No, The US Wasn’t Founded on Religion

Another day, yet another law enforcement agency promoting religion by making a show of In God We Trust. This time, it is the Seminary Police Department in Seminary, Mississippi. The Chief of Police, Michael Kelly, has a new program where citizens of the small community can sponsor an officer by purchasing a badge with In God We Trust inscribed on its face. According to WDAM news, Chief Kelly says that the badges are more than just a way to get officers new insignia, saying, “They [the sponsor and the officer] will exchange Christmas cards, birthday cards, keep in touch and it just lets that officer know, there is at least one special family in the community that cares about him.”

I could go on and on about how, despite his good intentions, Chief Kelly is unconstitutionally promoting religion – specifically the Christian religion. But I’m not going to do that. Instead, I want to focus on something else Chief Kelly said, because I hear it much too often.

Kelly told WDAM news that “our very country was founded upon the premise of and trust and faith in the Almighty.”

That America was founded on any such principles is a trite argument, the only true purpose of which is to demonstrate the arguer’s stunningly ignorant view of . No, America was not founded on religious freedom, nor faith in God. No, we are not a Christian nation, so you can stop saying that.

Firstly, it is necessary to define what is meant by “the founding of our country.” This is a confusing and vague term. Does it mean the revolt against imperial rule in 1775 and ’76, or does it refer to the ratification of the United States Constitution in 1788, the event that actually formed what we think of today as The United States of America? Or does it date to September of 1789, when the bill of rights were first proposed, but not ratified? Maybe it goes even further back, all the way to the early 17th century when the first English colonies were established on the territory that would become the United States? The point is, the story of American history is a fluid and complicated narrative. For the purposes of this argument, I define the founding of the United States to be the revolutionary war period of the 1770s. It was during this period that the colonists began to see themselves as more than just citizens of their respective colonies; the idea that America was inhabited by Americans sharing in a common enterprise begins with the revolutionary crisis that followed the French and Indian War. In addition, this period marks the genesis of the idea that the colonies should separate themselves politically from Great Britain, which was quite a radical idea when it was first proposed.

Often, those who claim that America is a nation founded on faith in God or religion will cite the erudite passages in the that reference deity. They ignore the fact that the late 18th century was pre-Darwin, making it quite difficult to be a nonbeliever of any real conviction. Indeed, even the word “atheist” meant something quite different: not someone who was without God, but one who was without religion – an important distinction between our time and theirs. And even if the words held the same meaning, it is irrelevant. The idea that the our nation was founded (i.e. separated from the British monarchy) on any of the poetic mentions of a Creator found in the is nonsense. If one looks past those first flowery paragraphs, it will be discovered that the actually enumerates the reasons why the colonists were revolting against imperial rule. There are 27 specific indictments leveled against King George III; 28 if you include His Majesty’s failure to adequately answer the colonist’s pleas for redress of their grievances. It will probably not surprise to you to learn that not a single one of those grievances includes a reference to gods or religion. In fact, the vast majority of the grievances refer to the British government’s tendency to usurp the authority of the local legislatures and governmental bodies of the various colonies, if not outright dissolving them (as happened to the Virginia House of Burgesses on several occasions, most notably in 1774, when Jefferson himself was serving as a delegate to the body).

Any critical reading of the Declaration of Independence will lead to the conclusion that the source of the revolution is not contained in two brief mentions of deity, but rather in the concise political arguments that follow. The argument, of course, then becomes that the idea of unalienable rights flows from God, leading to the political conclusions and argument elucidated by Jefferson. However, the fact that many – if not a majority – of the delegates to the Continental Congress were also members of colonial legislative bodies (and all of them came from the upper-class of society) suggests that the invocation of supernatural rights was nothing more than a handy justification for their attempt to preserve their personal political power through insurrection and revolt, much in the same way that supernatural rights were invoked as a convenient way of justifying the institution of slavery. Unalienable rights did not flow from God, the idea of them flowed from men, who passed it through the lens of deity to solidify their claim to political power.

There is simply no evidence to suggest that the United States was founded on or inspired by any religious principles. The idea that religious freedom was anything more than a secondary concern is laughable, as evidenced by the fact that several states – South Carolina, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Maryland – included religious requirements for holding office in their constitutions. For nearly a century, those provisions went unchallenged because Article VI of the (“no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States”) was interpreted as applying only to the federal government. Those state constitutional provisions, in many cases, are still on the books today, being rendered contestable only by the establishment of the 14th amendment in 1868. In fact, it took until 1961 for the US Supreme Court to rule, in Torcaso v. Watkins, that the religious test clause in the Maryland constitution violated the 1st and 14th amendments. So much for a foundation of religious freedom.

In light of these facts – any one of which can be delved into more deeply – it is impossible for any rational person to continue using the argument that religion is in some way the core idea that the United States is founded on. The United States was founded on the principles of local, accountable government. It was also founded on the desires of the colonial ruling class to maintain their political power. So, I encourage those who use this argument to further their obvious theocratic agenda to check their own bias and actually learn something about the American Revolution and the founding of the United States before they profess to be experts in deciphering its motivations.

You can view the US Constitution here

The Declaration of Independence can be viewed here

Thomas Essel

Thomas Essel is an outspoken secular activist and serves as Assistant Director for The Original Motto Project. Thomas also writes for the Patheos Atheist blog Danthropology and his work has appeared in the Springfield News-Leader. You can contact Thomas at: Thomas@originalmotto.us