Current Page: Opinion | Monday, October 31, 2005
Multiple Choices from the Founders

Multiple Choices from the Founders

The "Founding Fathers," or "Founders," are getting worked over in public affairs, and especially in religious matters, more than ever before. With courts wrestling with issues of church and state, educators fighting over ways to treat faith and faiths in public institutions, and communities battling over the place of religious symbols on "everybody's spaces" like courthouse lawns and walls, we often find citations from figures like Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and so many others. These figures were writing in the context of their own times and are easily misrepresented out of that context, but we can still draw some signals from their works.

Fortunately, a new collection of snippets from their writings is available in The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations, edited by James H. Hutson. I first came across Hutson during the bicentennials of the Declaration and the Constitution, about which he had so many sane things to say. He is chief of the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress, and a scholar friendly to religion -- one who shows little bias in his writings and in this current work. Thus, since the Founders differed so much from each other, Hutson offers some conflicting and contradictory comments by these leaders.

I used his book while preparing a lecture on Founders' types. First, let it be noted that this whole cast of characters was concerned with "virtue" and "morality" in the young republic, and all were favorable to the influences of religion on these. The differences came in on the question of what public institutions should do to privilege and promote religion and its practice.

Type one was John Jay, author of Federalist Paper No. 2, who spoke of "the privilege and interest of our Christian nation." He thought citizens of such a nation should elect only Christian rulers and not vote for the infidels, the ungodly. He was nearly alone, and his view, popular as it is in some circles today, did not win out among Constitutionalists in his day. He wanted uniformity in faith.

Type two was Thomas Jefferson, who thought that legal privileging and promotion was harmful to church and state. "Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men .... And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity .... Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity."

Type three found its voice in James Madison, who had most influence on the Constitution. He famously wrote that "in matters of Religion, no man's [sic] right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance," while the Civil Magistrate was not a "competent Judge of Religious Truth" or a good user of it "as an engine of Civil policy." Christians ought to be most concerned, since the Christian religion was never to show "dependence on the powers of this world." Privilege Christianity, and you have "pride and indolence," ignorance, servility, superstition, bigotry, and persecution.

It's our choice which direction to go in, which type to favor.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at