There’s a very well written article up over at Time.com about what the Founding Fathers believed about God and the role of religion in American government. In particular it focuses on Jefferson and his desire that church and state should be separate and it talks a bit about the various revisions of the Declaration of Independence.
Colonial America had seen its share of religious battles, in which arcane theological disputes like the one over antinomianism caused Puritans to be banished from Massachusetts and have to go establish colonies like Rhode Island. The founders, however, were careful in their debates and seminal documents to avoid using God as a political wedge issue or a cause of civic disputes. Indeed, that would have appalled them. Instead they embraced a vague civic religion that invoked a depersonalized deity that most people could accept. “Religion is a subject on which I have ever been most scrupulously reserved,” Jefferson once wrote. “I have considered it as a matter between every man and his Maker, in which no other, and far less the public, had a right to intermeddle.” So it is difficult to know exactly what the founders would have felt about the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance or about displaying the Ten Commandments. It is probable, however, that they would have disapproved of people on either side who used the Lord’s name or the Ten Commandments as a way to divide Americans rather than as a way to unite them.
After reading the writings of many of the Founding Fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson—who is often a favorite for attempts at historical revisionism by the Christian right—I find it hard to imagine how anyone can try to claim that the Founding Fathers never intended to establish a secular government when they launched this country. Jefferson wrote at length about his religious views, his “wall of separation,” and what his intentions were when he helped to craft the documents that would establish this nation. The same is true of many of the other Founding Fathers including Franklin, Adams, and Madison. Some on the Christian right would do well to study a few American history books for a change.