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10.25.2005    |    Were the Founders Christian?
This is the CliffsNotes version only. In response to a comment, two citations as to why I think the American founders were Christian. Note: not evangelical as this term is used today, certainly not snake-handlers or talking-in-tongues Pentecostals. Christians, nevertheless.

First source is a review of Michael Novak's "On Two Wings." This, as the Friends (Quakers) say, "speaks my mind":
The U.S. isn't officially Christian, but Novak demonstrates that the men who created it rooted the country conceptually in the Bible. The characterizations of God in the Declaration of Independence derive from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), probably deliberately, because all Christian denominations accepted them. Faith in God was ubiquitous among the founders, who regarded religion as necessary to maintain a just and equitable society. Only a moral (because religious) society would foster responsible citizens; pursuing freedom without religion, individuals would create a chaos of competing self-interests. Finally, the founders' conception of rights derived more from Acquinas than from Enlightenment philosophers. Quoting so often from the founders and their influences that this is practically a documentary history, Novak is compelling on those major propositions and others. He concludes by answering 10 common questions about religion and the founders, and he appends comments on some lesser-known important founders and the Revolution's great fellow traveler, Thomas Paine, who believed in God despite disapproving all the religions he knew. Hard but invaluably informative reading.
The best background to this is to remember that at the time of our Revolution, memories of inter-sectarian Christian persecution were still raw. The founders, with very, very few exceptions, were at least nominal Christians, but clearly did not agree on which sect, if any, should be paramount. Hence the great need to allow all Christian sects but not establish any of them as the official American church. At the time, this was a radical break with precedent. A few years later, Jews and non-believers were also granted official tolerance in the various states.

Second is the thought that there is a bond between an allegedly atheistic (or, at the least, agnostic) Enlightenment philosophy and the "philosophy" of the Christian religion. From an article earlier this year in National Review by Christopher Levenick and Michael Novak:
Every single one of the Founders believed that, at the level of both individual morality and public policy, the demands of reason and of revelation powerfully reinforce one another. They understood that with respect to the ultimate questions — the creation of the universe, the purpose of human existence, and the hope of life after death — faith and philosophy might differ. In the practical world they inhabited, however, the Founders believed that both Socrates and Jesus enjoined their followers to accord all persons truth, justice, and charity.

Indeed, the Founders saw the cultivation of religious sentiment as the ultimate safeguard of American liberty. They knew that liberty could only prosper among moral citizens, whose practice of self-government in their private lives was a necessary prerequisite for its exercise in public. They believed that even if it were possible for certain individuals to behave morally without believing in God, on the whole an entire citizenry could not long keep its moral bearings without the guidance of religious faith.

This conviction permeates their public and private writings. George Washington placed it at the heart of his Farewell Address, in which he advised the nation that of "all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men & citizens." Indeed, he continued, "reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."
There is no doubt as to what "Religion" Mr. Washington spoke of -- a Christian faith.

It is certainly possible to cherry-pick quotations from the various founders, and thereby use them to dispute things. George Washington was a nominal Episcopalian. John Adams became a Unitarian. Thomas Jefferson so disliked the idea of miracles that he personally edited them out of the Gospels. And so it goes, proving nothing. The proof is in stepping back from the dots that make up the pointillist canvas so one may see it whole.

The founders adhered to what I'd call a Christian worldview. One that did not allow for any single church to be established. One that tolerated all viewpoints. But one that bound our Constitution, our laws, and our national sense of what is honorable and right, as against what is vile and wrong, to the Scriptures.

Last point, just got to demonstrate our innate Baptist contrariness. Just because we were founded by Christians with a Christian worldview certainly does not mean we adhere to that. As an early Baptist, Roger Williams said, "If this were a Christian nation, then why are so few Americans Christians?"

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9 Comments:

Blogger franky said...

If I may draw your attention to one such "Treaty of Peace and Friendship" signed by James Madison that states in Article 11:
"the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion"
I believe that "speaks my mind"

11:57 AM, October 25, 2005  
Blogger The Un-Apologetic Atheist said...

I'd prefer to draw attention to the writing that most would argue kicked off the entire idea of revolution in the colonies: the pamphlet "Common Sense", by Thomas Paine. In his longer work, "The Age of Reason", he opined:

"I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church. All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit. ... Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all."

Despite the claim of this blog, Washington never once declared himself a Christian in any sense of the word, either. Many of the Fathers paid lip-service to the idea of religious traditions in society as was common in that day, but in private exchanges revealed at the very least a STRONG skepticism for revealed religions (such as Christainity or Islam) altogether.

Thomas Jefferson, third President and author of the Declaration of Independence, said "I trust that there is not a young man how living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian."

Now, I'm not sure how you define Unitarians and Deists in your own mind, John Luke, but I suggest you look it up, because the statement "The founders adhered to what I'd call a Christian worldview. ... one that bound our Constitution, our laws, and our national sense of what is honorable and right, as against what is vile and wrong, to the Scriptures." is absolutely and utterly false in every sense. I am appalled you would even try to make such a claim!

You can certainly claim that most of our FF's were religious, but to claim that they followed Christian scriptures as foundational to our nation in any way is absolutely absurd. As our 4th President and father of the Constitution once said, "During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution." Hardly a nice thing to say for one who "adhered to what I'd call a Christian worldview", wouldn't you say?

12:39 PM, October 25, 2005  
Blogger Aaron Kinney said...

Sorry John Luke. But George Washington WAS NOT A FOUNDING FATHER!

If you cant get this basic fact straight, then you are in serious trouble.

Thomas Paine was a deist. So was Jefferson. So was Adams. So was Franklin. They were all founding fathers (unlike Washington) and they were all deists. That means that they didnt even believe in a God in the was Christianity defines it.

Do you even know what a deist really is? As far as your Xtian superstition is concerned, a deist might as well be an atheist.

The only thing you accomplished with this post is shown that America was NOT in ANY WAY founded of Christians, by Christians, or for Christians.

1:07 PM, October 25, 2005  
Blogger Aaron Kinney said...

LOL I still cant get over the fact that you claimed Washington to be a founding father.

1:10 PM, October 25, 2005  
Anonymous John Luke said...

Hmm. Someone seems to think that George Washington wasn't one of the founders. Most interesting. May want to check out one of the men the historian Joseph Ellis lumped with TJ, Ben, and the rest...in his book, "Founding Brothers." Guess Mr. Ellis is also confused.

6:01 PM, October 25, 2005  
Blogger The Un-Apologetic Atheist said...

I hate to say it, Aaron, but as far as I can tell John Luke is right on this one (though that book cover hardly proves it). George Washington is listed as one of the signers of the Constitution. At the very least, he was one of the first four Presidents, considering I had just cited the opinions of two of them, above, so his opinion is at least relevant to the conversation AS if he were a FF, even if he had not been one.

The issue still remains about a dangerous, revisionist confusion of Deists or Unitarians with Christians-- the modern assumption by Christians being that any pious and highly-moral person using the term "God" simply *must* be Christian, as we saw with his assertion about Washington. Unfortunately, that is simply not true by definition of both Deist and Unitarian, not to mention the quotations from the most prominent members of the constitutuion's writing crew that indicate more than a passing skepticism, if not utter rejection, regarding the entire doctrine of eternal soul salvation via Yeshua ben Yosef (aka Christianity).

Many modern Christian theologians (such as Novak) like to overlook this clear and important distinction. In the sense that the Unitarians and Deists both reject the idea of revealed, inerrant scriptures, a modern evangelical Christian is FAR FAR closer to Osama bin Laden than they are to the Founding Fathers in belief. Saying the words "God" and "morality" no more make them Christian than Osama's use of the same words.

6:23 PM, October 25, 2005  
Blogger breakerslion said...

A majority of the Continentals of the revolutionary period were church members. Even as late as the 1920's, if you did not belong to a church or a lodge, you were deemed "strange". This is not all that relevant to the modern world, and it is not even something that one can make assumptions about. Many citizens had their tongues firmly in cheek as they went to church, as they do to this day. It's kind of akin to the Gays that are in the closet. Mark Twain commented about the people of his day that were only Christians on Sunday. You may contend that there were no atheists in foxholes, but I have read first-hand accounts of several wars that suggest that there was no lack of disbelief in "god's plan" either.

The foundation of the Declaration of Independence can be found in the writings of John Locke, not Jesus, the desciples, or Thomas Aquinas. To my way of thinking, there are many religious people that contributed to the advancement of modern society. The difference in our points of view can be expressed simply: I believe that they were laboring under a handicap.

9:32 PM, October 25, 2005  
Anonymous Tanooki Joe said...

Finally, the founders' conception of rights derived more from Acquinas than from Enlightenment philosophers.

Well, Aquinas got more from Aristotle then he did from the Bible, if you ask me...

Anyways, this whole "the government is founded on the Bible" argument is just nonsense. Where, anywhere, in the Bible are the ideas that form the basis of the modern democratic state? Nowhere. The ideas stem more from Locke, Montiesque, Hume, classical writers, etc. than any religious source.

10:14 PM, October 26, 2005  
Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

What was distinctive to Aquinas from people like Augustine came mostly from Aristotle. Aquinas had far more in common with Augustine than he did with Aristotle, in the final analysis. Except for some technical points in complex philosophical issues, they both stand against people like Plato and Aristotle on most issues people nowadays would care about.

I think both sides of this debate are wrong. Those who want all the founding fathers to have been Christian are just wrong. Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams were clearly not Christians as I understand Christianity. Those who say the opposite, that most of the founding fathers weren't Christians, are just as historically inaccurate. Most of the signers of the Constitution were, as I understand it, what we now call evangelical Christians. It's just that the most influential people involved in the process weren't.

Jefferson was clearly theistic, however. He was not a deist in the sense that Antony Flew now is. He didn't believe in miracles, but that's because he believed God was behind everything that takes place naturally and could work just as well by using the laws of nature. He did believe God was the basis of ethics, and he did believe God was the basis of rights. He got this directly from John Locke, who I don't consider a genuine Christian. Locke denied the divinity of Christ. Locke certainly did believe in a God active in the universe, however, and I think Jefferson did too. It just wasn't one who believed in what Christians believe about miracles.

10:14 PM, October 28, 2005  

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About this site and the author

Welcome. My name is John Luke Rich, (very) struggling Christian. The focus here is Christianity in its many varieties, its fussing and feuding, how it impacts our lives and our society, with detours to consider it with other faiths (or lack thereof).

Call this blog my way of evangelizing on the internet.

Putting it differently, we're only here on this earth a short time. It's the rest of eternity that we should be most concerned about. Call it the care and feeding of our souls.

I was born Jewish, and born again in Christ Jesus over thirty years ago. First as a Roman Catholic; now a Calvinist by persuasion and a Baptist by denomination. But I'm hardly a poster boy for doctrinal rigidity.

I believe that Scripture is the rock on which all Christian churches must stand -- or sink if they are not so grounded. I believe that we are saved by faith, but hardly in a vacuum. That faith is a gift from God, through no agency on our part -- although we sometimes turn a deaf ear and choose to ignore God's knocking on the door.

To be Christian is to evangelize. Those who think it not their part to evangelize perhaps haven't truly understood what our Lord told us in Matthew 28. We must preach the Gospel as best we are able. Using words if necessary.

Though my faith waxes and wanes, it never seems to go away. Sometimes I wish it would, to give me some peace of mind. But then, Jesus never said that walking with Him was going to be easy...

Final note: I also blog as Jack Rich on cultural, political and other things over at Wrong Side of the Tracks

Thanks for stopping by.