Fighting Words for a Secular America

Ashcroft and friends vs. George Washington and the framers


| October 28, 2004


For many, including the Attorney General of the United States, America is 'one nation, under God.' For John Adams, those would be fighting words. An intellectual child of the Enlightenment, Adams loathed religious doctrine and referred to Christianity as an 'engine of grief.' In his Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, he envisions an America 'erected on the simple principles of nature... without a pretence of miracle or mystery.' Adams was not alone in his convictions; the Constitution's framers were a varied group, and while many of the men were Christian, a number of them were not. Deism, a belief in an impersonal, removed creator God was in vogue among intellectual circles at the time, and it helped shape the radical idea that power was derived not from God or king, but from the people (at least, the ones with land). George III ruled jointly as head of church and state, and it was this kind of authoritarian synergy that men like Washington and Jefferson radically rejected.

'My country is the world and my religion is to do good,' said Thomas Paine, author of numerous influential pamphlets deriding the British and calling for war. Along with Benjamin Franklin, George Washington was a committed Deist and did not mention Jesus once in his thousands of letters (the mythology around his supposed Christianity, like the cherry tree fable, a pastor's invention). While Jefferson admired the historical Jesus as a moral teacher, he denied his divinity, predicting that '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.' In fact, Jefferson openly antagonized the religious establishment. 'I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man,' he said. James Madison shared this opposition to 'religion as an engine of civil policy' and described the results of organized Christianity as 'pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.'

It's true that some of the founding fathers, like Alexander Hamilton, were Christians. But the Constitution was intentionally framed to accommodate the founding fathers' plurality of beliefs, as well as the country's. So while Attorney General Ashcroft's Pentecostal beliefs are indeed protected by the Constitution, the same document was drawn up to protect the citizenry from Ashcroft's Pentecostal beliefs.
-- Brendan Themes

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