Founders’ Quotes Taken Out of Context

29 09 2006

Filed under: First Amendment, Founders, Church and State, Original Intent, Breathingist, Originalist

Ever wonder about certain quotes by the Founders and if they were taken out of context?

Here are three popular quotes that “breathingists” – those humanists that believe our Constitution is a “living, breathing” document – typically use to demonstrate that America is not a Christian nation.

While the government is not a Christian government, the nation is a Christian nation.

1.) “This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it.” – John Adams –

This quote is taken from a letter Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson on April 19, 1817, in which Adams illustrated the intolerance often manifested between Christians in their denominational disputes. Lamenting the types of petty disputes between ministers, Adams declared to Jefferson:

“Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out, This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!But in this exclamation I would have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean hell.”

Obviously, when this quote is used to prove America was intended to be a secular nation, it is vastly out of context. In reality, Adams’ position on religion was exactly the opposite of what is put forth by breathingists. Adams believed that it would be “fanatical” to desire a world without religion, for such a world would be “hell.” Jefferson wrote back and declared that he agreed.

2. ) “The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion …” – George Washington –

The 1797 Treaty of Tripoli is the source of Washington’s supposed statement. That treaty, one of several with Tripoli, was negotiated during the “Barbary Powers Conflict.” Throughout this long conflict, the five Barbary Powers regularly attacked undefended American merchant ships. Not only were their cargoes easy prey but the Barbary Powers were also capturing and enslaving “Christian” seamen in retaliation for what had been done to them by the “Christians” of previous centuries (e.g., the Crusades and Ferdinand and Isabella’s expulsion of Muslims from Granada).

The 1797 treaty with Tripoli was one of the many treaties in which each country officially recognized the religion of the other in an attempt to prevent further escalation of a “Holy War” between Christians and Muslims. Consequently, Article XI of that treaty stated:

As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion as it has in itself no character of enmity [hatred] against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims] and as the said States [America] have never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

This article may be read in two manners. It may, as its critics do, be concluded after the clause “Christian religion”; or it may be read in its entirety and concluded when the punctuation so indicates. But even if shortened and cut abruptly (“the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion”), this is not an untrue statement since it is referring to the federal government.

Though the Founders themselves openly described America as a Christian nation, they did include a constitutional prohibition against a federal establishment; religion was a matter left solely to the individual States. Therefore, if the article is read as a declaration that the federal government of the United States was not in any sense founded on the Christian religion, such a statement is not a repudiation of the fact that America was considered a Christian nation.

Article XI simply distinguished America from those historical strains of European Christianity which held an inherent hatred of Muslims; it simply assured the Muslims that the United States was not a Christian nation like those of previous centuries (with whose practices the Muslims were very familiar) and thus would not undertake a religious holy war against them.

Those who attribute the Treaty of Tripoli quote to George Washington make two mistakes. The first is that no statement in it can be attributed to Washington (the treaty did not arrive in America until months after he left office); Washington never saw the treaty; it was not his work; no statement in it can be ascribed to him. The second mistake is to divorce a single clause of the treaty from the remainder which provides its context.

3. ) “I disbelieve all holy men and holy books.” – Thomas Paine –

Is the accuracy of this quote any better than the previous ones imputed to Adams and Washington? In this case, the answer is probably yes—that is, while we were unable to locate this specific statement by Paine, it is certainly of a tone similar to several others he made in his Age of Reason and other writings which attacked religion generally and Christianity specifically. However, the real story is not the accuracy of Paine’s quote, but rather how the other Founders reacted to Paine’s declarations. John Adams wrote:

The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue, equity and humanity, let the Blackguard [scoundrel, rogue] Paine say what he will.

Samuel Adams wrote Paine a stiff rebuke, telling him:

When I heard you had turned your mind to a defence of infidelity, I felt myself much astonished and more grieved that you had attempted a measure so injurious to the feelings and so repugnant to the true interest of so great a part of the citizens of the United States. The people of New England, if you will allow me to use a Scripture phrase, are fast returning to their first love. Will you excite among them the spirit of angry controversy at a time when they are hastening to amity and peace? I am told that some of our newspapers have announced your intention to publish an additional pamphlet upon the principles of your Age of Reason. Do you think that your pen, or the pen of any other man, can unchristianize the mass of our citizens, or have you hopes of converting a few of them to assist you in so bad a cause?

Many other similar writings could be cited, but these are sufficient to show that Paine’s views were strongly rejected even by the least religious Founders. In fact, Paine’s views caused such vehement public opposition that he spent his last years in New York as “an outcast” in “social ostracism” and was buried in a farm field because no American cemetery wo
uld accept his remains.

Yet, even Thomas Paine cannot be called an atheist, for in the same work wherein he so strongly attacked Christianity, Paine also declared:

I believe in one God . . . and I hope for happiness beyond this life.

The evidence is clear that not only can none of them be called an atheist, only the smallest handful would fit today’s definition of a deist.

There is abundant evidence to refute any notion that the Founding Fathers were atheists, agnostics, or deists, or that they wanted to divorce religious principles from public affairs. The more one learns about their activities and writings, the easier it is not only to understand but also to agree with the characterization given by many of them concerning the Christian nature of the American nation and its government.

NB: Some quotes taken from Original Intent, by David Barton.

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