Founders were well schooled in the history of the Crusades they also
knew from first-hand experience how oppressive religious men could be
with even small amounts of political power."
Founders Confront Judge Moore
Posted November 25, 2003 thepeoplesvoice.org
Judge Moore, the "Ten
Commandments Judge" in Alabama, says the controversy he and Fox news
have stirred up is about religion.
But it's not about religion. It's about
power. A power that seeks, ultimately, to replace democracy.
Religious fundamentalists, pandered to by
Fox's evening entertainers, turned the showmanship of an Alabama judge (soon
to be political candidate) into a national media circus just in time to
divert media coverage away from George W. Bush gutting the Clean Air Act.
The judge's main arguments for keeping a graven image of the Ten
Commandments in the Alabama Supreme Court rotunda were, he said, that
America is a Judeo/Christian nation founded by Christians, and that the
foundation of American law is the Bible and the Ten Commandments.
The most well-known of the Founders and
Framers of this nation - those who wrote the Declaration of Independence,
led the Revolutionary war, and wrote the Constitution - would strongly
disagree on all counts.
Instead, the record tells us that many of the
Founders and Framers believed that secular democracy is a more powerful
unifying force for a decent and peaceful civil society than any religion
ever was or could be. Although most were spiritual in their own ways, and
many were also openly religious, as students of history the Founders and
Framers knew the damage that organized religion could do when it gained
access to the reigns of political power.
The Founders clearly divided power into four
categories: military, religious, wealth/corporate, and political. The
interaction of these types of power produced the three historic types of
tyranny - warlord kings; theocratic popes; and wealthy feudal lords or
monopolistic corporations like the East India Company.
Every past tyrannical government in the
history of civilization, our Founders realized, had oppressed its citizens
because it had combined political power with one or more of the other three
categories. This, they believed, was the fatal flaw of past forms of
governance, and they were determined to isolate political power from each
and all of the other three to prevent America from repeating the mistakes of
Thus, political power would only be held by
"We the People," and never again shared with military, corporate,
or religious agencies.
For example, to keep political power from
combining with military power in the new United States of America, the army
was put under the civilian control of the elected President, and he, in
turn, was legally incapable of declaring war (that power being given solely
to Congress). As James Madison pointed out on April 20, 1795, presidents
will always be tempted to gain excessive power by becoming warlords, which
is why Congress must withhold from presidents the power to make war.
"In war," Madison wrote, "the
discretionary power of the Executive [President] is extended. Its influence
in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the
means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force of the
people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the
inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a
state of war...and in the degeneracy of manners and morals, engendered by
both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual
Combining political power with the economic
power of great wealth was also to be banned, one of the reasons why Thomas
Jefferson suggested amending the Constitution to "ban monopolies in
commerce." As Jefferson pointed out in a December 26, 1825 letter to
William Giles, economic powers will always seek to gain political power and
thus threaten to create "a single and splendid government of an
aristocracy, founded on banking institutions, and moneyed incorporations
under the guise and cloak of their favored branches of manufactures,
commerce and navigation, riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and
beggared yeomanry [working class]."
And, with the memory of the Salem witch
trials and other religious atrocities still fresh in their minds, the
Founders knew that those among the organized religions who sought to combine
political power with their existing religious power would be unrelenting and
could be deadly to democracy.
While our Founders were well schooled in the
history of the Crusades they also knew from first-hand experience how
oppressive religious men could be with even small amounts of political
power. Ben Franklin fled Boston when he was a teenager in part to escape the
oppressive environment created by politically powerful preachers, and for
the rest of his life was openly hostile to the idea of secular political
power being wielded by those who also hold religious power. Although he was
enthralled by the "mystery" of the spiritual experience, Franklin
had little use for the organized religions of the day. In his
autobiographical "Toward The Mystery," he wrote, "I have
found Christian dogma unintelligible. Early in life I absented myself from
Franklin - like most of the more well-known
Founders - was a Deist, a philosophy made popular by early Unitarians who
held that the Creator made the universe long ago and has since chosen not to
interfere in any way, that neither Jesus nor anybody else was divine (or,
alternatively, that we are all divine and shall all do as Jesus did and said
we would), and that there is only one God and not three.
Another founding Deist who resisted giving
political power to those with religious power was George Washington.
On the topic of Washington's religious
sentiments, Thomas Jefferson wrote in his personal diary entry for February
1, 1799, "when the clergy addressed General Washington on his departure
from the Government, it was observed in their consultation, that he had
never, on any occasion, said a word to the public which showed a belief in
the Christian religion, and they thought they should so pen their address,
as to force him at length to declare publicly whether he was a Christian or
not. They did so.
"However," Jefferson noted to his
diary, "the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article
of their address particularly except that, which he passed over without
notice." Jefferson concluded that Washington "never did say a word
on the subject in any of his public papers, except in his valedictory letter
to the Governors of the States, when he resigned his commission in the army,
wherein he speaks of 'the benign influence of the Christian religion.' I
know that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets [in
Washington's confidence] and believed himself to be so, has often told me
that General Washington believed no more of that [fundamentalist Christian]
system than he himself did."
In fact, President George Washington
supervised the language of a treaty with African Muslims that explicitly
stated that the United States was a secular nation.
The Treaty With Tripoli, worked out under
Washington's guidance and then signed into law by John Adams in 1797, reads:
"As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense
founded on the Christian Religion,--as it has in itself no character of
enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,--and as the
said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any
Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from
religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony
existing between the two countries."
But for the Founders this wasn't just an
issue of being Christians or not. Just as they were opposed to warlords
taking control of the government and thus took the ability to make war out
of the hands of the president; just as they opposed economic forces from
taking control of the government and thus excluded the word
"corporation" from the Constitution so companies could be closely
watched by the states and wouldn't be able to corrupt national officials;
so, too, they opposed religious leaders from gaining any access whatsoever
to the levers of political power or intermingling in any way with state
For example, on February 21, 1811, President
James Madison vetoed a bill passed by Congress that authorized government
payments to a church in Washington, DC to help the poor. Faith-based
initiatives were a clear violation, in Madison's mind, of the doctrine of
separation of church and state, and could lead to a dangerous transfer of
political power to religious leaders.
In Madison's mind, caring for the poor was a
public and civic duty - a function of government - and must not be allowed
to become a hole through which churches could reach and seize political
power or the taxpayer's purse. Funding a church to provide for the poor
would establish a "legal agency" - a legal precedent - that would
break down the wall of separation the founders had put between church and
states to protect Americans from religious zealots gaining political power.
Thus, Madison said in his veto message to
Congress, he was striking down the proposed law, "Because the bill
vests and said incorporated church an also authority to provide for the
support of the poor, and the education of poor children of the
same;..." which, Madison said, "would be a precedent for giving to
religious societies, as such, a legal agency in carrying into effect a
public and civil duty."
Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the most
outspoken of the Founders who saw religious leaders seizing political power
as a naked threat to American democracy. One of his most well known quotes
is carved into the stone of the awe-inspiring Jefferson Memorial in
Washington, DC: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility
against every form of tyranny imposed upon the mind of man." Modern
religious leaders who aspire to political power often cite it as proof that
Jefferson was a Bible-thumping Christian.
What's missing from the Jefferson memorial
(and almost all who cite the quote), however, is the context of that
statement, the letter and circumstance from which it came.
When Jefferson was Vice President, just two
months before the election of 1800 in which he would become President, he
wrote to his good friend, the physician Benjamin Rush, who started out as an
orthodox Christian and ended up, later in his life, a Deist and Unitarian.
Here, in a most surprising context, we find the true basis of one of
Jefferson's most famous quotes:
"DEAR SIR, - ... I promised you a letter
on Christianity, which I have not forgotten," Jefferson wrote, noting
that he knew to discuss the topic would add fuel to the fires of electoral
politics swirling all around him. "I do not know that it would
reconcile the genus irritabile vatum [the angry poets] who are all in arms
against me. Their hostility is on too interesting ground to be softened.
"The delusion ...on the clause of the
Constitution, which, while it secured the freedom of the press, covered also
the freedom of religion, had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of
obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity through the
United States; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every
one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians and
"The returning good sense of our country
threatens abortion to their hopes, and they [the preachers] believe that any
portion of power confided to me [such as his being elected President], will
be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly: for I
have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of
tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and
enough too in their opinion."
Thus began a long and thoughtful
correspondence - mostly about religion - between Jefferson and Dr. Rush. In
later years, Jefferson would put together what is now called "The
Jefferson Bible," in which he deleted all the miracles from the New
Testament and presented Jesus to readers as an inspired philosopher. His
Jefferson Bible is still in print, and well received, if amazon.com sales
and readers' comments are any indication.
In his autobiography, Jefferson wrote an
interesting historical footnote about the religious leaders seeking
political power he confronted head-on when he authored the Statute of
Virginia for Religious Freedom, and who the other Framers confronted when
they submitted the First Amendment, which specified, "Congress shall
make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free
Speaking of the Virginia law he authored,
which was the inspiration for the First Amendment, he noted, "Where the
preamble [to the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom] declares that
coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an
amendment was proposed, by inserting the word 'Jesus Christ,' so that it
should read, 'a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of
our religion.' The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that
they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and
the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every
But it wasn't just religious tolerance that
was the issue for Jefferson - it was preventing any one religion from
claiming it was uniquely the American religion, and then using that claim to
grasp at political power. Thus, secular government must allow even pagans
and pantheists to coexist, while at the same time rigorously preventing any
of them from gaining power over it. In his "Notes On Virginia,"
Jefferson laid it out clearly: "The legitimate powers of government
extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no
injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither
picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."
Yet in the days of the Founders, like today,
there were many religious leaders who aspired to political power. They
claimed that their right to influence government was legitimate because,
they said, government itself was founded on their territory - the Ten
Commandments. Because our system of laws was founded on the Judeo-Christian
Ten Commandments, the religious leaders said, they and their Commandments
should play a large and powerful role in government and be able to both take
from the public purse and influence the courts and laws.
This assertion - that British common law and
American law derived from the Ten Commandments - was particularly
infuriating to the Founders.
First, there's the simple fact that there
isn't that much overlap. Our laws don't specify a single god who must be
worshipped, ban graven images, require us to take a day off work every week,
mandate that we "honor" our parents, make it illegal for men to
"covet" other men's wives or sleep with unmarried women, or make
it illegal to lie (in fact, corporations have recently asserted the explicit
"right to lie" under the First Amendment). The only things in
common between the Commandments and most state or federal laws are
prohibitions on killing and stealing, which most people figure have always
been pretty obvious.
Of greater concern to the Founders, though,
was the naked power grab religious leaders were trying to pull off by
claiming that America's system of jurisprudence was founded in their
religious system, and that therefore they should be able to insert
themselves into the secular halls of political power. The claim was made so
often and so loudly (and believed by the more gullible of the masses), that
several of the Founders thought it necessary to refute it in detail.
Jefferson was probably the most methodical, as was so often the case on
In a February 10, 1814 letter to Dr. Thomas
Cooper, Jefferson addressed the question directly. "Finally, in answer
to Fortescue Aland's question why the Ten Commandments should not now be a
part of the common law of England we may say they are not because they never
were..." Anybody who asserted that the Ten Commandments were the basis
of American or British law was, Jefferson said, mistakenly believing a
document that was "a manifest forgery."
The reason was simple: British common law, on
which much American law was based, existed before Christianity had arrived
"Sir Matthew Hale lays it down in these
words," wrote Jefferson to Cooper, "'Christianity is parcel of the
laws of England.'"
But, Jefferson rebuts, it couldn't be. Just
looking at the timeline of English history demonstrated it was impossible:
"But Christianity was not introduced till the seventh century; the
conversion of the first Christian king of the Heptarchy having taken place
about the year 598, and that of the last about 686. Here, then, was a space
of two hundred years, during which the common law was in existence, and
Christianity no part of it....
"We might as well say that the Newtonian
system of philosophy is a part of the common law, as that the Christian
religion is," wrote Jefferson. "...In truth, the alliance between
Church and State in England has ever made their judges accomplices in the
frauds of the clergy; and even bolder than they are."
In a January 24, 1814 letter to John Adams,
Jefferson went through a detailed lawyer's brief to show that the entire
idea that the laws of both England and the United States came from Judaism,
Christianity, or the Ten Commandments rests on a single man's mistranslation
in 1658, often repeated, and totally false.
"It is not only the sacred volumes they
[the churches] have thus interpolated, gutted, and falsified, but the works
of others relating to them, and even the laws of the land," he wrote.
"Our judges, too, have lent a ready hand to further these frauds, and
have been willing to lay the yoke of their own opinions on the necks of
others; to extend the coercions of municipal law to the dogmas of their
religion, by declaring that these make a part of the law of the land."
It was a long-running topic of agreement
between Jefferson and John Adams, who, on September 24, 1821, wrote to
Jefferson noting their mutual hope that America would embrace a purely
secular, rational view of what human society could become:
"Hope springs eternal. Eight millions of
Jews hope for a Messiah more powerful and glorious than Moses, David, or
Solomon; who is to make them as powerful as he pleases. Some hundreds of
millions of Mussulmans expect another prophet more powerful than Mahomet,
who is to spread Islamism over the whole earth. Hundreds of millions of
Christians expect and hope for a millennium in which Jesus is to reign for a
thousand years over the whole world before it is burnt up. The Hindoos
expect another and final incarnation of Vishnu, who is to do great and
wonderful things, I know not what." But, Adams noted, the hope for a
positive future for America was - in his mind and Jefferson's - grounded in
rationality and government, not in religion. "You and I hope for
splendid improvements in human society, and vast amelioration in the
condition of mankind," he wrote. "Our faith may be supposed by
more rational arguments than any of the former."
And yet the true faith of our Founders - the
faith in a secular political system uncontaminated by warlord presidents,
wealthy corporations, or grasping religious leaders - is under attack once
In a modern revival of religious leaders
seeking political power, emails fly around the internet saying that Founders
like Madison claimed the United States was founded on either Christianity or
the Ten Commandments. Many originate in the writings of a right-wing group
whose president helped prepare the History and Social Studies standards for
Texas and California schoolchildren, and are so badly taken out of context
that they can only be called deliberate attempts to fool people. Others are
simple fabrications, quotes created from nothing.
The United States and our laws were not
founded on the Bible, or even on biblical principles. Moral precepts against
killing or stealing are found not only in the Bible, but exist among every
tribe on earth, some of whose cultures and languages date back over 60,000
years. They're part of the social code of animals ranging from prairie dogs
to gorillas. They're rooted in the biological imperative of survival.
As Thomas Jefferson wrote in a June 5, 1824
letter to Major John Cartwright, "Our Revolution commenced on more
favorable ground [than the foundation of English or Biblical law]. It
presented us an album on which we were free to write what we pleased. We had
no occasion to search into musty records, to hunt up royal parchments, or to
investigate the laws and institutions of a semi-barbarous ancestry. We
appealed to those of nature, and found them engraved on our hearts."
Jefferson then thanks and congratulates
Cartwright for writing that the American Constitution as well as both
American and British common law are entirely secular in their origin:
"I was glad to find in your book a formal contradiction, at length, of
the judiciary usurpation of legislative powers; for such the judges have
usurped in their repeated decisions, that Christianity is a part of the
common law. The proof of the contrary, which you have adduced, is
incontrovertible; to wit, that the common law existed while the Anglo-Saxons
were yet pagans, at a time when they had never yet heard the name of Christ
pronounced, or knew that such a character had ever existed. But it may amuse
you, to show when, and by what means, they stole this law in upon us."
Jefferson concluded his letter by denouncing
the efforts of churchmen to seize the fledgling United States of America,
and paraphrased a 1732 play by Henry Fielding, "The Lottery," in
which a character says "Sing Tantararara, Fools all, Fools all,"
lamenting that in the lottery of life, the fools win out all too often.
"What a conspiracy this," Jefferson
closed his 1824 letter to Cartwright, "between Church and State! Sing
Tantarara, rogues all, rogues all, Sing Tantarara, rogues all!"
Copyright 2003 by Thom
Hartmann (thom at thomhartmann.com) is the award-winning, best-selling
author of 15 books available on 4 continents in 12 languages, and the host
of the nation's largest nationally-syndicated daytime progressive radio talk
This article is copyright by Thom Hartmann, but permission is granted for
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