Secular America: Paine, Jefferson and Madison

(1737-1809) was born in
England, but later migrated to America. His two pamphlets Common
and The American
would be highly influential at the beginning of the American
Revolution. Common Sense supported America’s independence from
England, while The American Crisis inspired the Army which was to
fight for that independence. But Paine also had some strong opinions
when it came to the subject of religion and its place in American
society. These views were expressed best in his book The
Age of Reason

The book follows in the tradition of 18th
Century British deism. Deism is the belief that God created the
Universe but now no longer has any role to play in it. Deism stresses
that reason and observation are enough to determine the existence of
God. Revelation
(God revealing himself to individuals) and authority were not
considered a good basis for establishing the existence of God – so
supernatural events such as miracles and authoritative texts such as
the Bible were not usually respected by the British deists. They did
not take issue with the idea of God, only organised religion which,
after all, is a purely human invention.

was born out of the Enlightenment and thinkers like Thomas Paine
believed that God gave us reason because it helped us to find out the
truth. In his own words: “The most formidable weapon against errors
of any kind is reason.” However, the views expressed in The Age of
Reason were considered blasphemous in both England and America. Even
80 years after it was published you had people like Theodore
Roosevelt described Paine as a “filthy little atheist…that
apparently esteems a bladder of dirty water as the proper weapon with
which to assail Christianity.”

The book Reason
the Only Oracle of Man

(1794) written by Revolutionary war hero Ethan Allen, would express
similar views on religion. Allen argued that priests in Christianity
are tyrannical because they aim to undermine reason; it’s in their
interests to undermine it if they want to preserve their dogmas. In
Part I of The Age of Reason, Paine explains his personal beliefs. He
says, “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish,
Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions,
set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and
profit.” He also said that “My mind is my own church.” This
belief in the danger of religion having too much power, and a belief
in the value of religious freedom, was enshrined in the Constitution
of the United States in 1787.

would also criticise the Bible for being internally inconsistent and
historically inaccurate (which it is). Paine was also offended by how
tyrannical and immoral God was in the Bible. These all seem like
valid reasons for there being a clear separation of Church and State
– why should the State support a religion if its holy book is
inconsistent, inaccurate and immoral? Paine wrote that, at the time,
the State and the Church were a single corrupt institution which did
not represent the interests of the people. A radical change was
needed. In his own words: “
after I had published the pamphlet “Common Sense,” in
America, I saw the exceeding probability that a revolution in the
system of government would be followed by a revolution in the system
of religion.”

was an American Founding Father, author of the Declaration of
Independence (1776) and the third President of the United States.
Jefferson had very similar beliefs about religion to Thomas Paine. He
considered himself a Deist, although unlike Paine he did harbour some
respect for the Christian religion and Jesus’ moral teachings in
particular. He actually wrote his own version of the Bible, with all
the supernatural elements taken out of it; it was called
Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth

(1820). Like Paine, Jefferson was anti-clerical and said that in
“every country and every age, the priest has been hostile to
liberty.” This viewpoint would heavily influence the secular
foundations of the United States.

It’s said that the Enlightenment
philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) was very influential in the
drafting of the Constitution. Locke argued in
Concerning Toleration

that the government had no business in the realm of an individual’s
personal beliefs, including the individual’s own religion. For Locke,
religion is something private to the individual and the government
has no authority to be involved with influencing it. There must be a
separation between the two. The ideas of Enlightenment thinkers such
as Montesquieu and Diderot would also shape the separation of church
and state laid out in the Constitution. As Diderot said, “the
distance between the throne and the altar can never be too great.”

Jefferson believed that the separation of church and state was needed
in the battle against religious tyranny. Jefferson wasn’t so much
focused on tyranny in the form of religious wars or inquisitions, but
tyranny in the sense of one particular religion receiving endorsement
by the state at the expense of other religions. When Jefferson was
living in Virginia at the time, the Anglican Church was receiving tax
support and no-one was allowed to hold political office if they were
not a member of that particular church. Presbyterians, Methodists and
Baptists were clearly being discriminated against and having their
rights denied. 

In Jefferson’s Notes
on Virginia
he also emphasises that if a Christian denied the Christian concept
of the Trinity they could even be punished with three years in
prison. This eventually led Jefferson to propose
Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom
which was adopted in 1786. And it succeeded in its goal – it
achieved a complete separation of church and state. It guaranteed
legal equality for people of all religions and even those who
belonged to no religion – the atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and
Deists. What people believed was no business of the government.

statute would be the template for the First Amendment of the
Constitution, which prohibits any law respecting the establishment of
a religion or any action which prevents free speech, free press and
free association. The statute was vital, then, for the basis of
freedom in America. Jefferson at the time held opinions similar to
those British liberals who would write after him.

He seems to support
a version of John Stuart Mill’s

when he says, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such
acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my
neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god.” Mill would
later say that the government can only get involved in people’s lives
when harm is involved – no-one is harmed if their religious beliefs
are offended. Supreme Court judges would later support Jefferson’s
“wall of separation of church and state.” As Justice Hugo Black
put it, “government must be neutral among religion and
non-religion: it cannot promote, endorse or fund religion or
religious institutions.”

(1751-1836) was the
fourth President of the United States, one of the Founding Fathers
and is now known as the “Father of the Constitution.” He was the
author of the United States Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments
of the Constitutions) which aimed to protect the individual’s liberty
and property. He explained his views on religious liberty in his
Memorial and Remonstrance
against Religious Assessments
It was a bill which opposed tax supports for priests in the state of
Virginia. Madison was not in favour of religion. He thought that even
a law which guaranteed complete religious liberty would not eradicate
all of the evils of religion. Still, he agreed that a secular
government’s fair treatment of all religions and non-religion was
“sufficient” to minimize the worst
effects of religion on society.

As he says in the Memorial, “A just
government, institute to secure and perpetuate it [liberty], needs
them [the clergy] not.” Madison was afraid that if the state was to
sponsor or favour the established religion then, “the majority may
trespass upon the rights of the minority.” The same view was
expressed by John Adams, the second President of the United States,
who used the term “tyranny of the majority” to describe it. This
fear would later be found in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy
in America
and in John Stuart Mill’s On


Madison would come to influence many of the secularist sections of
the Constitution, such article 6, section 3 which states that “no
religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any
Office or public Trust under the United States.” Madison lived in a
time when religious tests and religious oaths were necessary if
someone wanted to become a politician. Even in America today, you can
only be considered a suitable candidate for President if you have
some sort of religious belief, preferably in Christianity. 

way the Constitution created a secular foundation for America was the
way in which in never mentioned the word “God”. Madison proposed
a bill in 1791 that would prohibit all
from passing any law that would interfere with freedom of thought.
But it was not until the 1930s that all states were forced to obey
the constitutional guarantees of religious liberty and separation of
church and state – so it took 140 years for Madison’s bill to get

Madison’s belief that government should be neutral to
religion was reflected in many of his political actions. He helped to
defeat a bill which would give tax dollars to “teachers of the
Christian religion” and he approved of legislation that would let
mail be delivered on Sunday, the day of rest. Madison’s secular views
can be found in many of his letters as well. He said in a letter that
“religion is essentially distinct from civil Government…that a
connection between them is injurious to both.”

Madison was also
against chaplains being appointed to Congress and the government
designating certain days in the year for religious worship. Although
Britain is considered less religious than America, in many ways we
are less secular. Chaplains, who are unelected, have seats in the
House of Commons and each sitting begins with prayers from the
Christian faith.


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