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November 15, 2007 | Religion

Our Religious Forefathers II

This post is meant as an addendum to kindig's earlier posting here. I've compiled a lot of founding father quotations on religion and the separation of church and state. I did my best to authenticate them, and everything here jives with what I was able to find on Google and what I already knew from history class. Most of the principal founding fathers wouldn't be what you'd call traditional Christians. John Adams was a Unitarian, a denomination that denied the trinity. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Thomas Paine and James Madison were all Deists. Washington is more controversial, since he seems to have been Episcopal early on and didn't hardly ever talk about religion, though he didn't attend church much or take communion. Later in life, many scholars think of him as a Deist. Deists were considered separate from Christians. They basically believed in an abstract monotheism governed by reason. They eschewed dogma, and they had varying levels of animosity towards Christianity. They generally respected the moral teachings of Jesus Christ, thought very little of the church, the bible and of organized religion, and were the impetus behind the idea of the separation of church and state. The first 6 Presidents were either Deists or were some other unorthodox Christian.

Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson can probably best be considered the founding father of separation of church and state. He had much personal hypocrisy, but on paper he mostly sounded good. Today he would sound almost like some kind of anarchist. He despised the bankers and manufacturing and loan-profiteering capitalism that the New England Federalists like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton advocated. He wanted a decentralized agrarian society. -d

"Christianity is the most perverted system that has ever shown on man."

"The Christian God is a being of terrific character - cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust."

"Religions are alike -- founded upon fables and mythologies."

"But a short time elapsed after the death of the great reformer of the Jewish religion, before his principles were departed from by those who professed to be his special servants, and perverted into an engine for enslaving mankind, and aggrandizing their oppressors in Church and State; that the purest system of morals ever before preached to man, has been adulterated and sophisticated by artificial constructions, into a mere contrivance to filch wealth and power to themselves."
-Jefferson on Christian churches

"I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature shall make no law respecting the establishment of a religion, thus building a wall of separation between church and state."
-Jefferson, 1802 to Danbury, CT Baptist Association.

Thomas Paine
Paine was definitely the biggest firebrand of the bunch. I guess I would expect that of him, given that he issued the original call to arms before the Revolutionary War in Common Sense. He did a lot to popularize Deism with The Age of Reason. -d

"What is it that the bible teaches us? It teaches us rape, cruelty and murder."
-Paine

"Priests and conjurors are of the same trade."
-Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

"Take away from Genesis the belief that Moses was the author, on which only the strange believe that it is the word of God has stood, and there remains nothing of Genesis but an anonymous book of stories, fables, and traditionary or invented absurdities, or of downright lies."
-Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

"The adulterous connection between church and state..."
-Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

"As to the book called the Bible, it is blasphemy to call it the Word of God. It is a book of lies and contradictions and a history of bad times and bad men."
-Thomas Paine, writing to Andrew Dean August 15, 1806

"No falsehood is so fatal as that which is made an article of faith."
-Paine

"Of all the tyrannies that affect mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst; every other species of tyranny is limited to the world we live in; but this attempts to stride beyond the grave, and seeks to pursue us into eternity."
-Paine

James Madison
Madison was instrumental along with Jefferson in getting separation of church and state laws passed in Virginia and then nationally. -d

"Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise [sic], every expanded prospect."
-James Madison, in a letter to William Bradford, April 1,1774, as quoted by Edwin S. Gaustad, Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987, p. 37

"An alliance or coalition between Government and religion cannot be too carefully guarded against......Every new and successful example therefore of a PERFECT SEPARATION between ecclesiastical and civil matters is of importance........religion and government will exist in greater purity, without (rather) than with the aid of government."
-James Madison in a letter to Livingston, 1822, from Leonard W. Levy- The Establishment Clause, Religion and the First Amendment, pg 124

"Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion & Govt in the Constitution of the United States the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies, may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history [attempts where religious bodies had already tried to encroach on the government."
-James Madison, Detached Memoranda, 1820

"Notwithstanding the general progress made within the two last centuries in favor of this branch of liberty, & the full establishment of it, in some parts of our Country, there remains in others a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Gov' & Religion neither can be duly supported: Such indeed is the tendency to such a coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both the parties, that the danger cannot be too carefully guarded against."
-James Madison, Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822, The Writings of James Madison, Gaillard Hunt

Ben Franklin
Even Ben Franklin, one of those many Christians use as an example of our Christian founding fathers, was a freethinker. You could never find a politician saying this today. -d

"As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his divinity; tho' it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble."
-Ben Franklin, a letter to the President of Yale a month before his death.

"... Some books against Deism fell into my hands... It happened that they wrought an effect on my quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a through Deist."
-Franklin

John Adams
I like Adams. I think he is underappreciated as a President. He did sign the Alien and Sedition Acts, which did a hell of a lot to curb free speech, though he was apologetic later and went to his death bed saying he'd take it back if he could. -d

"As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?"
-John Adams, letter to F.A. Van der Kamp, December 27, 1816

"I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved -- the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!"
-John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, from George Seldes, The Great Quotations, also from James A. Haught, ed., 2000 Years of Disbelief

Although there seems to be some ambivalence in Adams:
"Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out, "This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!" But in this exclamation I would have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean hell."
-John Adams, quoted from Charles Francis Adams, ed., Works of John Adams (1856), vol. X, p. 254

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