Jon Rowe has another excellent essay on the role of religion among the founding fathers. He draws on an op-ed piece by Mark Lilla in the NY Times on the same subject. Lilla rightly hammers the “schlock history written by religious propagandists like David Barton” while pointing to more serious scholarly efforts at defining the role of religion among the founders. Rowe quotes this from Lilla:
What distinguished thinkers like David Hume and John Adams from their French [Enlightenment] counterparts was not their ultimate aims; it was their understanding of religious psychology. The British and Americans made two wagers. The first was that religious sects, if they were guaranteed liberty, would grow attached to liberal democracy and obey its norms. The second was that entering the public square would liberalize them doctrinally, that they would become less credulous and dogmatic, more sober and rational.
It should be said that there is sometimes as much schlock history in this regard coming from the skeptic’s side as from the religious side. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people claim that all of the founding fathers were just deists, which simply is not true or even close to being true. Some of the leading lights had obviously deistic leanings, to be sure, but most of the men who signed the Declaration and wrote the Constitution were more or less orthodox Christians. Some scholars have argued that the entire founding should be viewed as a compromise or series of compromises between these two groups. And I think Jon is right to point out the delicate balance that had to be struck, and the age old combination of Athens and Jerusalem that was involved and how it changed the church:
In many ways the tenets of liberal democracy took a great deal of power away from Churches [at least the dominant ones] and worked to quell the religious passions of the populace quite a bit. But on the other hand, the founders thought that religion was good for morality and a religious citizenry was superior to an irreligious one. The Founders attempted to thread the needed between our Constitutional order (the theory of modern politics and liberal democracy) which was derived not from the Bible but rather reason and philosophy, and the Christian religion itself by arguing that Christianity, properly understood, is wholly compatible with liberal democracy…
And while it’s true that the liberal Protestantism of the Founding era — highly influenced by deism and unitarianism, and which rejected many traditional Christian orthodoxies — was compatible with political liberalism, it’s also true that some very fundamentalistic, evangelical strains of Christianity were compatible with political liberalism as well. Roger Williams and the Baptists were as fundamentalist as it gets. They believed in keeping religion so absolutely pure from corrupt worldly influences that religion and civil government be kept as distinct from one another as possible. The notion of any civil government — a worldly institution comprised of fallen men — as a “Christian” entity was, to Williams, downright blasphemous.
Jefferson and Madison, of course, believed in the more theologically liberal deistic-unitarian “natural” religion, but they seemed to be keenly aware of this evangelical strain of dissident Protestants who desired to keep their religion pure from worldly influences and in fact, often played up on those sentiments, when making their arguments (Madison especially talked about keeping religion & government separate as to preserve the “purity” of both).
He goes on to examine the views of John Adams in particular, and how his views are distorted by the Bartons of the world. Well worth reading.