The founding fathers gave us the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with a Bill of Rights. Paramount in this country's new vision was the belief in freedom of religion. Were the founding fathers who advocated and established freedom of religion as a bedrock principle of American culture religious people? And by whose standards would we define "religious"?
Let's not forget that in the colonial period the Church of England was the established church for many of the colonies, especially the southern colonies such as Virginia. In the north, the Protestant-based churches that evolved from the Puritans played a major role in defining religious life.
Minority Christian movements such as the Baptists, Presbyterians and Quakers were just getting started as they fought against the established hegemony of the Church of England. This puritanical religious movement that formed the basis of American Protestant Christianity was notoriously hostile to the Roman Catholic church. The Catholic church struggled against the anti-papal feelings of the colonists. Other minority religions such as Judaism found freedom in the New World and established synagogues in Charleston; Savannah; Newport, R.I.; Philadelphia and New York.
As far back as the 18th century, the American religious scene percolated with diversity from multiple religious traditions inherited from the old world as well as giving birth to new faith traditions in the new world.
Let's start with Benjamin Franklin, who grew up in the theocracy of Massachusetts. He rejected the congregational movement and sought out Philadelphia, which was then a city known for much more religious diversity and tolerance. Franklin believed in God and, for example, wrote to Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale University, three months before he died; "Here is my creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. He ought to be worshipped, and the most acceptable service we render him is doing good to his other children. These I take to be the fundamental principles of all sound religions."
President James Madison grew up in the Anglican church. He studied theology at the College of William and Mary, an Anglican college, and studied further in the field of theology at Princeton, which was a Presbyterian college. He returned to Virginia and in 1776 was a member of the Virginia Constitutional Convention in which he helped draft the legislation on religious rights in the state of Virginia. The Baptists and the Presbyterians supported his efforts to remove the taxes that supported the Anglican Church clergy.
President John Adams was a man of definite opinions. Many times he criticized the clergy of his faith tradition in the Calvinist doctrine of Christianity. But he was man who always believed in his own way in God and in the need for religion. After his wife, Abigail Adams, died, he received a condolence letter from Thomas Jefferson. In response to the comfort of the letter of condolence, Adams wrote: "I believe in God and in his wisdom and in his benevolence and I cannot conceive that such a being could make such a species as the human, merely to live and die on this earth."
Our first President George Washington was a vestryman in his Anglican church even before he became a military officer. Washington believed in God and referred to God's presence in our lives as the Providence. It might not be the way Americans express God language today. Washington was known not to participate in taking communion for the sake of winning popular opinion. Yet, he wrote in his final message as president: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these finest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and cherish them."
There would be some in America who would label these founding fathers as atheists. Let's not forget their devotion to God, religion and theology and their commitment to keeping the public forum neutral when it came to religious matters. Somehow today too many in our society feel threatened by that kind of blend of respect for religion and citizenship. These founding fathers understood, from the revolution against England, that America would only thrive if our new country would enable all religions to participate on an equal basis in the American experiment in democracy and freedom for all peoples.
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him at twitter.com/rabbibloom.