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Little-Known U.S. Document Signed by President Adams Proclaims America's Government Is Secular
January 27, 2005 5:19 PM   Subscribe

Little-Known U.S. Document Signed by President Adams Proclaims America's Government Is Secular Some people today assert that the United States government came from Christian foundations. They argue that our political system represents a Christian ideal form of government and that Jefferson, Madison, et al, had simply expressed Christian values while framing the Constitution. If this proved true, then we should have a wealth of evidence to support it, yet just the opposite proves the case. Although, indeed, many of America's colonial statesmen practiced Christianity, our most influential Founding Fathers broke away from traditional religious thinking. The ideas of the Great Enlightenment that began in Europe had begun to sever the chains of monarchical theocracy. These heretical European ideas spread throughout early America. Instead of relying on faith, people began to use reason and science as their guide. The humanistic philosophical writers of the Enlightenment, such as Locke, Rousseau, and Voltaire, had greatly influenced our Founding Fathers and Isaac Newton's mechanical and mathematical foundations served as a grounding post for their scientific reasoning.
posted by Postroad (49 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
True. The problem is that when you try to tell this to people who hold the opposite perspective, their brains shut off and the Bible takes over.
posted by baphomet at 5:25 PM on January 27, 2005


ditto with baphomet. Middle-eastern-origin monotheist religions are largely based on the idea that "we are right no matter what anyone else says." This Adams document will cut no ice with them.
posted by telstar at 5:33 PM on January 27, 2005


Perhaps it is, but it's tough to ignore the practical counterargument that the US a) is overwhelmingly composed of Christians and b) has a government elected by majority vote.
posted by boaz at 5:46 PM on January 27, 2005


I could make the f's and fuperfcriptf on the Treaty of Tripoli in Word! It's a fcam.
posted by anthill at 5:52 PM on January 27, 2005


How did we get a link in a FPP with a referrer stuck in it.
posted by MrLint at 5:53 PM on January 27, 2005


Thomas Jefferson even edited his own version of the Bible, which I gather removes many miracles. Judeo-Christian founders, indeed.
posted by interrobang at 5:53 PM on January 27, 2005


I'm surprised John Adams would say such a thing, though. Of all the Founders, he was probably among the most religious. A bit of a stodgy moralist, some might say.
posted by absalom at 5:55 PM on January 27, 2005


i had the same question, MrLint.
posted by Igor XA at 5:55 PM on January 27, 2005


More interesting than the Treaty of Tripoli, to me, is what he says earlier, in his "A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America":

It will never be pretended that any persons employed in [government] service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.

The contrast is getting too stark to ignore.
posted by coelecanth at 6:14 PM on January 27, 2005


Let me know if I'm wrong, but isn't "Freedom of Religion" one of our nations fundamental beliefs? If that's true, how can one religion be held with higher regard than any other religion?

The founding fathers held to the notion that it is important to believe in a god. No particular god. At that time religion laid the groundwork for what they knew to be good moral guidelines.
posted by snsranch at 6:18 PM on January 27, 2005


Perhaps it is, but it's tough to ignore the practical counterargument that the US a) is overwhelmingly composed of Christians and b) has a government elected by majority vote.

I think this is merely useful to refute the "this country was founded as a Christian nation" argument. The "most of us are Christian and we vote" argument is a separate one, and one that can't be argued against if the response is "even the founding fathers wanted everything Christian!"

So, essentially, this allows a discussion to take place. Assuming, of course, that members of both sides give a hoot about having a discussion. In this day and age, I think most people just like yelling at each other.
posted by davejay at 6:19 PM on January 27, 2005


Cultural back-lashes occur every so often. Usually as a result of one segment of society usurping the power of, or unduly controlling another segment.

Is it possible that, in a few years from now, when this nation has become irreversibly damaged by neo-cons and right wing christians, they will suffer an amazing back-lash?

It's not hard to imagine considering the fact that there are really only two major fundamentalist factions in existence today; American Christian Fundamentalists and Islamic Fundamentalists.

The rest of the civilized world is tired of the inane and useless bickering (death, warfare AND because it is not really about 9/11).

Let the back-lash (and civilized behavior) begin.
posted by snsranch at 6:41 PM on January 27, 2005


Adams only wrote that because God made him write it so that later he could test everyone's Faith in Him.
posted by odinsdream at 6:43 PM on January 27, 2005


If he was anything like many folks around here, he wrote it because his girl/boyfriend MADE him do it against his better judgment.
posted by snsranch at 7:03 PM on January 27, 2005


"George, why don't you quit bitching about the Brits and actually get off your ass and DO something about it..?"

"Fine, Martha!! I will!! If it will get you off my back, then it just might be worth it!!"

/Washington
posted by Balisong at 7:08 PM on January 27, 2005


Lord Shaftesbury often remarked that all wise men are of but one religion. "And which is that?" he was asked one day. "Wise men," he replied, "never tell."
posted by missbossy at 7:11 PM on January 27, 2005


Hey, this is interesting — did anyone else notice that this treaty prominently features the signature of Joel Barlow, in his capacity as U.S. Consul General in Algiers (1796-97) — that's right, the poet Joel Barlow of Columbiad (1809 ed.) fame?
posted by Zurishaddai at 7:36 PM on January 27, 2005


Perhaps it is, but it's tough to ignore the practical counterargument that the US a) is overwhelmingly composed of Christians and b) has a government elected by majority vote.

Boaz:
No perhaps about it -- the US government is not a Christian institution, nor did its creators model it on a Christian base.

As for the majority of Christians in the US -- good for them. That still does not give them the authority to try and make the US government into a Christian one. Indeed, that is impossible -- the day the US government became a Christian government is the day it ceases to be the government Jefferson et al. founded.

But all of this is lost on the extreme fundamentalists -- they turned their minds off long ago. But maybe this can help to enlighten some of the others that have fallen for the Christian government lie, whoever they may be.
posted by teece at 8:11 PM on January 27, 2005


How interesting, a poet-polititian.

Poets and all manner of artists would make the greatest world leaders....if they weren't so busy actually caring about things other than their own wealth and power.

Does anyone remember a quote that goes something like, "I could produce art that is more beautiful, but you don't deserve it!"?
posted by snsranch at 8:17 PM on January 27, 2005


snsranch: Vaclav Havel. Sometimes it takes a poet to create a revolution. (and no, I have no idea about that quote, but it sounds like something Dieter would say)
posted by Eekacat at 8:30 PM on January 27, 2005


Oh shit, Eakacat, reminds now of Bernard Shaw, whos works I must re-read now. Well, anyway, thank you.
posted by snsranch at 9:34 PM on January 27, 2005


This is beautiful, and exactly the sort of thing I've been looking for. Constantly debating with a friend of mine about the idea that the gov't and it's legislation must remain secular to remain true to the idea of religious freedom to all men.
posted by MrBobaFett at 9:58 PM on January 27, 2005


I would say that "secular" may be too strong a word here. It seems that most of the people in that document are described as deists, and while the document asks why references to the Christian God are absent in the founding documents... it's worth noting that the Declaration of Independence refers to a creator...

So... maybe "deist" works. Maybe "secular" works....
posted by bugmuncher at 10:03 PM on January 27, 2005


I would say that "secular" may be too strong a word here.

Not even remotely too strong. The word "God" only occurs one time in the Declaration, which is a letter explaining why a new government was being formed. The actual government laid out was completely secular. The First Amendment of the Constitution makes the intent extremely damn clear: the US government is to stay out of the religion business.

The fact that the founders were "deists" (which, in Jefferson's case, may even have been the only acceptable term to use for what today would probably be considered atheist), isn't really that important to me. Neither is the one reference to "God" in the Declaration. I don't have any religious beliefs, and yet I too use that word in writing sometimes, in that way even.

Really, you don't need anything but the Constitution to show that the US government is secular -- the idea that it is not is absurd on the face of it, at least as the Constitution lays it out. The kinds of writing this guy gives are only useful for debunking the completely ahistorical claims of certain religious people.
posted by teece at 10:42 PM on January 27, 2005


Coelecanth:
A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America: It will never be pretended that any persons employed in [government] service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.
The contrast is getting too stark to ignore.


Coelecanth: While I suspect you and I have the same opinion of Bush, the quote you provide doesn't really seem to provide much contrast. Paraphrased, it says, "The president won't pretend that he's closer to God than everyone else", i.e. the president will not justify his position by saying he is the person most connected to God in the country. From what I've seen, Bush is saying he's talking to God, but he's not saying he's the only one, or he's the person closest to God in America.
posted by Bugbread at 11:21 PM on January 27, 2005


He's just the one who talks with, and takes orders from, God, and he has all the power, and won't listen to anyone else, including the "experts" on anything.
posted by Balisong at 11:33 PM on January 27, 2005


Exactly. It's a horrible situation, it just didn't match the quote.
posted by Bugbread at 11:35 PM on January 27, 2005


( I still don't think Bush is really a Christian, he just plays one on TV)
posted by Balisong at 11:36 PM on January 27, 2005




That many of the Founders were personally not orthodox Christians (whether they were Deists, skeptics, or just uninterested to a greater or lesser extent) is beyond doubt.

That the Founders intended most strongly for the United States federal government to be non-denominational, in the sense of favoring one Protestant denomination over another, is also beyond doubt. It is also clear that they intended that non-Protestants not be deprived of property rights or voting franchise on that basis, but hardly evident that they intended for non-Protestant people to be on a fully equal basis.

However, it completely violates history to suggest that the Founders even remotely contemplated the sort of coercive secularlism which many of the posters seem to regard as their intention. The public and private institutions of the colonies, and the early United States, were pervasively and thoroughly Protestant Christian (with the exception of Maryland, which was more open to Catholics). Certainly, the suggestion that the King James Bible not be taught in the public schools would have been looked upon with complete non-comprehension, like a proposal that the teacher instruct that night were day.

That the Founders were part of a well-education elite who personally deviated from this in their preferences hardly changes that fact. The Founders certainly did nothing to try to impose secularlism, making it quite clear what they thought the Constitution encompassed and authorized.

The Treaty of Tripoli and Jefferson's correspondence don't change the correct analysis. One could just easily fabricate a hypothesis that the United States of the 1950s was pro-socialist by looking into the private correspondence of important politicians, expressing discomfort with the market, or signature to various UN conventions with their empty, Marxist-flavored hortatory clauses about egalitarianism and the right to sustenance on the public dime.
posted by MattD at 4:27 AM on January 28, 2005


Paraphrased, it says, "The president won't pretend that he's closer to God than everyone else", i.e. the president will not justify his position by saying he is the person most connected to God in the country. From what I've seen, Bush is saying he's talking to God, but he's not saying he's the only one, or he's the person closest to God in America.

Wrong. Paraphrased, it says, "People in the government have no legitimate claim to being in touch with any higher powers, or to claim to be influenced by them, any more than regular folks can assert that claim -- this government was founded ONLY ("merely") by reason."

The greatest false religious claim anyone can make is to be "conversing" with God, or to claim to know what God is thinking. By definition we do not know the thoughts of God. Any president who even hints at a conversation with God is engaging in this false claim. Moreover, all protestations notwithstanding, he is inserting his faith into the machinery of government, which is unconstitutional and contrary to the principles upon which this government was founded.
posted by beagle at 5:45 AM on January 28, 2005


Little Known Document Signed by President Bush Proclaims Adams was Never President of the United States of America.
posted by jimfl at 7:28 AM on January 28, 2005


Perhaps it is, but it's tough to ignore the practical counterargument that the US a) is overwhelmingly composed of Christians and b) has a government elected by majority vote.

Yes--if you define "Christian" as "anyone who calls himself a Christian."

But many leaders are trying to have it both ways. "We should implement policy X, because it is in accord with Christianity, and a majority of Americans are Christian," they'll argue. However, point out to them that not all people-who-call-themselves-Christians support X, and the response is, "Well, they're not really Christians then." What they won't acknowledge is that if you change the definition of "Christian" from "anyone who calls himself a Christian" to "someone who shares my beliefs of A, B, C, D, E, F, and G," it is not at all clear that Christians by that definition constitute a majority.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:41 AM on January 28, 2005


MattD--I think you're probably right on.

I don't recall a bunch of 17th c. secular humanists getting all uppity about religious persecution and thus leaving England to establish a more tolerant society, ultimately ending up in North America.....

Oh, that's right, it was a bunch of persecuted protestants fed up with the Church of England and kings declaring themselves spiritually supreme monarchs. (Which may be part of the reason for Adams' "Defence..." statements)

So...if it wasn't a bunch of secular humanists...maybe there is something to this whole "Christian founding fathers" thing...just a thought.
posted by intheory at 7:51 AM on January 28, 2005


Wrong. Paraphrased, it says, "People in the government have no legitimate claim to being in touch with any higher powers, or to claim to be influenced by them, any more than regular folks can assert that claim -- this government was founded ONLY ("merely") by reason."

The greatest false religious claim anyone can make is to be "conversing" with God, or to claim to know what God is thinking. By definition we do not know the thoughts of God.


Yes and no. Overall yes. First, I totally dropped the ball on the "this government was founded ONLY ("merely") by reason" bit.

I don't understand the bit about "by definition we do not know the thoughts of God", though. By what definition is that?
posted by Bugbread at 7:54 AM on January 28, 2005


^^^ I guess by definition of sanity. Or perhaps humility.

Perhaps it is, but it's tough to ignore the practical counterargument that the US a) is overwhelmingly composed of Christians and b) has a government elected by majority vote.

Mmmm, embrace that fascism.

It's not tough for me to ignore, because I have respect for other people's religious beliefs.
posted by r3tr0 at 8:13 AM on January 28, 2005


Hey folks, I'm really on your side. It's just that there's a subtle difference between being right and being accurate.
posted by boaz at 8:20 AM on January 28, 2005


Oh, that's right, it was a bunch of persecuted protestants fed up with the Church of England and kings declaring themselves spiritually supreme monarchs.

Yes, the cults went shaking and quaking off to the colonies to found their little one-religion settlements, but so did a lot of folk just looking to make a buck.
posted by pracowity at 8:31 AM on January 28, 2005


Baphomet, that's not the Bible they're spouting: most "America is a Christian country" people have never actually read the Bible. Ask them to name the Gospels in order without giving them such clues as telling them how many Gospels there are first, and then to tell you how the Gospels differ from one another, and you'll see. What they're spouting is what they heard from other people that some preacher said, most likely on radio. SpaceBass's link is a good one.
posted by davy at 8:34 AM on January 28, 2005


SpaceBass, I scored 19 correct out of 21; the facts behind questions 13 and 14 need more public airing.
posted by davy at 8:39 AM on January 28, 2005


bugbread, I did badly misread the quote. Where I wrote "It will never be pretended that any persons employed in [government] service," I replaced Adams's "that" with "[government]", when the "service" to which Adams was referring was "the formation of the American governments," from his previous sentence. Adams is saying that no-one will claim later that God came down and told the founders how to set up the Constitution. So I'm genuinely wrong about the quote. Thanks for getting me to re-read it.
posted by coelecanth at 9:11 AM on January 28, 2005


intheory: Oh, that's right, it was a bunch of persecuted protestants fed up with the Church of England and kings declaring themselves spiritually supreme monarchs. (Which may be part of the reason for Adams' "Defence..." statements)

I think that if you look it historical context, the idea of a "Christian" nation was even less viable than a republic bared from making religious laws. There was no such thing as a "Christian" nation in 1776. There were Catholic nations. There were Lutheran nations. There was the Church of England and its colonies. If your flavor of Christianity was different from that of your lords and rulers, you could expect to have significantly less in the way of civil rights and liberties.

I think that our founding fathers were also astute students of history, and had several generations of civil war and strife to inform their decision that entanglement between government and religion was a bad thing.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:32 AM on January 28, 2005


However, it completely violates history to suggest that the Founders even remotely contemplated the sort of coercive secularlism which many of the posters seem to regard as their intention.

I find this to be complete malarky, MattD, doesn't even pass the smell test. It is impossible for the US government to present any damn religion as something it favors without violating the Constitution. Even if the view of what the founding fathers thought of as "religion" meant Christian sects, that is simply and indication of their blinkered 18th century world view, a world view that also thought "all men are created equal" but was OK with slavery. The fact of the matter is that the Constitution prohibits favoring any religion in government, not allowing some religions in that are "popular," or allowing references to entire brands of religion as favored by the state.

The "coercive secularism" is EXACTLY what they had in mind when they wrote the Constitution. The US government is secular, by definition of that government. No ifs, ands, or buts. More importantly, fuck what they had in mind, there is what they wrote down in the Constitution -- and the meaning of that is clear: no favored religion, no religious test for office, entirely secular procedures and functioning.

There is no way to achieve that except by a complete lack of religion in the US government -- none at all. That is not the same as no religion in our society, as many Christians who want a Christian government will claim.
posted by teece at 12:03 PM on January 28, 2005


you can't spin the bill of rights.
posted by Miles Long at 1:23 PM on January 28, 2005


( I still don't think Bush is really a Christian, he just plays one on TV) If only we could say that about his being president...
posted by ~rschram at 2:43 PM on January 28, 2005


Teece, you are making broad claims without evidence.

First, even if your reading of the plain language were correct -- and it is not -- the plain language test does not preclude an analysis of the intention of the Framers, in fact, it absolutely requires it. 220 year old lawyer-talk does not stand on its own. If it did, there'd be no freedom to post on the Internet (where's the "press") nor could there have been an Air Force. Plain language testers rely upon evidence of intent in order to understand what the plain language should be interpreted to permit or require.

The divide in constitutional interpretation is not between intentionalism and some kind of bizarre literalism, but rather between, on the one hand, plain language interpreted with aid of intent, and, on the other hand, those who happily reject the framers' intent and plain langugage in order to construe the Constitution's alleged fundamental principals as an ongoing mandate to selectively impose the will of political minorities upon the will of political majorities whom the judges deem to be unenlightened.

Now, moving on to the language. Every clause of the First Amendment used specific language with specific, and well-understood limitations.

The establishment clause forbids establishment of a church by Congress, which is not "favoring any religion in government," to say the least of being an affirmative mandate for coercive secularlism. Rather, establishment meant designation of a specific denomination as the official sect and paying its ministers and hierarchs from the public till.

It is ahistorical -- false as a matter of fact -- to suggest that the establishment clause, disrupted the popular American understanding of themselves as a Christian nation, or barred generically Christian institutions or practices within government, or even sectarian ministers on the public till (such as military chaplains) provided that all sects were permitted to participate in some fair proportion. All of these were characteristic of the country and its government before, during, and after (long after) the enactment of the Bill of Rights.

(The "speech" clause is similarly restrictive in meaning. "The freedom of speech" was a specific thing in common law, and contained no license whatsoever for, among things, blasphemy, prejury, treason, incitement of violence, obscenity, or infringement of intellectual property beyond fair use. While blasphemy was generally deemed read out of the exclusions by the free exercise clause, the rest remained, and have, thankfully, and, I think, somewhat amazingly, been left undisturbed by all but the most insanely leftist of judges.)

Anyway, if you are looking for radicalism in the Constitution, it's not hard to find. The absence of a sovereign. Fixed terms of office and otherwise fixed governmental institutions. The ingenious conception of federalism, dividing police powers (state) from military and diplomatic authority (national).

And, as far as religious freedom goes, the "test" clause was plenty radical. By the 1780s there was in Europe, and America, a fair consensus in support of free exercise by private citizens, and establishment was already well on its way to withering to the relic which it is now in Britain and Scandinavia. However, the imposition of religious tests were still common, excluding Catholics or Protestants from public office and political participation in states where they were in the minority.
posted by MattD at 3:25 PM on January 28, 2005


MattD: The establishment clause forbids establishment of a church by Congress, which is not "favoring any religion in government," to say the least of being an affirmative mandate for coercive secularlism. Rather, establishment meant designation of a specific denomination as the official sect and paying its ministers and hierarchs from the public till.

My understanding of the term "establishment" as used in the 18th century (courtesy of the Oxford English dictionary) was quite a bit broader:

Establishment:

2 esp. The `establishing' by law (a church, religion, form of wor-
ship). (See ESTABLISH v. 7.) a In early use, the settling or ordering
in a particular manner, the regulating and upholding of the constitution
and ordinances of the church recognized by the state. b In 17th-18th c.
occasionally the granting of legal status to (other religious bodies
than that connected with the state). c Now usually, the conferring on a
particular religious body the position of a state church.



(Following the link to Establish 7.)

7 From 16th c. often used with reference to ecclesiastical ceremonies
or organization, and to the recognized national church or its religion;
in early use chiefly pass. in sense 2 (esp. in phrase by law esta-
blished, i.e. `prescribed or settled by law'), but sometimes with mix-
ture of senses 3-5. Hence in recent use: To place (a church or a reli-
gious body) in the position of a national or state church.

(emphasis added)


In this sense, establishment is quite a bit broader than just paying the clergy from the public till. It also reflects the historical reality that establishment was not just government support for the clergy (who frequently had their own means of income) but with government preference in other areas of religion such as ceremonial language, Biblical translation, iconography and holidays.

Of course, it should be noted that the original constitution was a start, not and end to the project. The fact that 18th century Americans didn't see a problem with teachers acting as clergy in the classroom does not mean that we should support teachers as clergy today. After all, America has learned through hard experience that denying voting rights to slaves and women are incompatible with the values stated in the declaration.

And, as far as religious freedom goes, the "test" clause was plenty radical.

Certainly. I think that the test clause makes a stronger case that the government should not play favorites on religion than the establishment clause.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:03 PM on January 28, 2005


The "speech" clause is similarly restrictive in meaning. "The freedom of speech" was a specific thing in common law, and contained no license whatsoever for, among things, blasphemy, prejury, treason, incitement of violence, obscenity, or infringement of intellectual property beyond fair use. While blasphemy was generally deemed read out of the exclusions by the free exercise clause, the rest remained

It was? Then why is fair use written into the U.S. Code? What about the changing definitions and tests for obscenity? Can you back up these assertions vis-a-vis 18th-century common law, and what implicit restrictions on speech it contained?
posted by Vidiot at 9:18 PM on January 28, 2005


"red" peril
posted by aiq at 8:55 AM on January 30, 2005


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