Greg responds to an L.A. Times Op-Ed article by this title (sans question mark), subtitled “Founding Fathers: Despite preachings of our pious Right, most were deists who rejected the divinity of Jesus.”
There has been a lot of confusion on the issue of whether or not we’re a Christian nation, and I’m not exactly sure why. But it is hotly debated in our culture right now. The reason I say I’m not sure why is because the historical record is quite clear. I think that Christians, though, often make inappropriate, unfounded, or inaccurate applications of some of the information, and I want to speak to that in just a moment.
As to the faith content of those who were our Founding Fathers, there can be absolutely no confusion about the fact that virtually every single one of them shared a Christian, biblical world view. There is some question as to whether every single one of them held to all the orthodox teachings of classical Christianity; but it seems to me that there is very little question as to what their religious persuasions and world views were.
There was a piece in the L.A. Times on the third of this August on the Op-Ed page entitled “America’s Unchristian Beginnings.” It is subtitled “Founding Fathers: Despite preachings of our pious Right, most were deists who rejected the divinity of Jesus.” There are a couple things that trouble me about this article, the biggest thing is the word “most” in the subtitle. “Most of our Founding Fathers” apparently were deists, according to this person’s assessment. This is a canard that’s been tossed around even by some Christians who ought to know better. This piece was written by Steven Morris who is a professor of physics at L.A. Harbor College and he is also a member of the L.A.-based Atheists United.
Some might say, what does a physicist know about history? Just because he is a physicist doesn’t mean that he can’t have an accurate opinion about this particular issue. I take issue with his research. It’s simply bad.
He goes on to reply to the Christian Right, who he says is trying to rewrite the history of the United States in its campaign to force its view of religion on others. His approach is to quote seven different people: Thomas Paine, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ethan Allen, James Madison, and Ben Franklin. His point is to quote these individuals who he thinks apparently are, first of all, Founding Fathers, and secondly, characteristic of the lot of them in rejection of Christianity and in acceptance of deism.
I am frustrated by this because it is characteristic of the way a lot of people want to treat this issue. They think that they can take names that we associate with that period and are well known, sift through their writings and find some things that they think are hostile to Christianity, and therefore conclude that not only these people are anti-Christian, but all of the rest of them are anti-Christian, as well.
It’s an example of Steven Morris turning the exception into the rule. Since he can find what he thinks are seven different people that are important personalities during this period of time, who at some time in their lives may have written something that can be understood to be non-Christian, then that characterizes the whole group of them as deists, ergo the subtitle “Most were deists who rejected the divinity of Jesus.”
Morris’ sightings are simply specious. Thomas Payne and Ethan Allen, for example, were in no- wise intellectual architects of the Constitution. Rather, they were firebrands of the Revolution. Was that important? Sure, they made an important contribution, but they weren’t Founding Fathers. Period.
Now, as for Washington, Sam Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. If one looks at the literature of the time--the personal correspondence, the public statements, the biographies--he will find that this literature is replete with quotations by these people contrary to those that Mr. Morris very carefully selected for us. Apparently, he also very carefully ignored other important thinkers: John Witherspoon, for example, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, John Adams, Patrick Henry. All individuals who were significant contributors to the architectural framework of this country and who had political philosophies that were deeply influenced by Christianity, especially Calvinism.
But there is another thing that he completely overlooks in this analysis. Something that makes a mockery out of his analysis, and also answers the question quite simply and directly and in the affirmative for us about the Christian beginnings of our Republic.
This issue is actually very simple. The phrase “Founding Fathers” is a proper noun. In other words, Founding Fathers refers directly to a very specific group of people (although I think you could be a little bit flexible and include a little wider group of people). Those who intellectually contributed to the Constitutional convention were the Founding Fathers. If we want to know whether our Founding Fathers were Christian or deists, one needs only to look at the individual religious convictions of those 55 delegates of the Constitutional convention.
How would we know that? We look at their church membership primarily, and also at their correspondence. Back then church membership was a big deal. In other words, to be a member of a church back then, it wasn’t just a matter of sitting in the pew or attending once in a while. This was a time when church membership entailed a sworn public confession of biblical faith, adherence, and acknowledgment of the doctrines of that particular church.
Of those 55 Founding Fathers, we know what their sworn public confessions were. Twenty-eight were Episcopalians, eight were Presbyterians, seven were Congregationalists, two were Lutheran, two were Dutch Reformed, two were Methodist, two were Roman Catholic, one is unknown, and only three were deists--Williamson, Wilson, and Franklin.
To heap more fuel on the fire of my point, of the 55, the Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists, and the Dutch Reformed (which make up 45 of the 55) were Calvinists, for goodness sake! In other words, these weren’t just Christians, these were among the most extreme and doctrinally strict Christians around. Of the 55 delegates, virtually all of them were deeply committed Christians. Only three were deists. Even Franklin is equivocal because, though not an orthodox Christian, Franklin seems to have abandoned his deism early in life and moved back towards his Puritan roots. Indeed, it was 81 year old Franklin’s emotional call to humble prayer on June 28, 1787, that was actually the turning point for a hopelessly stalled Constitutional convention. We have his appeal on record thanks to James Madison who took copious notes of the whole proceeding. His appeal contained no less than four direct quotations from Scripture. This does not sound like a man who was hostile to the Christian religion.
But this assessment doesn’t answer a more fundamental question: Are we a Christian nation? It seems clear that most of the Founders were Christians, not deists. But what about the question “Are we a Christian nation?” I think the answer depends entirely on what is meant by “Christian nation.”
Are the theological doctrines of the Bible explicitly woven into the fabric of government? The answer is no. The non-establishment clause of the First Amendment absolutely prohibits such a thing. However, was the Biblical view of the world--the existence of God who active in human history, the authority of the Scripture, the inherent sinfulness of man, the existence of absolute objective morality, and God-given transcendent rights--was that the philosophic foundation of the Constitution? The answer is, without question, yes. The American community presumed a common set of values which were principally biblical. Further, the founding principles of the Republic were clearly informed by biblical truth.
A question can be asked at this point. Given the fact that most of the Founding Fathers--either those who are among the 55 delegates to the Constitutional convention or those outside of that number who were significant architects to the Constitution--were in fact biblical Christians and had sworn to that, and those that weren’t were at least deeply moved and informed by a biblical moral view, one could ask the question, “So what? What does that have to do with anything today?”
I think that Christians may be a little out of line on this part of the issue, and I want to bring it into balance. Regarding the question, Is America a Christian nation?, if we mean by that that Christianity is the official, doctrinal religion of this country, the answer is of course not. That’s prohibited by the exclusion clause of the First Amendment. If we mean that we were founded on Biblical principles by Christian men who had a deep commitment to the Scriptures by and large, the answer is certainly yes.
But then the question is, So what? How does what happened 200 years ago influence what is going on now? I actually have two points to make.
This fact doesn’t give Christians a trump card in the debate on public policy, in my view. Just because Christians were here first doesn’t mean that their views should continue to prevail. Within the limits of the Constitution, the majority rules. That’s the way this government works, ladies and gentlemen.
But let’s not rewrite history to relegate those with religious convictions to the sidelines. That is the other half of this. The privilege of citizenship remains the same for all despite their religious convictions. Everyone gets a voice and everyone gets a vote. Christians don’t have a leg up on everyone else because we were here first. Even the Christians who wrote the rules didn’t give us that liberty. They didn’t give us that leg up. They made the playing ground even for everyone, every ideology, every point of view.
Having said that, though, in writing the First Amendment and the non-establishment clause, they did not have in view this current idea of separation--that the state is thoroughly secular and not informed at all by religious values, especially Christian. This view that is popular now was completely foreign, not just to the Founders, but to the first 150 years of American political thought. It’s absolutely clear that the Fathers did not try to excise every vestige of Christian religion, Christian thought, and Christian values from all facets of public life. In fact, they were friendly to religion in general, and to Christianity in particular, and encouraged its education and expression.
As to the durability of this tradition, I suggest that anyone who has any doubts about this simply read Lincoln’s second inaugural address, which is etched into the marble of the northern wall of the Lincoln Memorial. Go there and read it. Face Lincoln, turn right, and there it is. It contains no less than three or four biblical references.
After that you can reflect on Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of October 3, 1863. It begins this way: “It is the duty of nations, as well as of men, to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions [By golly, how did that get in there?] in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon. And to recognize the sublime truth announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations are blessed whose God is the Lord.”
I think that pretty much settles it.