"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 pretence, infringed."
Original wording of the First Amendment as penned by James Madison
The question of how religion played a role in the crafting of the Constitution is not a new one. Nor is the question of how the Founding Fathers viewed established religion. But it the second question was answered by the Founding Fathers in their words over and over again. They were NOT fans of organized religion. A majority of the founding fathers, including the first three presidents did not identify themselves as Christian, but actually Unitarians.
George Washington made no mention of religion at the time of his death and in fact championed the freedom from religious intolerance and compulsion. At one point a self proclaimed universalist who denied the existence of Hell was given the appointment of army chaplain by Washington despite vocal outcry from other chaplains.
James Madison, who is the father of the Constitution was not even religious and had this to say about Christianity, "During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution."
Thomas Paine, whose pamphlets encouraged the seed of revolution in the founding fathers was not a fan of any religion (in the same vain as Karl Marx).
Benjamin Franklin even went as far as question the story of Jesus but with reservation. He was firm in his belief of God but questioned the story of Jesus but in the end decided it was not for him to decide if it was true or not as he would find out for himself.
President Obama has taken a lot of flak for extending an olive branch to Muslims and stating that the United States was not a Christian nation. He was right, the United States is not a Christian nation it is a nation that has a mix of many different religions. But he was not the first one to reach out to the Muslims and proclaim that the United States was not a Christian nation. That honor is bestowed on Congress and President John Adams in 1797 when Congress ratified and Adams signed the Treaty of Tripoli. One important part o that Treaty read:
"As the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."
But the bottom line of all of this in no matter what their personal views were on organized religion the 1st Amendment is one of the few amendments that is crystal clear:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."
The Constitution itself states that Congress can make no law establishing a religion. There is to be no state religion. It really is that simple. There is also the part about prohibiting the free exercise thereof of religion. It says nothing about Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc. It only mentions religion as a whole.
This is not an attack on Christianity or religion, believe it or not, this is and answer to the attack on the Founding Fathers. There has been a movement over the last 50 years (and that is a conservative number, their have been attempts all the way back to around 1900) to completely rewrite American history. The biggest single unfounded rewrite surrounds the founding of this country. There has been a concerted effort to not only change how the founding fathers felt and believed but also change the meaning of the Revolution. It is all political. Quotes have been wholly taken out of context or simply made up to make it appear that the Founding Fathers believed a way they did not.
I am not saying that the Founding Fathers were not religious, far from it. But they saw what had happened in the past and wanted, in creating a new country, to loosed those binds of religion. They believed that a person should be able to believe in the religion they saw fit without having to worry about being restricted by their government.
America was founded on Christian beliefs, but not solely on Christian beliefs if was founded on so much more than just religion.
The Declaration of Independence spoke first of the Laws of Nature before religion and it was not specified even when the Creator was written what that it was the Christian Creator. Universalism (which Jefferson was one) only accepts one higher power and wholly rejects the Christian Trinity. The Constitution begins with "We the People" and does even mention religion. In fact the original Oath of Office for the President does not end with "so help me God" in it's entirety the original Oath reads as follows: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." It was all about protecting and defending the Constitution not holding up religious values.
In God We Trust did not become standard on the money until 1954. The phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance was not in the original allegiance. Francis Bellamy wrote the original in 1892 with not mention of God. It should also be known that Bellamy was a socialist and that he was forced to leave his church because of his socialist teachings using the Bible. His granddaughter stated after "under God" was added in 1954 that Bellamy would have not liked that addition since he was forced from his church for his beliefs.
This is OUR shared history and we do not need to get all tangled up in what our Founding Fathers believe or said. It is all out there for us to read, there is nothing to interpret, their words can not be abused to fit a political ideology. I do not look at the founding of this nation as a way to confirm my political beliefs. I look at the founding as the country as a wondrous and brave experiment that over 200 years later is still going strong.
To answer the question of whether religion had a role in the Founding Fathers attempts to establish a new country the answer is yes, naturally it had some role but it did not have the overwhelming role that revisionists are trying to force. The Founding Fathers were religious but did not form the country on religion. To argue over religion and the founding of the United States of America is a needless argument.
UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that I missed a pretty important article from the Constitution on which texts the Founding Fathers intended to be used in Oaths, it is not the Bible, but rather the Constitution:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
For all the talk about vagueness by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution, this passage is rather clear that the only law of the land the Founding Fathers expected to be followed was in fact the Constitution.
Selected quotes and examples were taken from
The United States Constitution
The Bill of Rights
The Declaration of Independence
--also known as The Charters of Freedom
Treaty of Tripoli, 1797
Annals of Congress
The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine
Papers of George Washington
Papers of Thomas Jefferson
Papers of John Adams
Papers of Benjamin Franklin
A look at Unitarian Universalism
The origin and evolution of the Pledge of Allegiance