The Role of Religion in the Creation of the U.S. Constitution

From a Sermon delivered at Dane Street Beach in Beverly Massachusetts  July 3, 2011
by Kathryn Lordan, First Parish Church in Beverly, UU

Tomorrow we celebrate the birthday of our country.  We also honor the men who, during a hot summer with powdered wigs, waistcoats, and itchy woolen pants, closed the shutters on the windows to keep all conversation confidential allowing all in attendance to be able to speak freely.  Despite all the disagreements amongst them, these men kept this pledge of silence.

Today let’s briefly visit the roll religion played in these discussions. The First Amendment of our Constitution states:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Was our country established as a Christian country?  There are those recently who have been stating that indeed that is the truth.  Yes, many Christians came to this country to avoid persecution from the mandatory religions held by the rulers in Europe.  What did these Christians do when Christians with different approaches arrived in their little towns in this new land? They persecuted THEM and this pattern continued from Christian faith to Christian faith.  Quakers when persecuted, finally moved and established Rhode Island and permitted freedom of religion.  These were not Christian faiths loving and tolerating each other. There was abuse and cruelty to those whom they saw as different.

Many years later when the Constitution was being thought through, discussed and struggled with, these Founding Fathers were aware of the friction amongst Christian faiths as well as the presence of other faiths that existed in our country.  Many of the founding fathers were Deists which is defined as: The belief, based solely on reason, in a God who created the universe and then abandoned it, assuming no control over life, exerting no influence on natural phenomena, and giving no supernatural revelation.

Some of the following remarks are somewhat hostile to Christianity.  My purpose is not the discredit Christian faiths, but rather to show that there were many who would not have wished our country to be declared as “Christian”.

John Adams wrote:

“The divinity of Jesus is made a convenient cover for absurdity.  Nowhere in the Gospels do we find a precept for Creeds, Confessions, Oaths, Doctrines, and whole cartloads of other foolish trumpery that we find in Christianity.”

He writes again:

“Have you considered that system of holy lies and pious frauds that has raged and triumphed for 1,500 years?”

He also wrote: 

“Twenty times in the course of my late reading, have I been at the point of breaking out, “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.”

I also want to say that within John Adams amazing library, Rev. Kelly [Asprooth-Jackson, First Parish Minister] tells me, there was a copy of the Koran.

Ben Franklin professed to be a Christian near the time of his death, but also said:

“The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.” 

in Poor Richard’s Almanac:

“. . . 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 thorough Deist.”

“Lighthouses are more helpful than churches.”

The next famous person I mention is Thomas Jefferson  who was inclusive of other faiths.  When the first Muslim Congressman was recently sworn in, a Koran from Jefferson’s library was used for the swearing in. The following is from Wikipedia regarding Jefferson:

“During his 1800 campaign for the presidency, he had to contend with critics who argued that he was unfit to hold office because he did not have orthodox religious beliefs. It is Jefferson who is credited with propagating the phrase “separation of church and state”. He cut and pasted pieces of the New Testament together to compose the Jefferson Bible, which excluded any miracles by Jesus. Though he often expressed his opposition to clergy and to Christian doctrines, Jefferson repeatedly expressed his belief in a deistic god and his admiration for Jesus as a moral teacher. Opposed to Calvinism, Trinitarianism and what he identified as Platonic elements in Christianity, in private letters Jefferson refers to himself as ‘Christian’ (1803),[2][3] ‘a sect by myself’ (1819),[4] an ‘Epicurean’ (1819),[5] a ‘Materialist’ (1820),[6] and a ‘Unitarian by myself’ (1825 .[7].  Historian Sydney Ahlstrom associated Jefferson with ‘rational religion or deism'[8].”

James Madison who became the fourth president and father of the Constitution writes;

“Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.”

“Ecclesiastical establishments tend to great ignorance and corruption, all of which facilitate the execution of mischievous projects.”

“The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.” 
         -1803 letter objecting use of gov. land for churches

Now regarding George Washington.

I am reading the following from a Wikisource:

“During a visit to Newport, R. I. , 1790, a year before the Bill of Rights was ratified, President George Washington received a letter from Moses Seixas, warden of the Tuoro Synagugue , expressing joy in having the right of free citizens, rights which they had been deprived.

“With pleasure we reflect on those days — those days of difficulty, and danger, when the God of Israel, who delivered David from the peril of the sword, — shielded Your head in the day of battle: — and we rejoice to think, that the same Spirit, who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest, upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate in these States.”

There is more to this letter and the following that you can access online.

Following is a portion of the letter George Washington wrote back to Moses Seixas:

“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

The Treaty of Tripoli, passed by the U.S. Senate in 1797, read in part:

“The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”

The treaty was written during George Washington’s administration, and sent to the Senate during the administrtion of John Adams.  There is no record of any debate or dissension on the treaty.  It was reprinted in full in three newspapers. There is no record of public outcry or complaint in subsequent editions of the papers.

Many of our Founding Fathers may have believed in a God, but did not trust religious institutions and did not want a theocracy.  They in no way, wished to recreate the repressive religious atmosphere of Europe from which so many fled; this was to be a country of freedom, especially religious freedom. That means that they were even open to protecting the rights of those who had no religion.

Our [UU] faith supports the principles on which this country is founded.  It is a faith of great people throughout our history, people who have made important contributions to this country. I have a handout for you; it lists some of our Unitarian brethren from history.

This beach was named after one of our Unitarian-Universalist Founding Fathers who was primarily known for his wisdom for his work on the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 but was also a highly respected lawyer, statesman, reader, writer, thinker.  You are sitting in Dane Beach Park at the end of Dane Street named after Nathan Dane.

At this time, let’s listen to the seven Unitarian-Universalist principles, and think of them in terms of the Constitution:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Even though tomorrow we celebrate a very old document,  we must remain vigilant; we must stay aware that there are those who feel our country should be a Christian theocracy.

We are a faith of study, contemplation and action; we believe that differences and diversity enrich us. Our faith continues to have a true and important purpose in this world.

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