hoffheimer column


This was originally printed as weekly installments in The American Israelite Newspaper on the religious basis of the founding of the United States of America. This is the article in its entirety. Daniel Hoffheimer is an attorney in Cincinnati and writes about Jewish history. 


I. Introduction 

The United States of America, our beloved country, sweet land of liberty, was founded on Christian principles, correct? Let us consider the foundations of our country. Allow me to begin with several scene-setting quotations. 

“America was founded as a Christian country.” 

- Gary Lankford, president of FamilyVision, and affiliated with the Ohio Restoration Project, a nonprofit Christian evangelical organization that was dedicated to Ken Blackwell’s unsuccessful campaign for Ohio Governor. 

“ I just have to say in all candor that...this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles...” 

- Senator John S. McCain, III G.O.P. Presidential nominee, in his BeliefNet interview, September 2007. 

And, finally:

“Whether you like it or not, America is a Christian country.” 

- Andrew Carnegie to Mark Twain.

- Mark Twain’s response to Carnegie: “But so is Hell.” 

So what are we to make of the oft-heard claim, voiced by the late GOP Senator McCain, the religious right, and others that the United States of America is a Christian country, founded on Christian principles? 

When one considers the explosion of books on America’s Founders that have come out in recent years — such as those of Nathaniel Philbrick, David McCulloch, John Meacham, Joseph Ellis, Ron Chernow, Walter Isaacson, and Gordon Wood, among others — there seems to be abroad the sense that the European settlement of America, especially by the late eighteenth century, was a miraculous intellectual, and even religious, watershed the likes of which the world had not seen before and has not seen since. The pervasion of religious intolerance and dogmatism around the globe today, which in possession of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons may yet cause unprecedented human misery, highlights in sharp relief the diversity of religious experience in our early national history that resulted in the jurisprudence of the First Amendment to our Constitution and religious freedom that has no antecedent. Just consider our American religious spectrum today, from Opus Dei to Mormonism, Humanistic Judaism, Messianic Jews, American Theravada Buddhism, Tennessee snake handlers, more Protestant churches daily, Seveners and Twelvers among Shia Muslims, Sunnis of all stripes, Hindu groups with their respective patron gods, Chinese folk religion, atheists—and on and on. This happens only in America. Despite this rich religious rainbow, is America a Christian country? Did the Pilgrims and Founding Fathers (and Mothers) define America to be Christian? Or did they create America as a country open equally to all religions? 

I want to turn to the hothouse of religious thought in the world of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers, and our other national holy scriptures, but first let us get a taste of one seminal aspect of the diverse religious background from which we derive our religious culture, and that is the Jewish premise on which American religious pluralism rests. 

II. The Hebrew Context of the Spirit of Seventy-Six 

Over a century before the "Spirit of Seventy-Six" intoxicated the Founders, earlier iconoclastic seeds were planted by the first European settlers in the New World. The Mayflower Pilgrims, under the spiritual leadership of Elder William Brewster, were Old-Testament-committed Christians. (Brewster, in what is a typical irony of the American melting pot, is the twelve-times great-grandfather of the author of this article.) Although social realities meant that Brewster knew no rabbis, and the Pilgrims knew few Jews, they saw Moses as their law-giver. The Exodus modeled their own flight from Christian persecution. The Pilgrim's Code of Laws of 1636 was derived from the Hebrew Bible. In their government branches of executive, legislative, and judicial, they followed the tripartite structure of the ancient Hebrew Commonwealth with its Shofet, Sanhedrin, and Knesset years before Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws provided such a structure for eighteenth century political philosophy. 

Of course, the Pilgrims and Puritans meant to establish their colonies as Christian societies, but endless dissenters, of whom Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson are only the most famous, assured very early that no colonial community would have a monopoly on religious rule or religious truth. There was room for everyone. And they would not create their religious culture without reference other religions. The Pilgrims were aware that they were establishing their Thanksgiving celebration, for example, after the Jewish fall holiday of Sukkot, although the changes in seasons between New England and Israel put the holidays six or eight weeks apart. 

After Massachusetts Bay Colony established its first seminary on this continent in 1636 for the education of the successors to Elder Brewster, as Isaac Mayer Wise would first do for rabbis 239 years later in founding the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Harvard required a thorough knowledge of Hebrew. Also in 1636, Puritans at Harvard began translating the Psalms from Hebrew into English. The first important book to be published in North America was the Bay Psalm Book. This book, printed in the house of John Dunster, the first president of Harvard, was used by nearly every congregation of New England for decades. (For bibliophiles, this book is far rarer than a Shakespeare First Folio and compares in price to a Gutenberg Bible.) 

In 1655, Harvard established the first chair on the continent in Hebrew. In succession, other early seminaries and colleges, which today go by the names of Yale, Columbia, Darthmouth, Brown, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Pennsylvania, followed suit mandating literacy in the Hebrew Bible in its original language. At Princeton only a century later, the Father of the Constitution of the United States, a young James Madison, would major in and become completely literate in Hebrew and well-versed in ancient Hebraic literature. 

The first American Hebrew grammar book was published by the first Jew known to receive a Harvard degree before the nineteenth century, Judah Monis. Born in 1683 in Italy to Portuguese conversos, he was drawn to Harvard, which early sought his skills and gladly welcomed him to the faculty — upon his Christian baptism, of course, in 1722, under the tutelage of Increase and Cotton Mather, Harvard's president. Monis was baptized in Harvard Hall (where, incidentally, British troops were later garrisoned until General Washington tricked them into abandoning their occupation of Boston and where the author of this article took a course, some years later, on the history of Israel taught by an Egyptian Jew). Monis nevertheless remained an observant Jew for the rest of his life. The Inquisition could not reach him at Cambridge. When Ezra Stiles became president of Yale in the year following the Declaration of Independence, he not only continued the mandatory study of Hebrew in New Haven but added required study of Talmud in Aramaic and of Kabbalistic mystical texts. Only in recent years has Hebrew Union College taken Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism seriously, so antithetical has it seemed to the Haskalah-inspired German-Jewish temperament of the Reform Movement. 

While all these early American leaders were Christians, I share these few facts to scratch the surface of the religious, intellectual, and spiritual context for the religious origins of America. Much could also be said, as Nathanial Philbrick does in his book, Mayflower, about the influence of Native American religion on the white man. Later, the African religion of the slaves would transform American Protestantism, particularly. These early Americans were not often lovers of Jews, nor of American Indians, nor Blacks, nor even other Christians, but to consider them uninfluenced by these others would be wrong. Rather, the religious "cosmic background radiation," as it were, was enlightening the colonists, and the context was anything but devoid of non-Christian, sometimes especially Jewish, culture and influence. It was certainly chockfull of diverse and mutually contradictory and incompatible religious views even if one considers only the many Christian doctrines throughout the colonies. The history of Christianity in America has been a complex, fascinating, and in many ways glorious history — but that is the subject for another time. We all can celebrate the freedom of belief that Christians have found here, as we can do for immigrants who came with every other religion, for those who have created new, uniquely American religions, and for those without any religion, those whom the Pew Charitable Trust survey calls the "nones." Jewish religious freedom in America is inextricably linked with the freedom of Christianity, of every religion, and of irreligion. 

Of course, the faith of the colonists and the practice of their religion were not always internally coherent or mutually compatible. The gulf between the theory and practice of religion everywhere was and remains often so wide as to stupefy comprehension. Consider the deep religious faith of the terrorists who flew jet airplanes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001. We know also in our early history that Jews, like Quakers and others, were often illegal immigrants into the colonies. Jews were not permitted into the Jamestown Settlement under the Virginia Charter of 1606. Quakers had a hard time of it, except in parts of Pennsylvania, until well after the Revolution. Catholics were often despised except in their own colony of Maryland, and, like Jews, were murdered by church-going Protestants in the Ku Klux Klan into my lifetime. The idealistic New England Puritans, who, like Cromwell, set out to purify the Church of England of its degradation, burned free-thinking women, whom they called witches, at the stake. So often, in America as throughout the world, one man's freedom of religion has been purchased at the expense of another's, and dogmatic adherence to the faith of those in power has been compelled of others. The last established church in America, that of Congregationalist Massachusetts was not abolished until 1828. 

America has not always practiced what the better angels of its nature or its most enlightened leaders have preached on religious freedom. But those who established the intellectual culture of our country have preached a qualitatively different ideology, a new kind of tolerance, of mutual acceptance, if not always of understanding, of another person's faith. Over the two-and-a-third centuries since this ideology began gaining its articulate expression, the faith of the Founders has been tested and sometimes disappointed, but it was and remains a shockingly new and hopeful design of human thought, an intellectual foundation unknown in Europe or elsewhere. 

And now for the rest of the story.


The genius of the ideologues of the Spirit of Seventy-Six cannot, of course, be given justice in this brief article. Here the aim is modest, and only to share some evidence that these great men (always, I hasten to add, supported, inspired, and in some ways outshone by their wives and daughters) did not establish America as a Christian country. 

This small group of extraordinary men, of widely varied backgrounds and temperaments, not only created a new polity, but a new kind of nation. It was the first society not founded on divine ordination (despite President Reagan’s vision of a City on a Hill) but on tolerance for diverse varieties of beliefs, religious, political, and otherwise, that come from the minds of men and women. Their Revolution was not principally a military conflict fought at Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Saratoga, or Yorktown. The real Revolution occurred in the American spirit. Instigated by such revered patriots as Samuel and John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine, it was in general conceived and executed by leaders each of whose qualities of mind and spirit were a marvel even in the so-called Age of Enlightenment. 


A. Washington 

The Father of our country may not have been much of an ideologue, but his life of unequalled service to his country as general and as president is a life lived as servant to the religious, as well as the political, liberty of all Americans. At what other previous moment in the long and lachrymose history of the Jews could they have expected to receive a message like this one addressed to the Newport, Rhode Island, Hebrew congregation by the greatest of all Americans: 

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.... May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and Figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy. 

The majestic prose, given by President Washington early in his first term, is characteristic not only of Washington but of all the Founding Fathers who are perhaps better revealed in their intimate writings about religion than in their political theory. This letter is still today taken out and read in the Touro Synagogue every year. 

The warmth of Washington's wishes to various religious communities and his lack of adherence to the rituals of any one of them has led many groups to claim him as theirs. His publicly-stated positions were so broad that it has also been asserted that he was not even a Christian, perhaps even an atheist. No honest atheist, however, could have uttered this sentence in the First Inaugural Address: "No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand which conducts the affairs of men more than the people of the United States." 

Washington exhibited the utmost sensitivity with respect to the tolerance due to the religious views and practices of others, enemies as well as friends. When a Continental expeditionary force under Colonel Benedict Arnold was sent to invade Canada late in 1775, the Commander-in-Chief issued orders not only to protect the free exercise of French Catholicism in Quebec but also to prevent contempt of the Catholic religion from ridicule of its ceremonies. Twelve years later, writing to Lafayette, the Father of our country expressed the wish for Lafayette's success in his plan of French toleration in religious matters. "Being no bigot myself to any mode of worship” said Washington, "I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church that road to heaven which to them shall seem the most direct, plainest, easiest, and least liable to exception." 

Often like many other Founders called a Deist by intellectual historians, Washington had no problem with Jews, Catholics, or those of any religious community provided they were good citizens and allowed freedom of thought to one another. 


B. Madison 

In Washington's letter to the Jews of Newport, as in many of his official actions, he seems consciously to be modeling his attitudes of tolerance for his successors. One of them, the Hebrew scholar James Madison, wrote a strikingly similar letter to a member of the Hebrew Congregation at Savannah: 

The history of the Jews must forever be interesting.

The modern part of it is, at the same time so little

generally known, that every ray of light on the subject

has its value.... Among the features peculiar to the Political system of the United States, is the perfect equality of rights which it secures to every religious Sect. And it is particularly pleasing to observe in the good citizenship of such as have been most distrusted and oppressed elsewhere, a happy illustration of the safety and success of this experiment of a just and benignant policy. Equal laws protecting equal rights, are found as they ought to be presumed, the best guarantee of loyalty and love of country; as well as best calculated to cherish that mutual respect and good will among Citizens of every religious denomination which are necessary to social harmony and most favorable to the advancement of truth. The account you give of the Jews of your Congregation [in Savannah] brings them fully within the scope of these observations. 

Madison, the Father of our Constitution, was never far from his Hebraic education. What he learned about Jewish history and Hebrew literature at Princeton, especially from the Hebrew Bible, was a respect for the Jewish instinct for allowing all other nations to hold onto their respective religions. All the Hebrews in Egypt ever wanted, Madison understood, was to be able to practice their own religion in freedom. They carried that aspiration throughout their millennial wanderings. 


C. Franklin 

Though in some instances the Founders were largely self-taught, all were men of great learning, broad sympathies, and manifold skills. Here is Benjamin Franklin, just a few weeks before his death, with a touch of his characteristic wit, addressing the president of Yale: 

Here is my creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by His providence. That He ought to be worshipped. That the most 

acceptable service we render Him is doing good to His other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the principal principles of sound religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever sect I meet with them. As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon as opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble. 

The “system of morals” and religion of Jesus to which Franklin refers, of course, was in fact Judaism, as he certainly understood. Franklin's faith sounds indistinguishable from that of many modern liberal Jews. His was the faith of the scientist and diplomat who, finding the ethical essentials of the best in American religion the same, respected them all. He was famous for seldom declining to contribute his money to any religious group seeking assistance in erecting a house of worship. 

Franklin's famous prayer for mankind, conceived in the American revolutionary spirit, was as tolerant a prayer as one could hope to discover anywhere: 

God grant that not only the Love of Liberty but a thorough knowledge of the rights of man may pervade all the nations of the earth, so that a philosopher may set his feet anywhere on its surface and say, 'This is my country.' 


D. Adams 

Although the utterances of our first president, of Franklin, and of Madison with respect to faith are miraculously tolerant and inspiring, the most outstanding examples of the Spirit of Seventy-Six in the free exercise of religion are contained in the writings of Washington's two immediate successors. Products of America's two oldest colleges, Harvard and William and Mary, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were as far apart in social and religious background as in political party and temperament. But they were united in their unflagging advocacy for freedom of thought and belief. It is fitting that the outside walls of the Hamilton County Courthouse in Cincinnati are inscribed with lines from the pens of these two men, along with words from the Hebrew prophet Micah. Jefferson and Adams were at one period perhaps the most bitter political and personal foes in American history. In their later correspondence with each other after retiring from public office, Adams and Jefferson give us one of the most affectionate displays of personal tolerance in American, or any, history. Their long exchange of letters ended only by their deaths — on the same day, July 4, 1926, a half-century to the day after they affixed their signatures on the Declaration of Independence. 

The one of Puritan, the other of Episcopal, background, both developed as Deists. Adams, in expressing his admiration for the Christian religion, said: 

Ask me not, then, whether I am a Catholic or Protestant, Calvinist or Arminian. As far as they are Christians, I wish to be a fellow-disciple with them all. 

Notwithstanding the foregoing statement, however, Adams, never restrained by interpersonal decorum, also called Calvinism, which was his own heritage, "the most bloody religion that ever existed." 

For Jews, Adams had admiration, if not affection: 

I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation. If I were an atheist, and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. If I were an atheist of the other sect, who believe or pretend to believe that all is ordered by chance, I should believe that chance had ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently all civilization. I cannot say that I love the Jews very much neither, nor the French, nor the English, nor the Romans, nor the Greeks. We must love all nations as well as we can, but it is very hard to love most of them. 

Of Judaism, Adams said: 

The Hebrew unity of Jehovah, the prohibition of all similitudes, appears to me the greatest wonder of antiquity. How could that nation preserve its creed among the monstrous theologies of all the other nations of earth? Revelation, you will say, and especial Providence; and I will not contradict you.... 

Adams felt his own beliefs — like those of others — were entirely a private concern, yet much of them he made clear—to Jefferson at least. As with Washington, Madison, Franklin, and Jefferson, there is no evidence in Adams for a belief in the divinity of Christ. To a friend he wrote in 1809: 

My religion is founded on the love of God and my neighbor; on the hope of pardon for my offenses; upon contrition; upon the duty as well as the necessity of supporting with patience the inevitable evils of life; in the duty of doing no wrong, but all the good I can, to the creation, of which I am but an infinitesimal part. Are you a dissenter from this religion? I believe, too, in a future state of rewards and punishments, but not eternal. 

At another time Adams wrote that he could condense the meaning for him of his fifty or sixty years of religious study into four words: "Be just and good." 

 E. Jefferson 

Jefferson, one of the most comprehensive geniuses the world has ever produced, wrote the epitaph that best — and briefly — displays the values he held most dear. Today at Monticello one still may visit the little family cemetery and read the famous lines on his tombstone reciting the achievements for which he wished to be remembered. Jefferson makes no mention of his having been Governor of Virginia, Minister to France, Secretary of State, President of the United States, sponsor of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, founder of the nation's oldest political party, negotiator with Napoleon of the Louisiana Purchase, connoisseur, musician, geologist, botanist, ornithologist, oenologist, author, inventor, artist, surveyor, farmer, scientist, architect, educator, politician, and lawyer. Instead there are only these brief lines at his grave: 

Here lies Thomas Jefferson — Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia. 

Freedom, specifically religious freedom, and the freedom of rational inquiry that comes from liberal education — these are what Jefferson ultimately stands for. (Jefferson’s and all of the Founders’ involvement with slavery is too large a subject to address here but a very important subject for another time.) 

A century and a half after Jefferson's death, President Kennedy complimented the Nobel Laureates whom he had gathered at a White House dinner, telling them they were "the most extraordinary collection of talent and human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House — with possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." 

In accord with his rationalistic approach, Jefferson constructed his own version of the New Testament, excising all supernatural matters and eschewing the question of divinity. There remain only Jesus's moral, indeed essentially rabbinic, teachings that Jefferson so admired. Content with his own Deistic beliefs, Jefferson contemplated calmly those who espoused trinitarianism: "While I claim a right to believe in one God, or so my reason tells me, I yield as freely to others that of believing in three. Both religions, I find, make honest men, and that is the only point society has any right to look to." He declared he was convinced that Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God, literally speaking, but that he was a reformer of the Jewish religion. 

It was the refusal to be bound by or even to recognize religious dogmas

that distinguished Jefferson and his great contemporaries from the men of

centuries past. "I never told my own religion nor scrutinized that of another," he said, and he maintained that any religion is substantially good that produces an honest life. 

F. Adams-Jefferson Friendship 

In a letter written in his seventy-eighth year to Adams, his old bitter rival for the presidency in 1800, even still the most divisive election in American History, Jefferson wrote: 

I am sure that I really know many, many things, and none more surely than that I love you with all my heart, and pray for the continuance of your life until you shall be tired of it yourself. 

Can one imagine President Biden, the victor in the election of 2020, uttering such words to his defeated rival, Donald Trump – or vice versa? 

Notwithstanding his crusty New England reserve, Adams, within a few months of ninety, wrote to Jefferson: 

I wish your health may continue to the last much better than mine. The little strength of mind and the considerable strength of body that I once possessed appear to be all gone, but while I breathe I shall be your friend. We shall meet again, so wishes and believes your friend, but if we are disappointed we shall never know it. 

The mutual tolerance of these two very different men for each other, despite the wide differences in background and beliefs, models the freedom of thought they stood for, especially in the deepest and most intimate of all human concerns, that of religion. Theirs was a very large tent indeed, and they bequeathed this tent to America, if only we will accept it. 

 IV. A Tolerant Spirit

When we hear today's claims that America is a Christian country, we ought to recall that the Constitution of the United 'States, our social contract and supreme law, never mentions God, much less Christianity. Nor is God even once mentioned in The Federalist Papers. The 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, which ended America's first war after the Revolution, with the Barbary States, reads: "the Government of the United States... is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion." Remarkably, this treaty was unanimously ratified by the U.S. Senate, only its third unanimous vote out of 339 votes taken until that date. 

The greatest of all the pamphleteers and rabble-rousers of the Revolution, and in many respects the true intellectual of revolutionary America, was Thomas Paine. This was the man who called the Revolution the times that try men's souls, who called on Americans to be more than sunshine patriots. In verse, Paine succinctly sets forth the hypocrisy of religious intolerance that will have no place in the America for which a revolution was fought. He sarcastically ridicules the religious biases forever rejected by the Founders in a shrewd poem of 1775, only a part of which is restated here: 

An unbelieving Jew one day

Was skating o'er the icy way, Which, being brittle, let him in

Just deep enough to catch his chin, And in that woeful plight he hung, With only power to move his tongue. 

A brother skater near at hand,

A Papist born in foreign land,

With hasty steps directly flew

To save poor Mordecai the Jew;

"But first," quoth he, "I must enjoin That you renounce your faith for mine, There's no entreaties else with do, 'Tis heresy to help a Jew. 

"Veil, hear me den

I hear renounce for coot and all, 

De race of Jews both great and small" 'Tis de vurst trade peneath de sun'

Or vurst religion, dat's all vun.

Dey cheat and get deir living py it 

And lie and swear de lie is right.

I'll go to mass as soon as ever

I get to toder side de river;

So help me out now, Christian friend, Det I may do as I intend. 

For, thought the Jew, he is as much A Christian man as I am such.

The bigot Papist, joyful hearted,

To hear the heretic converted, Replied to the designing Jew — "This is a happy fall for you; 

You'd better die a Christian now, For if you live you'll break your vow." Then said no more, but in a trice Popped Mordechai beneath the ice. 

Paine here captures all the intolerance against which the Founders so successfully pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. 

Martha Nussbaum, perhaps America’s most prominent philosopher, writes at length about "Liberty of Conscience," the title of her recent book. She was also interviewed on "Bill Moyers' Journal" on Public Television and had this to say: 

If you look into the religions [of the Founders], they have this deep idea of human dignity and the source of dignity being conscience. This capacity for searching for the meaning of life. And that leads us directly to the idea of respect. Because if conscience is this deep and valuable source of searching for meaning, then we all have it whether we're agreeing or disagreeing. And we all ought to respect it and respect it equally in one another. 

It is of more than passing interest that Nussbaum, who is the Ernest Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago Law School, with appointments also in the Departments of Philosophy and Divinity, was raised Episcopalian but converted to Judaism. (It is also of particular interest from another interview she has given, to the Dallas Morning News, that her favorite sources of religious solace and insight come from the symphonies of Mahler and the operas of Mozart. She also discloses her most passionate interest in the writings of Aristotle, 

John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, Marcus Aurelius, James Joyce, and John Rawls — this writer's own philosophy teacher.) 

The insurrection and storming of the Capitol of January 6, 2021, showed the force, but also the weakness, of the corrupted evangelical religious marriage to a tyrannical political movement. America has been experiencing the lashing out of pseudo-Christians claiming their absurd interpretation of religion requires abandoning the freedom of religious and secular thought established by the Spirit of Seventy-Six and the Founders. One can hope that Americans will increasingly see that whatever dreams some may have had of a purely Christian America supported and protected by a conservative president and his political party are not only pure fantasy but also not in their own interest. A certain Christian faith may have inspired the fanaticism of January 6 and the Trump presidency, and the dying of the movement may include a good deal more hatred and violence as it goes down. The perverted version of Christianity married to a political movement has almost nothing to do with Jesus but everything to do with white power and privilege and white fear that “the other” will replace them. It also has nothing to do with the spirit of tolerance reflected in the words of our Founders. 

The great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich said religion is the ultimate human concern because it deals with the ultimate meaning of life and death. As the marriage of Trumpian politics with evangelical Christianity moves toward divorce, one may empathize with those mostly white and formerly privileged Americans who, indeed, are losing power and prestige to immigrants, brown and black people, Asians, and to other upwardly mobile, educated elites, including Jews. The American spirit of tolerance going back to America’s earliest moments--from the Puritan-educated John Adams, to the Princeton-Presbyterian-Hebrew scholar James Madison, to the William and Mary-educated Thomas Jefferson, to the battlefield-educated George Washington—is a spirit of tolerance needed just as much today as at any other time in history. 

We conclude this cursory review of some of the beliefs and attitudes about religion of the Founders of our nation with these lines written by Jefferson to Adams which typify his lifelong passion, shared by all the others, for tolerance and for freedom of belief. Forty years after penning the Declaration of Independence, its author wrote this of America: 

Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both. We are destined to be a barrier against the returns of ignorance and barbarism. Old Europe will have to lean on our shoulders, and to hobble along by our side, under the monkish trammels of priest and kings, as she can. What a colossus shall we be when the southern continent comes up to our mark! What a stand will it secure as a ralliance for the reason and freedom of the globe! I like dreams of the future better than the history of the past. 

This American spirit of tolerance for one another's thoughts and beliefs is a uniquely American invention. This tolerance, hospitable to all religions even if sometimes not fully realized, may well be our country's greatest strength. It is America’s greatest contribution to the world. We live in times when the consequences of intolerance are increasingly dangerous, mongering fear and threatening our freedom and democracy, even the survival of humanity. We ought to be modeling our American tolerance for one another's deepest thoughts and feelings locally and exporting it globally. Would that the Founders' spirit of tolerance were more widely abroad today among all our citizens including those serving in or aspiring for our highest office and who claim that America is a Christian country founded on Christian principles. 




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