As I write on the eve of the 237th anniversary of American independence, I thought I would take part of July to write on the Christianity and the birth of our republic. Let us start with the religion of the founding fathers. Too much has been written on the “Christian” origins of this great nation of ours and while there are some definite truths to this, we need to be careful we don’t take it too far; unfortunately it has been at times. It is important and practical to make sure the true story is told. I hope in the following posts to do just that.
The founding fathers were a mixed lot, religiously speaking. They were generally Protestant. Some of them were quite orthodox Christians in Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Congregationalist, Quaker, or Baptist persuasion. But others, like Thomas Jefferson, were the exact opposite, if they were to be judged by the standards of Christian orthodoxy. Jefferson did not believe in miracles or the deity of Jesus Christ. Roman Catholic, Jewish, or other religious convictions had little influence in early America.
But whatever we can say about the religious convictions of the Founding Fathers, there was another spirit that brought them together in the founding of the republic. This spirit arose from the humanism of the Renaissance which gave birth to seventeenth-century rationalism and to the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Without doubt, this was a religious spirit but the religion it inspired was a human-centered moral philosophy rather than a God-centered life of dependence upon God through his revelation. Majority of the founders gave evidence of the inner struggle between these dual spirits in their lives.
On the one hand, orthodox and even some unorthodox Christians expressed a traditional private piety that would include prayer, church attendance, Bible reading, and testimony of personal faith in God. On the other hand, though, the quest for a stable and enduring political order on the part of these same men was being directed by the conviction that a common moral philosophy rooted simply in human reason could give the foundation for public community. The religion of our Founding Fathers was a synthesis of these two faiths.
Franklin, for example, valued the influence of Christian churches, but had no use for a Philadelphia minister whose goal was “to make good Presbyterians rather than good citizens.” And George Washington, for all of his moral conviction, referred to God with language that was drawn more from nature and reason than from the Bible. This country’s father referred to God as Supreme Being, Providence, Grand Architect, Higher Cause, Great Ruler of Events, Great Creator, Supreme Ruler and Director of Human Events.
The author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, is perhaps the best example of this common duality. His public philosophy (his religion) became the majority conviction that shaped the basic structure of American public life. To Jefferson, God was the benevolent Creator who preserves people in this life and judges them according to their moral worth and good deeds; not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; not the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; not the Lord and Sustainer of the Universe…..indeed a far cry from the God we find and know from the sacred scriptures.
Jefferson advised his nephew, Peter Carr, to read the Bible to see if it stood the rational and moral test for truth. In a letter dated August 10, 1787, he wrote, “Do not be frightened from this inquiry. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel” in the exercise of virtue and “in the love of others which it will procure you.” But, on the other hand, if this leads to the belief that there is a God, then that faith will give you additional comfort and motivation.
So for Jefferson the existence and identity of God was of only secondary importance. The primary concern for anyone was to find motivations to live a virtuous and moral life, whether that included the God of the Bible or not. God was only important if he was useful towards human virtue.
This great human-centered moral philosophy, which served as the commonly held religion of this nation’s Founding Fathers, was not primarily concerned with private morality, but more for a public moral philosophy oriented towards the good of the society. To them, life was duty and the moral duty was to serve the society in which one lived. This was rooted in the classical Roman philosophy of Stoicism, particularly expressed by Cicero.
In sum, Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, and the other leading revolutionaries were “Deists,” who believed in a rational form of Christianity. They abandoned those parts of the Christian faith that were seen as irrational, but retained faith in a creator God since they thought it would be unreasonable to think that such an incredible universe appeared without an intelligent designer. They believed in a created moral order, reflecting the wisdom of the Supreme Being and necessary for the practical ordering of society. They greatly admired the moral teachings of Jesus, but did not think him to be God Incarnate.
Perhaps the most important result of the religion of public morality was its victorious influence over orthodox, evangelical Christianity in the public square. It helped establish a civil religion in the United States as the newly born republic and the public faith matured. Evangelical Christians held on dearly to their doctrines and churches as matters of private faith. But at the same time, however, they came to accept a great deal of Jeffersonian public philosophy, seeing it as a good secular basis for a common public life. What these orthodox believers failed to recognize was that this new public philosophy was an all embracing religion, one that continues to dominate the republic, even among Christians. As Sidney Meade puts it, the United States of America is a “nation with the soul of a church.” Or as George Marsden writes, “The United States is both remarkably religious and remarkably secular.”