Posted by: David Harley | June 25, 2017

Church, State, and a Misleading Meme

This morning I came across a meme that posed me something of a quandary. It appeared to be intended to address the vexed question of the ‘separation between Church & State’ in the USA, and claimed that

  • Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States, said ‘Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shown [sic] on man’
  • Benjamin Franklin said ‘Lighthouses are more useful than churches’
  • George Washington, the 1st President, said ‘As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian Religion…’

Being neither a Christian nor American, I tend to keep my thoughts on US politics to myself, especially when it concerns the 1st or 2nd amendment. But I was a little surprised that these three individuals were apparently being held up as poster boys for atheism. So I looked a little harder, and found that all three of those assertions were misleading.

Jefferson & Christianity

This, apparently, is what Jefferson wrote to Joseph Priestley in 1801:

“…those who live by mystery & charlatanerie, fearing you would render them useless by simplifying the Christian philosophy, the most sublime & benevolent, but most perverted system that ever shone on man, endeavored to crush your well earnt, & well deserved fame.”

While both Priestley and Jefferson seem to have suffered to some extent for their ‘unconventional’ religious beliefs, both regarded themselves as Christians, and it seems clear from the expanded extract that Jefferson was using ‘perverted’ in its formal sense, with reference to forms of worship that be believed to have strayed from what he regarded as the true teachings of Christianity.

Franklin & Christianity

I’m unable to find any evidence that Franklin ever said that ‘Lighthouses are more useful than churches’. However, Wikiquote directed me to a footnote in the ‘Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin’ to a memoir explaining how close he came to being shipwrecked on the Western Rocks of Scilly. The footnote told me that ‘In a letter from Dr. Franklin to his wife, dated at Falmouth, the 17th July, 1757, after giving her a similar account of his voyage, escape and landing; he adds, “The bell ringing for church, we went thither immediately, and with hearts full of gratitude, returned since thanks to God for the mercies we had received: were I a Roman Catholic, perhaps I should on this occasion vow to build a chapel to some saint; but as I am not, if I were to vow at all, it should be to build a light-house.”‘

It seems entirely likely that the quote about the superior usefulness of lighthouses is based on this quotations and an observation on the same page that ‘This deliverance impressed me strongly with the utility of light-houses, and made me resolve to encourage the building some of them in America, if I should live to return thither.’ However, the footnote also makes clear Franklin’s eagerness to attend church after his narrow escape: I suspect that he would be less than happy to have been credited with this ‘apples versus oranges’ comparison.

Washington & Christianity

Washington didn’t make a big deal out of his Episcopalian affiliation, and the precise nature of his beliefs has been much discussed since his death. Michael and Jana Novak suggest that he maintained a ‘studied ambiguity (and personal privacy)’ regarding his own deepest religious convictions’ with the intention of encouraging tolerance and respect for other Christian denominations. I’m not sure how far his own tolerance extended to non-Christians, but as it happens this quotation is not from Washington (or at any rate not directly*) but from Article 11 of the Tripoli Treaty, an agreement between the US and Tripoli. This was one of a series of treaties negotiated with the Muslim countries that constituted the Barbary Coast or the Berber Coast(the countries now called Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, Libya being known at that time as Tripoli), intended to stop US ships and crews being taken for ransom by privateers (government-sponsored pirates) from those countries.

In fact, it seems that Article 11 may not have been included in this form in the Arabic version of the treaty, but it was in the English translation ratified by the Senate in 1797, and has often been cited in defence of the argument that the US is a secular state.


Does this really matter, you may wonder?

I don’t intend to use this article as a soapbox from which to air my own views on Christianity – or deism in any form – but the meme that was my starting point does seem to propagate the view that three of the Founding Fathers of the United States were actively anti-Christian. If this wasn’t intentional, perhaps whoever put the meme together should have done a little more research. If it was intentional, I can’t pretend to be enthusiastic about dishonesty from either end of the Deist/Atheist spectrum, even though I’m all too aware that immense harm can be done by governments that don’t separate church and state, not least where religion is used as a cloak for self-interest. (On the other hand, I don’t underestimate the harm that can be done by governments that don’t represent any religion but self-interest.)

David Harley

*Washington did appoint a Commissioner Plenipotentiary to negotiate treaties with the Barbary states. It’s by no means impossible that he had some influence on the wording of those treaties. However, it was John Adams, the 2nd President of the United States, who actually passed the document to the Senate for ratification and, indeed, signed it.

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