Feb 17, 2013
It seems like sometimes half of America wants to prove that the Founding Fathers were Deists, agnostics, skeptics, and dismissive of churches and organized religion. It is not the case. However, it might be closer to the truth than what many Christians, well-meaning as they must be, believe – that, virtually to a man, the Founders were fervent Christians of today’s evangelical stripe.
In their zeal these Christians do an injustice to history, and to the integrity of Christian scholarship. I am specifically referring to those people, some famously, who tattoo contemporary styles of worship and expressions of faith onto their profiles and descriptions of America’s Founding Fathers. Now, this is a blog post – at its most ambitious, an essay – not a PhD thesis. But my training, and most of the 70+ books I have written, is as a historian. As a Christian as well, I am quite comfortable to concede that many of the Founding Fathers, and more than a few presidents, have not been Christians in today’s born-again, evangelical, missions-minded, revivalist mode.
Does this mean we have been lied to… that America is NOT a Christian nation? The Supreme Court declared us so in 1892, specifically recognizing foundations, social contracts, and traditions. Of course, the Court’s opinion did not exclude other religions or deny their freedom to worship. No: Let us be honest on this Presidents Day, in all ways.
The vast majority of the Founders were Bible believers. And the New Testament was part of their Bibles. In an age when religious profession was rather private, public figures did not speak so often of their personal faiths. Jesus frequently was quoted, and honest readings of the Founders’ words leave the impression that it was taken for granted that Jesus was the Son of God, and that His words were those of the One True God.
It is a fact that the virgin birth, and miracles, were among the spiritual topics little talked about; but that largely was the case with clergy as well. Christianity was practiced somewhat differently then. Mysteries were regarded as mysteries, rather than take-offs for parsing and exegesis.
The Bible was not a mystery, in its sum, however. Children were named for biblical figures; biblical allusions were frequently framed; and – most important as we think of the Founders, and honor presidents at this time – the Bible was universally acknowledged as the best roadmap and blueprint for men building and governing a society.
Secularists among us cite that, say, Washington seldom attended church, or that Jefferson invented the phrase “separation of church and state,” and then build a doctrine on such things. This is worse than nit-picking. At best it is a foolish means of discussing history (worse than schismatics who build theological doctrine on one out-of-context Bible verse). But at worst – and this is what goes on these days – it distorts history in order to further the evil, destructive goals of self-loathing Americans. There dwell among us people who loathe our heritage also, and would be quite happy to see the American temple brought down to rubble.
“Foes of our own household,” the Bible calls such people. Naïve Christians and patriots are too quick to give these cancerous domestic enemies the benefit of every doubt.
The Lord knows, we don’t, why Washington seldom went to a church. But he prayed, and he invoked God’s blessing, and he publicly sought God’s guidance. Jefferson (after he was president and in a private letter) described the Constitutional safeguard against a state-funded denomination as “the wall of separation.” Among frank references to God through the years, Jefferson bestowed the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, not from hostility to God, but in respect to His worshipers and their consciences. So few Founders were hostile to Christianity, or even neutral, that Theodore Roosevelt (also a professional historian) singled out Thomas Paine as a “filthy little atheist.” That is, no signer of the Declaration or the Constitution could be similarly characterized, even politely. Yet John Quincy Adams was an early Unitarian, as was William Howard Taft almost a century later. Not everyone in America’s pantheon regarded Christ as God.
One of the few shortcomings of the movie “Lincoln,” to me, was that the portrayal of the final months of the president’s life did not fully reflect his increasing, almost daily, references to God, speeches about God’s will, conversational mentions of God’s role in life; and his growing reliance on God. But this spiritual evolution is a fact, in his hand and in the memoirs of his intimates. This supposed church-rejecting agnostic could have been our most devout believer among presidents.
But let us not forget that the Founders, whether they went to church often or seldom, or how they expressed their creeds, were, almost to a man, zealous about following the spirit of Holy scripture, and honoring biblical injunctions about governments and societies. About this they were clear and firm.
And let the presidents of our time not forget that the vast majority of pilgrims, pioneers, settlers, preachers, revolutionaries, civic leaders, and, yes, their predecessors, no matter the details of their religious exercise, looked to the Bible and to the words of Jesus Christ as they built a nation.
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I just experienced – there is no better word – a concert by Phil Keaggy. Many people consider him the greatest guitarist in the world; and if he is not… no, he is. His career has been one sharing his talent, performing and writing songs of tender love, of confronting life’s challenges, and of the overcoming power of God’s love. A song of collateral relation to today’s topic, although not a direct reference to presidents per se, is “True Believers.” We need True Believers, we should savor them, we should be them. (And we should elect them!)
Click: The True Believers