Skepticism, in the broadest sense, is about asking for the right kind of evidence to back up claims in whatever field you are dealing with. When dealing with historical claims such as these twenty quotes which allegedly refute the myth of America as a Christian nation and support the separation of church and state, you have to ask yourself firstly whether each of these purported quotations can be traced to an authentic original source, and secondly, whether they send the same message in context that they do when presented as a standalone meme.
1. “Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man.” – Thomas Jefferson
As Ed Brayton has already well documented, this is a bad paraphrase from a letter to Priestly. Jefferson was trying to say that the original doctrines of Jesus were twisted beyond recognition by later generations of churchmen, “Those who live by mystery and 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 and well-deserved fame.”
2. “The hocus-pocus phantasm of a God like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads, had its birth and growth in the blood of thousands and thousands of martyrs.” – Thomas Jefferson
This is a genuine quotation. In context it is part of a theological debate for primitive Christian Unitarianism against later Trinitarian developments. Use this quote at your peril if you were hoping to engage in a political rather than theological argument.
3. “It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticisms that three are one, and one is three; and yet the one is not three, and the three are not one.” – Thomas Jefferson
This is also a genuine quotation, but it is another theological argument for Unitarianism over Trinitarianism, not exactly on point for those hoping to argue for secularism.
4. “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors.” – Thomas Jefferson
5. “There is not one redeeming feature in our superstition of Christianity. It has made one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites.” – Thomas Jefferson
Ed Brayton has this one covered as well, it is not an accurate quotation. Ironically enough, the original quote in context is much more supportive of strict separation between the ecclesiastical authorities and those who wield judicial or police powers:
Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned: yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.
I would recommend using this full quote, if you are advancing a case for either freedom of conscience or secularism in America.
6. “Lighthouses are more useful than churches.”- Ben Franklin
I cannot find any original source in which Franklin said this; however, he arguably came close to doing so in a letter to his wife about a near-shipwreck that he had recently survived. See the footnote below.
As you can see, Dr. Franklin is not really making an argument about secularism here.
7. “The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.”- Ben Franklin
The full quotation from Poor Richard’s Almanack (1758) is “The Way to ſee by Faith is to ſhut the Eye of Reaſon: The Morning Daylight appears plainer when you put out your Candle.” It is unclear to me whether this is intended as a quotable deepity, a bit of satirical wit, or a profound statement of reliance upon Providence. The latter would not be entirely out of character, alas, and surely the morning daylight is something worth seeing.
8. “I looked around for God’s judgments, but saw no signs of them.”- Ben Franklin
This was not a general observation on the problem of divine hiddenness, but rather lighthearted reference about whether God would personally undertake to punish Sabbath-breakers in Flanders.
Arguably, this quotation was at least obliquely about secularism, since Sabbath laws (which we still have on the books) are a clear encroachment on strict separation.
9. “In the affairs of the world, men are saved not by faith, but by the lack of it.” – Ben Franklin
An accurate quote (EDIT: nearly accurate) and an excellent one, though it is not easy to see how to get from this pragmatic aphorism to an argument for secularism. Of course it makes perfect sense not to put too much faith in those with whom you are negotiating contracts and such, but the question facing secularists is whether the affairs of the heavens have any business in the affairs of state.
10. “This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it.”- John Adams
Ed has already covered this one as well. As he noted, the original quotation runs completely the other way:
Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out, ‘This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!’ But in this exclamation I would have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean hell.
To sum up the first ten quotations, then, we have seen two which completely invert the original intended meaning (#1, #10), three theological arguments from Jefferson in favor of primitive Christianity rather than later orthodoxy (#2, #3, #4), one questionable paraphrase about the need for more privately-funded lighthouses (#6), two ambiguous proverbs from Poor Richard’s Almanack, neither of which speak directly to secularism (#7, #9), and two quotations which were either mangled (#5) or taken rather badly out of context (#8) but were indeed about secularism when taken in their original context. We have found zero quotations, so far, that were both on-point regarding church/state separation and quoted in a non-misleading fashion.
I’m going to take on the Thomas Paine quotations (all authentic and easy to source) en masse:
11. “The New Testament, they tell us, is founded upon the prophecies of the Old; if so, it must follow the fate of its foundation.” – Thomas Paine
12. “Of all the tyrannies that affect mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst.” – Thomas Paine
13. “I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any Church that I know of. My own mind is my own Church. Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all.”- Thomas Paine
14. “Take away from Genesis the belief that Moses was the author, on which only the strange belief that it is the word of God has stood, and there remains nothing of Genesis but an anonymous book of stories, fables, and traditionary or invented absurdities, or of downright lies.”- Thomas Paine
15. “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.” – Thomas Paine
16. “It is the fable of Jesus Christ, as told in the New Testament, and the wild and visionary doctrine raised thereon, against which I contend. The story, taking it as it is told, is blasphemously obscene.”- Thomas Paine
In #11 and #14 Paine is doing early Biblical criticism, in #13 and #16 he is giving us his personal religious views. This is all well and good, but it is a huge leap to get from “Paine was an anti-Christian thinker and pro-American patriot” to “America under its current Constitution was founded on the principles of secularism.” Both statements are true, of course, but it would take some doing to show how one influenced the other. Arguably, Paine is talking about secularism in #12 and #15, and perhaps a case can be made that Paine’s separationism did strongly influence people like Jefferson, Madison, and others who exerted direct influence on the founding process.
All that said, I wholeheartedly commend Paine to your reading, but don’t just take my word for it.
17. “Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause. Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by the difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be depreciated. I was in hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far that we should never again see the religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of society.” – George Washington (Letter to Edward Newenham, 20 Oct 1792)
Excellent quote. Please do pass it on.
18. “The Bible is not my book, nor Christianity my profession.” – Abraham Lincoln
He never said it. Anyone is welcome to prove me wrong by citing to a verifiable original source.
19. “It may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the Civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions and doubts on unessential points. The tendency to usurpation on one side or the other, or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them, will be best guarded agst. by an entire abstinence of the Govt. from interference in any way whatsoever, beyond the necessity of preserving public order, and protecting each sect agst. trespasses on its legal rights by others.” – James Madison (Letter to the Reverend Jasper Adams, 1832)
An excellent quotation, perfectly on point. Please do pass it on.
20. “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.” – James Madison (Letter to William Bradford, 1 Apr 1774)
This one gets even better in context. In this letter Madison praises religious freedom for minority faiths and has a go at the clergy for enforcing their doctrines upon the citizenry. It is important to note that by “bondage” he does not mean religious adherence in general, however.
After going through the entire list, we’ve seen everything from accurate quotes that carry essentially the same meaning in and out of context, to badly excerpted quotes that distort the meaning 180 degrees, to completely fabricated quotes that cannot be traced to any source document. Before you pass on any quotation, please do at least a cursory search for original sources to discover whether it is spurious or not. If the meme or webpage does not include a reference to when something was written down, consider that a warning flag.
Some day soon, I would like to compose a top ten list of authentic quotations about secularism from the American Founders, so feel free to leave a comment below with your favorite one and where you found it.
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