Quotes From The Founders of Our “Christian Nation”

One of the many things Thomas Jefferson was known for was creating his own version of the bible: he famously excised all of the metaphysical portions, leaving only the moral teachings. (This may be why, when he was running for President, opponents warned that  he would order the burning of all bibles if he were to be elected.) I thought about that recently, when I came across a collection of quotations about religion and religious liberty from Jefferson and America’s other founding fathers. I was familiar with most, but not all of them. Of those I hadn’t previously seen, I particularly liked this one from Jefferson, taken from a letter he wrote to one Peter Carr in 1787:

“Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”

Ben Franklin was more blunt. In Poor Richard’s Almanac, in 1758, he wrote

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

Although not technically a Founder, Thomas Paine was an enormously influential figure in Revolutionary America, and a reliable critic of religion and religious establishments; in The Rights of Man, he wrote

“Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law. Take away the law-establishment, and every religion re-assumes its original benignity.”

In 1776, in The American Crisis, he made his disdain for “faith-based” reasoning even clearer, writing

“To argue with a man who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.”

(Explains the problem with several current members of Congress, the General Assembly and most of Texas….)

Madison frequently weighed in on the side of reason and the need to separate church from state. In his often-quoted letter to William Bradford, he wrote

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

There are many similar quotes from the architects of our Constitution, easily found in textbooks, history books or a cursory visit to Doctor Google. This nation’s founders tended to agree with Gallileo that “man is not obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect intends us to forgo their use.” However avid our current culture warriors may be about rewriting American history, it’s impossible to ignore the continued relevance of these sentiments. In fact, in view of the current push for explicit religious “liberty” to discriminate against LGBT folks, another Jefferson quote (from A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom) seems especially apt:

“Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.”

You tell ’em, Tom!


  1. News from the Guardian – http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/06/archbishop-san-francisco-homosexuality-abortion “The Roman Catholic archbishop of San Francisco has sparked controversy by demanding teachers lead their public and professional lives consistently with church teachings on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, abortion, birth control and other behaviours he describes as evil.

    Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone plans to include the language in next year’s faculty handbooks for four high schools owned and operated by the archdiocese. The document states that all administrators, faculty and staff, including non-Catholics, will be required to refrain from saying or doing anything publicly that contradicts church doctrine.”

  2. The Indianapolis Star masthead quotes a portion of II Corinthians, “…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” Paul was explaining why Christians were free of the letter of the old covenant; not quite a call to use reason, as the Founding Fathers’ statements are. Would that the Star substitute on occasion your quotes from the two Toms, Ben, John Adams, et al, and their even more blistering statements concerning ministers and religion. My favorite is from Tom Paine, no revelation, no mystery, no miracles.

  3. This post reflects everything that is going through my mind today after news yesterday and today regarding the destructive actions of the GOP far right-wing, privately owned elected officials on city, state and federal levels. All in the name of “Christianity” – so they say – but what they are doing to their “neighbors” makes me ashamed to tell anyone I am a Christian lest I be considered one of “them”. My mind is overburdened with questions; how have we come to this state of affairs in the United States of America? How has Boehner the power and control to schedule one-sided speakers to appear before Congress? One is a fine man; Pope Francis, doing his best to bring the Catholic religion into the 21st Century but retain the basic “do unto others…” that is the basis of Christianity but not the basis of this country or it’s government. The other a war monger who will help lead Boehner, the GOP, 1%, NRA, Tea Party, Koch brothers, Rush, Sarah, The Donald, and all others of their ilk into war, dragging us along behind. The founding fathers could not have foreseen this country as it is today; with one party distorting and misrepresenting their hard earned leadership and the ensueing documents written to guide us to freedom from tyranny. We have been stripped of government of the people, by the people, and for the people that they entrusted to us and we cannot afford to buy it back…the 1% has all of the money to retain it.

  4. As I recall, the Republican big wigs used to refer to the Church Chat people as
    “Useful Idiots”. Amen

  5. I come here mostly to learn and today’s no exception.

    The term “The Age of Reason”, I find from my bud Google, was the title of a pamphlet published by Thomas Paine. Perhaps your reaction to my revealation is like the commercial says, “everybody knows that”. I’m sure that things like that are taught in law school but glossed over in engineering school. Or perhaps it’s among my brain clutter but misfiled.

    But it’s also regarded by historians as a period of time. Here’s what one of them wrote for the Internet.

    “The Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, is the name given to the period in Europe and America during the 1700s when mankind was emerging from centuries of ignorance into a new age enlightened by reason, science, and respect for humanity. People of the Enlightenment were convinced that human reason could (1) discover the natural laws of the universe and (2) determine the natural rights of mankind; (3) thereby unending progress in knowledge, technical achievement, and moral values would be realized.[2]”

    I assume that that was noticed because it was a marked contrast from the times before.

    Perhaps Tom’s pamphlet should be more widely read today.

  6. My favorite Thomas Paine pamphlet, “Common Sense”, was one of the first defining thought pieces I read as a high school student in my small (450 students) rural high school around 1964. It was not required reading, don’t even remember where I purchased the very thin yellow paper booklet, but I remember reading it, rereading it, and packing it in a box when I left home for college.

    When first published, the pamphlet listed no author, was published anonymously, and sold like hotcakes basically because Paine wrote it in very plain language easily understood by both the educated and the larger group by far, the uneducated. He avoided use of complex Latin phrases and instead opted for a more direct, concise style that helped make the information accessible to everyone who read or heard its ideas. He he structured Common Sense as if it were a sermon, and relied on Biblical references to make his case to the people. He connected American independence with common dissenting Protestant beliefs as a means to present a distinctly American political identity. He was shrewd; however, there may remain some folks who believe Paine’s Biblical references indicate he was a believing Christian rather than the Deist he was.

    Politicians still make use of religious references occasionally when attempting to appeal to a wide range of voters, and today is no different, I suppose. Attached at the below link are the results of an interesting survey study, complete with the protocols used, graphing the different self-identified religious beliefs in the US. Of special interest is that Deism, a choice, increased 717% between 1990 and 2000.

  7. Benjamin Franklin
    Autobiography, Poor Richard, & Later Writings
    Library of America Edition

    Reasons Against Satirizing Religion

    Dear ___________
    I have read your Manuscrit with some Attention. By the Arguments it contains against the Doctrine of a particular Providence, tho’ you allow a general Providence, you strike at the Foundation of all Religion: For without the Belief of a Providence that takes Cognizance of, guards and guides and may favour particular Persons, there is no Motive to Worship a Deity, to fear its Displeasure, or to pray for its Protection. I will not enter into any Discussion of your Principles, tho’ you seem to desire it; At present I shall only give you my Opinion that tho’ your Reasonings are subtle, and may prevail with some Readers, you will not succeed so as to change the general Sentiments of Mankind on that Subject, and the Consequence of printing this Piece will be a great deal of Odium drawn upon yourself, Mischief to you and no Benefit to others. He that spits against the Wind, spits in his own Face. But were you to succeed, do you imagine any Good would be done by it? You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous Life without the Assistance afforded by Religion; you having a clear Perception of the Advantages of Virtue and the Disadvantages of Vice, and possessing a Strength of Resolution sufficient to enable you to resist common Temptations. But think how great a Proportion of Mankind consists of weak and ignorant Men and Women, and of inexperienc’d and inconsiderate Youth of both Sexes, who have need of the Motives of Religion to restrain them from Vice, to support their Virtue, and retain them in the Practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great Point for its Security; And perhaps you are indebted to her originally that is to your Religious Education, for the Habits of Virtue upon which you now justly value yourself. You might easily display your excellent Talents of reasoning on a less hazardous Subject, and thereby obtain Rank with our most distinguish’d Authors. For among us, it is not necessary, as among the Hottentots that a Youth to be receiv’d into the Company of Men, should prove his Manhood by beating his mother. I would advise you therefore not to attempt unchaining the Tyger, but to burn this Piece before it is seen by any other Person, whereby you will save yourself a great deal of Mortification from the Enemies it may raise against you, and perhaps a good deal of Regret and Repentance. If Men are so wicked as we now see them with Religion what would they be if without it? I intend this Letter itself as a Proof of my Friendship and therefore add no Professions of it, but subscribe simply Yours

    December 13, 1757

    Franklin may have been against churches, but not against religion

    Motion for Prayer in the Constitutional Convention

    Mr. President,
    The small progress we have made, after 4 or 5 Weeks’ close Attendance and continual Reasonings with each other, our different Sentiments on almost every Question, several of the last producing as many Noes as Ayes, is, methinks, a melancholy Proof of the Imperfection of the Human Understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political Wisdom, since we have been running all about in Search of it. We have gone back to ancient History for Models of Government, and examin’d the different Forms of those Republics, which, having been originally form’d with the Seeds of their own Dissolution, now no longer exist; and we have view’d modern States all round Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our Circumstances.
    In this Situation of this Assembly, groping, as it were, in the dark to find Political Truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illiminate our Understandings?
    In the Beginning of the Contest with Britain, when we were sensible of Danger, we had daily Prayers in this Room for the Divine Protection. Our Prayers, Sir, were heard;– and they were graciously answered. All of us, who were engag’d in the Struggle, must have observed frequent Instances of a superintending Providence in our Favour. To that kind Providence we owe this happy Opportunity of Consulting in Peace on the Means of establishing our future national Felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? or do we imagine we no longer need its assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time; and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this Truth, that God governs in theAffairs of Men. And if a Sparrow cannot fall to the Ground without his Notice, is it probable that an Empire can rise without his Aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that “except the Lord build the House, they labour in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe, that, without his concurring Aid, we shall succeed in this political Building no better than the builders of Babel; we shall be divided by our little, partial, local Interests, our Projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a Reproach and a Bye-word down to future Ages. And, what is worse, Mankind may hereafter, from this unfortunate Instance, despair of establishing Government by human Wisdom, and leave it to Chance, War, and Conquest.
    I therefore beg leave to move,
    That henceforth Prayers, imploring the Assistance of Heaven and its Blessing on our Deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to Business; and that one or more of the Clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that Service*
    *The convention, except three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary! (Note is Franklin’s)

    June 28, 1787

    From the same LOA volume

    From a collection of Franklin’s documents:

    Benjamin Franklin’s Epitaph (Written in 1776)

    Benjamin FranklinThe Body of B. Franklin, Printer,

    Like the Cover of an old Book,

    Its Contents torn out,

    And stript of its Lettering & Gilding,

    Lies here, Food for Worms.

    But the work shall not be lost;

    For it will, as he believed, appear once more

    In a new and more elegant Edition

    Corrected and improved

    By the Author. –

    Given by B Franklin to Sam. Morris

    August 31 1776
    It is his own hand writing.

    It seems to me that on the extreme right and the extreme left distortions and exaggerations are common. One of the reasons I enjoy this blog is that there is little name calling and blind accusations. Keep up the good work!

  8. The problem I have with bringing religion into the exercise of public discourse, is one we see in all of our political life. The majority almost always wants to impose its weight on all others. My religious beliefs are privately held and may or may not be based in reason. Our political and civic governance must be based in reason to serve and promote the general welfare of all citizens regardless of their religious or lack of religious beliefs. Those who continuous attempt to impose their religious beliefs on all by legislative action are clearly acting counter to what the framers of the constitution intended. Our country’s history is rife with instances of criminal actions based on distorted religious beliefs and carried out with the approval of those who have no respect for reason or fairness.

    Lots of us still do not get it, even 200 years later. Is it blind faith or just blindness to reason?

  9. It occurs to me that discussing the merits of Faith is compelling among humans even if almost never productive. Why, I wonder. It’s among the most personal of topics. One would expect therefore great diversity given our propensity to separate by culture. So what?

    Does Faith hamper reason? Does lack of Faith invite immorality? Do the faithful love more deeply or at least more often?

    All sides see the others as flawed.

    Perhaps the more functional approach is to judge people by actions and results rather than beliefs.

    Anyone who applies reason, lives morally, and loves profusely is certainly an asset to themselves and all humanity.

    No matter what motivates them.

  10. Pete,

    “It occurs to me that discussing the merits of Faith is compelling among humans even if almost never productive. Why, I wonder.”

    Speaking simply as related to politics, the media’s urgency to get the ‘big story’ usually involving personal beliefs and get the greatest number of hits on the Internet news sites does not make for productive or edifying conversation. Just imagine if you’re a candidate for any elected office, from national to the local dog catcher, having an aggressive camera man and an accompanying Barbie doll type reporter shoving a microphone under your chin and asking something to the effect of “Do you support prayer before such and so High School’s football game tonight?”

  11. Perhaps Sheila could mention the vision (or lack of it) in the recent efforts to destroy public education in Indiana, and what that might mean for Glenda Ritz’s future in Indiana politics. Might be a really interesting discussion.

  12. Boy! The word religion sure brings the cats to the kitchen. You’d think one of these sages has actually seen this elephant.

  13. Here is the full quote by Thomas Paine. Please get your quotes correct.

    “To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture.”
    ― Thomas Paine, The Crisis Quotes by Thomas Paine

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