How the Founding Fathers Would View the Republican Attacks on Secularism

The previous post looks at how Mike Huckabee would use the powers of government to impose his religious views. I’ve also noted multiple time the contradiction between Ron Paul’s claims to be a strict defender of the Constitution while he denies the importance of separation of church and state. Mitt Romney has also demonstrated a lack of understanding of the role of religion in government.  David Ignatius has a recent column which looks at the correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to clarify how the framers of the Constitution viewed these ideas. He begins:

A bracing text for this Christmas week is the famous correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Their letters are a reminder that the Founders were men of the Enlightenment — supreme rationalists who would have found the religiosity of much of our modern political life quite abhorrent…

It’s useful to examine the musings of these American rationalists in this political season when religion has been a prominent topic. Politicians and commentators have suggested that for the Founders, the very idea of freedom was God-given — or, as the Declaration of Independence puts it, that human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Yet this famous passage begins with a distillation of the Enlightenment’s celebration of human reason: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

After reviewing Romney’s recent speech he sums up the likely response from the founding fathers:

Anyone who reads Adams and Jefferson — or for that matter, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton or other voices of the American Enlightenment — can make their own judgment about what the Founders would say about Romney’s broadside against secularism. My guess is that their response would be something like: “That is bunkum, sir.”

After further discussion which is worth reading, Ignatius concludes:

One theme in this year’s political campaign has been whether the United States will move from the faith-based policies the Bush administration has celebrated to a more rationalist and secular approach. In this debate, religious conservatives like to stress their connection to the Founders and to the republic’s birth as “one nation under God.” But a rereading of the Adams-Jefferson letters is a reminder that in this debate, the Founders — as men of the Enlightenment — would surely have sided with the party of Reason.

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  1. 1
    capt says:

    Good post – as are the many before.

    Thanks for all your work.

  2. 2
    John Dunham says:

    Reading this I cannot believe anyone has even read the papers of the founding fathers. They clearly believed God was at the foundation of all rights and should be included in everything – exactly why they used His Word as their textbooks and the basis for constitutional law and decisions. Are you people actually in this world?

  3. 3
    Ron Chusid says:


    Have you read the works of Jefferson, Madison and the other founding fathers–as opposed to the distortions of history put out by the right? They were very clear in forming a secular government and in finding separation of church and state to be essential.

    Have you even read the Constitution? Note that it contains nothing about God other than for banning a religious test for office and the First Amendment. To write a constitution forming a government without basing it on God was a radical move back then which reflects their views on the topic.

    Most of the Founding Fathers believed in God, but they also separated their religious views from government. Many of them were Diests who had religious views which were quite different from those of those who deny separation of church and state as they did not see a current role for God in the affairs of man.

  4. 4
    Fritz says:

    Why does the pledge of allegiance have any legal standing at all?  I haven’t looked this up… but what legal obligations are attached to that socialist-written piece of prose?
    It might be more accurate to say that Paul, et al, are not enamored of the 14th Amendment rather than saying they are not enamored of the 1st.

  5. 5
    Ron Chusid says:

    It came from the McCarythy era. While written in the late 1800’s, it wasn’t until the early 1950’s that it reached its present form, including the addition of “under God.” This was added to contrast us with those Godless Communists.

    I don’t recall the specifics off hand, but I believe that some opponents went along with adding “under God” in a compromise in which the right agreed to stop pushing an even worse violation of separation of church and state. The bottom line was probably that many were afraid to oppose this addition or risk being condemned as a Godless Communist by the McCarthyites.

    While originally written by a socialist, the irony is that it was the paranoia about Communism which led to its use as a virtual national loyalty oath and prayer.

    Re Paul, the problem is both that he doesn’t recognize the First Amendment as supporting separation of church and state, and his denial of the extension of any First Amendment rights to the states under the 14th Amendment makes this problem worse.

  6. 6
    Christoher Skyi says:

    Ron is exactly right. They were very religious man (I imagine they did a lot of praying when they signed their names to the Declaration of Independence), but they rejected “divine” rule in the form of Kings (Kings existed by divine right).  

    Essentially, they were anti-monarchists, i.e., not the King, not any man, was “above” any other. This is the meaning and historical source of  “all men are created equal.”
    This line of thinking, that can be traced back to the British empiricists and their ideas of social contract theory, lead to the world wide anti-slavery movment at the time.  It was during that time that France gave us the Statue of Liberty.
    So they certainly didn’t reject God per se. They just placed man at the center of public social affairs. Thus the separation of church and state.
    An another mis-understanding concerns the first Amendment, i.e., freedom of speech/expression.  Proponents of pornography sometimes say the founding father could not have  envision pornography when authoring the first Amendment, presumably because they just didn’t know what it was.
    Well, the Founding Father both believed in God, and they knew what “pornography” was;  people in the 18th Century were just as pre-occupied and fascinated as with sex as we are today.

  7. 7
    Fritz says:

    Yeah — I just wonder why Congress gets to set a pledge of allegiance — I don’t recall that duty being in the Constitution.  And are there some legal requirements they have set around that thing?

  8. 8
    Ron Chusid says:

    The Constitution certainly does not call for this. I believe that where there have been court cases over requirements to say the pledge the laws have been on a more local level. I also believe that there have been state laws requiring that students say the pledge which were overturned on Constitutional grounds.

    I don’t know for sure but I wonder if most school districts require the pledge out of inertia from the McCarthy days without any specific laws.

  9. 9
    Fritz says:

    I’m somewhat annoyed that all the legal action was on “under God”.  I object to “indivisible”.  Also I think “with liberty and justice for all” is on somewhat shaky empirical ground.

  10. 10
    Mike's I.P. alter-ego says:

    I can say with much certainty that there is no legal requirement to participate in public schools in the pledge of allegiance. To the contrary, when I taught in a public school (2005-2007) we received a legal memo emphasizing we could not demand any action by our students other than “not being disruptive” during the pledge of allegiance. I can’t speak with full certainty because I’m not sure how much of my guidance was state law versus federal/national law. As far as the school even “offering it” I’m not so sure, but suspect it isn’t mandatory but on a practical level school administrators would fear public outcry if they stopped it.

  11. 11
    Ron Chusid says:

    That goes along with my educated guess based upon the law suits which prevent schools from requiring the pledge and my guess that in most cases it is done out of tradition (and fear of looking like godless Communists) which leads to its use.

  12. 12
    Ron Chusid says:

    To add to my recent posts on recommendations for running a blog, blog software now frequently includes the option to automatically close a post to comments after a preset time. The idea is that generally older comments are spam, and even if not the topics might not be worth spending time on.

    This post shows why I have not activated the option to close old posts. While old posts generally attact more spam than real comments, sometimes, such as now, they provide the better discussions for the day.

    I also figure that many of the current readers were not around for older posts. Having them show up in the comments section is one way to bring back old posts which might be worthwhile. It is sort of random as it depends upon somebody winding up on an old post from a search engine or old link but at least this means the old post is still worth commenting on to at least on person.

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