FEATURES | fall 2004
Ashcroft & Friends
George Washington & The Framers
Alert: Americans who honor the U.S.
Constitution’s strict separation of church and state are now genuinely
alarmed. Agnostics and atheists, as well as observant people of every
faith, fear — sensibly — that the religious right is gaining historic
political power, via an ultraconservative movement with highly placed
But many of us feel helpless. We
haven’t read the Founding Documents since school (if then). We lack
arguing tools, “verbal karate” evidence we can cite in defending a
secular United States.
For instance, such extremists claim —
and, too often, we ourselves assume — that U.S. law has religious
roots. Yet the Constitution contains no reference to a deity.
The Declaration of Independence contains
not one word on religion, basing its authority on the shocking idea
that power is derived from ordinary people, which challenged European
traditions of rule by divine right and/or heavenly authority.
(Remember, George III was king of England and anointed head
of its church.)
The words “Nature’s God,” the “Creator”
and “divine Providence ” do appear in the Declaration. But in its
context — an era, and author, Thomas Jefferson, that celebrated science
and the Enlightenment — these words are analogous to our contemporary
phrase “life force.”
Jerry Falwell notoriously blamed 9/11
on “pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians … [and other
groups] who have tried to secularize America.” He’s a bit late: In
1798, Alexander Hamilton accused Jefferson of a “conspiracy to
establish atheism on the ruins of Christianity” in the new republic.
Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence William Boykin
thunders, “We’re a Christian nation.”
But the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli —
initiated by George Washington and signed into law by John Adams —
proclaims: “The Government of the United States of America is not,
in any sense, founded on the Christian Religion.”
Offices for “Faith-Based Initiatives”
with nearly $20 billion in grants have been established (by executive
order, circumventing Congress) in 10 federal agencies, as well as inside
the White House. This fails “the Lemon Test,” violating a
1971 Supreme Court decision (Lemon v. Kurtzman): “first, a
statute [or public policy] must have a secular legislative purpose;
second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither
advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute [or policy] must
not foster ‘excessive government entanglement with religion.’”
When Attorney General John Ashcroft
repeatedly invokes religion, the Founders must be picketing in their
graves. They were a mix of freethinkers, atheists, Christians,
agnostics, Freemasons and Deists (professing belief in powers
scientifically evinced in the natural universe). They surely were
imperfect. Some were slaveholders.
Female citizens were invisible to them —
though Abigail Adams warned her husband John, “If particular care and
attention is not paid to the Ladies, we are determined to foment a
Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we
have no voice, or Representation.”
But the Founders were, after all, revolutionaries.
Their passion — especially regarding secularism — glows in
the documents they forged and in their personal words.
Paine’s writings heavily influenced the other Founders.
A freethinker who opposed all organized religion, he reserved
particular vituperation for Christianity. “My country is the world and
my religion is to do good” (The Rights of Man, 1791).
“I do not believe in the creed professed
by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the
Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know
of. My own mind is my own church” (The Age of Reason, 1794).
“Of all the systems of religion that
ever were invented, there is no more derogatory to the Almighty, more
unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in
itself than this thing called Christianity” (Ibid.).
Raised a Calvinist, Franklin rebelled — and spread that
rebellion, affecting Adams and Jefferson. His friend, Dr. Priestley,
wrote in his own Autobiography: “It is much to be lamented
that a man of Franklin ’s general good character and great influence
should have been an unbeliever in Christianity, and also have done as
much as he did to make others unbelievers.”
A scientist, Franklin rejected churches,
rituals, and all “supernatural superstitions.”
“Scarcely was I arrived at fifteen years
of age, when, after having doubted in turn of different tenets,
according as I found them combated in the different books that I read,
I began to doubt of Revelation itself ” (Franklin’s Autobiography,
“Some volumes against Deism fell into my
hands … they produced an effect precisely the reverse to what was
intended by the writers; for the arguments of the Deists, which were
cited in order to be refuted, appeared to me much more forcibly than
the refutation itself; in a word, I soon became a thorough Deist”
The false image of Washington as a devout
Christian was fabricated by Mason Locke Weems, a clergyman who also
invented the cherry-tree fable and in 1800 published his Life of
George Washington. Washington, a Deist and a Freemason, never once
mentioned the name of Jesus Christ in any of his thousands of letters,
and pointedly referred to divinity as “It.”
Whenever he (rarely) attended church,
Washington always deliberately left before communion, demonstrating
disbelief in Christianity’s central ceremony.
Adams, a Unitarian inspired by the Enlightenment,
fiercely opposed doctrines of supernaturalism or damnation, writing to
Jefferson: “I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most
fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has
preserved — the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief
Adams realized how politically crucial — and imperiled — a secular
state would be: “The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps,
the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of
nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse
themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they
will consider this event as an era in their history. … It will never be
pretended that any persons employed in that service [forming the U.S.
government] had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under
the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses,
or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be
acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of
reason and the senses. …Thirteen governments [of the original states]
thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a
pretence of miracle or mystery… are a great point gained in favor of
the rights of mankind” (A Defence of the Constitutions of
Government of the United States of America, 1787–88).
It’s a commonly stated error that U.S. law, based on
English common law, is thus grounded in Judeo-Christian tradition.
Yet Jefferson (writing to Dr. Thomas
Cooper, February 10, 1814 ) noted that common law “is that system of
law which was introduced by the Saxons on their settlement in England
…about the middle of the fifth century. But Christianity was not
introduced till the seventh century. …We may safely affirm (though
contradicted by all the judges and writers on earth) that Christianity
neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law.”
Jefferson professed disbelief in the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus
Christ, while respecting moral teachings by whomever might have been a
historical Jesus. He cut up a Bible, assembling his own version: “The
whole history of these books [the Gospels] is so defective and
doubtful,” he wrote Adams (January 24, 1814), “evidence that parts have
proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the
fabric of very inferior minds.”
Scorning miracles, saints, salvation, damnation, and angelic presences,
Jefferson embraced reason, materialism, and science. He challenged
Patrick Henry, who wanted a Christian theocracy: “[A]n amendment was
proposed by inserting ‘Jesus Christ,’ so that [the preamble] should
read ‘A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our
religion’; the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof
that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the
Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and
Infidel of every denomination” (from Jefferson’s Autobiography,
referring to the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom).
The theme is consistent throughout Jefferson ’s prolific
correspondence: “Question with boldness even the existence of a God”
(letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787).
“[The clergy] believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be
exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly: for I
have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form
of tyranny over the mind of man” (letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush,
September 23, 1800).
“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American
people which…thus[built] a wall of separation between church and state”
(letter to the Danbury [ Connecticut ] Baptist Association, January 1,
“History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people
maintaining a free civil government” (letter to Alexander von Humboldt,
December 6, 1813).
“In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to
liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses
in return for protection to his own” (letter to Horatio G. Spafford,
March 17, 1814).
“[W]hence arises the morality of the Atheist? …Their virtue, then, must
have had some other foundation than the love of God” (letter to Thomas
Law, June 13, 1814).
“I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know” (letter to Ezra Stiles,
June 25, 1819).
“The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus… will be
classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of
Jupiter” (letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823).
Although prayer groups proliferate in today’s Congress,
James Madison, “father of the Constitution,” denounced even the
presence of chaplains in Congress — and in the
armed forces — as unconstitutional. He opposed all use of “religion as
an engine of civil policy,” and accurately prophesied the threat of
“Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for
every noble enterprise” (letter to William Bradford, April
“During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of
Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in
all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility
in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution” (Memorial
and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, Section 7, 1785).
“What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil
Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual
tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they
have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no
instance have they been seen as the guardians of the liberties of the
people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found
an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries” (Ibid., Section 8).
“Besides the danger of a direct mixture of Religion & civil
Government, there is an evil which ought to be guarded agst. in the
indefinite accumulation of property from the capacity of holding it in
perpetuity by ecclesiastical corporations. The power of all
corporations ought to be limited in this respect. …The establishment of
the chaplainship to Congs. is a palpable violation of equal rights, as
well as of Constitutional principles. … Better also to disarm in the
same way, the precedent of Chaplainships for the army and navy. …
Religious proclamations by the Executive [branch] recommending
thanksgivings & fasts are shoots from the same root. … Altho’
recommendations only, they imply a religious agency, making no part of
the trust delegated to political rulers” (Monopolies, Perpetuities,
Corporations, Ecclesiastical Endowments, circa 1819).
That’s only a sampling, quotes that blast cobwebs off the tamed images
we have of the Founders. Their own statements — not dead rhetoric but
alive with ringing, still radical, ideas — can reconnect us to our
proud, secular roots, and should inspire us to honor and defend them.
The Founders minced no words — and
they acted on them. Dare we do less?
Robin Morgan’s latest books include The
Demon Lover: The Roots of Terrorism and Sisterhood Is
Forever: The Women’s Anthology for A New Millennium.
Photo credit: Washington: The Bridgeman Art Library/James
Sharples/Getty Images; Ashcroft: William Philpott/Reuters.