Accuracy and the Founding Fathers

Accuracy and the Founding Fathers June 20, 2012

Kerry Walters, a professor of philosophy at Gettysburg College and author of several books on the Founding Fathers and religion, takes the religious right to task for their false claim that America was founded as a Christian nation. that’s a good thing, of course, but unfortunately he gets some of the details wrong himself.

He’s absolutely right to criticize the Christian nation apologists for their focus on the Puritans, whose theocratic communities could hardly be more opposite the ideas enshrined in the Constitution. That’s why their constant quoting of the Mayflower compact and early colonial charters is not just pointless but is strong evidence against their position. But then there’s this:

The problem, as scholar after scholar has pointed out — how often must it be repeated before the reality breaks through the myth? — is that it simply isn’t true. The Founding Fathers weren’t all Christian. Some, of course, were: Patrick Henry (Episcopalian), John Hancock (Congregationalist), John Jay (Episcopalian), and Sam Adams (Congregationalist), for example, were all devout and pretty conventional Christians. But the big players in the founding of the United States — such men as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and probably Alexander Hamilton — weren’t. Each of them was much more comfortable with a deistic understanding of God than a Christian one. For them, the deity was an impersonal First Cause who created a rationally patterned natural order and who was best worshiped through the exercise of reason and virtue. Most of them may have admired the ethical teachings of Jesus (although Paine conspicuously did not), but all of them loathed and rejected the priestcraft and superstition they associated with Christianity.

There are two mistakes here. First, most of those men did not believe in an “impersonal First Cause,” a deistic god who set the universe in motion and then never intervened. Ben Franklin, for example, while he did not accept the divinity of Jesus and was thus not a Christian, did believe in a provident God who gave us punishment or reward in the afterlife. From his famous letter to Ezra Stiles:

Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this.

Jefferson also did not believe in a distant, watchmaker deity. He famously wrote in his Notes on Virginia:

“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever; that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation is among possible events; that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.

Clearly someone who thinks God can and may well exact justice on us by supernatural interference does not believe in the non-intervening deistic god. Washington likewise believed firmly in a personal, provident God. Madison wrote very little on the subject and Hamilton started out as a theistic rationalist but converted to Christianity later in life.

The second mistake is the claim that Thomas Paine “conspicuously” did not “admire[] the ethical teachings of Jesus.” This is a particularly baffling claim to hear from someone who has actually edited a critical edition of Paine’s Age of Reason. In the very first chapter of that book, in fact, Paine conspicuously expresses his admiration for the ethical teachings of Jesus:

NOTHING that is here said can apply, even with the most distant disrespect, to the real character of Jesus Christ. He was a virtuous and an amiable man. The morality that he preached and practiced was of the most benevolent kind; and though similar systems of morality had been preached by Confucius, and by some of the Greek philosophers, many years before, by the Quakers since, and by many good men in all ages, it has not been exceeded by any.

It is important to be accurate in such discussions. There are many falsehoods offered by the Christian nation crowd and it is important that we counter them, but the only rational way to do so is to avoid offering falsehoods ourselves.

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  • jamessweet

    Yep.

    To a man, the founding fathers were all Christians, with the sole exception of Paine, who was indeed a self-described deist. The key point is that many of them were pretty irreligious, at least by modern standards. A handful of them were openly hostile to organized religion (pioneers of SBNR!) and many of them were at the very least suspicious of the clerical abuses and critical of what they perceived as religious hypocrisy.

    And of course, anybody who lived pre-Darwin, I give a free pass on theism. While the Argument from Design was never really valid to begin with, the rebuttal to it feels a little unsatisfying if you can’t also answer the question, “where did all these fucking animals come from?”

  • Enkidum

    Glad to see this insistence on accuracy, which is rare enough when “our” side has to acknowledge these uncomfortable truths (albeit rarer still for theistic propagandists).

  • slc1

    Actually, it is my information that Madison was openly contemptuous of organized religion in general and the Christian churches in particular.

    It is also not clear what Washington’s opinions of Christianity were. He regularly attended Episcopal services but steadfastly declined to take communion.

  • Artor

    This discussion misses the point entirely though. It matters not a bit what the Founding Fathers believed themselves when what they wrote into the Constitution is an explicitly secular nation. If a group of avowed Roman Catholics get together and create an organization with a charter that specifically states that it is to be a non-religious organization with no religious test for participants, does it matter one bit if the founders, or indeed most of the following members are Catholic? If the charter & by-laws say no, then there’s your answer.

    The US Constitution clearly states there is to be no religious test for office and that neither Congress or the States can establish any religion, and the early Treaty of Tripoli explicitly states that the US is in no way a Xtian nation. Case closed.

    If David Barton were to come out with real concrete evidence that George Washington & Thomas Jefferson were both devout Evangelicals, it still wouldn’t change a thing.

  • It’s hardly a surprise that the Founding Fathers were, for the most part, Christian, or at least theists. What’s surprising is how heretical they were.

    But really, their personal beliefs are neither here nor there. The goal of Christian Nationalism is to give Christianity and its adherents privileged status in our society, and as a corollary, to normalize discrimination against religious minorities. Even if the founding fathers were fire-and-brimstone tent revivalists, this would still be wrong.

  • jamessweet wrote:

    To a man, the founding fathers were all Christians, with the sole exception of Paine, who was indeed a self-described deist.

    I don’t think this is accurate either. I don’t think anyone would really accept that someone who rejected the virgin birth, the resurrection, the atonement or the divinity of Jesus is a Christian. Certainly if Jefferson and Adams were alive today and declared those beliefs, the same people who laud them for their Christianity would condemn them as infidels. Those men, and Franklin at least, were theists but they were not Christians.

  • slc1

    Re Ed Brayton @ #6

    Those men, and Franklin at least, were theists but they were not Christians

    Our good buddy Michael Heath would take exception to this view and did, in a thread several weeks ago.

  • Michael Heath

    Ed writes:

    I don’t think anyone would really accept that someone who rejected the virgin birth, the resurrection, the atonement or the divinity of Jesus is a Christian.

    There are millions of contemporaneous Christians who reject those beliefs, including ministers, e.g., John Shelby Spong. I’ve also read books by Quakers and liberal Mennonites who are both Christian and reject these beliefs. Thomas Jefferson was also a Christian who rejected these beliefs.

    I think debates in the public square should avoid inter-denominational debates regarding who is or who isn’t part of the faithful; and also not favor one’s dogma over another’s when it comes to defining which people and group’s are “in” and which are “out”. Instead its categorically far more accurate to allow groups to define themselves.

    From this perspective and within the framework of public square debates, Mormons who identify as Christians are, regardless of what Southern Baptists think. Hell, I can easily make a considered argument politically conservative Baptists aren’t predominately Christians given they overwhelmingly practice their religion in a manner which has them behaving the exact opposite of what the Bible has Jesus commanding – perhaps violent felons are the only group most distanced from Jesus’s 2nd commandment in their behavior. I do think these Baptists are Christians because they identify as Christians and practice their form of Christianity – which is exactly what Jefferson also did. That’s why I find Ed’s framing so fatally defective, to the point I don’t think it withstands even the mildest scrutiny when tested.

  • Michael Heath

    Besides Quakers and liberal Mennonites, I failed to mention all the Christians who are Congregationalists who also fail Ed’s test in spite of also being Christians.

  • slc1

    Re Michael Heath @ #8

    I see that Heath continues his futile battle to convince us that Thomas Jefferson was a believing Christian. I said it before and Mr. Brayton has said it again in comment #6. Jefferson rejected the Virgin Birth, the divinity of Yeshua of Nazareth, the physical Resurrection, the miracle stories in the scriptures, and the Trinity, just to mention a few of his heresies (AFAIK, he didn’t even believe, like John Haught, in a visionary resurrection). His view of Yeshua was much closer to the Islamic view then to the Christian view.

    A book on mathematical games I once read asked the question as to how many legs a bactrian camel has if one calls a hump a leg; the answer is 4, calling a hump a leg doesn’t make it one. Calling Jefferson a believing Christian doesn’t make him one.

    Now I don’t know much about Quakers, but it is my understanding that they are not considered Christians.

  • vmanis1

    This is one of those `debates’ that can never have a useful outcome. There is no precise definition of what a `Christian’ is, and therefore whether or not Jefferson, Washington, or their colleagues were or were not Christians is a completely pointless argument. There are Christians who reject not only the virgin birth, but also the resurrection of Jesus, yet still identify as Christians. Admittedly, a particular denomination of Christianity might declare such a person to be `not a Christian’, but when you can’t even get the various denominations to agree on whether or not a clergy person must or need not have a penis, expecting agreement on more abstruse matters is ridiculous.

    It is certainly true that the Founding Fathers were extremely familiar with the tenets of Christianity, and believed in many of them to a greater or lesser extent. In general, they did not express the notion that their religious beliefs were the basis for any political actions they undertook.

    Oh, and slc1, the Quakers I have known most definitely considered themselves to be Christians (though that is not true of all Quakers). There are Quaker institutional members of the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches.

  • Michael Heath

    slc writes:

    I see that Heath continues his futile battle to convince us that Thomas Jefferson was a believing Christian. I said it before and Mr. Brayton has said it again in comment #6. Jefferson rejected the Virgin Birth, the divinity of Yeshua of Nazareth, the physical Resurrection, the miracle stories in the scriptures, and the Trinity, just to mention a few of his heresies (AFAIK, he didn’t even believe, like John Haught, in a visionary resurrection). His view of Yeshua was much closer to the Islamic view then to the Christian view.

    slc1 – your definition of “believing” is not matched by millions of practicing Christians. Your Islamic comparison is idiotic. Muslims do perceive Jesus as God’s prophet with a role to play in delivering some people to God. Jefferson went well beyond that, seeing Jesus’ teachings as he perceived them to be, as central to understanding God and how he wanted us to behave; as well as communally practicing his faith with other Christians where Jesus played a central role.

    If you want to form dissents and have them taken seriously by me, don’t create diversionary arguments I assume is intended to avoid dealing with what I actually argue. Especially arguments which failed you the first time, and the time after that, and the time after that . . . .

    slc1 writes:

    Calling Jefferson a believing Christian doesn’t make him one.

    I never called Jefferson a “believing Christian”, you did. That term within this venue is also incoherent on its face given there is no central authority to define such. I instead refer to Jefferson as a Christian based on:

    1) self-identification

    2) membership in the Anglican church

    3) practicing a form of Christian faith where Jesus plays a central role, including with other Christians.

    4) making a case for Christianity to others

    I already pointed out Southern Baptists who claim this criteria would argue the anonymous person holding this form of faith is not a ‘true Christian’. But since there is no controlling authority on who is or isn’t Christian, I would argue it’s just as compelling to argue from the Congregationalist view those Baptists aren’t either. That makes for a preemptively useless debate when in the public square rather than within one’s faith community or interfacing with other faith communities, which is not what is going on here.

    If you want to confront Jefferson’s faith, first you’re going to need to abandon your arbitrary framework which has no authority over Jefferson or any other Christian, including millions of practicing Christians alive and practicing their faith today. You don’t get to decide, neither does some sub-population(s) which is not the sum of Christianity having authority over another sub-population of Christians. Baptists were no less Christians prior to the Catholic Church claiming they weren’t, and vice versa.

    slc1:

    Now I don’t know much about Quakers, but it is my understanding that they are not considered Christians.

    By who? Again, whoever these negarious “who’s” are, I can just as easily assert they aren’t Christians either once you identify them. Quakers do identify as Christian, here’s how some Quakers define themselves and describe their brand of Christian beliefs: http://qfp.quakerweb.org.uk/qfpintro.html

  • slc1

    Re Michael Heath @ #12

    I have a flash for Heath. The Roman Catholic Church would not consider Jefferson, based on his well known views to be a believing Christian either, even if it turned out that he was a baptized member. And they constitute at least half of the world’s Christian population. He would be considered an apostate.

    The problem is that Heath just doesn’t want to accept a distinction between a believing Christian and a cultural Christian. If Yeshua was not divine, was not the messiah prophesied in the Hebrew scriptures, was not resurrected after his execution, then what is the basis of the religion known as Christianity? If Yeshua is just another one of the prophets in addition to those mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures, which is the position of some Reconstructionist Jews, then there is no purpose to organized Christianity as it exists today. Folks who take the same positions as Jefferson did might more accurately describe themselves as Reconstructionist Jews, rather then Christians.

  • Michael Heath

    slc1 writes:

    I have a flash for Heath. The Roman Catholic Church would not consider Jefferson, based on his well known views to be a believing Christian either, even if it turned out that he was a baptized member.

    That’s my argument exactly. Jeez, are you that dense?

    slc1 writes:

    The problem is that Heath just doesn’t want to accept a distinction between a believing Christian and a cultural Christian.

    Again for the umpteenth time, this misrepresents my point. I have no problem making such distinctions, but only if we take a theological position which favors one group of denominations over another. That frame of reference is fatally defective in the public square given that we have no established church. There is one exception – that is when a person or group identifies with a religious group but is not a practicing believer. A great example is cultural Jews who are atheists and don’t practice their faith, there are cultural Catholics as well. But this standard fails miserably with Thomas Jefferson and millions of other Christian believers precisely because he and they were/are a member of a Christian denomination, had/have faith in God where Jesus plays a central role, and practiced his/their faith both alone and with other Christians.

    Do you even read what others write prior to rebutting them or just maintain a filed set of arguments in your head irrelevant to what others argue? I’ve repeatedly pointed this out and yet you continually avoid these points altogether.

    slc1 writes:

    If Yeshua is just another one of the prophets in addition to those mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures, which is the position of some Reconstructionist Jews, then there is no purpose to organized Christianity as it exists today. Folks who take the same positions as Jefferson did might more accurately describe themselves as Reconstructionist Jews, rather then Christians.

    This is a theological debate. One where millions of Christians from the past and in the future reject your framing, which is their right because there is no governing authority over Christianity. Neither you nor the Pope or the new SBC President get to determine what is and what is not a Christian. Therefore it’s totally useless standard when it comes to public square debates like this one.

  • slc1

    Re Michael Heath @ #14

    According to Heath, Jefferson was a believing Christian. Let’s look at the record.

    1. Jefferson did not believe in the Virgin Birth.

    2. Jefferson did not believe in the divinity of Yeshua of Nazareth.

    3. Jefferson did not believe in the Resurrection, either physical or visionary.

    4. Jefferson did not believe in the miracle stories in either the Christian or Hebrew scriptures.

    5. Jefferson did not believe in the Trinity.

    6. Jefferson did believe in an intervening god, although not, apparently, Yahweh, marking him as not a Deist.

    The fact that Jefferson chose to attend services in a Christian Church, rather then a Unitarian Church like John Adams, seems to be more a matter of culture rather then religious conviction.

  • Michael Heath

    slc1 writes:

    According to Heath, Jefferson was a believing Christian.

    Not merely according to me but instead according to Thomas Jefferson, and many of his fellow believers – including those with whom he practiced his faith and worshipped amongst. All in a context where millions of other practicing Christian believers share a common set of beliefs with Jefferson. You’re not an authority slc1, nor are you the decider, nor does any other individual or group get to decide. Sheesh you can be dense.

  • slc1

    Re Michael Heath @ #16

    If Jefferson thought that he was a believing Christian, then he was much mistaken.

  • Michael Heath

    slc1 writes:

    If Jefferson thought that he was a believing Christian, then he was much mistaken.

    Who determines that again? And does that apply to all the Christian believers who believe like Jefferson and belong and worship at either mainline denominations or liberal Christian denominations like the Quakers, Congregationalists, United Church of Christ, and liberal Mennonites?

  • lpetrich

    Looking at some of the Founding Fathers’ statements of belief, I think that many fundies would scream “WORKS-BASED RELIGION!!!” as if they had just seen a ghost.

  • So many people have pointed out your article to me that I think I must respond.

    You take me to task on two counts. The first is that the Founding Fathers must’ve believed in a personal God who interferes in nature because some of them write about Providence. I take your point. But two things should be noted. The first is that typically when they used the word, either it was in reference to natural physical and moral laws, not divine intervention. The second is that assuming they literally believed in divine intervention is inconsistent with everything else they wrote about God.

    Second, you claim that I misspoke when I said that Thomas Paine wasn’t an admirer of Jesus’s ethics. While it’s true that in Age of Reason Part 1, Paine praises Jesus’s ethics, in Age of Reason Part 2, Conclusion (which must be considered his final word on the matter), he savages them, especially the injunctions to turn the other cheek and love one’s enemies.

    Thanks for the opportunity to respond. I enjoy reading your blog and appreciate your perspectives.