to allow us this invaluable lesson.
Perhaps we find clues in an unsuspecting letter of encouragement to his nephew, Peter Carr, about the young man’s investigation into religious faith and of his beliefs. Jefferson writes:
“Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no god, 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 you.” (10 August 1787)
Would any decent God fearing Christian instruct their very own flesh and blood that it was perfectly acceptable to become an atheist? No. This line of reasoning is wholly at odds with the teachings and doctrines of Christianity.
After having given it fair consideration, I am inclined to think Jefferson was not a Christian, since he frequently denied the virgin birth, Jesus’s divinity, and all the miracles of the Bible. On top of this, he instructed his nephew that atheism was a perfectly virtuous conclusion, not even a Unitarian would have said this!
As for the public claims that he was a practicing Christian, he denied them all, and simply kept his religious beliefs a closely guarded secret. As I quoted earlier, Jefferson denies being a Christian whenever that assumption was made of him.
To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise … without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence. (Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, August 15, 1820)
Moreover, Jefferson found the idea of a virgin birth archaic and little more than fable and mythology.
The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. (Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823)
If this wasn’t enough to disprove Jefferson was in any way a Christian, Jefferson also denied the Christian notion of the Holy Trinity for logical reasons, equating the dogma of the Trinity with polytheism and calling it more unintelligible than paganism.
The metaphysical insanities of Athanasius, of Loyola, and of Calvin, are, to my understanding, mere relapses into polytheism, differing from paganism only by being more unintelligible. The religion of Jesus is founded in the Unity of God, and this principle chiefly, gave it triumph over the rabble of heathen gods then acknowledged. (In his letter to Rev Jared Sparks; November 4, 1820)
Another instance where Jefferson denies Christian theology, comparing it to an absurd myth and calling it “hocus-pocus,” is in a bold letter to James Smith.
The hocus-pocus phantasm of a god like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads, had its birth and growth in the blood of thousands and thousands of martyrs. (Thomas Jefferson, letter to James Smith, December 8, 1822)
By Jefferson’s own words we learn his exact level of disillusionment with Christianity. Although he may have found a strong sense of Platonism in the many teachings of Jesus, it is clear that Jefferson felt the majority of Christianity was founded upon absurdities and myths.