Was the U.S. founded on Judeo/Christian principles?
by William Wilson
The idea that the U.S. was founded on Judeo/Christian principles is one that is commonly held. Many Americans refer to the U.S. as a “Christian nation.” If by that people mean a nation whose population is largely Christian, then the term is accurate. But if people mean that the tenets of Christianity are the basis for our nation, well, that’s another thing all together.
First, a few semantics. I don’t like to refer to this idea as a “myth.” Myths are often stories that are told by “advanced” civilizations looking back on past societies. The ancient Greeks believed in gods like Zeus and Apollo, but today we lump them in with the rest of Greek mythology. The term “myth” can be seen as a pejorative one, something an intellectual elitist uses to dismiss an idea as not being worthy of consideration or belief.
Instead, let’s simply call this idea what it is: an idea. Nothing more, nothing less. You could also call it a belief. There are Americans who reject the notion, but for many of them their rejection is also a belief or an idea. I happen to be an American who rejects the idea, but I hope that my position is not simply a belief. Being a lawyer, I try to base my rejection of the idea on evidence and law itself.
Before digging into the evidence and law, let me say that I do not regard people who hold this belief in low regard. Many of them are sincere in their belief, and they have learned this belief from their parents and religious leaders. Some use the idea as a political tool, playing to groups hoping to get an endorsement or other kinds of support.
My hope with this column is that people on both sides of the debate will examine the evidence for themselves and draw their own conclusions. If you began reading this article believing that the U.S. was founded on Judeo/Christian principles, I doubt that you will change your mind easily–and you shouldn’t. But even if your belief is wrong, there’s nothing inappropriate about believing that we should govern or behave in a way that is consistent with Judeo/Christian principles (assuming it’s possible for 300 million people to agree on just what those principles are!).
Let’s begin with some basic facts. The U.S. Constitution is the document that creates our national government structure and identifies certain rights held by the people. It was in 1787 that the Constitutional Convention finished its work, wrapping up on September 17 (which is when the U.S. celebrates Constitution Day). Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that the nation was based on or founded on Judeo-Christian principles. While this is hardly conclusive proof, one would think that if the Founding Fathers had created the U.S. based on these principles, they would have mentioned it in the Constitution. I am not one who subscribes to the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted according to what the writers believed, but I think it’s fair to conclude that the absence of any religious principles in the Constitution is a pretty good reflection of what the Framers intended. Indeed, the Constitution even goes so far as to say religion is not to be a consideration in deciding whether a person can hold public office. See Article VI. It’s also worth noting that the oath that the Constitution prescribes for presidents says nothing about God:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
Presidents taking the oath may add “so help me God” to their oath, but it’s not required by the Constitution. Again, while not conclusive in itself, this is a fair indication that the Framers did not intend to have Presidents adhere to Judeo-Christian principles.
Given the contentious nature of the Constitutional Convention and the fact that the proposed constitution would have to be ratified by the States, the Framers may have seen strategic merit in omitting any reference to God in the document. If this was the case, we might expect to see early Congresses pass laws in an effort to “correct the record.” Unfortunately for those who hope they did, the early Congresses did nothing of the sort. In fact, two acts of Congress suggest that the Framers and their contemporaries had no intent to found the U.S. on Judeo-Christian principles.
First, in 1791 the Congress proposed–and the States ratified–the First Amendment, which states in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” This is the very first part of the First Amendment, which suggests that the people of that time thought this was a very important principle. Again, while not conclusive in itself, one would think that a nation founded on Christian tenets would say something else in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Even a prefatory note such as, “Although this Nation is founded on the beliefs of Judaism and Christianity, Congress shall make no law…” would make sense. Its absence, though, is telling.
Second, and perhaps most conclusive of all, is a treaty the United States entered into in 1796 (and ratified in 1797), just ten year after the Constitution was adopted. John Adams–one of the founders–was president, and he asked the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary, commonly known as the Treaty of Tripoli. This treaty (which, according to the Constitution, is part of the “supreme law of the land,”) states in Article XI:
Art. 11. As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries. (emphasis added)
This is pretty powerful, if you think about it: President John Adams and one of the earliest Congresses stated explicitly–in a treaty available for the entire world to see–that the government was not “in any sense” founded on Christianity. This treaty was ratified unanimously by the Senate. Not one single Senator objected to this statement. The absence of dissent seems pretty conclusive that the founders of our nation did not create the U.S. based upon Christian or Judaic principles.
This conclusion should not be a source of distress for the faithful, however. What this conclusion says is that the Framers intended for individuals to be involved in the realm of religion, and they intended for the government to simply butt out and stay out of religion.
As a nation that has many Christians–and Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and other religious believers–we can certainly debate whether our government policies are consistent with the teachings of various faiths. In order to have a more meaningful discussion, however, we need to stop arguing about whether the U.S. was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. The fact that our Founding Fathers and Framers made their position pretty clear has not harmed religion in this country, and being sidetracked into arguments of this nature are not productive.