I suppose only God knows the complete answer to this question, given only He knows the hearts of men and their intentions. Certainly not all the founders were professing Christians. And, of course, there were atheists, Jews, and perhaps other faiths practiced by a minority of the colonists. That being said, there’s a lot to be gleaned from the words and actions of the founders and even the Supreme Court of the United States.
In 1774, the first Continental Congress invited an Episcopal minister to open the proceedings in prayer — hardly the work of a pack of secular atheists!
In 1778, George Washington, referring to the continuing fight for independence said, “The hand of Providence [God] has been so conspicuous in all this that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith….” He hadn’t changed his opinion when he said on March 11, 1792, “I am sure there never was a people who had more reason to acknowledge a Divine interposition in their affairs than those of the United States….” If I attempted to quote everything I can find like this, this would be a very long post!
On September 28, 1788, the first Congress approved 12 amendments and sent them to the states for ratification, including the first amendment which contains the right to freedom of religion. In April of that same year, shortly after they met to conduct the new nation’s business, Congress chose a minister to open in Christian prayer and established the position of Congressional Chaplain, a position that continues to this day. The members seemed to find no contradiction in Christian prayer and proposing freedom of religion in the first amendment.
In 1892, over a hundred years later, after enumerating facts concerning the history of the United States, the Supreme Court wrote in its majority decision Holy Trinity Church v. United States, “These and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation.” Later, Justice Brewer (who wrote the decision to which the court subscribed) explained that he didn’t mean that Christianity had been established as the state religion, but rather its influence on the founders and people of the United States had played a significant role in the establishment of our country.
Were there founders who weren’t Christian? Absolutely. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson could not be called Christians according to a biblical definition, but even they were friendly toward the majority religion of their countrymen. Heck, Thomas Jefferson even authorized federal funds to pay for missionaries to the Native Americans!
Were there other influences on our country? Of course. English common law and practice were part of the majority’s shared history. But what seems indisputable to me is the influence of the Christian religion on our country.
But that influence is indisputably waning. Is that a bad thing? John Adams thought so. In a famous quote disliked by the People for the American Way, Adams wrote about the majority religion, Christianity, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
If the influence of Christianity continues to wane and either another religion or secular humanism becomes the majority faith, only time will tell if he was right.