A Critical Response to On Our Founding Fathers 1

Robert Nordlander

Part I

Bernard Katz deserves 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 exist.

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 States?

"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 nation.

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." (Ibid., 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 it.

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!