Founders’ Faith: None of the Above
The religious views of America’s founders have been fiercely contested in the public arena for many years. The principal battle is between those who claim that most founders were devout Christians and those who assert that they were deists. This debate has important ramifications for arguments that the United States was founded as a distinctively Christian nation, or as an essentially secular one, and for how to interpret the First Amendment.
Into the fray has stepped Gregg L. Frazer, a professor of history and political studies at The Master’s College in Santa Clarita, California. In The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, Revolution, he argues that the nation’s most prominent founders—George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin—and key framers (of the Declaration and the Constitution)—Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton—were neither Christians nor deists.
Frazer aims to correct the “severely flawed” arguments of popularizers (primarily pastors, lawyers, and armchair historians) such as David Barton (The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson) who portray most of the founders as committed Christians, if not evangelical Protestants, and others, including Americans United for the Separation of Church and State spokesperson Barry Lynn and journalist Brooke Allen (Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers), who depict the founders as “rank secularists.”
The former group contends that most of the founders sought to create a thoroughly Christian nation, while the latter group portrays the founders as seeking to erect an absolute “wall of separation” between church and state (or even between religion and government by excluding all religious ideologies and principles from the public square).
Although a substantial group of founders were orthodox Christians—including Samuel Adams, John Witherspoon, John Jay, Elias Boudinot, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Rush, Roger Sherman, and Oliver Ellsworth—Frazer convincingly argues that the most renowned founders were not traditional Christians, strident secularists, or devoted deists.
Frazer shows that neither the Christian-America camp nor the strict separationists (which include many influential historians and political scientists, the American Civil Liberties Union, and People for the American Way) correctly understand the religious views of America’s leading founders. The partisan agendas of both groups discourage careful, dispassionate analysis of the evidence.
Frazer builds on the foundation laid by numerous historians and political scientists who show that the founders were deeply influenced by both Christianity and the Enlightenment. Convinced that labeling these key founders as Christian, deist, or secular is inaccurate, Frazer invents a new term—theistic rationalism—to describe their convictions. Theistic rationalism is a hybrid system that mixes “elements of natural religion, Christianity, and rationalism” and makes rationalism the dominant component. While these three elements usually complemented each other, reason played the decisive role when they conflicted on particular issues. Instead of employing reason to show that divine revelation was true, theistic rationalists “made reason the ultimate standard.”
This belief system was not a label anyone actually applied to himself in the eighteenth century and it cannot be identified with any particular denomination, theology, or form of worship. Espoused by educated elites, theistic rationalism appealed little to average Americans.
Frazer is correct that the conventional understanding of deism does not accurately explain the views of these key founders and framers. Deism traditionally portrayed God as absent and aloof from the world he created, denied the value of Scripture, and rejected many central Christian doctrines including Christ’s Virgin Birth, atonement, and resurrection, as well as original sin, hell, and the biblical understanding of faith.
Theistic rationalists, by contrast, believed that God not only created the world but actively directs it and intervenes in human affairs. They often stressed God’s providence and insisted that he heard and answered prayers. Although theistic rationalists denied that Jesus was God, they viewed him more highly than deists, often calling him a great moral teacher. They also had a much higher view of the Bible than deists, arguing that its parts that accorded with reason were truly from God. The beliefs that theistic rationalists shared with Christians prompted them to attend Christian churches and employ language that Christians found “familiar and comforting.” They argued that religion had a major role to play in the public square, especially by promoting the individual virtue that was essential to the success of the new republic. Moreover, these theistic rationalists believed that biblically based moral principles provided a crucial foundation for the work of political officials as they strove to promote the common good and corporate justice.
Many other scholars have noted that the conventional categories used to describe the religious views of the key founders are inadequate and have used descriptions similar to theistic rationalism. Other terms employed to describe the convictions of these prominent founders—“enlightened Christianity,” “Christian rationalism,” or “rational Christianity”—are inadequate because they imply that these founders were Christians. These founders, however, rejected “every fundamental doctrine of Christianity as it was understood in their day,” most notably the deity and atonement of Christ.
Frazer presents hundreds of examples from the writings of key founders and framers to support his argument that they espoused theistic rationalism. The term deserves to become widely accepted in both scholarly and public discourse because it effectively explains the convictions and political ideology of these prominent Americans and so sheds light on the kind of nation they sought to create.
Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College and is a fellow for faith and the presidency with the Center for Vision & Values. He is the author of Faith and the Presidency from George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press) and Heaven in the American Imagination (Oxford University Press).
Posted: July 8, 2012
The Character of Our Constitution
Volume 38, Number 1 (Spring 1998)