National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: In the Name of Religion, Part 2

The founding of the United States and ratification of its Constitution were critical turning points in the history of humankind’s development on the planet. It moved the species beyond government by arbitrary authority, secured through religious superstition and coercion, to one grounded in secular virtue, reason, compassion and justice.

It is a sad and categorically false absurdity for modern day fundamentalists to claim that the U.S. is a “Christian nation,” and, therefore, Christian cultural icons and their interpretations of Biblical law should have precedence over more universal norms. Their bigoted drumbeat will surely get louder as the December holidays approach.

But a small, and wildly underappreciated book published a year ago, Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers, by Brooke Allen, has helped set the record straight. It got a lukewarm reception in a review by George Will in the October 22, 2006 New York Times Book Review section.

Allen quotes extensively from original documents by essential founding fathers such as Ben Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine and others. The evidence is overwhelming. These were children of the Enlightenment, proclaiming the benefits of science and reason, and opponents of superstition and the sway of coercive, anti-rational religions. In fact, they recognized their pitched battle against such religious influences was very consciously central to their struggle to found the great American nation.

In the Treaty of Tripoli of 1797 it was written, “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” This treaty was ratified by a unanimous vote of the U.S. Senate, only the third such unanimous vote out of a total of 339 recorded votes up to that time. Could it get much clearer than that?

Of course, the U.S. Constitution states clearly in Article VI, Section 3 that no “religious test” shall ever be required as a qualification for holding any office or public trust in the U.S.

Thomas Paine, a co-collaborator of the more famous founders, whose pamphlets, Common Sense, The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason, were incredibly popular in the Colonies leading up to and after the American Revolution, railed against the Bible. “The obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind, and for my own part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel,” he wrote.

James Madison wrote, “What influence have ecclesiastical establishments had on civil society? They have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of civil authority, in many instances to uphold the thrones of political tyranny, in no instance have been the guardians of liberty. What have been their 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.”
Franklin proclaimed himself a Deist in his autobiography, rejecting religious “revelation” in favor of science and reason. He wrote, “I never doubted the existence of the deity, and that he made the world and governed it by his providence and that the most acceptable service to God was the doing good to man, that our souls are immortal, and that all crime will be punished and virtue rewarded. These I esteemed the essentials of every religion.” Not Christianity, but every religion.

Washington proclaimed that in the new nation, “the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition.”
Adams, hailing the 18th century progress of “arts and sciences useful to men,” when faced with a rise of fundamentalism in the so-called Second Awakening, noted, “Instead of the most enlightened people, I fear we Americans shall soon have the character of the silliest people under heaven.”

Jefferson wrote that Jesus’ moral system “was the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man,” but that it was hijacked by a “band of dupes and imposters” beginning with the Apostle Paul and the biographers of the four gospels. “Christianity neither is, nor ever was, part of the common law” that was the basis for the U.S. Constitution, he stated.