By Tommy Liberty – 4/22/2023
The premise of religious liberty is an often-debated and sometimes heatedly-contentious topic, but it is one that is also very clear to those who choose to objectify all historical facts with intellectual honesty.
Because we celebrate the secular diversity of our American melting pot does not mean we were not founded upon Christian principles. Our entire legal system, the one outlined by the Constitution, follows Christian law. Legal systems from the beginning of recorded history are bound to the morals of those who wrote them, and those morals have always come from the basis of the culture’s religious beliefs. That is inherently true for societies across the world.
When the founders spoke to freedom from religious persecution, they were speaking to the disputes between Christian sects within Europe at the time, and even the Christian sects that had started to form in North America. It had nothing to do with any theologies outside of Christianity. (Largely the fractures between Catholics and Protestants, for example).
To say we weren’t founded upon Christian principles by people who lived by and believed in Christian principles, is factually untrue regardless of one’s beliefs or non-beliefs toward religion.
One of the primary reasons early colonists fled from Europe was indeed because of religious persecution, but that is where most who object to the idea of religion stop with the subject and immediately jump to the idea that because of that persecution, the founders did not want or intend to follow the Christian ideology.
What one has to first understand is the type of monarchal rule and practices of succession that were playing out throughout the European continent at the time.
Europe was a place of many subdivided kingdoms, where monarchies in one particular area took from the Christian religion the parts most coveted to them and demanded rule and worship according to not just their interpretations, but according to their intentions to maintain power and control of the people of their kingdoms, essentially calling upon their subjects to worship them as they would their god. Monarchs were not only the political rulers of their people, but also the religious rulers. They alone determined the value system, and thus the laws of which their subjected kingdoms would abide by.
The principles of Christianity that these monarchs would rule by differed greatly from kingdom to kingdom. These observations and concerns would find their way to the new world and into some of the most important essays ever written by our founding fathers, including the federalist papers.
Let me first start with a few phrases from the pamphlet Common Sense by Thomas Paine. Thomas Paine is considered the father of the American revolution. In the pamphlet he authored that would finally motivate the colonists to rebellion, he offers some clear insight as to the founder’s beliefs and intentions regarding religion.
He says of the European kingdoms, in part: “Government by kings was first introduced into the world by the Heathens. It was the most prosperous invention the Devil ever set on foot for the promotion of idolatry.”
The founders were very deliberate in their use of language, and it says something that he equates the ruling of kingdoms, a ruling they opposed, as the work of heathens, not of an orderly religious population.
The next phrase from Common Sense is just as profound, and this one completely destroys any notion that the premise of religious liberties extended to the practice of Islam in America.
“Wherefore, hereditary succession in the early ages of monarchy could not take place as a matter of claim, but as something casual or complemental; but as few or no records were extant in those days, it was the traditionary history stuff’d with fables, it was very easy, after the lapse of a few generations, to trump up some superstitious tale conveniently timed, Mahomet-like, to cram hereditary right down the throats of the vulgar.”
Paine was aware of the Islamic practices and went as far as to consider them vulgar fables. Certainly not the type of free worship the colonies would welcome.
Europe was a vast area of secular Christian practices. Thomas Paine was well aware of that and continues in his pamphlet to remark:
“This new World hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from EVERY PART of Europe. Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home, pursues their descendants still. In this extensive quarter of the globe, we forget the narrow limits of three hundred and sixty miles (the extent of England) and carry our friendship on a larger scale; we claim brotherhood with every European Christian, and triumph in the generosity of the sentiment.”
Again, Paine specifies European Christians. This cannot be denied and cannot be ignored. This is not only a gentle point of imposition of the larger Christian faith in the new world, but also the specific rejection of Islam.
Near the end of Paine’s pamphlet he would conclude: “As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensable duty of government to protect all conscientious professors thereof, and I know of no other business which government hath to do therewith. … For myself, I fully and conscientiously believe that it is the will of the Almighty that there should be a diversity of religious opinions among us. It affords a larger field for our Christian kindness; were we all of one way of thinking, our religious dispositions would want matter for probation; and on this liberal principle I look on the various denominations among us to be like children of the same family, differing only in what is called their Christian names.”
Denominations is a very key word, and certainly the reference to differing only in Christian names is a clear mark of the intention of our founders as it pertained to the importance of religion, specifically the Christian religion in the new world. The aversion was to the sectarian persecution within Christianity that was playing out throughout Europe.
That takes me to the federalist papers. There are dozens of references to religion in the 85 essays penned by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. I’ll hit on only a few, that really serve to reinforce the point,
In his essay in Federalist 2, John Jay writes about the city of Providence in colonial America. He begins with the mere aesthetics and admirable practices of it’s people. He says:
“It has often given me pleasure to observe that independent America was not composed of detached and distant territories, but that one connected, fertile, widespread country was the portion of our western sons of liberty. Providence has in a particular manner blessed it with a variety of soils and productions, and watered it with innumerable streams, for the delight and accommodation of its inhabitants. A succession of navigable waters forms a kind of chain round its borders, as if to bind it together; while the most noble rivers in the world, running at convenient distances, present them with highways for the easy communication of friendly aids, and the mutual transportation and exchange of their various commodities.”
John Jay was very fond of the systemic harmony established by the people of Providence. What he says next in Federalist 2 is paramount to the point of Christians in America’s founding. John continues:
“With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people–a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence. This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties.”
It cannot be more clear that the intention of the founding fathers with regards to religious liberty was that the various denominations of Christianity practiced throughout Europe find a good common and peaceful, harmonic ground in the new world. And, that practices outside of those morals would be the disposition of alien sovereignties.
To reinforce this, the anti-federalists would want it further defined. They felt that merely professing this did not guarantee the right for those with differing Christian values to do so without retribution. That’s where the bill of rights came in.
On one side you had the federalists. The proponents of a national, united constitution, led by John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton.
On the other side, you had the anti-federalists who were skeptical of a federal union and wanted guarantees that such a government would not eventually infringe on the rights of the people. This group was led by individuals like Patrick Henry, George Mason, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson.
George Mason was a plantation owner and delegate to the constitutional convention, and is regarded as the father of the bill of rights as produced a vast majority of the written objections contained within the anti-federalist papers that would lead to the bill of rights.
In the Amendments Proposed by the Virginia Convention, (June 27, 1788) there were 20 amendment’s proposed. Many would eventually be combined or otherwise abridged. The very last one read as follows:
“That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men have an equal, natural and unalienable right to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, and that no particular religious sect ought to be favored or established, by law, in preference to others.”
The use again, of the word sect or society is indicative of the varying denominations of Christianity.
Another very profound statement was written by Benjamin Franklin, one of our most notable founding fathers, who had earned the title of “The first American” for his early and tireless campaigning for colonial unity. One of Benjamin Franklin’s most famous speeches came on the last day of the constitutional convention in 1787, just a couple of weeks before the US constitution was ratified.
In the opening of that speech Franklin said:
“Mr. President, I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. Most men indeed as well as most sects in Religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error. Steele a Protestant in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the only difference between our Churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrines is, the Church of Rome is infallible and the Church of England is never in the wrong.”
There is nothing that mentions mosques. Nothing that mentions the Ottoman Empire which was extraordinarily vast and powerful at the time, and situated adjacent to Christian Europe. Not one word can be found anywhere in our founding documents, except for the brief mention of its aversion by Thomas Paine.
The very first congress required members selected to be in the judiciary to swear-in on the Bible. That’s called precedent and it was done for a reason. Again, they argued against the establishment of a religious practice, but they all acknowledged, mentioned, and very much called themselves subject to the Christian God. It’s in Thomas Paine’s writings dozens of times. It’s in the Federalist Papers dozens of times.
Their intent was that it not be established that the nation call itself a Catholic nation, or that Protestant’s or Lutherans be able to practice without persecution.
Aside from any of this, speaking of the Bible, what harm does it do for people to swear on a text that provides a moral guideline that they will act in good faith to uphold their oath? How does that negatively impact the lives of anyone?
The argument that someone who practices Islam is doing the same – is invalid and counterintuitive. The Quran establishes Islamic law, and our constitution could not be anything further from that. Swearing into office by swearing allegiance to an ideology that is the direct antithesis of our constitution is dishonest and not in keeping with our most sacred founding principles.
Some choose to argue that The Treaty of Tripoli in 1797 offers proof that the United States isn’t a Christian nation. Aside from the fact that this is the only single document of the thousands by our founders that they can point to, it is also taken out of context.
The Treaty of Tripoli came at a time when the newly-independent United States was trying to establish treaties and safe passage in trade routes through the Mediterranean. It was an area highly volatized by warring nations and pirates. It was not uncommon for nations to use language to a point of deception to achieve what they needed to achieve an end to their means. European nations, Muslim nations, and African nations were doing this even prior to the nations of the New World entering the mix. Article 11 was only one of twelve articles in the treaty, that
The Treaty was ratified when Adams took office, who shortly after made this unrelate but unmistakable proclamation:
“The safety and prosperity of nations ultimately and essentially depend on the protection and the blessing of Almighty God, and the national acknowledgment of this truth is not only an indispensable duty which the people owe to Him, but a duty whose natural influence is favorable to the promotion of that morality and piety without which social happiness cannot exist nor the blessings of a free government be enjoyed.”
Also consider that there was more than one Treaty of Tripoli. In 1801, the 1797 treaty was broken when Tripoli attacked American shipping after the United States refused to pay more tribute. This led to the First Barbary War which ended with the signing of a second Treaty of Tripoli. This treaty was similar to the original with a few exceptions, the most notable of which is the clause declaring that the United States is “not in any way founded on the Christian Religion” is completely missing. Here is part of Article 14 of the 1805 treaty:
“As the Government of the United States of America, has in itself no character of enmity against the Laws, Religion or Tranquility of Musselmen, and as the said States never have entered into any voluntary war or act of hostility against any Mahometan Nation, except in the defense of their just rights to freely navigate the High Seas: It is declared by the contracting parties that no pretext arising from Religious Opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the Harmony existing between the two Nations…”
If the government of the United States was so adamantly not founded on the Christian religion, why so conspicuously leave that clause out when the treaty was rewritten in 1805?
In our society today, one of the most contentious debates is how far is Christian doctrine allowed to creep into legal doctrine. The First Amendment “provides that Congress make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting its free exercise.” This both provides some guidance and also leaves a lot of subjective interpretation.
From a literal standpoint, it would suggest that Congress may not pass any legislation that requires any public entity to promote any specific religious doctrine. This might suggest that is is another instance where it is left to the States to determine what their citizens decide is in their own best interests. However, in the 1947 case of Everson v Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment extended to States as well as the Federal government.
A recent bill passed by the Texas Senate that would require the Ten Commandments to be posted in every classroom, as well as time for prayer in school, will undoubtedly see itself challenged in court. And, we should find that appropriate for the same reasons we wouldn’t want the Quran legislated to be in every classroom.
The precedent is arguably as misguided as weaponizing the judiciary to go after political rivals. Our Constitution is a well-balanced document that is meant to safeguard the rights of all citizens, without intrusion. We are in very toxic and troubling times in our society. Perhaps an arbitrary solution is to consider the very profound and decent messages conveyed in the Ten Commandments and present them in another fashion that is not sponsored by religion. The same message and values posted and taught in every classroom, from a neutral background. Everyone wins, most importantly our kids.
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