Americans seem to love the phrase “God of our fathers,” but how is that God defined? If you listen to today’s religious conservatives you will most definitely get a version which they will swear by. They will also quickly point out that the founders of our country were all God-fearing men. That is an impossible position to defend because it mostly lacks for definition.
The founders of our country were, in the first place, English merchants who saw an opportunity in the New World at the Virginia plantation. Their allegiance, such as it was, was to the Church of England. But the colony the founded at Jamestown was far more interested in it commercial value than allying itself to any particular religion. As was true in later settlements, these Englishmen did not first erect a church and then a community to surround it.
Next you have the “Pilgrims” who settled Plimouth Plantation. This group, very left-wing for its day, denied the Church of England any power over them. When they landed in what is now Massachusetts, they formed their own religion. They committed the ultimate heresy, of that day, by allowing a woman to preach the word of God! This woman, Anne Hutchinson, was physically assaulted by the good men of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, when she dared venture to the environs of Boston and talk about God. When arrested in the vicinity of Salem she was “dragged” behind a horse back to the Plimouth Plantation where she was warned to never stray from again.
The inhabitants of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were the Puritans who, although they found themselves in conflict with the Church of England, did not harbor the radical beliefs of their erstwhile brethren, the Pilgrims. Even so, once settled in Massachusetts they formed their own church, or more correctly a church defined by their leader John Winthrop, which became known as the Puritan Church of America.
Then there came the people who founded New York City, then known as New Amsterdam, who were Lutherans, more liberal than their English cousins, but far more conservative than the Pilgrims. Further south, in the Delaware Maryland peninsula, came the Catholics. To this day the flag of the state of Maryland reflects old Catholic emblems. Further to the south, southern Virginia and the Carolinas, came the Scots who brought with them their Presbyterian ideals. This all points to the vast differences in religious ideology that existed at the very beginning of America. What can be said with good certainty is that most Americans believed in a God of some definition particular to their own personal belief.
By the time Americans declared themselves an independent nation, 1776, Puritanism had given way to Congregationalism. The Pilgrims had, in part, evolved into the American version of the Quakers. But America, that which attended a church, basically identified itself with Protestantism. Even so, American Protestants were divided between that religion which governed agrarian Americans and that which American merchants gave sway. This division first showed itself in 1692 during the hysteria of the Salem witch trials. Those most affected by those proceedings were the farmers, the people outside the main village, who were far more compliant with the preaching of the pulpit than were the merchants living in the village proper. A study of the “afflicted” showed all but 2 of the 30 or more women brought to trial on charges of witchcraft came from the farming areas.
Our American Constitution was, for the most part, written by five men. Gov. Morris of Pennsylvania, one of the chief contributors was an Episcopalian. Alexander Hamilton is difficult to nail down as to his beliefs. He had called himself an Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Huguenot. Thomas Jefferson was a “deist” or, as we would probably call him today, an agnostic. John Dickinson was a Quaker. Though his input was minimal due to his advancing years, Benjamin Franklin declared himself a “scientist” when queried about his religious beliefs. Franklin was known for his outspoken ways but his beliefs were truly not much removed from the beliefs of his peers. These men, all, were American aristocrats, scholars, statesmen, and merchants. Theirs was a detached respect for the various religious institutions. The inclusion of the word “God” in any American document was as much to mollify the masses as to express any personal beliefs.
The founders of the United States had just finished a war with England over the right to “self determination.” The cry of “taxation without representation is tyranny” was the tip of the political iceberg of that day. Colonial leaders had long and loudly complained over their lack of representation in the English Parliament. They recognized, however, that if they were to become a united country the idea of dictating religion, as was true in England, had to be outlawed in the new nation. The Constitutional delegates represented, at the very least, eight different religions. It was obvious to them that an agreement over a uniform God and religion was an impossibility.
The brilliance of these men was over their ability to compromise and come to terms on a document that was acceptable to all the colonies involved. For example, John Adams and other vocal northerners desperately wanted a clause that outlawed slavery in the Constitution. The powerful Virginians, not entirely opposed to such language, correctly pointed out that the 3/5 vote needed to accept the Constitution was impossible under the present circumstances. They knew at its adoption the Constitution was an imperfect device but one which allowed for challenges and changes as such things allowed. And to that end, as soon as the new republic was formed, the adoption of the first ten amendments, what we refer to as the “Bill of Rights” was under way. The first five amendments reflect prejudicial English laws that had been forced upon the colonists at various times and for various reasons. Chief among them was what they considered every “Englishman’s right” to free assembly. But that right was undermined by military governors in the waning days of colonial rule by England. But also, many of these men had been reminded that their ancestors came to America to worship, or not, as their conscience dictated, and not as a king dictated. And to that end came the 2nd part of the first amendment, the absolute separation of church and state. They were not going to allow their God to be defined by a king or any other political entity.
The very most basic principle at rule here is the absolute right of the individual to be free of any governmental action with regard to religion and religious ideas and ideals. To that end, our government is prohibited from taxing any recognized religious entity. The separation of church and state must remain absolute. Today’s America enjoys the greatest diversity ever of religious beliefs. We have gone far beyond our original belief which were based in Protestant orthodoxy, to a country the Jews, Islam, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist, and a plethora of other beliefs. Large portions of the American population, while believing in a higher power, does not chose to call that higher power God.
That any individual or group believes that God is a necessary part of our government is just wrong. It is an absolute insult to those who do believe in a higher power not called God. But to be fair to all people regardless of their belief, our government necessarily must remain detached from all discussions regarding God, or any other religious ideology. And while any individual member of our government has the absolute right to express his beliefs, he must, in total fairness, remember that his particular beliefs are unique to himself, and not necessarily shared beliefs. More importantly, to govern effectively, he can go not further than to allow his religious belief to be his moral compass but not a point of government.