Philosophical and Historical Foundations of American Secularism 3 – Idealism Above, Realism Below


Dr. Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition for America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. He authored Complex variables (1975), Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt (2012) and An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land: Selected Writings from the Bible Belt (2017). He co-authored The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America (2003) with Kimberley Blaker and Edward S. Buckner, Complex Variables with Applications (2007) with Saminathan Ponnusamy, and Short Reflections on Secularism (2019).

Here we talk about the drafts of the American Constitution and personal beliefs behind it.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: During the writing of the American Constitution in its first drafts, and after its completion after the Declaration of Independence, when considering the histories of the framers, what statements in these documents contradicted the personal beliefs or the individual biographies of the framers? 

Dr. Herb Silverman: The religious faith of our founders is irrelevant because they erected a wall of separation between religion and the government they created in our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. However, since you ask, and since there is curiosity about the personal beliefs of our founders, here are some interesting tidbits.

Many of our founders were anti-Catholic. John Adams called Catholicism “nonsense, a delusion, and dangerous in society.” Thomas Jefferson called Catholicism “a retrograde step from lightness to darkness.” (I agree with these founders and would add, as Thomas Paine did, all the other religions.) John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, drafted language for the New York Constitution proposing tolerance for everyone except Catholics who refuse to renounce papal authority. At the time of the American revolution only about 1.6 percent of the population in the colonies were Catholic. It wasn’t until the immigration waves of the nineteenth century that Catholics began arriving in America in large numbers. This led to the aptly named “Know Nothing” party, formally called the American Party, an anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant party formed in 1850. I was raised in Philadelphia, home of the 1844 “Bible riots” where both Catholics and Protestants were clubbed to death over which version of the Lord’s Prayer should be recited in public school. Protestants won the political battle, and Catholics responded by forming Catholic schools nationwide by 1860.

In a letter to John Adams in 1823, Thomas Jefferson said: “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” He told his nephew in 1787 to “question with boldness even the existence of God.” Jefferson considered reason and science, not superstition and supernaturalism, to be his guides. He wrote his own version of the Christian Bible, leaving out miracle stories and including only what made sense to him. Jefferson referred to what remained as “Diamonds in a dunghill.”

Deism was a rational challenge to orthodox Christianity. Deists believed that the world was the work of a non-intervening Creator. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and other founders expressed religious views that were strongly deistic. Many founders reflected Deist language in their writings. Thomas Paine, in The Age of Reason, argued that Deism should replace all revelation-based religion. Most of our Founding Fathers were religiously liberal for their time, and thought of the new country as an experiment in secular democracy. Producing a God-free Constitution showed their disdain for intermingling religion and government. George Washington refused to take communion (even though his wife did), reflecting his Deistic tendency to avoid supernatural ritual. He did make some religious gestures to conform to the religious expectations of the times, though he refused to have a priest or religious rituals at his deathbed.

Christian Deism stressed morality and rejected the orthodox Christian view of the divinity of Christ, often viewing him as a sublime, but entirely human, teacher of morality. Instead of accepting the entire Bible as divinely inspired, many believed that reason was the ultimate standard for determining which parts of the Bible were legitimate revelations from God. 

The Declaration of Independence was a call for rebellion against the British Crown. It does mention a higher power four times, as in Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, Supreme Judge of the world, Creator, and divine Providence. In each case it is an appeal to human dignity. It emphasizes people having inalienable rights. No appeal is made in this document to a god that has authority of any kind. No powers are given to religion in the affairs of man. The founders never cited biblical principles during the Constitutional Convention and ratifications. Both the Declaration and the Constitution source the legitimacy of political rule exclusively in the consent of the governed. Benjamin Franklin, a co-author of the Declaration of Independence with Thomas Jefferson, decried Christian church services for promoting church memberships instead of “trying to make us good citizens.”

Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, believed that the Christian religion should be preferred to all others, and that every family in the United States should be furnished, at public expense, with a copy of the Bible. The founders rejected this idea. Orthodox Christians among the Founders include the Calvinistic Samuel Adams, John Jay (who served as president of the American Bible Society), Elias Boudinot (who wrote a book on the imminent second coming of Jesus), and Patrick Henry (who believed in Evangelical Christianity and distributed religious tracts while riding circuit as a lawyer).

As a member of the Constitutional Convention, George Mason strenuously opposed the compromise permitting the continuation of the slave trade. Although he was a Southerner, he called the slave trade disgraceful to mankind. “God” stayed out of the Constitution, but slavery remained in order to keep the Southern colonies as part of this new nation.

The forces opposed to adoption of the Constitution argued that the “no religious test clause” would lead to Catholics, Jews, Mahometans (Muslims), and pagans obtaining office. That is the point of including the clause.

The phrase a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world” was first used by Baptist theologian Roger Williams, founder of the colony of Rhode Island. It was later employed by Jefferson as a commentary on the First Amendment and its restriction on the legislative branch of the federal government. Thomas Jefferson refused to issue Proclamations of Thanksgiving sent to him by Congress during his presidency. After retiring from the presidency, James Madison argued for a stronger separation of church and state, opposing the very presidential issuing of religious proclamations he himself had done, and also opposing the appointment of chaplains to Congress. James Madison said, “Religion and government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.”

The absence of an establishment of religion did not necessarily imply that all men were free to hold office. Most colonies had a Test Act. Charles Carrol from Maryland, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration, guaranteed full rights to Protestants and Catholics, but not to Jews, Freethinkers, or Deists. He said, “When I signed the Declaration of Independence I had in mind not only our independence of England, but the tolerations of all sects professing the Christian religion, and communicating to them all equal rights.” Several states had these religious tests for a short time. In my state of South Carolina, Protestantism was recognized as the state-established religion. This stood in contrast to the Federal Constitution, which explicitly prohibits the employment of any religious test for federal office, and which, through the Fourteenth Amendment, later extended this prohibition to the States.

There were many attempts by state ratifying conventions to amend the Constitution and subvert the intent of the preamble by declaring that governmental power was derived from God or Jesus Christ, but the proposed religious amendments were defeated.

Though there was some debate about possibly including “God” in the congressional oath, the nation’s first lawmakers instead decided on strictly secular language. It was signed into law by George Washington on June 1, 1789, making it the first law passed by the new United States government.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Silverman.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash


  1. Thank you very much for this outstanding article! As a Deist, I’m always very grateful to see articles that educate people about Deism and about the important role it played in the creation of the American Republic.

    Regarding Deists believing in a non-intervening Creator, that is true for some Deists. However, it’s not true for all Deists. The Deist George Washington, in my opinion, had the best take on whether or not God intervenes in human affairs. Washington wrote that he believed God did intervene, but that God’s Providence is inscrutable ( ).

    Also, thanks for educating me about the Bible riots. I was not aware of them.

    God Gave Us Reason, Not Religion! Bob Johnson

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