Joseph Ellis On The Creation of A Secular State

Many conservatives (along with Ron Paul) promote a revisionist history of the United States in which they deny the intention of the founding fathers to create a secular society with separation of church and state. The Constitution was a radical document for its time in many ways, including breaking from tradition in not basing its authority on religion. The First Amendment elaborates on this point, with both the writings of the founding fathers and multiple court decisions interpreting this as a guarantee of separation of church and state.

Pulitzer Prize winning historian Joseph J. Ellis looks at the accomplishments of the founding fathers from the time of the Declaration of Independence through the early years of the nation in his new book, American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies At The Founding Of The Republic. In looking at the crucial period from 1775 to 1803 Ellis identifies five core achievements of the founding fathers (pages 8-9):

  1. The revolutionary generation won the first successful war for colonial independence in the modern era.
  2. They established the first nation-sized republic.
  3. They created the first wholly secular state.
  4. They rejected the conventional wisdom that political sovereignty must reside in one agreed-upon location and that sovereignty was by definition singular and indivisible. They created over-lapping sources of authority in which blurring of jurisdiction between federal and state power become an asset rather than a liability.
  5. They created political parties as institutionalized channels for ongoing debate, which eventually permitted dissent to be regarded not as a treasonable act, but as a legitimate voice in an endless argument.

The third and fourth points conflict with the views of many conservatives, including Ron Paul, who are actually promoting their own personal views as opposed to the views of the founding fathers as they often claim.The religious right has been attempting to impose their views by denying that separation of church and state is an important part of the heritage of this country. Just as there is no controversy over evolution among biologists, legitimate historians such as Ellis write not of a controversy but describe separation of church and state as an undisputed fact. The full description of this core achievement reads:

…they created the first wholly secular state. Before the American Revolution it was broadly assumed that shared religious convictions were the primary basis for the common values that linked together the people of any political community, indeed the ideological glue that made any sense of community possible. By insisting on the complete separation of church and state, the founders successfully overturned this long-standing presumption.


  1. 1
    N. Pannbacker says:

    Mr. Ellis’s fifth point is incorrect. It is at the least technically incorrect. Political parties are not institutionalized, which is to say they are not present in the law. I have additionally heard that there were a number of the founding fathers who warned against the development of political parties before they arose.

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    Ron Chusid says:

    Ellis is not saying they are present in law. They are institutionalized in the fact that they are an existing part of our political process.

    A number of founding fathers were opposed to the development of political parties, but that does not alter Ellis’s argument with regards to what they actually achieved during the time frame he discussed.

  3. 3
    John says:

    Mr Ellis
    I disagree with your argument about the intentions of the Founding Fathers with respect to religion. I should start off by saying I am an atheist so my disagreement is political/historical rather than religious. Your claim that they were trying to create a secular society is wrong. According to the dictionary and common usage, secular means without religious connections. But the only person without religious connections is the atheist or agnostic. So you’re claiming by your use of words that the Founding Fathers’ intent was to destroy religious belief. But that’s not true: their political intent was to deny the government any power to impose religious belief or enforce religious rules on citizens. Their goal was not a secular society but rather a pluralistic society, where every kind of religious (or antireligious) belief would be tolerated. Indeed, this is basic to the idea of liberty that people should be allowed to do and believe what they want as long as they don’t harm anyone else.
    So far example, if I live in a small town where most of the citizens are Christians and they want to set up a Nativity scene at Christmas in front of the local town hall, I don’t see the problem. If I were to try to use the legal system to prevent that, I would be initiating the use of force to impose my beliefs on people who weren’t doing anything to harm me. Obviously, the same principle applies to Jews, Muslims, or any other group. That’s what pluralism is, toleration of all belief systems. The same principle applies to prayer in schools. If there is a public school (I don’t see why there should be, but if there is), and people want to pray before class, that’s their right. If I try to stop them, I’m the one violating the principle of liberty, not them. On the other hand, if they pass a law that everybody has to go to services on Sunday, then they’ve stepped over the line. And that’s exactly the line the Founding Fathers were trying to establish. Having seen or studied about the religious wars and religious persecution of Europe, they tried to set up a society that would be free of religious wars and persecution. Their solution was not a secular society but a pluralistic society. Your use of the word secular has the effect of causing religious people to believe that libertarianism is antireligious, which it is not. By its very nature, libertarianism is not secular but rather pluralistic. Libertarianism does not need any more enemies. Let not create unnecessary ones.

  4. 4
    david nichols says:

    john i dissagree with your statement. A secular society is not a society that has the intent to destroy religious belief. A secular society is one that doesn’t make laws based on a specific religion, or force a religion on any citizen by any means. This idea is proven in the establishment and the free excercise clause of the first ammendment, ” Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free excercise therof…” Secularism is an idea of religion-free government, not the removal of religion from society, Christians can be Christians, Muslims can be Muslims, and Atheists can be Atheists. People can partake in any religion, or refuse to partake in any religion they choose. This does not mean the government can push any religion on anybody, in any way at all. By the way Prayer has never been forbidden in school in America, ever. What has been forbidden is that a school official cannot say, “And now, bow your heads for the Lords Prayer” or any other public prayer. This does not mean a student cannot pray before they take a test, or eat their lunch, etc. A secular society promotes pluralism, but does not contradict it.

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    Danimal says:

    The founding fathers established the first nation-sized republic?  What, the Roman Republic and the Dutch Republic weren’t nation-sized?

  6. 6
    Ron Chusid says:

    It’s been over seven years ago since I read his book and wrote the post, plus this was not one of the topics I was concerned about in the post. Most likely he did not put the Roman Republic in the same class as modern republics as the Roman Republic was dominated by a relatively small number of families. I went to pull out the book to see if he elaborated further on this point but it is not on the shelf where it should be and most likely it is in one of the piles on coffee tables and elsewhere around my house, with the shelves being full. If I find a better answer I’ll update this.

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