I've come across Newsvine articles and individuals who proclaim that America was founded on "Christian principles." Often, such claims are made to promote one's own religious beliefs above others or seek to validate those beliefs. Of course, such an assertion is not only based on Christian apologetic nonsense, but it is also factually and historically erroneous. Proponents of the "Christian principle' position may also attempt to quote the founding fathers to support their position. But the quotes cited are often edited, misquoted, or outright false and are usually taken from religiously biased sites or secondary sources. David Barton and the Wallbuilders is one such example. Using such questionable sources and positing the "Christian principle" (or the similarly erroneous 'Christian nation') idea is either willfully ignorant and/or dishonest at best, and clearly demonstrates a lack of credibility on their part. So, to be perfectly clear, America was certainly NOT founded on Christian principles, or any other religious ideology for that matter. Here's why:
Let's start with the document that establishes the foundation of our laws and system of government, the United States Constitution. Many theists will claim the Constitution is divinely inspired or influenced by the religious beliefs of its authors. Nothing could be further from the truth, and a simple review of the Constitution makes this abundantly clear. The Constitution itself is based on English Common Law and the principles of Enlightenment, along with earlier documents of similar concepts such as the Magna Carta. Also, there is (very deliberately) not any religious ideology (Christian or otherwise) or deity referenced within the Constitution or even in the Articles of Confederation, which preceded the Constitution. Neither did the Founding Fathers have religious ideas in mind when drafting the Constitution. Those points are strongly supported by John Adams in his work (emphasis mine), “A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America” (1787-1788):
The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or in America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.
Mr. Adams could not have been more clear in stating that religion had no place or say in the formation of this country or drafting of the Constitution. If indeed the Founding Fathers had aimed to found a nation based on "Christian principles," it would seem highly unlikely that they would have forgotten to leave out their Christian intentions in the Supreme law of the land. Given that the Founding Fathers did not incorporate any religious ideology or "Christian principles" within the Constitution itself is quite damning and directly opposes any notion of America being founded on "Christian principles."
In addition, the fact that the United States is not founded on Christianity is bluntly stated in Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli, drafted in 1796 under George Washington, passed unanimously by Congress (unusual for the time), and signed by John Adams in 1797 (emphasis mine): "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 Mussulmen,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan 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."
A legal treaty with the force of the Constitution behind it (see Article VI, Sect. 2) only further supports that "Christian principles" played no part in the foundation of America, as it is a clear admission by the United States that our government did not found itself upon Christianity and fully demonstrates the feelings and intentions of the Founding Fathers. The First Amendment of the Constitution also drives the point home with the establishment of the separation of church and state. However, for the purposes of this article, I will treat the concept of separation as a separate topic (although, still worthy of discussion in its own right).
Next, let's look at the Founding Fathers themselves. It is common knowledge they had various religious beliefs to varying degrees of devotion. But they also understood the necessity and wisdom of keeping religion and government separate from each others affairs, while at the same time preserving the individual's rights and freedom of religion. James Madison, the father of the US Constitution, had this to say in his letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822:
"There has been another deviation from the strict principle in the Executive Proclamations of fasts and festivals, so far, at least, as they have spoken the language of injunction, or have lost sight of the equality of allreligious sects in the eye of the Constitution. Whilst I was honored with the Executive Trust I found it necessary on more than one occasion to follow the example of predecessors. But I was always careful to make the Proclamations absolutely indiscriminate, and merely recommendatory; or rather mere designations of a day, on which all who thought proper might unite in consecrating it to religious purposes, according to their own faith & forms."
In 1785, Madison wrote in his Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments: "During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; on many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not."
Mr. Madison sure seemed quite opposed to the notion of religion (explicitly Christianity) being made part of the government or as the basis of this nation. Thomas Jefferson also had similar feelings: "Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law." ---Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, February 10, 1814.
"History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes." ---Thomas Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, Dec. 6, 1813.
When it comes to the question of whether America was founded on "Christian principles" or not, perhaps Mr. Jefferson said it best:"Our principles are founded on the immovable basis of equal right and reason." --Thomas Jefferson to James Sullivan, 1797.
Regardless of the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers, they were clearly passionate secularists who believed that the religious beliefs of individuals (especially the President), or lack of them, were entirely their own business. Based on the US Constitution and the writings and intentions of the Founding Fathers, it's safe to conclude that the United States was never founded on "Christian principles." Speaking of "Christian principles," I have yet to see anyone elaborate precisely what those "principles" are that theists claim America was supposedly founded on.