Faith of the Founding Fathers

A Liberal Dose


 Last week, I talked about Christian Nationalism, the idea the United States was expressly established to be a Christian nation, that there should be no separation of church and state, that America is God’s Chosen Country, and that allowing space for other religions (or no religion) weakens the country and betrays what it stands for. I said it was not historical. Now I’m going to explain why.

First, I’m going to recommend a book: “The Faiths of the Founding Fathers” by David L. Holmes (2006).  Holmes, like many others before him, examines the context of those individuals’ public professions of faith - which many of them made, and which are used as evidence they intended their new nation to be a specifically Christian one. The “Founding Fathers” can be divided into three categories: traditional mainstream Protestants (most notably Patrick Henry and also Samuel Adams), pure Deists (most notably, and vociferously, Thomas Paine), and the category most of them fell into - Christian Deists, who were somewhere in the middle. Now, to understand any of that, you have to know what a Deist is. I know that many of you do, but many do not, so here goes.

Deism is a philosophy that arose in the early 1700s and was very popular among college instructors in the colonies (and remember, from an earlier column, that the majority of the Founding Fathers had college educations). It stated that reason alone demonstrates that there is a God, with no need for a belief in the supernatural (remember, this time period was called The Enlightenment, with an emphasis on logic and reason) -and therefore, no need for organized religion. A Deist, therefore, was a lot more likely to speak about the Creator, the Divine Author, Nature, or Providence than about “God.”

Most of the Founding Fathers encountered this idea at university and were influenced by it thereafter, in various degrees. Most did not follow the example of Paine, who went all-out on the notion and referred to all religion as fable. Rather, they continued their association with churches and thought of themselves as Christian - but you could not call them fundamentalist or evangelical (both of which were terms that arose later - Patrick Henry, though, was essentially a fundamentalist).  These “Christian Deists” - George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and many more - viewed church attendance as a good way to learn morality, ethics, and good citizenship, and often spoke publicly about their belief in God and the value of the Bible, but not in the way fundamentalist Christians of today (or then) would do so. Their form of Deism, and of Christianity, is sometimes called “The Clockwork Universe,” and it works like this:

God is the great Clockmaker. He designed the universe and set it in motion so that it would work perfectly, with all the attendant gears and springs propelling it along. And then He stepped back and is now just letting it run. From this point of view, God’s greatest gift to us is our power of reason - and it is up to us to use it and solve our problems. So, when you read a quote by Jefferson or Adams about The Creator, you must remember they did not mean it the same way a fundamentalist preacher would. In many ways, Christian Deists were a lot like Progressive Christians are today - and that extends to religious tolerance.

Jefferson - who coined the term “wall of separation between church and state” - said he did not care in the least whether his neighbor worshiped one god, many gods, or no god: “It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” In fact, a 1797 treaty endorsed by George Washington, signed by President John Adams, and passed unanimously in the Senate stated that “the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” Next time we’ll talk about what that means.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.    


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