Recently I’ve been delving once again into deism, or what is more appropriately called natural religion. (Deism has come to have connotations of belief in a distant, uninvolved and even uncaring God. That wasn’t true of all who are lumped together as deists and the real sine qua non of “deism” was belief in natural religion, not a doctrine of God.) I’ve been re-reading Locke (a precursor), Toland and Tindal (among others). These men thought they were Christians. Well, there’s some doubt about what Tindal actually thought, but let’s say they all considered themselves Christians–probably “of a higher order” than those around them.
My mind began to wander and wonder about those who claim publicly that most, if not all, of our republic’s founding fathers were orthodox Christians, if not evangelical Christians. I’m not going to name any names here, but if you pay close attention to this controversy I think you can figure out some of the people I might be referring to.
There are writers and speakers, conservative evangelicals all (so far as I know), claiming that even Thomas Jefferson was a “real Christian.” I don’t see them or hear them talking about Benjamin Franklin much. Maybe they don’t consider him one of our founding fathers. Or maybe they would say he’s the exception that proves the rule. In any case, writings and video recordings by these people are being used in numerous home schooling situations. I have had students who came out of a home schooling situation who thought, on the basis of some of these books and videos, that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and all the others were good Christians by which they meant something similar to what we would today call evangelical.
What I wonder is whether these writers and speakers really believe the things they are saying and writing or whether they are intentionally misleading people.
My uncle, a retired denominational leader, called me to ask me about something he heard one of these writers (who is also a frequent speaker at churches and conferences and even political events) say on a Christian talk show on a Christian television network. According to my uncle, the man claimed that “Jefferson’s Bible” (The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth) was created by Jefferson to have a handy, abbreviated version of the four gospels to give to Native Americans to evangelize them for the gospel. He denied that Jefferson “cut up” the New Testament to cut out the supernatural or offensive sayings of Jesus–as “liberals” claim. My uncle genuinely wanted to know what I, as a church historian/historical theologian, thought about that.
It didn’t take much research to discover that Jefferson himself explained why he created the so-called “Jefferson Bible” (now published by the Unitarian publishing house Beacon Press) in letters to friends, especially John Adams. In a letter about The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth dated 1813 Jefferson compared the portions of the gospels he cut out and pasted into his book to diamonds separated from dung. He left no doubt that, while he admired Jesus, he did not agree with everything Jesus said or did. He ended his book with Jesus’ death and omitted the resurrection. Most, if not all, of the miracles were also left out.
There is no doubt that SOME of the founding fathers were orthodox Christians, but to claim that all or even most of them were is simply stretching the truth.
Some of these writers and speakers quote from various proclamations and prayers of founding fathers as if those actually expressed their own personal beliefs. Anyone who has paid careful attention to even more modern presidents and their religious rhetoric should know that presidents (and other government officials) sometimes sound more religious in public than they really are. And, yes, like Toland and Tindal, even the most secular of the founding fathers considered themselves Christian in some sense of the word. But just because they talked about God, the Bible and Jesus in glowing terms hardly justifies claiming them as ones “of us” (evangelical Christians).
My point here is not to get into the details of the religious lives of the founding fathers; that has been done in many volumes. The problem is that it is increasingly becoming apparent that some of the most popular ones are simply unreliable; they promote a revisionist history that appears to be blatantly dishonest.
Why can’t the founding fathers have been simply good men? Why do we have to claim they were orthodox, even spiritual Christians to hold them in high esteem? And why not just pick out the ones who really were orthodox Christians, such as such as apparently Patrick Henry was, and hold them up as “our heroes?”
Sloppy and/or revisionist history is not becoming of any Christian; it pays no real compliments to God or the founding fathers. In the end, when home school young people get to college (unless they go to one of two or three schools that specialize in promoting revisionist history about the founding fathers) they will be disillusioned and wonder whether anything they were taught was right. Better to be honest and real and let the chips fall where they may than pretend and then be exposed as a fake scholar who promoted blatant falsehoods. That only results in broken trust and sometimes lost faith among young people.