Misunderstandings of the Difference between ‘Secular’ and ‘Theocracy’

“We are not to attribute this [the First Amendment] prohibition of a national religion to an indifference to religion in general, and especially to Christianity (which none could hold in more reverence, than the framers of the Constitution.)…”

Joseph Story, Supreme Court justice and authority on the U.S. Constitution

When I hear people tell me that the founders did not create a Christian nation and that they wanted a secular government, I usually try to determine if the person saying this understands what they are talking about. I do not mean this to be rude, but I have found that a great many Americans hold mistaken beliefs which are caused simply because they do not know what the words they are using actually mean. And I blame that mostly on our schools, but also on those who simply refuse to look up those meanings in a dictionary. After all, they are on most of our phones now, so what stops us from educating ourselves if not laziness or a stubborn embrace of what we want to be true rather than what actually is? Well, this is what I think most of the problem is with this issue: people just do not know the difference between a Theocracy and secular.

As usual, we start with the definition of the words we’re discussing, so we can be sure we are discussing a common understanding of the way the word is used:

1. a system of government in which priests rule in the name of God or a god.

1. denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis.
2. not subject to or bound by religious rule; not belonging to or living in a monastic or other order.

[NOTE: I used the Google definitions this time instead of the Merriam-Webster definitions as I usually do. I did this because the definition I cited, while still accurate to the M-W definition, are closer to the understanding of these words as people commonly use them today. You can find the M-W definition here and here.]

Right away we are faced with another problem: establishing the meaning of the word ‘religion.’ In fact, a large part of this debate deals with an improper or incomplete understanding of the definition of religion. No human being who has achieved the level of self-awareness can exist without holding a personal belief that meets the technical definition of religion. Atheism is a religion. It might be easier if we think of religion in terms of a personal philosophy, because whatever belief system we hold that describes the ultimate reality of this world and governs the way we live our lives, that belief system meets the definition of a religion — period. The primary difference between religion and philosophy – as most people understand them, anyway – is the role played by faith or belief in a god. So the assertion that our government is meant to be divorced from religion – or ‘secular’ – would be more accurately asserted as a belief that our founders wanted our government to be divorced from any notion of a Creator.

Now let’s look closer at the distinctions we’re discussing by going to the Bible. The government that God handed down to Moses after the Exodus is the first recorded occurrence of a representative republic with a written constitution and a separation of powers – including the Church and the civil government. Technically speaking, the government God gave to Moses was not a Theocracy. God placed civil authority in the hands of the judges and later the kings and He placed the authority of the Priesthood in the hands of the Levites. This clearly does not meet the definition of a Theocracy, but would we claim that the first government of Israel was ‘secular?’ If we try to make that case, we will have to resolve the problem presented by the fact that Scripture clearly tells Israel God is and will always be Sovereign over it. In Isaiah, God says He is the King, law giver and judge. He established the proper limits of civil government and claims the right to judge those government(s) or government officials/rulers who step outside those boundaries. In this sense, the government God handed to Moses would be considered religious in nature as its civil leaders were responsible to God for the way they performed their duties. But God also placed duties on every individual citizen of Israel, so there were also religious obligations on the people, as well. But this is exactly the same relationship between the Creator and every individual upon which the founders’ notion of Natural Law rests and our government is derived. So then, if we consider Israel’s government to be religious in nature, then how can we make the case that the founders designed a secular government? They were using the very government model God gave to Moses. It cannot be one way with Israel and another with the United States when – in structure and operation – they are equivalent governments. Now, if one reads the Bible, one will find that God established a separation between the Church and civil government, but that religion was an integral part of the Hebrew culture and reached all the way into the personal lives of Israel’s judges and kings. Because of this individual duty and accountability to God, the ultimate authority over any individual in the Hebrew society was God, not the government. The founders held this exact same understanding of the role religion plays in any society that wishes to remain free and self-governing:

“I do not know if all Americans have faith in their religion – for who can read to the bottom of hearts? – but I am sure that they believe it necessary to the maintenance of republican institutions.”

“From the beginning, politics and religion were in accord.”

–Alexis de Tocqueville

So the religious nature of our society and the way it reached into our public offices was evident to a foreign observer visiting this nation several decades after the Constitution was ratified, but what – if anything – did the founders have to say about this subject?

“The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations … This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”

“The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity. I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God.”

“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

–John Adams

“Is it not that the Declaration of Independence first organized the social compact on the foundation of the Redeemer’s mission upon earth? That it laid the cornerstone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity”?

“The highest glory of the American Revolution was this; it connected in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity.

–John Quincy Adams

“We have this day restored the Sovereign to Whom all men ought to be obedient. He reigns in heaven and from the rising to the setting of the sun, let His kingdom come.”

–Samuel Adams, upon the signing of the Declaration of Independence

“I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth–that God Governs the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?”

–Benjamin Franklin

[NOTE: many deny that Franklin believed in the God of the Bible, and yet, he wrote his own epitaph, in which he said he was looking forward to being resurrected in his redeemed body – a decidedly Judeo/.Christian belief.]

“The precepts of philosophy, and of the Hebrew code, laid hold of actions only. {Jesus} pushed his scrutinizes into the heart of man, erecting his tribunal in the region of his thoughts, and purified the waters at the fountain head.”

“[My views on Christianity] are the result of a life of inquiry & reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.”

–Thomas Jefferson

“It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it [the Constitution] a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.”

–James Madison

“(T)he foundation of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality; …the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained…”

–George Washington

Now, I could continue with this, and I could get into the men who were every bit as important as the ones I’ve cited, only who would speak even more plainly and forcefully of the religious aspects of this nation’s founding, but then, if this is insufficient to make my point, then nothing I add will change the closed mind. The point here is that our founders saw a necessary connection between religion and the proper operation/function of the government they created. So why would these same men then claim that they created a secular government in which God has no place? This would be an absurdity forced onto men who were ‘supposedly’ designing a nation based on reason. But let’s address that notion here and now – the assertion that our founders thought they were deriving the principles of our government from reason alone:

“The evidence of [the] natural right [of expatriation], like that of our right to life, liberty, the use of our faculties, the pursuit of happiness, is not left to the feeble and sophistical investigations of reason, but is impressed on the sense of every man. We do not claim these under the charters of kings or legislators, but under the King of Kings.”

–Thomas Jefferson

We need to note two things here: first, Jefferson is clearly saying that our Natural Rights and Natural Law are so important that God did not leave them to the feebleness of our human reason alone. Instead, God implanted the understanding of right and wrong into each of us and we know this hand of God by the word “Conscience.” But more than that, Jefferson cited “The King of Kings.” That is a Christian principle. It belongs to no other religion, and Jefferson cites it here as the highest authority affirming his assertions. Jefferson is probably the worse person to cite in support of my argument, but a careful reading of his works will show he was anything but an enemy to religion. After all, he established and faithfully attended regular Christian church services in the Capital building while he was President. Hardly something a man who wanted a ‘secular’ government would do, don’t you think?

So, to end this section, let’s agree that no, the founders did not create a Theocracy. But then, that is not the question at hand. The question at hand is did they intentionally create a secular government, and the answer to that – even according to them – is also no. In fact, at the time the constitution was ratified, you could and likely would have been fined or jailed – or both – for speaking against the Christian faith. And that, my friend, is definitive proof that the founders had no intention of kicking God from their government(s).

9 thoughts on “Misunderstandings of the Difference between ‘Secular’ and ‘Theocracy’

  1. “I may recover health by medicines I am compelled to take against my own judgment; but I cannot be saved by a worship I disbelieve and abhor.” [Referring to Christianity]

    ( Thomas Jefferson, notes for a speech, c. 1776;

    1. Fallacious objection. Jefferson’s opinion here is not stating his hatred of Christianity, but of government or church forcing a particular religious belief on an individual. It is not about keeping people of faith out of government at all. Nor does Jefferson say he abhors Christianity. That implication of a distortion of what Jefferson was actually arguing. Therefore, your quote fails to support the implication that Jefferson objected to believing people being allowed to live their faith while in public office. What’s more, in the very letter this quote is taken from, Jefferson repeatedly affirms his belief in a True God over false gods, and he does NOT condemn Christianity.

      [note; this is the only link I could find to the complete text, but I STRONGLY question the header purporting to be a letter from Jefferson to the Ethiopian Muslim Brotherhood. Jefferson was no friend of the ‘Muhadmite’

  2. Belief in Many gods is fine with Jefferson!But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”( “Notes on the State of Virginia,” 1782)”

    Proud to be the First atheist government, by reason alone“. . . it is honorable for us, to have produced the first legislature [In Virginia] who had the courage to declare, that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions…”( Thomas Jefferson, letter to James Madison, from Paris, December 16, 1786;)”

    1. And Jefferson was wrong — which is why he is NOT an authority on our system of govt (and also why Providence saw to it that he was absent during the construction of the Constitution).

      BTW: these are the words of the same man who ran for President so that the could declare a war against a religion — ISLAM! I wonder whether or not he ever realized that Islam is the example that proves that the religious beliefs of one’s neighbor most certainly CAN cause you harm?

    2. BTW: as I suspected, a reading of the full context of Jefferson’s letter to Madison does NOT say what is implied in your comment (that Jefferson was proud to be the first Atheist government). All Jefferson was saying is that he believed Virginia was among the first to liberate men so that they could govern themselves. But NOWHERE does the letter say that man can rightly govern himself without a fear of the Creator. Or that Atheists should be allowed to govern society. In fact, the founders did not allow Atheists in public service — because they said Atheists could not be trusted.


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