Jon Rowe on Religion and the Founders

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.

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' 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.'

Of course not all, but some. Including many important lights. In any event what the founding fathers were or were not is really beside the point. It's how what they wrote is interpretted today that matters, otherwise you just end up with an argument from authority.

' but most of the men who signed the Declaration and wrote the Constitution were more or less orthodox Christians.'

Orthodox Christian? what is that? Baptist, Catholic, Methodist? I think everyone needs to remember that the politicians then are no different than now, some bright, some not. Asking what the body of them believed is revelant to a point, but no more so than asking what our congress believes today.

I'm a blockhead of an historian, but can anyone name one "irreligious" society in the history of the planet of which the Founders would have been aware?

Or by irreligious do you mean non-Christian?


I think that point is made -- that they didn't want an "irreligous" soceity -- to distinguish the American Revolution from the French Revolution. The Founders did, however, want "religion" to be taken out of politics and consigned to the realm of "opinion."

One of the "problems" with the discourse surrounding these issues is a general confusion, which Rowe addresses to some degree, about the differing theological constructs that represent the plethora of Christian sects. The fundamentalism and evangelicalism of the last hundred, to one hundred-fifty or so years, is really quite different than even the Puritanical doctrines of the early colonists, and especially the Episcopalianism of most of the Virginia Founders. Christian sectarian theologies are evolving and changing, some to more literal deterministic manifestions, some to liberalized progressive forms. The excommunication of Liberation Theologists under Cardinal Ratzinger represents the struggles within the "longest" running christian sect. Barton and his ilk capitalize on these misunderstandings and lack of an informed and knowledgeable public. We, as activists, need to make every effort to approach the issues with open minds and the willingness to learn as much as we can.