Our Founders Were NOT Fundamentalists


For HumanistNetworkNews.org
Feb. 17, 2010

"God made the idiot for practice, and then He made the school board." — Mark Twain

This last issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine highlights yet another mob of extremists attempting to rewrite history in order to serve a narrow religious agenda–this time by using new curriculum standards currently being set by the Texas State Board of Education as an opportunity to baptize our children's textbooks. (The American Humanist Association has been at the forefront of the fight to keep fundamentalism out of the Texas public school system. To read more about their efforts click here.)

This endless, angry, escalating assault on our Constitution by crusading theocrats should be obliterated with just a few simple facts about our Founding Fathers and our nation's early years. Thus, I present to you, a few short history lessons:

1) Presidents two through six–John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams—were all freethinking deists and Unitarians. The Christian precepts they embraced were moderate, tolerant and open-minded.

2) President George Washington became an Anglican as required for military service under the British, and he occasionally quoted scripture. But he vehemently opposed any church-state union. In a 1790 letter to the Jews of Truro, he wrote, "(The) government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistances, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens." And a 1796 treaty he signed says, "The government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." Washington rarely went to church and, by some accounts, refused last religious rites. 

3) Jefferson produced a personal Bible, from which he edited out all references to miracles in the life of Jesus, whom he considered both an activist and a mortal.

4) Tom Paine's Common Sense sparked the American Revolution with nary a mention of Jesus or Christianity. His deist Creator established the laws of nature, endowed humans with free will, then left.

5) The Constitution never mentions the words "Christian," "Jesus" or "Christ." 

6) Revolutionary America was filled with Christians whose commitment to tolerance and diversity was completely adverse to the violent, racist, misogynist, anti-sex nature of the Puritans, whose "City upon a Hill" meant a totalitarian state. Inspirational preachers like Rhode Island's Roger Williams and religious groups like the Quakers envisioned a nation built on tolerance and love for all.

7) The United States was founded less on Judeo-Christian beliefs than on the Greco-Roman love for dialog and reason. There are no contemporary portraits of any Founder wearing a crucifix or church garb. But Washington was famously painted half-naked in the buff toga of the Roman Republic, which continues to inspire much of our official architecture. 

8) The great guerilla fighter (and furniture maker) Ethan Allen was an aggressive atheist; his beliefs were common among the farmers, sailors and artisans who were the backbone of Revolutionary America. 

9) America's most influential statesman, thinker, writer, agitator, publisher, citizen-scientist and proud liberal libertine was—and remains—Benjamin Franklin. He was at the heart of the Declaration, Constitution and Treaty of Paris. The ultimate Enlightenment icon, Franklin embraced a deism marked by pragmatic love of diversity. He also deeply admired the Ho-de-no-sau-nee (Iroquois) Confederacy of what's now upstate New York.  Inspired by the legendary peacemaker Deganawidah, this democratic congress of five Native tribes had worked "better than the British Parliament" for more than two centuries. It gave us the model for our federal structure and the images of freedom and equality that inspired both the French and American Revolutions.

In addition, far from living up to the pious image the religious right likes to paint of them, the Founders in fact would likely be despised by today's fundamentalists for their un-Christianly behavior. Franklin's joyous, amply reciprocated love of women would evoke their limitless rage. Jefferson's paternities with his slave mistress Sally Hemmings, Paine's attacks on the priesthood, Hamilton's bastardly philandering, the grassroots scorn for organized religion—all would draw howls of righteous right-wing rage.

This may be why theocratic fundamentalists are so desperate to sanitize and fictionalize what's real about our history. God forbid our children should know of American Christians who embraced the Sermon on the Mount and renounced the Book of Revelations, or Native leaders who established democracy on American soil long before they saw the first European, or actual Founders who got drunk, high and laid on their way to writing the Constitution. 

Faith-based tyranny is anti-American. So are dishonest textbooks.  It's time to fight them both. 


(Harvey Wasserman is author or co-author of a dozen books, including SOLARTOPIA! Our Green-Powered Earth; A.D. 2030; Harvey Wasserman's History of the U.S.; and, A Glimpse of the Big Light: Losing Parents, Finding Spirit. In addition, Wasserman Harvey runs the www.solartopia.org website, and is senior advisor to Greenpeace USA and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, and senior editor of www.freepress.org.  This article is written in honor of the spirit of Howard Zinn.)