What were the religious beliefs of the founding fathers? That question is at the heart of many of the most contentious debates about the role of religion in the American public square. Countless arguments are centered on claims that the founders were either God-fearing Christians or Deistically-inclined secularists.
But while historical documents are often mined for justifying quotes, few people bother to muster historical evidence to shore up their claims with the necessary academic rigor.
David L. Holmes, a professor of religious studies at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, provides a useful methodology for examining the relevant evidence in his book, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. Holmes offers four types of evidence that can help us discern whether a Revolutionary-era political leader was a Deist, an orthodox Christian, or something in between:
1. Examine the actions of the founding father in the area of religion (e.g., Did they attend church regularly?).
2. Examine the participation of the founding father in a church’s ordinances or sacraments (e.g., Did they have their children baptized? Did they take Holy Communion?).
3. Comparison of inactivity versus activity in regards to religious involvement.
4. Examine the religious language used by the founding father.
Using these criteria, Holmes claims that the religious beliefs of the founding fathers can be broadly classified as: Non-Christian Deists who rejected all sacraments and rarely attended church services; Deistic Christians/Unitarians who held Deistic beliefs, attended church regularly, but rejected the Lord’s Supper and confirmation; and Orthodox Christians who accepted orthodox Christian beliefs, attended church regularly, and participated in the sacraments and ordinances.
Let us examine Holmes’ four types of evidence in the life of the pre-eminent founding father:
1) Although he was raised in the Anglican Church, Washington was never confirmed.
2) Washington appears to have consistently refused to take Holy Communion, the principle means by which, as Holmes notes, “Anglicans displayed a commitment to Jesus Christ.”
3) Washington was active in the Episcopal Church, serving as both a vestryman and churchwarden. He attended services with some regularity (about once a month). And
4) Washington consistently used Deistic language in reference to God. Although he often used such terms as “the Deity” and “the Supreme Being” in his correspondence he only uses the name Jesus Christ once (in a letter to an Indian tribe)
A careful examination of the evidence would therefore lead us to the conclusion that Washington was, using Holmes taxonomy, a “Deistic Christian.”
Applying the method to other founding fathers, the list could be roughly delineated as:
Non-Christian Deists: Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen.
Deistic Christians/Unitarians: Ben Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe.
Orthodox Christians: Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, John Jay, Elias Boudinot, John Witherspoon.
The leaders during the revolutionary era may have subscribed to a Judeo-Christian view of morality, but few of them were orthodox believers. The majority subscribed to a religious view that we would nowadays classify as Unitarianism. A rejection of Trinitarianism clearly puts one outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity. We should not claim that a historical figure is a Christian when he held heretical views of the central Christian dogma.
However, while we Christians can claim few founding fathers as fellow believers, the atheists and secularists can claim none. Not one of the significant leaders was an atheist, much less subscribed to the modern idea of secularism.
Most—whether they were non-Christian Deists or Deistic Christians—appear to have been held to the classic “five points of Deism”: (1) There is a God; (2) He ought to be worshiped; (3) Virtue is the principle element in this worship; (4) Humans should repent of their sins; and (5) There is life after death, where the evil will be punished and the good rewarded.
The views of the Deistic founding fathers would have been as repugnant to the modern secularist as those of the so-called Religious Right. The founding believers considered belief in a deity to be necessary for good citizenship, believed in intelligent design, had few qualms about establishment of state churches, and took a low view of atheists. They might not pass muster as orthodox Christians, but if they were around today they would be considered theocrats.
Regardless of what was believed at the time of the founding, our country is not a “Christian nation” but rather, as the Baptist theologian Albert Mohler duly notes, “a nation of Christians.” America, he argues, “is not Christian by constitutional provision or creedal affirmation—but its people are overwhelmingly Christian by self-affirmation. Thoughtful evangelicals will not overestimate the convictional character of this self-identification. Secularists ought not to overestimate its superficiality.”
In an age when even believers are hostile to religiously-informed public philosophy, it’s understandable that traditionalists would turn to the past as an example. But such an effort is likely to be as unproductive as it is unpersuasive. If Christians wish to build a polis informed by Christian convictions—“mere Christendom”—we must the look to the future, thick with possibility, rather than to the thin material left over from our founding.
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things.