When I was teaching my children history we went beyond history textbooks to read some original writings of America’s founders. One observation that took me by surprise was the vagueness of their references to Jesus, God, and Christian faith. I had always thought these men were Christians, but from what I read they didn’t sound like Christians, not even like the Christians of their own day. More recently, I was glad to discover a book that deals with those inconsistencies.
How is it that many claim that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were deists and yet both men encouraged prayer and wrote of a God personally involved in current events? How is that some people claim that George Washington was a Christian and yet he refused to profess faith in Christ, crossed Jesus’ name out of speeches written for him, would not kneel for prayer with his congregation and pointedly refused to ever take communion? How is it that many founders can be called both deists and Christians and yet not exactly fit either category?
Gregg Frazer tackles these questions in his book The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, and Revolution. Mr. Frazer is professor of history and political studies at The Master’s University. He suggests a third option–theistic rationalism. Frazer arrived at his third option by searching for the founders’ real beliefs in their private writings more than in what they wrote for public consumption. In his book, he focuses on the eight most influential founders. He says they weren’t deists because they believed that God was involved in present events. Neither were they Christians because they rejected the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and other doctrines central to Christianity. Instead, they were rationalists; they believed that reason was the highest arbiter of what is true.
“Your reason is the only oracle given you by heaven” – Thomas Jefferson (125)
“The Scriptures…do not supersede the operations of reason” – James Wilson, one of four key framers of the Constitution (164)
What is theistic rationalism?
Theistic rationalism is a “hybrid belief system mixing elements of natural religion, Christianity, and rationalism, with rationalism as the predominant element” (14). For the founders, while believing in God (theistic), any Christian ideas that did not seem reasonable could be rejected and God could be defined as seemed reasonable to the individual (rationalism).
Key clergymen were on board with the primacy of rationalism. Chapter 2 reviews the religious beliefs of those clergymen who most strongly influenced the founders and promoted the Revolution. For example, one of the divines who most influenced Thomas Jefferson was Joseph Priestley. Priestley was unitarian and rejected the deity of Christ and the Trinity.
Didn’t the founders promote Christianity?
The founders promoted religion. Why? They knew that for their system of government to work it needed a moral people. “Morality was needed to get men to live in civil fashion without coercion in a free society; and religion was the best source of morality” (179). Any religion that promoted good morals would do.
The founders could sound like Christians while rejecting Christ. How? They consistently referred to God in generic terms–Creator, Divinity, Providence, Author–not Christian terms–Christ, Jesus, the Holy Spirit. Why be vague? Why did they not speak like the committed Christians we’ve been told they were? Generic God-words are interpretable, maleable. Enlightenment ideas sandwiched between God-words could be fed to the church-going masses without offense to most denominations and religions.
How did they get past Romans 13?
Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 stood as sentinels against the rebellion of the American colonials. Romans 13:1-2 says,
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.
The revolutionary clergy shot the sentinels. Turning that passage on its head, they preached that Paul advocated a duty to resist tyrants. How did they arrive at the opposite of what the passage clearly says? Pages 66-67 in chapter 2 walk the reader through Boston pastor Jonathan Mayhew’s application of human reason to Romans 13.
Chapter 3 explains how it came about that, in the mid-1700s, pastors of the era shifted away from use of the Bible as their primary source and instead incorporated Lockean Enlightenment political philosophy into their sermons. Turning from Calvinism, they taught enlightenment ideas as though they were Bible-based principles, ideas like natural law, natural rights, government by consent of the governed, and accountability of rulers to the people. They persuaded their congregations that rebellion to tyranny was a Christian duty. Frazer quotes Michael Zuckert on the political function of using Scripture to undergird the teachings of rationalism:
…the higher or more intense authority of religion now stands behind the cool rationalism of Locke. There can be little doubt that the enlistment of St. Paul in Locke’s army had much to do with the fervor Americans of the revolutionary era brought to the political conflicts of the day. (231)
What did the top eight key founders believe?
In chapters 4-7, Frazer analyzes eight of the most influential founders in depth. For example, he shows why he categorizes John Adams as a theistic rationalist rather than a Christian, and Benjamin Franklin as a theistic rationalist rather than a deist. A surprise to me is Alexander Hamilton. I had never heard that late in life Hamilton apparently repented to faith in Christ and one of the changes was that his terms for God and salvation shifted from vague and generic to specific and biblical.
In the final chapter, Frazer answers, so what? He explains the ramifications of theistic rationalism on our founding documents and American civil religion. Is patriotism part of Christian piety? (Implication: Should a U. S. flag stand in our church auditoriums?) Is the language of the Declaration of Independence Christian? Did the freedom of religion in the Constitution originate in Christianity?
You may believe that the founding fathers of the United States were mostly Christians and that this country was founded on Christian principles. You may believe they were mostly deists and that our founding was built on natural religion and Enlightenment rationalism. You may have been taught a Christian founding but felt confused by the founders own writings and inconsistencies between founding documents and the Bible. No matter what your persuasion, as a part of education on U.S. history, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders ought to be required reading for all adults and high school students.