Here are a few recent articles which illustrate the controversy. First one from Jerry Falwell. He begins by noting Jefferson's Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom which begins:
"Almighty God hath created the mind free. All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens ... are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion. ..."
Note though while the Statute was theistic in its premises, its content was neither "Christian," nor "Biblical," so this is hardly evidence that "America was founded on Christian principles" -- the thesis of Falwell's article. Jefferson's VA Statute perfectly illustrates how America's Founding political order had theistic but not necessarily Biblical or Christian premises.
Falwell also quotes from John Witherspoon, Benjamin Rush, John Dickinson, and John Hancock, all of whom were orthodox Christians (though Rush eventually converted to Universalism). While no doubt these men were important, they weren't the "key Founders" -- the ones whom we think of when we mention the words "Founding Fathers" -- the men on our currency. They -- Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and some others -- weren't orthodox Christians; they were the ones who came up with the ideas upon which America was Founded; and those ideas did not come primarily from the Bible or the Christian Religion. Not to downplay the importance of the others; Witherspoon, for instance, was extremely important in educating some Founders like Madison and otherwise arguing for Revolution. However, Witherspoon's arguments for the Revolution came largely from Locke and the Enlightenment, not the Bible.
The day before Falwell's article, WND featured an article from Doug Phillips about the 400th birthday at Jamestown in 1607. While he decries modern "revisionism" about the history of that colony, his article engages in precisely such revisionism, from the other side:
The Jamestown settlers gave the Holy Scriptures a permanent home in America. This is perhaps the most enduring legacy of Jamestown. The coming of the Bible to America fundamentally changed the history of the North American continent. It was the Bible that communicated the hope of personal redemption and the basis for stable civilization.
This is one reason why Jamestown would become the first permanent settlement to establish a legal system based directly on the moral law of God and the applicable principles found in the case laws of Holy Scripture. This Christian "common law" was later incorporated by direct reference into our United States Constitution. Jamestown also gave us our first experiment in republican representative government, a model that finds its origins in the Hebrew Republic of the Old Testament, and was formally adopted by the Founding Fathers of a later generation.
While the US Constitution does say something about the common law, it says nothing about the "Christian" common law, (or God, Jesus or the Christian Religion itself, except perhaps in the customary way of stating the date), and Jefferson believed "Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law." Further, the Hebrews didn't have a "Republic." Nor did our Founding Fathers think they were implementing a constitutional system that derived from the Old Testament Hebrews. I challenge someone to show me one place in the Declaration, Constitution or Federalist Papers where they claimed this.
There was a sermon from the Founding era from one Reverend Samuel Langdon which claimed something along these lines. But that doesn't mean his sermon was sound. In fact, Langdon's sermon was a piece of Whig-propaganda which radically reimagined the history of the Ancient Israelites. Scripture warns against either adding to or removing from "God's Word." This is exactly what folks do when they claim the Hebrews had a "Republic" or when they otherwise try to "read in" extra-Biblical Founding-era ideas to the Bible's text to try to credit "Christianity" or "Biblical principles" for the ideas upon which we declared independence or constructed the Constitution.
Christian nationalists, in their historical revisionism, ultimately invariably refuse to distinguish between the old colonial orders which were founded according to one set of ideological principles and the Founding from 1776-1789, the ideas of the latter which, in many ways, dramatically broke with the ideas of the former. There was of course, some overlap in ideas between the two eras and the Founding Fathers retained what they thought "rational" from the earlier era.
However, on religion and government, some key difference existed which folks like Jerry Falwell or Doug Phillips ignore to their peril. Frederick Clarkson's article on this very controversy nicely shows how the differences made a difference. Indeed, he quotes from Thomas Jefferson's "Notes on the State of Virginia" which passage discusses everything wrong with the way the early colonies dealt with religion and government:
The first settlers in this country were emigrants from England, of the English church, just at a point of time when it was flushed with complete victory over the religious of all other persuasions. Possessed, as they became, of the powers of making, administering, and executing the laws, they shewed equal intolerance in this country with their Presbyterian brethren...
The poor Quakers were flying from persecution in England. They cast their eyes on these new countries as asylums of civil and religious freedom; but they found them free only for the reigning sect. Several acts of the Virginia assembly of 1659, 1662, and 1693, had made it penal in parents to refuse to have their children baptized; had prohibited the unlawful assembling of Quakers; had made it penal for any master of a vessel to bring a Quaker into the state; had ordered those already here, and such as should come thereafter, to be imprisoned till they should abjure the country; provided a milder punishment for their first and second return, but death for their third; had inhibited all persons from suffering their meetings in or near their houses, entertaining them individually, or disposing of books which supported their tenets.
If no capital execution took place here, as did in New-England, it was not owing to the moderation of the church, or spirit of the legislature, as may be inferred from the law itself; but to historical circumstances which have not been handed down to us. The Anglicans retained full possession of the country for about a century. Other opinions began then to creep in, and... two-thirds of the people had become dissenters at the commencement of the present revolution. The laws indeed were still oppressive on them, but the spirit of the one party had subsided into moderation, and of the other had risen to a degree of determination which commanded respect.4
Clarkson also deals with, more specifically, how Jamestown dealt with religion and government:
In other words, Jamestown was to be a bastion of the Anglican Church, the established faith of England. The local government was to enforce religious conformity, not religious freedom. According to Leo Pfeffer's Church, State and Freedom, the leaders of the Virginia settlement wasted no time in carrying out that edict. Governor Thomas Dale in 1612 mandated "Lawes Divine, Moral and Martial" that decreed the death penalty for those who "speak impiously of the Trinity... or against the known articles of the Christian faith."
Those who cursed would have a bodkin (needle) "thrust through the tongue," and all immigrants to the new land were to report to the Anglican minister for "examination in the faith." Anyone who refused faced a daily whipping "until he makes acknowledgement."2
Consider Jefferson and Adams -- two fervent theological unitarians -- and their correspondence about which I've longed blogged. Jefferson repeatedly brutally savaged the Trinity, once calling it a "metaphysical insanity"; Adams claimed that even if he were on Mt. Sinai with Moses and God had revealed the Trinity to him there, Adams still wouldn't believe it because man's reason dictates 1+1+1 = 3, not 1. Both of them wrote these things in private, because had these thoughts been made public their reputations would have been greatly damaged (Jefferson's already was damaged for some of the things he wrote about in "Notes"). But had those letters been made public in Jamestown in the earlier colonial era, they could have been executed like Servetus, whom Calvin helped to have executed for publicly criticizing the Trinity in Geneva.
No, according to the ideas that Jefferson, Adams and company gave us, the rights of conscience were unalienable and if a man wanted to, in contravention to Scripture, openly worship no God, twenty Gods or deny the Trinity, he had the absolute right to do so. That's one key difference between the ideas of America's national Founding and the colonial foundings of Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. And what a profound difference it was.