I discussed the following quotation from John Adams [letter to Thomas Jefferson June 28, 1813] and noted it was one that the “Christian Nation” crowd most often misuses or misunderstands:
“The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were…the general principles of Christianity…I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature.”
Likewise Gregg Frazer discusses the very same quotation and noted:
[F]or Adams, the general principles of Christianity were something to which deists, atheists, and those who believe nothing at all subscribed. He then claimed that he could “fill sheets of quotations” in favor of these principles with statements from a number of well-known sources, including two notorious atheists: Hume and Voltaire. This is clearly not Christianity — whatever term Adams may use for it.
[Minor quibble: My understanding of Voltaire was that he was a strict deist -- though his beliefs still strongly conflicted with traditional Christianity.]
Frazer also stated:
A great danger (or intellectual dishonesty, if the one doing it knows the difference) in the Christian America camp is their propensity to quote Founders using terms which meant something very different to those Founders than they mean to the average person today. This is a significant source of confusion. When Jefferson said, “I am a Christian” — what did HE mean by that? When Adams referred to “Christian” principles at the heart of the Founding — what did HE mean by that? If one takes the terms at face value (out of context), one becomes deceived or one deceives.
For an amusing piece of either confusion or deception [my opinion is it's confusion after being deceived by David Barton] check out Chuck Norris' recent column where he attempts to prove America was founded as a "Christian Nation" by explaining away the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli which stated in no uncertain terms that "the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."
In an attempt to find countering quotations, Norris trots out the very one by Adams featured at the top of my post. There are actually very few apt quotations from America's founders that state the Christian religion only is somehow foundational to America's government, and its founding documents. The ones that seemed most apt turned out to be phony, or as David Barton puts it, "unconfirmed."
It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ!
If only Henry said it.
We do see a lot of talk about the importance of religion and morality to good governance. And certainly "Christianity" is a "religion," and therefore the founders had a friendlier attitude towards public expression of faith or the intermixture of religion and government than today's strict secularist ideal would allow for.
But, when the founders spoke of "religion and morality" in a general sense, that's exactly what they meant, "religion" in general, not Christianity in particular. Any of the world religions, they believed, could function to support republican government. As Adams put it, in a book publicly published in 1787-88, speaking of a set of laws supposedly revealed by Athena 600BC:
This preamble, instead of addressing itself to the ignorance, prejudices, and superstitious fears of savages, for the purpose of binding them to an absurd system of hunger and glory for a family purpose, like the laws of Lycurgus, places religion, morals, and government, upon a basis of philosophy, which is rational, intelligible, and eternal, for the real happiness of man in society, and throughout his duration. [My emphasis.]
Though I think a kernel of truth that the Christian Nation crowd might have...: As Tom Van Dyke points out, the masses -- at least the propertied Protestant white males who ratified the Constitution -- signed on to the founders' government project. And they would not have agreed to a set of principles that were anti-biblical or would otherwise subvert their traditional religion. As such, the founders had to draw a lowest-common-denominator between their heterodox views and the orthodox views which dominated the masses. So, the founders tended to speak about God in generic philosophical language and talk of "religion" in general not "the Christian religion" in particular.
Now, many in the masses when they heard "religion" probably thought the "Christian religion." But that's still not what the founders like Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin meant. They meant at least Christianity, Judaism, Deism, Unitarianism, Islam, Hinduism, Native American Spirituality, pagan Greco-Romanism, and many other "religions."
The founders chose their words carefully. When they invoked or otherwise granted rights to "religion," they made sure they specified "religion" and not the "Christian religion." There is thus no sound textual basis to read in a word (Christian) and hence a principle (only the Christian religion has rights or should be promoted) that the founders did not use or stand for.
Though, in granting rights to and invoking the importance of "religion" generally, and in systematically using generic, philosophical, as opposed to exclusively scriptural language (though they did pick and choose from the Bible when they wanted), I think one can argue there was a bit of "talking past one another" done between the heterodox founders who gave us the system of modern republican government and the orthodox Christian forces in the masses who agreed to it.