A Critical Response on Our Founding Fathers 1

A Critical Response to Bernard Katz

by Robert Nordlander

Although written 1985, in light of the power
and significance of the Falwell/Robertson
forces within the Republican Party, this
essay should be useful for those today who
encounter the claim that America is a
"Christian nation."  RN

January-February 1985
The Alternative to Superstition

From Cover

Because of the recent promotion of religion by political means it is
important to show what the Founding Fathers of our country had
in mind when establishing the beginnings of our democracy. To
prevent the European problems of their past they intended to make
sure that religious oppression was not dominant in our new nation.
Whether they made the wall of separation strong enough is to be
proven by the protectors of that wall to ensure a secular government
rather than a ruling theocracy as is evident in countries today such as
Iran. [Gordon Stein, editor]

{Editor's Introduction}

The present issue is largely devoted to a subject which has occupied
our pages off and on for the past six months. The present article
takes the opposite position from the previous ones by Bernard Katz.
THIS article marks the end of our treatment of this subject for the
forseeable future. Some may think we have devoted far too much
space to it already. Perhaps we have, but we feel that the issue is
both important and far from settled. While none of our articles will
end the controversy, we think that they will show that a case can be
made for both sides, perhaps, only by selective quoting from the
voluminous writings of the founding fathers.

What we HAVE done, if nothing else, is to show the objective
reader that the arguments so glibly given by the fundamentalists
that separation of church and state is a fiction made up by the
Supreme Court, but not found in the Constitution, is a fiction
of their own delueded brains. No matter whether you support
Katz's or Nordlander's position on this controversy, the
fundamentalist case is unsupportable.


Part I

Bernard Katz deserts-credit for the scholarship he displayed in
presenting the readers of the March/ April 1984 issue of The American
Rationalist the first part of his essay "Was Ours to be a Christian
Nation." Although the essay was replete with quotations from most of
the Founding Fathers indicating various degrees of religious belief
ranging from orthodox Protestant Christianity of a somewhat Calvinist
persuasion to the frankly anti-Christian views of Deism with various
shades of "rational" Christianity standing between these polarities,
the conclusion that Bernard Katz arrived at did not follow logically
from the data he served up to us in his presentation, i.e., that this
country was to be in the expectations of the Founding Fathers, "a
Christian nation."

It should be noted that the phrase, "a Christian nation," is quite a
nebulous expression and means absolutely nothing until it is defined
precisely. Bernard Katz showed us the wide divergence of religious
belief among the Founding Fathers discussed in his article and he chose
to tack the adjective Christian on many of them because many of the
peopie quoted wanted that adjective attached to any noun that was
supposed to denote their religious orientation. The fact that the kind
of Christianity espoused by so many of the Founding Fathers is hardly
recognizable as Christianity as that term is generally understood
apparently was not taken into account by the author of this essay when
he made his sweeping conclusive generalization. One can see a literate
fundamentalist reading Bernard Katz's conclusion and exulting with a
shout, "That's right! It's about time that those Atheists
'fessed up to the truth!" Should any fundamentalist actually set eyes
on this essay, he will immediately conclude that Falwell's version of
Christianity is what the Founding Fathers had in mind. The point of all
this is that "Christianity" is simply in the eye of the beholder
regardless of what this term can be shown to mean objectively as
Bernard Katz so ably demonstrated. The Christianity of most of the
Founding Fathers cited in the article simply would not be recognized as
Christianity by most of the people in America professing variants of
that faith today. If Katz had argued that the Founding Fathers had
wanted this country to be a Unitarian nation, he would have been on
more solid ground as this undoubtedly would have represented the
majority position as Unitarianism today represents what could be called
today the only species of rational Christianity that can be said to

Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard, in Volume I of The Rise of American
Civilization, chose to eschew the term "Christian" as the word to use
when describing the religious beliefs of the leading Founding Fathers
of this country.

This is how they put it:

"When the crisis came, Jefferson, Paine, John Adams, Washington,
Franklin, Madison, and many lesser lights were to be reckoned among
either the Unitarians or the Deists. It was not Cotton Mather's God to
whom the authors of the Declaration of Independence appealed,' it was
to Nature's God.' From whatever source derived, the effect of both
UnitarianiSm and Deism was to hasten the retirement of historic
theology from its empire over the intellect of American leaders and to
clear the atmosphere for secular interests." (p. 449). (My emphasis).

A question that must be asked if we wish to examine more critically the
Bernard Katz thesis that the Founding Fathers had great expectations for
this country as a Christian nation is why one of the Founding Fathers,
John Adams, did not object to the following language that was placed in
a treaty with Tripoli during his tenure as President of the United

"As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense
founded on the Christian Religion,--as it has itself no character of
enmity against the law, religion or tranquility of Musselmen   "(The
Great Quotations edited by George Seldes, p. 45).

President Adams certainly had every opportunity to press for the
removal of the first clause quoted above found in the treaty with
Tripoli as we have a deposition to this effect from the same source
cited above which reads as follows:

"Now be it known, That I, John Adams, President of the United States of
America, having seen and considered the said treaty do, by and within
the consent of the Senate, accept, ratify and confirm the same and
every clause and article thereof" (Ibid.} (My emphasis).

I would like to turn to another part of the Bernard Katz essay where,
in my opinion, he does the memory of Thomas Jefferson a grave
injustice. Katz seems to think that Jefferson favored a Christian
theological presence on the campus of the University of Virginia when
this is simply not the case. What he did favor was the establishment of
a Christian theological presence close to the university. It is usually
forgotten that the noun "confines" means a boundary or a border.
Jefferson wanted this presence to be very close to the university
because he thought that the liberalizing influence of the university
would have a softening effect upon the dogmatism and bigotry so often
displayed by those who claim to have an exclusive monopoly on truth. It
might be helpful to quote a segment of Jefferson's November 2, 1822
letter which was ignored, for the most part, by Bernard Katz.

"In our annual report to the legislature, after stating the
constitutional reasons against a public establishment of any religious
instruction, we suggest the expediency of encouraging the different
religious sects to establish, each for itself, a professorship of its
own tenets on the confines of the University, so near as that its
students may attend lectures there, and have the free use of the
library, and every other accomodation we can give them: preserving,
however, their independence of us and each other.

This fills a chasm objected to in ours as a defect in an institution
professing to give instruction in all useful sciences. I think the
invitation will be accepted by some sects from candid intentions and by
others out of jealousy and rivalship. And by bringing the sects
together, we shall soften their asperities, liberalize and neutralize
their prejudices, and make the general religion a religion of peace,
reason and morality." (Church and State in the United States by Anson
Phelps Stokes, Volume I, p. 338). (Last emphasis was mine).

We see in this letter that Jefferson was very serious about the wall of
separation that he told the Danbury Baptists ought to separate church
and state. The Jeffersonian "wall of separation," in the eyes of
Jefferson, was not a "curbstone" as Bernard Katz so sarcastically and
mistakenly asserted,Moreover, it should be noted that Jefferson wished
to overwhelm the sectarian dogmatists with kindness and the humanistic
influence that only a good liberal arts college can manifest thereby
perhaps converting the irrational Christians into rational Christians,
i.e., Unitarians.

Lest any doubt is still lingering in the mind of the reader that the
Jeffersonian "wall of separation between church and state" was reduced
by Jefferson to a "curbstone," it is absolutely necessary to quote, in
tow, a letter addressed by the Sage of Monticello to Arthur S.
Brockenbrough, who had requested that certain Charlottesville churches
be allowed to use the rotunda, the central University of Virginia
building, for church services on Sundays. This lengthy quotation is
necessary because it should lay to rest once and for all the Bernard
Katz view of Jefferson's view of the "wall of separation" as nothing
but a "curstone," and to provide another source for interested persons
for a very significant letter written by Thomas Jefferson on religious
access to educational institutions maintained by funds collected by the
tax-collector. Religious access to publicly-funded tax-supported
educational institutions has been an issue very much in the news these
days as every reader of The American Rationalist knows. Let us note
some further words of Thomas Jefferson on the issue of religious access
to public educational institutions. The letter to Arthur S.
Brockenbrough was dated April 21, 1825.

"In answer to your letter proposing to permit the lecture room of the
Pavilion No. I to be used regularly for prayers and preaching on
Sundays, I have to observe that some three or four years ago, an
application was made to permit a sermon to be preached in one of the
pavilions on a particular occasion, not now recollected. It brought the
subject into consideration with the Visitors, and although they entered
into no formal and written resolution on the occasion, the concurrent
sentiment was that the buildings of the University belong to the state,
that they were erected for the purposes of a University, and that the
Visitors, to whose care they are committed for those purposes have no
right to permit their application to any other. And accordingly, when
applied to, on the visit of General Lafayette, I declined at first the
reqmest of the use of the Rotunda for his entertainment,' until it
occurred on reflection that the room, in the unfinished state in which
it then was, was as open and unenclosed, and as insusceptible of
injury, as the field in which it stood.

"In the Rockfish Report it was stated as probable that a building larger
than the Pavilions might be called for in time, in which might be rooms
for a library, for public examinations, and for religious worship under
such  impartial regulations as the Visitors should prescribe, the
legislature neither sanctioned nor rejected this proposition; and
afterwards, in the Report of October, 1822, the board suggested, as a
substitute, that the different religious sects should be invited to
establish their separate theological schools in the vicinity of the
University, in which the Students might attend religious worship, each
in the form of his respective sect, and thus avoid all jealousy of
attempts on his religious tenets. Among the enactments of the board is
one looking to this object, and superseding the first idea of
permitting a room in the Rotunda to be used for religious worship, and
of undertaking to frame a set of regulations of equality and
impartiality among the multiplied sects.

"I state these things as manifesting the caution which the board of
Visitors thinks it a duty to observe on this delicate and jealous
subject. Your proposition therefore leading to an application of the
University buildings to other than University purposes, and to a
partial regulation in favor of two particular sects, would be a
deviation from the course which they think it their duty to observe.
Nor indeed is it immediately perceived what effect the repeated and
habitual assemblages of a great number of strangers at the University
might have on its order and tranquility.

"All this, however, in the present case, is the less important,
inasmuch as it is not farther for the inhabitants of the University to
go to Charlottesville for religious worship, than for those of
Charlottesville to come to the University.

That place has been in long possession of the seat of public worship, a
right always deemed strongest until a better can be produced. There too
they are building, or about to build proper churches and meeting
houses, much better adapted to the accomodation of a congregation than
a scant lecturing room. Are these to be abandoned, and the private room
to be preferred? If not, then the congregations, already too small,
would by your proposition be split into halves incompetent to the
employment and support of a double set of officiating ministers. Each,
of course, would break up the other, and both fall to the ground. I
think, therefore that, independent of our declining to sanction this
application, it will not, on further reflection, be thought
advantageous to religious interests as their joint assembly at a single
place. With these considerations, be pleased to accept the assurance of
my great esteem and respect." (Ibid, Stokes, Volume II, pp. 633-634).
(Two paragraph indentations were mine).

The impression that Bernard Katz gave of Jefferson favoring the
promiscuous use of taxpayer-supported educational institutions by
religionists of all stripes was absolutely unwarranted as the two
quotations from the pen of Jefferson given above clearly show. Thomas
Jefferson did not turn the "wall of separation" into a mere "curbstone."

One aspect of the Bernard Katz discussion of Thomas Jefferson and his
alleged inconsistency in the area of church-state relations which
cannot be ignored was Jefferson's alleged" support of religion,
religious education, and a priest among the Kaskaskia Indians, who were
mostly Catholic." What Katz failed to tell us in his discussion was
that this took place as a result of a treaty between two sovereign
nations, the United States of America and the Kaskaskia Indians. The
Kaskaskia Indians were not bound to obey Jeffersonian conceptions of
church-state relations. They undoubtedly negotiated this financial
support for Catholicism into the treaty probably with the counsel of a
priest which was their prerogative as an independent and sovereign

Perhaps it might be worthwhile to take a look at the clause in the
treaty signed at Vincennes On August 13, 1803 which provided for the
financial support of religion that Katz cited.

"And whereas the greater part of the said tribe have been baptized and
received into the Catholic church, to which they are much attached, the
United States will give, annually, for seven years, one hundred dollars
towards the support of a priest of that religion, who will engage to
perform for said tribe the duties of his office, and also to instruct
as many of their children as possible, in the rudiments of literature.
And the United States will further give the sum of three hundred
dollars, to assist the said tribe in the erection of a church." (/b/o[,
Stokes, Volume I, p. 704).

Anson Phelps Stokes points out in the source just cited that Congress,
in 1802, had created a fund to be used to maintain peaceful relations
between the United States and the various Indian tribes and that
Jefferson did not hesitate to financially aid an occasional missionary
with public funds as these persons "were frequently used in making
treaties with the Indians and in quieting disturbances." Jefferson was
merely using any means at his disposal to deal with the Indian nations
of his day operating under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution
which says in part, "The Congress shall have power... To regulate
commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with
the Indian tribes." Religion was one tool which could be used, among
others, to maintain amicable relations with the Indians as it is not
specifically forbidden by the provision in the Constitution just cited.
Before Katz criticized Jefferson's financial support of missionaries
with public funds, he should have taken a look at the social context in
which this was done and the constitutional provision which sanctioned

There is a legend concerning the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that
is being promoted by various spokespersons for the politically active
fundamentalists among us that appears to have been "bought" by Bernard
Katz. In his essay, Katz refers to a revision of the Lord's Prayer that
was allegedly read by Benjamin Franklin to the Convention. One wonders
if this is supposed to be one of the prayers allegedly prayed at the
Convention when Franklin once made the suggestion that prayers might
assist the delegates in their deliberations. The truth of the matter is
that no prayers were said at the Convention and Franklin's suggestion
came to nought. Leo Pfeifer, in his Church, State and Freedom described
what happened thus:

"It is perhaps symbolic of the difference in the relationship of state
and religion between the Continental Congress and the new government
established by the Constitutional Convention of 1787, that whereas the
Continental Congress instituted the practice of daily prayers
immediately on first convening, the Convention met for four months
without any recitation of prayers. After the Convention had been in
session for a month, the octogenarian Franklin, who in earlier years
had been pretty much of a Deist, moved 'that henceforth prayers
imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our
deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed
to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be
requested to officiate in that service.' The motion was received
politely though not without embarrassment. Accordlng to the records of
the Convention, 'After several unsuccessful attempts for silently
postponing the matter by adjourning, the adjournment was at length
carried, without any vote on the motion!" (pp. 121-122).

One wonders what the source of Bernard Katz's assertion that Franklin
indeed did get to subject the delegates to the Convention to at least
one prayer was? This reader:was still wondering when Katz raised this
issue in Part III of his essay.

While Katz informed us of Jefferson's toleration for chaplaincies
whether congressional or military, he failed to inform us of the
principled opposition of James Madison to these institutions. It seemed
as though Bernard Katz was trying to show us as many instances of the
alleged "Christianity" of the Founding Fathers as he could, and to
fault them for any violations of the principle of church-state
separation as perceived by Bernard Katz. Why Katz chose to ignore the
thinking of Madison on this question is beyond comprehension for if
Jefferson's alleged dereliction was worthy of note why was Madison's
fidelity to constitutional principle not worthy of mention.

There were many shortcomings in the Bernard Katz article which I
undoubtedly missed and which others more informed on those shortcomings
may choose to discuss in these pages, e.g., how could George Washington
be a truly orthodox Christian if he were a member in good standing of a
Masonic lodge? Katz's provocative essay served to remind us that our
Founding Fathers could not be put into one easily marked theological
bag. Unfortunately, by attaching the label "Christian" to them, he made
the attempt to do just that thereby negating the value of his essay to
the understanding of the Fathers of this country with respect to their
opinions about religion. Moreover, it should be noted that he totally
ignored Ethan Allen, whose Reason, the Only Oracle of Man preceded
Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason by ten years. Allen was as much
opposed to Christianity as Thomas Paine was. Inclusion of a discussion
of Ethan Allen's theology would not have contributed to Katz's thesis
but would have served to help negate it.

As Bernard Katz virtually closed Part I of his essay with Thomas
Jefferson's remark to Thomas Pickerlng made in a letter dated February
27, 1821, it seems only fitting that the quotation ought to be repeated
with the thought that follows, a thought that Katz chose to omit:

"No one sees with greater pleasure than myself the progress of reason
in its advances toward rational Christianity. When we shall have done
away (with) the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic,
that three  are one and one is three..." (Seldes, p. 374).

If Christianity as perceived by Jefferson was the goal to be reached by
the citizens of this country then historical Christianity as it is
known and practiced would be dead--the Vatican would be viewed with
disdain by all Americans; and Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the rest
of that gang would be unknown to the American public. The Christian
nation, if it can be called such, that Bernard Katz alleges the
Founding Fathers were intent on establishing, would, for all practical
purposes, be a Humanist nation. It would contain nothing that could be
historically described as Christian.

Let us hope that Bernard Katz's first article will not be used by the
religious fascists among us to justify their vision of theocracy in the
name of the Founding Fathers should the March-April 1984 issue of The
American Rationalist penetrate that part of the population of this
country. In the final analysis, it must be concluded that the Katz
essay did next to nothing to broaden our understanding of the religious
views of the Founding Fathers and probably did some harm in obscuring
their contributions to the problem of church-state relations. By and
large, the first Katz article was a minus, a negative that will
undoubtedly receive the critical attention of other readers of
The American Rationalist. Let the discussion continue!