Often when debating our rights to freedom of religion, I run into people who identify with conservative Christianity who want to explain to me what the founding fathers intended. I've heard that the founding fathers never intended this to be anything other than a Christian nation. I've heard that the founding fathers were all Christians.
Like most things, it's just people repeating what they've been told by their parents, their preachers, or their Fox News talking heads. When you really start to read what Presidents wrote in letters, autobiographies, and speeches, you get a whole different perspective. Let me introduce you to the tip of the iceberg.
George Washington trusted others of different faiths, so much so that he allowed them to be his employees, and interact at his home, with his family. This included Muslims. When hiring workmen for Mount Vernon, he wrote to his agent, "If they be good workmen, they may be from Asia, Africa, or Europe; they may be Mohammedans [Muslims], Jews, or Christians of any sect, or they may be Atheists."
He also wrote in a letter to a Jewish community, "All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."
Thomas Jefferson could not have been more clear when he was writing to establish religious freedom for the state of Virginia:
"that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that, therefore, the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to the offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which in common with his fellow citizens he has a natural right; that it tends also to corrupt the principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing, with a monopoly of worldly honors and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it; that though indeed these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles, on the supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty"
Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions. It tends also to corrupt the principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage. Which at once destroys all religious liberty. Pretty powerful stuff.
James Madison was also very clear on the issue of civil rights and religion, saying "the civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext infringed." This was later incorporated into the 1st Amendment.
Were all of the founding fathers Christians? Would they pass the test by conservative Christians today? Did they believe in the Bible as the literal word of God? Benjamin Franklin, though appreciative of the moral values one can learn from Christian teachings, wasn't even sure that Jesus Christ was Divine: "As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: "
As it turns out, many of the Founding Fathers were Deists. And Deists aren't even Christians, per se. Note how this definition even lumps Islam in there with Christianity as a faith-based religion, for those who think Islam is not an actual belief system.
Deism is a religious and philosophical belief that a supreme being created the universe, and that this (and religious truth in general) can be determined using reason and observation of the natural world alone, without the need for either faith or organized religion. Many Deists reject the notion that God intervenes in human affairs, for example through miracles and revelations. These views contrast with the dependence on revelations, miracles, and faith found in many Jewish, Christian, Islamic and other theistic teachings.
Deism was a religious philosophy in common currency in colonial times, and some Founding Fathers (most notably Thomas Paine, who was an explicit proponent of it, and Benjamin Franklin, who spoke of it in his Autobiography) are identified more or less with this system. Nevertheless, several early presidents are sometimes identified as holding deist tenets, though there is no president who identified himself as a deist. Although George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Tyler, and Abraham Lincoln are often identified as having some degree of deistic beliefs, most of these identifications are controversial; Washington in particular maintained a life-long pattern of church membership and attendance, and there is conflicting testimony from those who knew him.
Another example of a founding father who probably wouldn't pass the litmus test of today's conservative Christians:, John Quincy Adams left detailed statements of his beliefs, showing that he distanced himself from the branch of his church.
You see, radical right-wing conservative Christianity was never a part of the founding father's plan. They wanted true freedom of religion and expression. It is a more recent phenomenon that has led to conservative Christians thinking that they are somehow entitled to 1) describe themselves as the "vast majority" of Americans, even when it's clear they are not 2) pass laws regulating the behavior of everyone in the country based on their religious values and 3) use hate-based scare tactics to try to limit the civil liberties of everyone not just like them.
People who belong to this group are as free to hate as the next person. Just stop blaming it on 9/11, or Barack Obama, or whatever, and start calling a spade a spade: if I don't worship like you, you don't think I'm a worthy American.