A number of folks have adopted the phrase “theistic rationalists” to describe the religious approach of America’s founding fathers. The word seems to have been coined by Gregg Frazer, who defined it as, “… a hybrid belief system mixing elements of natural religion, Protestant Christianity, and rationalism – with rationalism as the decisive factor whenever conflict arose between the elements.” (Quote courtesy of Ed Brayton and Jon Rowe.)
I don’t like bringing in new terms all the time. But the term we use most frequently is “deist,” and that word was used loosely, both then and now. In many cases it was used to describe someone who believed in an absentee God, like the unmoved mover of Aristotle who is eternally locked in self-contemplation and not involved in the world. In other cases “deist” refers to someone who was more of a unitarian, someone who believed in an active God but not that Jesus was his son.
Theistic rationalist refers to the method as much as the results. Theistic rationalists generally did not accept revelation, whether it was from a priest or a holy book. They placed great faith in the human ability to look at the world and reason out the true nature of God and religion. The advantage here is that we can lump together everyone who gets labeled as a deist, accurately or not. That’s helpful, particularly since most of the big names of the founding era don’t fit in to the stricter definition.
Thomas Jefferson was not a deist in the strict sense, and I think he sums it up the theistic rationalist approach in his letter to Peter Carr. Carr was his young nephew, and the letter is basically sage advice from a wiser (or at least older) uncle. On the topic of religion, he had this to say:
Your reason is now mature enough to examine this object. In the first place, divest yourself of all bias in favor of novelty and singularity of opinion. Indulge them in any other subject rather than that of religion. It is too important, and the consequences of error may be too serious. On the other hand, shake off all the fears and servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.
The strength of human understanding is incalculable, its keenness of discernment would ultimately penetrate into every part of nature, were it permitted to operate with uncontrolled and unqualified freedom. It is because this sublime principle of man has been constantly the object of the most scurrilous abuse, and the most detestable invective from superstition, that his moral existence has been buried in the gulf of ignorance, and his intellectual powers tarnished by the ferocious and impure hand of fanaticism. Although we are made capable of sublime reflections, it has hitherto been deemed a crime to think, and a still greater crime to speak our thoughts after they have been conceived.
Elihu Palmer was one of the big three deists of the period, along with Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen. Allen is usually remembered for leading his Green Mountain Boys on Fort Ticonderoga, and his religion is forgotten. But his book, Reason, The Only Oracle of Man, was probably the first popular work of Deism in America. Here again we see the veneration of reason:
Though “none by searching can find out God, or the Almighty to perfection,” yet I am persuaded, that if mankind would dare to exercise their reason as freely on those divine topics as they do in the common concerns of life, they would, in a great measure, rid themselves of their blindness and superstition, gain more exalted ideas of God and their obligations to him and one another, and be proportionally delighted and blessed with the views of his moral government, make better members of society, and acquire, many powerful incentives to the practice of morality, which is the last and greatest perfection that human nature is capable of.