The Founders: How Christian Were They?

One of today’s most contentious culture wars is over the religious commitments of our nation’s founders. Were most of them orthodox Christians, deists, or agnostics? Scholarly books, college classes, radio talk shows, and blogs all debate this issue, and the Texas Board of Education recently joined the fray. Because of Texas’ large number of students, its huge educational fund, and its statewide curriculum guidelines, this board strongly influences what textbooks are published in the United States. Last month the board reviewed the state’s social studies curriculum, and its conservative Christian members injected more analysis of religion into the guidelines, including assessment of whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation and how Christian were the founders.

This issue is so heated that it was the subject of an extensive article in the most recent New York Times Magazine, titled, “How Christian Were the Founders?”

Conservative Christian authors such as David Barton, Peter Marshall Jr., and Tim LaHaye contend that most of the founders were devout Christians who sought to establish a Christian nation. Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore in “The Godless Constitution” and Brooke Allen in “Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers” counter that very few founders were orthodox Christians. They and others often generalize from famous founders, such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Thomas Paine, to argue that most founders were deists who wanted strict separation of church and state.

The truth lies between these two positions. Almost every major founder belonged to a Christian congregation, although a sizable number of them were not committed Christians whose faith strongly influenced their political philosophy and actions. Two recent books edited by Daniel Dreisbach, Jeffry Morrison, and Mark David Hall—“The Founders on God and Government” and “The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life”—carefully explained the religious backgrounds, convictions, and contributions of numerous founders. They show that many who played leading roles in the nation’s Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress, and the devising and ratification of the Constitution were devout Christians, as evident in their church attendance, commitment to prayer and Bible reading, belief in God’s direction of earthly affairs, and conduct. Among others, these books discuss John Witherspoon, James Wilson, Samuel Adams, George Mason, Oliver Ellsworth, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Benjamin Rush, and Roger Sherman. A third book, which is currently being written, will explain how the faith of Congregationalist John Hancock, Quaker John Dickinson, Presbyterian Elias Boudinot, and Episcopalian Charles Pinckney, and others helped shape their political views, policies, and practice. Abigail Adams and Catholics Charles Carroll, Daniel Carroll, and John Carroll also were dedicated Christians. Moreover, Jay, Boudinot, Pinckney, and numerous other founders served as officers of the American Bible Society.

Even many of those often labeled as deists—Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Alexander Hamilton—do not fit the standard definition of deism, which asserts that after creating the world, God has had no more involvement with it. Deism views God as a transcendent first cause who is not immanent, triune, fully personal, or sovereign over human affairs. All of these founders, however, repeatedly discussed God’s providence and frequently affirmed the value of prayer. Their conviction that God intervened in human affairs and directed history has led some scholars to call these founders “warm” or “enlightened” deists, but these terms seem like oxymorons. A better label for their position is theistic rationalism. As Professor Gregg Frazer explains, this hybrid belief system combines elements of “natural religion, Protestant Christianity, and rationalism—with rationalism as the controlling element.” Those espousing this perspective believed in a powerful, benevolent Creator who established the laws by which the universe operates. They also believed that God answered prayer, that people best served Him by living a moral life, and that individuals would be rewarded or punished in the afterlife based on their earthly deeds. Only a few founders, most notably Thomas Paine and Ethan Allan, can properly be called deists.

Despite their theological differences, virtually all the founders maintained that morality depended on religion (which for them meant Christianity). They were convinced that their new republic could succeed only if its citizens were virtuous. For both ideological and pragmatic reasons, the founders opposed establishing one denomination as a national church. However, they provided public support of Christianity through various means, including establishing Christian denominations at the state level, passing state laws restricting public office holding to Christians and punishing blasphemy, issuing proclamations of thanksgiving to God and calls for fasting, using federal money to finance missions to Indians, and permitting Christian congregations to use governmental facilities, both at the state and federal level, for their worship services.

While we must be careful not to overstate the role of religion in the founding of our nation and the Christian convictions of the founders in textbooks or public discourse, the tendency in many scholarly circles has been to ignore or discount these matters. The battle over how Christian the founders were is likely to continue in Texas and across the country. Fortunately, meticulous scholarship is providing a much more accurate picture of the founders’ religious commitments.

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