Not since the medieval church baptized Aristotle as some sort of early — very early — church father has there been an intellectual hijacking as audacious as the attempt to present America’s principal founders as devout Christians. Such an attempt is now in high gear among people who argue that the founders were kindred spirits with today’s evangelicals, and that they founded a “Christian nation.”
I am used to arguments like this from liberals, but it is refreshing to read this from a true right winger. Many modern arguments about our founders' religious beliefs are built more on sanctimony than they are on research, and this book seems to give the lie to many modern conceptions of our early history. To wit:
Her thesis is that the six most important founders — Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton — subscribed, in different ways, to the watery and undemanding Enlightenment faith called deism. That doctrine appealed to rationalists by being explanatory but not inciting: it made the universe intelligible without arousing dangerous zeal.
Eighteenth-century deists believed there was a God but, tellingly, they frequently preferred synonyms for him — “Almighty Being” or “Divine Author” (Washington) or “a Superior Agent” (Jefferson). Having set the universe in motion like a clockmaker, Providence might reward and punish, perhaps in the hereafter, but does not intervene promiscuously in human affairs. (Washington did see “the hand of Providence” in the result of the Revolutionary War.) Deists rejected the Incarnation, hence the divinity of Jesus. “Christian deist” is an oxymoron.
Allen’s challenge is to square the six founders’ often pious public words and behavior with her conviction that their real beliefs placed all six far from Christianity. Her conviction is well documented, exuberantly argued and quite persuasive.
When Franklin was given some books written to refute deism, the deists’ arguments “appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough deist.” Revelation “had indeed no weight with me.” He believed in a creator and the immortality of the soul, but considered these “the essentials of every religion.”
What Allen calls Washington’s “famous gift of silence” was particularly employed regarding religion. But his behavior spoke. He would not kneel to pray, and when his pastor rebuked him for setting a bad example by leaving services before communion, Washington mended his ways in his austere manner: he stayed away from church on communion Sundays. He acknowledged Christianity’s “benign influence” on society, but no ministers were present and no prayers were uttered as he died a Stoic’s death.
Adams declared that “phylosophy looks with an impartial Eye on all terrestrial religions,” and told a correspondent that if they had been on Mount Sinai with Moses and had been told the doctrine of the Trinity, “We might not have had courage to deny it, but We could not have believed it.” It is true that the longer he lived, the shorter grew his creed, and in the end his creed was Unitarianism.
Jefferson, writing as a laconic utilitarian, urged his nephew to inquire into the truthfulness of Christianity without fear of consequences: “If it ends in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comforts and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you.”
Madison, always common-sensical, briskly explained — essentially, explained away — religion as an innate appetite: “The mind prefers at once the idea of a self-existing cause to that of an infinite series of cause & effect.” When Congress hired a chaplain, he said “it was not with my approbation.”
In 1781, the Articles of Confederation acknowledged “the Great Governor of the World,” but six years later the Constitution made no mention of God. When Hamilton was asked why, he jauntily said, “We forgot.” Ten years after the Constitutional Convention, the Senate unanimously ratified a treaty with Islamic Tripoli that declared the United States government “is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”...
In 1953, the year before “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared July 4 a day of “penance and prayer.” That day he fished in the morning, golfed in the afternoon and played bridge in the evening. Allen and others who fret about a possibly theocratic future can take comfort from the fact that America’s public piety is more frequently avowed than constraining.