The Truth About Religion in America: The Founders Loathed Superstition and We Were Never a Christian Nation
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Christian Founding Fathers
Since colonial and early republic Christians were no more uniform in belief than today’s Christians are, we can dismiss the claim that the United States was intended to be Christian because the general population at the time of independence was Christian. But what about the position that the leaders in the struggle for independence—names that every American kid immediately recognizes—were Christian and intended the republic to reflect their religious convictions? This is the argument to which the Christian Right most commonly appeals. Marshall, Barton, and Dunbar champion it with gusto, as do dozens of other evangelical authors such as John Eidsmore ( Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of Our Founding Fathers, 1995); Tim LaHaye of apocalyptic Left Behind series fame ( Faith of Our Founding Fathers, 1994); and Gary DeMar ( America’s Christian Heritage, 2003). As we’ve seen, it’s also received wisdom for a majority of Americans.
The problem, as scholar after scholar has pointed out—how often must it be repeated before the reality breaks through the myth?—is that it simply isn’t true. The Founding Fathers weren’t all Christian. Some, of course, were: Patrick Henry (Episcopalian), John Hancock (Congregationalist), John Jay (Episcopalian), and Sam Adams (Congregationalist), for example, were all devout and pretty conventional Christians. But the big players in the founding of the United States—such men as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and probably Alexander Hamilton—weren’t. Each of them was much more comfortable with a deistic understanding of God than a Christian one. For them, the deity was an impersonal First Cause who created a rationally patterned natural order and who was best worshiped through the exercise of reason and virtue. Most of them may have admired the ethical teachings of Jesus (although Paine conspicuously did not), but all of them loathed and rejected the priestcraft and superstition they associated with Christianity.
Despite this, the Christian Right insists on adopting these men (aside from Paine) as Christian founders. The usual justification is that each of them (again, except Paine) belonged to an established Christian denomination. But as we’ve already seen, formal membership by itself wasn’t then (or now) a fail-safe measure of an individual’s religious beliefs. As David Holmes compellingly argues in his 2006 Faiths of the Founding Fathers, other factors—such as the way in which the founders referred to God, opinions they expressed in personal correspondence, and their involvement in church life—must be considered as well. None of the founders, for example, used conventional Christian language when writing or speaking about God. Instead, the terms they favored— Supreme Architect, Author of Nature, First Cause, Nature’s God, Superattending Power—were unmistakably deistic. (One of the Christian Right’s most telling blind spots is its failure to pick up on the founders’ obviously non-Christian nomenclature.) Another indicator of their lack of conventional Christian commitment is the fact that while all of them had been baptized as infants, an initiation that of course made them nominally Christian, none who were members of denominations that offered the sacrament of Confirmation sought it as adults. Moreover, they generally did not take Communion when it was offered, nor did they typically involve themselves in church activities. Even when they did, it was no clear signal that they were orthodox Christians. George Washington, for example, served on the vestry in several Episcopalian parishes. But he avoided Confirmation and Communion, never used give-away Christian terms such as Lord or Redeemer, and rarely even referred to Jesus by name. Finally, none of them gave the slightest hint in their personal letters or diaries that they considered themselves committed Christians.