White women certainly had more rights than black slaves, but I don’t think women in general have ever been privileged. There are even some parallels between how women and enslaved people were treated. Both were expected to be passive, cooperative, and obedient to their master-husbands. Next to my wife Sharon, my favorite women are Sarah and Angelina Grimké, sisters from Charleston, South Carolina, who lived in the 18th century and deserve to be better known than they are. Their father, Judge John Grimké, was a strong advocate of slavery and of the subordination of women. He had hundreds of slaves, and served as chief judge of the South Carolina Supreme Court. Though raised with slaves, the Grimké sisters grew to despise slavery after witnessing its cruel effects at a young age.
Religious freedom, guaranteed by the United States Constitution, allows individuals to practice and promote any religion or no religion without government interference. Our founders supported freedom of religion because they understood that such religious diversity would help our new country avoid the kinds of wars that had plagued Europe, where hundreds of thousands of people had been tortured and killed over religious differences. I view the existence of many minority religions as a “blessing.” Christians are wrong when they claim America is a Christian nation. It’s a Christian nation in the same way that America is a white nation. The majority of Americans are both white and Christian. However, America is not now, nor has it ever officially been, a white nation or a Christian nation.
Religious beliefs of American presidents are difficult to determine, perhaps indeterminable. We can learn what they profess to believe and what church they attend, but I am often skeptical about what they truly believe. Let’s look at the last two presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, both of whom are professed Christians. Barack Obama had an atheist father and was raised by a secular humanist mother whose values he embraced. He used to say he was an agnostic, but he became a Christian when he ran for public office. At least Obama embraces some positive values of Christianity, like concern for immigrants and the poor, caring about your neighbor, honesty, and respect for the environment. What Christian principles does Donald Trump embrace, unless you consider it Christian to nominate judges put forth by conservative white evangelicals? I know he disagrees with Luke 6:29: “If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer your other cheek.” I couldn’t find a biblical passage that says, “Slap him back ten times harder.” Nor does Trump follow Luke 14:1: “He who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Many of us wish Trump would heed Proverbs 12:15: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” Trump refused to disclose his tax returns because he claims they are under audit. He added, “Maybe I get audited so much because I’m a strong Christian.” Really? How much faith does that statement require? I think Donald Trump is an atheist because I can’t picture him believing in a power higher than himself. On the other hand, Trump might think that he is a god.
I should first acknowledge some positives for African-American churches. Aside from giving people hope, they have often been a center for civil rights activism and a place that blacks could gather in large numbers without being harassed. I live in Charleston, South Carolina, just three blocks from Mother Emmanuel AME church, now internationally known because nine African Americans were murdered there by white nationalist Dylann Roof. This church was once a secret meeting place for African-Americans who wanted to end slavery at a time when laws in Charleston banned all-black church gatherings. Some slaveowners and white Christian ministers in the nineteenth century read biblical verses to slaves as part of the worship services they allowed them to attend. They wanted to show that the Bible condones and supports slavery. The biblical curse of Ham (Genesis 9:25), one of the sons of Noah, was for Ham to be a servant to his brothers. This curse was used to justify slavery of black Americans on the ground that black Americans were descendants of Ham.
I think most Americans agree that in the past both European settlers and later generations of Americans treated Indians (now called Native Americans) very badly. Treaties between the U.S. and sovereign Indian tribes were unequal or broken. The government sought to replace the population of Indian territories with a new society of white settlers. As white settlers spread westward across America after 1780, armed conflicts increased between the settlers and Indians. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 authorized the U.S. government to enforce the Indian removal from east of the Mississippi River to the West, even though many tribes had extensive territories in that area. As American settlers kept expanding their territories, Indian tribes were relocated to specially designated territories. This policy was known at the time as Manifest Destiny, the belief that the settlers in the United States were destined to expand across North America because of the special virtues of the American people and their institutions, including the Christian religion. This was nothing new. Beginning with Christopher Columbus, many Native Americans were enslaved and forced to convert to Christianity. They lost their land and were later forcibly put onto reservations, leaving the rich land they had lived on for Christian settlers ready to work for God and Country.
I agree with you that many eighteenth-century Deists might have been atheists had they been familiar with the work of Charles Darwin. However, Darwin’s theory of natural selection only explains that we have a variety of species, including human animals, because they adapted to their environment. Evolution says nothing about how life began. Many Deists would probably still have believed in a Creator who started the process, and then let nature take its course. Later scientific discoveries would probably have turned these Deists into atheists. We now know that our universe did not begin with a Creator, but with a “Big Bang” approximately 13.8 billion years ago. We still don’t know how life began, although abiogenesis is a reasonable hypothesis. This is the natural process by which life has arisen from non-living matter, such as simple organic compounds. It’s interesting that Bible believers refuse to believe this hypothesis about life arising from non-life, though they believe that the first human was made from dirt and the second human from the rib of the first. Did God run out of dirt?
The religious faith of our founders is irrelevant because they erected a wall of separation between religion and the government they created in our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. However, since you ask, and since there is curiosity about the personal beliefs of our founders, here are some interesting tidbits. Many of our founders were anti-Catholic. John Adams called Catholicism “nonsense, a delusion, and dangerous in society.” Thomas Jefferson called Catholicism “a retrograde step from lightness to darkness.” (I agree with these founders and would add, as Thomas Paine did, all the other religions.) John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, drafted language for the New York Constitution proposing tolerance for everyone except Catholics who refuse to renounce papal authority. At the time of the American revolution only about 1.6 percent of the population in the colonies were Catholic. It wasn’t until the immigration waves of the nineteenth century that Catholics began arriving in America in large numbers. This led to the aptly named “Know Nothing” party, formally called the American Party, an anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant party formed in 1850. I was raised in Philadelphia, home of the 1844 “Bible riots” where both Catholics and Protestants were clubbed to death over which version of the Lord’s Prayer should be recited in public school. Protestants won the political battle, and Catholics responded by forming Catholic schools nationwide by 1860.
Why do some Christian fundamentalists claim that our founders wanted America to be a Christian nation? Most efforts to connect the United States with Christianity rely on quotes and opinions from a few colonial-era statesmen who professed a belief in Christianity, but their statements of beliefs say nothing about Christianity as the source of the U.S. government. Patrick Henry proposed a tax to help sustain "some form of Christian worship" for the state of Virginia, but Thomas Jefferson and other statesmen did not agree. In 1779, Jefferson introduced a bill for the Statute for Religious Freedom which became Virginia law. Jefferson designed this law to completely separate religion from government. None of Patrick Henry's Christian views ever got introduced into law in Virginia or our national government.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Herb, you made American history for the secular communities. This remains the fact of the matter. In the secular world, you exist as an icon and, in fact, a beloved one, as a mild-mannered liberal Jewish Yankee mathematician atheist who found his way, ironically, into the world of politics of Republican owned South Carolina. What is the feeling in the latter half of life in reflection of these facts, these achievements? When did American secularism start? What founding philosophy set this forth? Before America existed as a bounded geography, what Native American traditions seem to reflect secular ideals?
Thank you so much for your kind words. I don’t think of myself as an icon, just someone who stumbled into an unusual situation. When I learned in 1990 that our South Carolina Constitution prohibited atheists from holding public office, I spoke to a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union to see how this unconstitutional provision could be changed. He told me that an atheist would need to mount a legal challenge by running for governor, and he said that the very best candidate would be me. There was no competition, so after giving it some thought, I agreed to be the Candidate Without a Prayer. Finally, in 1997 the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled unanimously in my favor, nullifying the anti-atheist clause in the South Carolina Constitution. All the credit for my Supreme Court victory belongs to my lawyers. I was just having fun giving talks and writing about my experiences. I also learned about and became engaged with the secular movement, leading me to help organize what became the Secular Coalition for America.
My new book.