A recent article in the New York Times Magazine, titled “How Christian Were the Founders?” has evoked extensive discussion, as has the decision of the Texas State Board of Education to include more religious content in social studies books, which inspired the Times article to begin with. (Click here for my previous article on the subject.) Because of our country’s complex history and its current religious and ideological pluralism, this question has provoked great controversy. Confusion about—and misunderstanding of—the founders’ religious beliefs abound.
Some assert that almost all the founders were evangelical Christians, while others insist that virtually all of them were deists. Some contend that the founders wanted to establish a distinctively Christian nation, and others counter that they strove to create a secular republic. Opponents especially debate the founders’ views on church-state separation.
Sadly, much misinformation is being presented. Consider one example:
A letter in response to the Times article makes misleading claims about both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who powerfully influenced the new nation’s position on the relationship of church and state and religious liberty. Madison, the respondent asserts, complained that for almost 15 centuries, Christianity’s fruits had been “pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution,” suggesting that “the Father of the Constitution” was hostile to Christianity.
What Madison actually said in his famous “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments” (1785) was that “the legal establishment of Christianity” had produced these results. Rather than criticizing Christianity, Madison was calling for its disestablishment because the “duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” Madison, like many other founders, believed that Christianity was much more likely to thrive when it was voluntary. The Virginian argued in his Memorial that Christianity “flourished, not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them, and not only during the period of miraculous aid, but long after it had been left to its own evidence and the ordinary care of Providence.” Moreover, in the 1820s Madison rejoiced that ministers of every denomination were zealously providing religious instruction in Virginia and winning people to Christian faith by “the purity of their lives.”
Garrett Sheldon, author of “The Political Philosophy of James Madison,” contends that Madison’s education, writings, and actions all reveal his Christian worldview. Sheldon, in an essay on Madison in an edited work titled “Religion and the American Presidency” (Columbia University Press, 2009), maintains that Madison’s intellectual life and long public service to his nation were directed by his “firm Christian faith and principles.” These included belief in God’s sovereignty, humanity’s innate sinfulness, pride, and selfishness (which required a government of checks and balances to prevent oppression), and the need for redemption through Christ.
Examining Madison’s education under three Scottish Calvinists—one at a boarding school, a second as a tutor, and the third, John Witherspoon, the president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton)—and his various writings, especially presidential proclamations and addresses, validates Sheldon’s claims. Madison repeatedly thanked God for protecting Americans in the midst of difficulties and trials (most notably the War of 1812) and supplying them with religious and civil “privileges and advantages.”
Second, the respondent to the Times maintains that “Thomas Jefferson compared the story of the virgin birth of Jesus to a Roman fable and prohibited the teaching of religion to undergraduates at the University of Virginia.” It is true that Jefferson repudiated the Christian contention that Jesus was God’s unique Son. On the other hand, he wrote to Benjamin Rush that “I am a Christian in the only sense which I believe Jesus wished any one to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others.” Moreover, Jefferson strove to follow Christ’s ethical teachings in his personal conduct and work as a statesman. Like George Washington, John Adams, and virtually all his successors as president, Jefferson asserted that because religion fostered morality, stability, and social cohesion, it was indispensable to the new nation.
Jefferson’s proposed curriculum for the University of Virginia did exclude biblical and theological studies. Jefferson refused to appoint a professor of divinity at the University of Virginia, but he wanted the professor of ethics to discuss the proofs for God’s existence as the “supreme ruler of the universe [and] the author of all the relations of morality.” He also wanted the institution to provide instruction in “religious opinions” and “duties” because people’s relationship with their Maker and responsibilities were extremely “interesting and important.” Moreover, he hoped that different denominations would establish divinity schools on the perimeter of UVA to enable students to participate in the religious exercises of their faith communities. These provisions would help students espouse Christ’s principal ethical teachings and be virtuous citizens of the new republic.
Unfortunately, incorrect and misleading information about our nation’s founders is plentiful. We must carefully consider the context of the founders’ writings and look carefully at their entire lives to ensure that we properly interpret the intentions and meanings of their statements and actions. This is crucial to accurately assessing their religious beliefs and evaluating to what extent Christianity helped shape the new United States.