The question has been bandied about as to whether the United States of America was founded upon Christian principles. In fact, I have made that very statement. I think the founding fathers made an effort to ensure that everyone was free to have and exercise their religious beliefs (even those who believe in no religion or god). But this does not mean the country was founded in an environment absent of religious beliefs. In support of this idea, I will show that at least some of the people involved in the founding of the nation believed it was founded upon Christian principles.
The country united on the principles of Christianity and liberty, according to John Adams in a Letter to Thomas Jefferson dated 28 June, 1813:
The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were the only principles in which that beautiful assembly of young men could unite, and these principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer. And what were these general principles? I answer, the general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects were united, and the general principles of English and American liberty, in which all those young men united, and which had united all parties in America, in majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her independence. Now I will avow, that I then believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system.
More than that, John Adams, writing in his first essay as a ficitonal Governor Winthorp to a fictional Governor Bradford (a common literary device of the time), wrote that the founders had wanted to found a nation on Christian principles and had succeeded. Another source can be found here.
We were Englishmen; we were citizens of the world; we were Christians. The history of nations and of mankind was familiar to us; and we considered the species chiefly in relation to the system of great nature and her all-perfect Author. In consequence of such contemplations as these, it was the unwearied endeavor of our lives to establish a society on English, humane, and Christian principles. This, (although we are never unwilling to acknowledge that the age in which we lived, the education we received, and the scorn and persecution we endured, had tinctured our minds with prejudices unworthy of our general principles and real designs,) we are conscious, was our noble aim. We succeeded to the astonishment of all mankind…
But the question is, “What were these Christian principles?“. Some of them might be considered to be universal – but not all of them. These principles include: order, right, honesty, keeping oaths, morality, peace, justice, peace and hamony with all, protection of life, limbs, and property, separation of church and state, love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others as you would that others should do to you, prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, overlooking trivial provocation, the duties and rights of the man and the citizen.
George Washington saw that at least two of the principles were rules of order and right, according to George Washington’s 1st inaugral address:
Since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven, can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained….
George Washington also seemed to think the morality, peace, justice as taught by Christianity were some of the principles of Christianity upon which this nation was founded.
Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who, that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?
Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and Morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be that good policy does not equally enjoin it? It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt, that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages, which might be lost by a steady adherence to it? Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a Nation with its Virtue? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature.
John Adams wrote in “Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States”, speaking of commandments of heaven, where he gave some of the principles of Christianity of which he spoke – to not covet nor steal, that property is important:
The moment the idea is admitted into society, that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If “Thou shalt not covet,” and “Thou shalt not steal,” were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society, before it can be civilized or made free.
James Madison in writing in a letter to F. L. Schaeffer on Dec. 3rd, 1821 wrote of the distinction between what is of God and of the government:
It illustrates the excellence of a system which, by a due distinction, to which the genius and courage of Luther led the way, between what is due to Caesar and what is due God, best promotes the discharge of both obligations. The experience of the United States is a happy disproof of the error so long rooted in the unenlightened minds of well-meaning Christians, as well as in the corrupt hearts of persecuting usurpers, that without a legal incorporation of religious and civil polity, neither could be supported. A mutual independence is found most friendly to practical Religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity.
In fact, the separation of church and state was at least in part actually based upon what Christ said concerning His church, based upon what the The presbytery of Hanover presented to the state convention in 1776.
…[W]hen our blessed Saviour declares His kingdom not of this world, He renounces all dependence on state power…. We are persuaded that, if mankind were left in quiet possession of their unalienable rights and privileges, Christianity, as in the days of the apostles, would continue to prevail and flourish in the greatest purity by its own native excellence and under the all-disposing providence of God.”
James Madison argued, in his Memorial and Remonstrance (dated June 20, 1785), for seperation of church and state, thinking that if it is true religion, then it will flourish withhout the intervention of the government (and we see in this that Madison believed in miracles, and so would not be a deist).
Because the establishment proposed by the Bill is not requisite for the support of the Christian religion. To say that it is, is a contradiction to the Christian religion itself; for every page of it disavows a dependence on the powers of this world. It is a contradiction to fact, for it is known that this religion both existed and flourished, not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them; and not only during the period of miraculous aid, but long after it had been left to its own evidence and the ordinary care of Providence. Nay, it is a contradiction in terms, for a religion not invented by human policy must have pre-existed and been supported before it was established by human policy. It is moreover to weaken in those who profess this religion a pious confidence in its innate excellence and the patronage of its Author and to foster in those who still reject it, a suspicion that its friends are too conscious of its fallacies to trust it to its own merits.
Maidson also made clear, in the same memorial, that he knew the difference between religion, Christianity, and sects within Christianity. While some might have meant Christianity when they spoke of Religion, Madison meant religion in general. The idea was to prevent any one religious sect (not just one within Christianity) from being made prominent, or preeminent, by the federal government. If people are true followers of a religion that has been divinely authored, they will support it, and that religion will survive without the government forcing people to support it.
Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?
But more than that, Madison did not want to force people who did not believe in a religion of divine origin to act as if they did.
Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.
The founding fathers had lived under a society where they were NOT free to exercise religion as they saw fit. They had also seen the excesses that can come about by having religion in the government and/or government in the religion. As such, they wanted to establish a nation where religious tolerance was the norm. At the same time, they recognized the need for people to act in moral ways.
The Elias Boudinot (served four times in the Continental Congress, three times in the US Congress, and was the first president of the American Bible Society) said in a speech on July 4th, 1793, ”Good government generally begins in the family, and if the moral character of a people once degenerates, their political character must soon follow.”
George Washington wrote of the importance of self-control and morality in maintaining a United Sttes in a circular to the states June 8, 1783:
The Treaties of the European Powers with the United States of America, will have no validity on a dissolution of the Union. We shall be left nearly in a state of Nature, or we may find by our own unhappy experience, that there is a natural and necessary progression, from the extreme of anarchy to the extreme of Tyranny; and that arbitrary power is most easily established on the ruins of Liberty abused to licentiousness.
John Adams wrote in his diary on 14 August 1796, that religion teaches people are to act morally:
One great advantage of the Christian religion is, that it brings the great principle of the law of nature and nations,—Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others as you would that others should do to you,—to the knowledge, belief, and veneration of the whole people. Children, servants, women, and men, are all professors in the science of public and private morality. No other institution for education, no kind of political discipline, could diffuse this kind of necessary information, so universally among all ranks and descriptions of citizens. The duties and rights of the man and the citizen are thus taught from early infancy to every creature. The sanctions of a future life are thus added to the observance of civil and political, as well as domestic and private duties. Prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, are thus taught to be the means and conditions of future as well as present happiness.
John Adams further wrote that preservation of life, limbs, and property was both a natural and a Christian principle. He also said that Christ taught to overlook trivial provocation (showing the duty to moderation and self-government), but this did not preclude resistance or self-defence:
Resistance to sudden violence, for the preservation not only of my person, my limbs and life, but of my property, is an indisputable right of nature which I never surrendered to the public by the compact of society, and which, perhaps, I could not surrender if I would. Nor is there any thing in the common law of England, (for which Mr. X supposes I have so great a fondness,) inconsistent with that right. On the contrary, the dogmas of Plato, the maxims of the law, and the precepts of Christianity, are precisely coincident in relation to this subject.
The divine Author of our religion has taught us that trivial provocations are to be overlooked; and that if a man should offer you an insult, by boxing one ear, rather than indulge a furious passion and return blow for blow, you ought even to turn the other also. This expression, however, though it inculcates strongly the duty of moderation and self-government upon sudden provocations, imports nothing against the right of resistance or of self-defence. The sense of it seems to be no more than this: that little injuries and insults ought to be borne patiently for the present, rather than run the risk of violent consequences by retaliation.
So, yes. Christianity was founded upon principles of Christianity and liberty. Some of the Christian principles might be considered to be universal – but not all of them. These principles include: order, right, honesty, keeping oaths, morality, peace, justice, peace and hamony with all, protection of life, limbs, and property, separation of church and state, love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others as you would that others should do to you, prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, overlooking trivial provocation, the duties and rights of the man and the citizen.