“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their ‘legislature’ should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State […]”
– Thomas Jefferson, in an 1802 letter to a Baptist congregation
The role of religion in the founding of America is widely debated. Various pieces of evidence – the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers, mentions of God or “a Creator” in founding documents, and the text of the Establishment Clause – are all cited in the discussion.
The first line of the Declaration of Independence is particularly interesting:
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
That line is one of the few mentions of God in any document associated with the founding of America. So, is America a Christian or even a religious nation? Or is it secular?
Incidentally, the Declaration of Independence was not the document that founded this Nation. While it may have some sentimental value to us, it has no legal value today. We try to cling to it as some evidence that religion should have a greater role in American society, but it explicitly states that “governments are instituted among men” and that our inalienable rights are upheld by the People, not a Creator or any religious institution.
The Declaration of Independence was primarily a list of grievances against England and George III. It was intended merely to “dissolve political bands,” not establish any religious precedents for a fledgling Nation. In fact, documents like George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights were more significant in the government-creation process than the Declaration, and influenced the U.S. Constitution and a number of state constitutions. Mason’s Declaration does not reference religion except to state that “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion.”
The Declaration is not and has never been a legal document. It has absolutely no legal clout today, is not referenced as legal wording in any court decisions, and is nothing more than a symbolic piece of American history representing a courageous stand against England and an oppressive monarch. If anything, the Declaration appeals to the Natural Law and the secular basis of human nature that Thomas Jefferson, its author, studied in the works of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.
The U.S. Constitution is the original founding document for our country, and does not contain a single mention of God, Jesus, or Christianity. It is the document that serves as the truest representation of our Founding Fathers’ intents, and it notes that the American government derives its power from the consent of the governed people, not from God, effectively founding the United States as a secular nation. The Founding Fathers were not forgetful, and purposely omitted mention of religion as a means of creating a government separate from religious institutions.
The Establishment Clause (part of the Second Amendment to the Constitution, in the Bill of Rights) states:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof […]”
Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others frequently stated that this clause was included in the Constitution to serve as a boundary, or separation, between church and state. It was not merely intended to keep the government out of religion, but also religion out of the government. While the Founding Fathers were certainly concerned with allowing churches and religious groups to develop independent of the influence of the government, they were probably more concerned with the potential for religious institutions to work their way into government, undermining the influence of government and usurping its power. Historical examples of this intrusion of religion into government abound – the medieval- and Renaissance-era papacy and the Anglican Church are only a couple.
While religion may have been a large part of the society in which Jefferson, Madison, and their compatriots lived, they no doubt recognized that their document would govern a Nation for hundreds of years to come. Many of them were privately religious (ascribing variously to deism and Christianity), but it is reasonable to believe that they foresaw at least some change in the religious landscape of America, making the conscience choice not to mention God in the Constitution.
So, in the end, what do we have? We have a government founded on a secular basis. We have Founding Fathers who had observed and studied the problems that arose from having excessive religion in government, authoring a Constitution and the Establishment Clause to keep government and religion separate. Additionally, we have a governmental body of lawmakers, a Supreme Court, and a Presidency that continue to uphold this historical precedent in a bipartisan manner. Americans have the freedom to believe whatever they want, whether it’s Jesus, a divine clockmaker, or nothing at all. And while it has worked out pretty well for the past 200 years, there are always improvements to be made.