Standing the Founding Fathers on Their Heads

by Richard V. Pierard

Dr. Pierard is professor of history at Indiana State University in Terre Haute.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 20, 1983, pp. 368-372. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Evangelicals who promote a warped view of American history in an effort to undo the court rulings on church-state affairs ignore the fundamental point that no country can be called Christian, even though Christians are in it. The theism of the founding fathers and framers of the constitution was vague. From civil faith they drew up the ideals of theism, but it is wrong to assume therefore that the country was founded on Christian beliefs and thus is a Christian nation.

The most advanced affirmations of religious liberty at the time of the founding of the republic, Thomas Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (submitted to the Virginia legislature in 1779 and enacted 1786) and James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessment (1785), were not widely known until our century. Even the hallowed phrase that the First Amendment built "a wall of separation between church and state" saw the light of day not in a court ruling or piece of legislation, but in a letter from President Jefferson to the Danbury, Connecticut, Baptist Association in 1802. It was not until the 1878 Mormon polygamy decision that the Supreme Court accorded this principle legal recognition.

During the 19th century, evangelical Protestants saw separation as a cornerstone of American freedom — but interpreted it in the light of their own pre-eminent position in society. But as pluralism increased and evangelical predominance eroded, a broader understanding of the limits of religious freedom became necessary. Although Protestants had relied on it to combat Catholic encroachment in matters like public funding for parochial schools. new questions such as released time for religious instruction, prayer and Bible reading in the public schools, tax exemptions for churches and other religious bodies, and the very meaning of religion itself occupied the attention of jurists. In case after case in the post-World War II decades, Protestant evangelicals found that their views had to compete with others for official acceptance and that their understanding of public religious observances was no longer the accepted norm.

Accordingly, more and more evangelicals have reacted against the doctrine, and some now completely reject it. For instance, Christian television talk show host Pat Robertson angrily declared on the "700 Club" in October 1981 that the wall of separation between church and state was a concept recently created by the federal courts, not the Founding Fathers, and that it was "a deliberate attempt to bring the United States into line with the Constitution, not of the U.S., but of the U.S.S.R." He urged legislative restriction on the federal judiciary and that Christians press for a constitutional amendment "over and above the First Amendment" to guarantee religious liberty. He even said, "We’re the majority, supposedly. Why don’t Christians do something? I’m ready to go out in the streets and revolt" (Church and State, October 1981, pp. 3-4).

Robertson’s statement reflects the current tendency in evangelical circles to fight back against what is perceived to be an ever-increasing constriction of "freedom." Jerry Falwell and other figures in the religious New Right have capitalized on the widespread dissatisfaction among evangelicals by preaching the need for a complete overhaul of the church-state relationship, but they are hardly alone in their endeavors. A whole contingent of evangelical Joshuas has arrived on the scene, hoping to bring down the wall of separation between church and state. That their campaign to bring America "back to God" will, if successful, mean the imposition of their deeply felt religious values upon the nation at large goes without saying.

There are a number of ways in which evangelicals are whittling away at the doctrine of separation, and in effect are "standing the founding fathers on their heads." I would like to focus on three themes that appear repeatedly in the literature now flooding Christian bookstores. Although the writers may be unfamiliar to some Century readers, they appear on Christian talk shows, their works are the subjects of promotional blitzes, and they cite each other as authorities.

A Christian world and life view furnished the basis for this early political thought, which guided the American people for nearly two centuries and whose crowning lay in the writing of the Constitution of 1787. This Christian theism had so permeated the colonial mind that it continued to guide even those who had come to regard the Gospel with indifference or even hostility. The currents of this orthodoxy were too strong to be easily set aside by those who in their own thinking had come to a different conception of religion and hence of government also [pp. 325-26].

Evangelical pop philosopher Francis A. Schaeffer insists that the founding fathers "truly understood what they were doing. They knew they were building on the Supreme Being, who was the Creator, the final reality. And they knew that without that foundation everything in the Declaration of Independence and all that followed would be sheer unadulterated nonsense." Most of those who came to America from Europe "established their own individual civil governments on the Bible. It is, therefore, totally foreign to the basic nature of America at the time of the writing of the Constitution to argue a separation doctrine that implies a secular state" (A Christian Manifesto (Good News, 1981], pp. 33-34).

Attorney John W. Whitehead, who has gained notoriety as a strident foe of separation, maintains in The Second American Revolution (David C. Cook, 1982) that the religion of early America was Judeo-Christian theism, and that it was the glue that held liberty and society together as a whole. The Constitution did not need to mention God because it incorporated the theistic principles of both the Declaration of Independence and the constitutions of the respective states. It "would secure the blessings of liberty" found in the individual states, whose constitutions were openly Christian. Although several states had established churches, they were not theocracies but rather had Christianity as their foundation, and their laws and civil governments were based on biblical principles. Because the laws took the Bible as their reference point, it was possible to upheld liberty of conscience while at the same time restraining external acts like blasphemy which were inimical to good order and government.

Since the founders defined religion in terms of Judeo-Christian theism, the First Amendment was "God-centered." James Madison called religion "the duty we owe our Creator," thus that which was to be protected under the amendment had its reference point in God. But its God-centeredness has been altered by Supreme Court interpretation to the point that it now prevents individual Christians from exercising their beliefs and influencing the society in which they live (pp. 95-96).

Again and again one finds in the current evangelical accounts the novel idea advanced by Francis Schaeffer that American civil government had its origins in "Reformation principles." He holds that the book Lex Rex (Law Is King), written in 1644 by the Scottish divine Samuel Rutherford, had a profound impact on the American constitutional process. It argued that all people, including the king, are subservient to, not above, the law. Lex’s basic presupposition was that government must be based on the "absolutes of the Bible." Schaeffer says these ideas were realized in colonial America through the mediating influence of John Locke and John Witherspoon; the principles that took root here were the concept of a covenant between the ruler, God and the people that precludes the state from claiming absolute power, and that all people are equal because they are born sinners. The former justified the Revolution, since George III violated the covenant by transgressing the people’s rights, and the latter was written into the Declaration of Independence (How Should We Then Live? [Revell, 1976], pp. 109-10; Second American Revolution, pp. 29-30).

Also cited as evidence for theism are the Commentaries of William Blackstone. They allegedly shaped the early nation’s understanding of law by teaching that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and God is the source of all laws, rights and freedom. As Whitehead puts it, "Unlike the French revolutionaries a few years later, the American colonists knew very well that if the unalienable rights they were urging for were not seen in the context of Judeo-Christian theism, they were without content" (Second American Revolution, pp. 31-32).

The instances of writers stretching the facts of the past to make them fit into some preconceived Christian model are legion. For example, Whitehead declares that neither Thomas Jefferson nor Benjamin Franklin were deists and that "they at least believed in the personal God of the Scriptures even if they denied the deity of Christ." The proof of Franklin’s piety is his oft-cited plea for prayer at the Constitutional Convention. Historians realize that this was a tactic to cool tempers at a time when the deliberations were deadlocked, but the evangelical barrister states that Franklin’s resolution calling for prayers each morning before proceeding with the day’s business in Congress passed, and that the practice of having prayer before the daily sessions of the U.S. Congress continues to this day. Actually there is no record of a resolution providing for prayer. Franklin himself wrote afterwards that "the Convention, except three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary," yet Whitehead claims that Franklin’s "remarks are clearly derived from the Scriptures" and reveal that "very likely he was operating from Christian presuppositions himself." Further, he "made an appeal for prayer based on the Scriptures," because he was speaking to a group of men "who were predominantly Christians." As for Jefferson, Whitehead says he shared a high view of Christianity, which his statement evidences: "I tremble for my country, when I reflect that God is just," The writer concludes that to call them "true deists is as erroneous as to call Karl Barth an evangelical Christian" (The Separation Illusion [Mott Media, 1977], pp. 20-21).

Gregg Singer reports that evangelical Christianity was held in much higher respect by the majority at the convention of 1787 than it had been in 1776, since so few of the 1776 "radicals" were there. The delegates in 1787 "were willing to accept the benefits of the Gospel in the political and social life of the American people. . . . A more Christian philosophy permeated the thinking and actions of the members" (Theological Interpretation, pp. 44-45).

Even more extreme is the assertion by Schaeffer’s film producer son, Franky V, in his impetuous tract A Time for Anger (Good News, 1982):

Many among the Founders had fled the oppressive monarchies of Europe precisely because they were not given the religious freedom to worship as they pleased, and more importantly, to bring about social change in accordance with God’s law. Far from intending to create a secular, let alone antireligious, state, the Founders wanted to create a society in which the work of the church, once unbound from governmental regulation, might in freedom flower in a variety of forms. They assumed that the Constitution, a distillation of Christian principles (life, liberty, etc.), would be interpreted in the light of the Judeo-Christian tradition, to which even the Deists and free-thinkers among them owed their conception of ethics [pp. 62-63].

Political scientist Robert L. Cord in Separation of Church and State: Historical Fact and Current Fiction (Lambeth, 1982) claims that the religious prohibitions of the First Amendment were designed to be a limitation on the new Congress, denying it the power to establish a national church or religion. The amendment was intended to safeguard the right of individuals to exercise freedom of conscience in religious matters against encroachment by the federal government, and to ensure that such concerns would remain under the control of the several states. Thus Cord labels as "fiction" Justice Hugo Black’s assertion in the Everson ruling (1947) that the First Amendment erected a high and impregnable wall of separation between church and state. Jefferson’s statement to the Danbury Baptists is explained away as applying only to the Congress, not the states. It just curbed congressional power to establish a national religion or provide national restrictions on religious freedom. He insists that the constitutional framers did not envision complete independence of religion and the state, or absolute separation of church and state, and therefore nondiscriminatory or indirect aid to religion and religious institutions was not enjoined by the First Amendment. What Cord overlooks is the process of change and development in American history, which makes the principles that originally guaranteed liberty to Christians of every denominational persuasion equally operative in our highly pluralistic age.

These conservatives believe that pluralism serves as a cover for secularism. Lynn Buzzard, executive director of the Christian Legal Society, avers that this position "excludes religion from participation in the pluralism" and "encourages the expression of all viewpoints EXCEPT those which emerge from a religious commitment." Secularism masquerading as pluralism "is not constitutionally mandated" and is "proscribed as a denial of equal protection" (Freedom and Faith [Good News, 1982], p. 19). Whitehead maintains that secularism is an intolerant religious system that preaches against dogmatism but imposes its own (Second American Revolution, p. 40).

By striking down religious exercises in the public schools on the grounds that they were an establishment of religion and therefore in violation of the First Amendment. the high court made secularism the new "establishment." All religions exist at the pleasure of the secular state and are expected to confine their activities to their designated territory, namely, the church or religious community. Franky Schaeffer decries neutrality as a "myth" which results in a freedom from religion and the exclusion of all those who operate on the basis of religious convictions from involvement in public life (Time for Anger, pp. 19-20). His father adds that separation is used to silence the church. "When Christians speak out on issues, the hue and cry from the humanist state and media is that Christians, and all religions, are prohibited from speaking since there is a separation of church and state" (Christian Manifesto. p. 36).

Many evangelicals — especially those involved in television ministries, conducting family life seminars, and promoting or operating Christian schools — emotively inveigh against secular humanism, denounce the godless Supreme Court, attempt to censor textbooks, and trot out the shopworn Humanist Manifestos I and II as proof of an overarching conspiracy to expunge Christianity from the land. Although the very shrillness of the attacks leads people to discount the attackers as fanatics on the fringes of society, their views are too widely shared to be taken lightly. The Supreme Court gave a boost to their conviction that secularism is a genuine competing faith in the ruling in the 1961 Torcaso case, in which "Secular Humanism" was identified as a religion, and in Justice Potter Stewart’s dissent in the 1963 Schempp case, which referred to a refusal to permit religious exercises in schools as not "the realization of state neutrality, but rather as the establishment of a religion of secularism." A lengthy article by Whitehead and former congressman John Conlan in the Texas Tech Law Review in 1978 provided a working definition of secular humanism which has been recycled in various forms and now is widely accepted among conservative evangelicals. Its adherents are said to believe in the irrelevance of deity, supremacy of human reason, inevitability of progress, science as the guide to human progress, autonomy and centrality of the individual, and evolution as an absolute.

To be sure, secular humanism is an elusive concept, a scare word that means different things to different people. It is difficult to pin down someone using the term to obtain an explanation of exactly what is meant. But evangelicals who use it to designate "the enemy" want nothing to do with a pluralistic system that they feel is a smokescreen obscuring the hegemony exercised by an alien, godless ideology. Instead, its hold should be eliminated through disestablishment. Since religious freedoms "have been eroded by the courts" (a phrase used by a prominent evangelical lobbyist in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last July), a prayer amendment will enable Christians to regain the right of "free exercise" for their faith in public places, break the "monopoly" that humanism now has, and restore the equilibrium between establishment and free exercise which the courts have taken away.

Obviously, evangelicals do have their finger on something important. They remind us that the separation of church and state is no more an absolute than is the separation of powers. Both are constitutional ideals which should be approximated as nearly as possible while respecting other important principles, Separation should be viewed as a development friendly to religion in a heterogeneous society rather than as a hostile turn of events. Neutrality must not be allowed to degenerate into an establishment of secularism or a device to foster irreligion.

Of course, some excessive limitations on free exercise probably need modification. I, for one, feel that the recent court actions upholding a ban on student-conducted, voluntary religious meetings on school property before or after regular class hours serve unnecessarily to arouse animosity and motivate people to tamper with the Constitution by pushing for a prayer amendment. Schools should also pay more attention to the philosophical issues raised by the controversy over creation and evolution — although attentiveness should not mean sneaking in sectarian teaching of religion under the subterfuge of "scientific creationism."

On the other hand, evangelicals who promote a warped view of American history in an effort to undo the court rulings on church-state affairs ignore a fundamental point made by Roger Williams more than 300 years ago: "No civil state or country can be truly called Christian, although the Christians be in it." The vague theism of the founding fathers and framers of the Constitution was in effect a civil religion, and this they did establish. The civil faith did draw from the ideals of theism, but it is wrong to assume that therefore the country was founded on Christian beliefs and thus is a Christian nation.

Speaking as an evangelical myself, I agree that such a theocratic construction is inconsistent with Christianity. The kingdom of heaven is in the hearts of people, and its citizens are found throughout the world. It cannot be restricted to a particular locale or people, regardless of formal religious establishments or the enshrinement of pious references to the deity in historic statements, public documents, and speeches by politicians. In a generalized sense America is a nation under God, as all countries are. But it violates our historic tradition as well as the tenets of Christianity to say that we were or are now a Christian nation. That is standing the founding fathers on their heads with a vengeance, and this I categorically reject.