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President’s Day: Who Were the True Believers?

2-18-13

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

Category: Christianity, Government, Patriotism

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

10 Responses

  1. Ron says:

    The writer conveniently avoids all of the vitriolic discourse about organized religion among TJ and Adams. I recommend Norman Cousins’ In God We Trust or Forrest Church’s American Creed for a more accurate look at the kind of Christianity they really followed.

  2. Excellent, profound column. Simply superb. Linked to it at my website endtimsetavern.com
    All my best

  3. Seth says:

    I enjoyed the article. However, I think it is important to also add Jefferson’s creation of his own Bible known as “The Morals of Jesus.” He cut up Bibles and pasted together his own, getting rid of all the miracles and even the virgin birth. I think it is best to just say our founders had trouble with faith, as do we. It is not suppose to be easy.

  4. [Reply to “Ron”] Thanks for the response. I have not “conveniently” avoided any subject; that is, if you are imputing intellectual dishonesty. In my piece I announced that I intended not to enter a full-scale debate. But on the other hand it was my purpose to make the point (contrary to a lot of evangelical friends; and — I think — the point you are directing toward me) that many of the Foubnders were not orthodox Christians, certainly by our contemporary standards, and perhaps even by standards of their contemporaries like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. I granted that there was “discourse,” yes, even vitriolic, among presidents and founders. But my point (I apologize if too obscure) was that, despite theological differences, or even flirtations with heresy, these men honored the Bible, quoted Christ, and revered Scripture as a source-book for the building of a nation and the maintenance of a just and well-functioning society.

  5. [Reply to “Seth”] Thank you. Yes, Jefferson’s intellectual curiosity and unorthodoxy are the types of currents to which I alluded, and wanted only to make allusion in my piece. I dissent from my fellows on the Christian right who seem incapable of granting that many of our heroes were not orthodox Christians, viewed through lenses of our day OR their own. a) they still followed biblical principles and precepts, almost (pun intended) religiously — and their relationship to the foundations of American civil society is what we consider on Presidents Day. b) I say again that the early 18th-century expression of Christian faith was different than today’s (in the contemporary Germany, of the Enlightenment, it was more Fundamentalist. Interesting) — so it is tricky to make the Founders into Evangelicals.
    I suspect (just brainstorming — NOT advancing a theological point!) that many believers of the mid-1700s in America regarded Christ a bit like Muslims view Mohammed: a Holy Prophet, speaking the truth, favored of God, and so forth. Virgin birth? Born again experience? “No man gets to the father but by Me…”? I suspect few subscribed in those ways. Yet I am confident I will greet them in Heaven. A question of contexts? Maybe. I will go further out on a limb (brainstorming thinking-points again) (probably suicidal) but I wonder whether an average American Colonist’s view of Christ was similar to what (many Protestants think) is the average Catholic’s view of Mary: chosen of God; Holy; a central part of the Lord’s great plan; but, well (I imagine them asking) it should all be about God Himself, shouldn’t it?
    Now I don’t agree, of course, with these nuances, but I repeat that we cannot fully appreciate the changes, contexts, and, ahem, evolutions in faith and its expressions.
    What a time it was, anyway! The Great Awakening, actually the Second Great Awakening, was also sweeping through American just before the Revolution. The Wesleys… Whitefiled spoke to assembled thousands up and down the East Coast; Franklin reportedly was an avid follower. And on the frontier — then, western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky — there were revival meetings, brush arbor services, even (by all descriptions, no other way to consider them) Pentecostal worship. Theodore Roosevelt, in his multi-voluime “Winning of the West,” describes such pioneer church gatherings. 150 years before Azusa Street!

  6. Fr. John W. Morris, PhD says:

    Although it is true that many of the Founding Fathers were probably deists, they did not reject Christian morality or the importance of religion as providing a moral foundation for society. Instead, they all affirmed traditional Christian moral teachings. What has happened in contemporary American society, it that we have lost what was a consensus on moral issues that existed throughout American history regardless of one’s personal religious beliefs. We have instead accepted a morality based on self-fulfillment and outright hedonism.

  7. Father John, thank you. I agree with you completely, and appreciate the concision that eluded me! Yes, that is the point: they all affirmed traditional Christian moral teachings. In that sense, and from the perspective of world history, before and since, what the Founders did was unique in spiritual terms as well as politically. And equally revolutionary.
    The irony, on President’s Day, is in the comparison of 18th-century America and today. Then, men whose faiths were not as homogenous or similar to each other’s as some would have us think… nevertheless formed a nation, a government built on solid Christian principles, biblical templates. Today, many politicians TALK their faiths and assure everyone of their “Christian beliefs” but nevertheless govern as apostates, heretics, libertines, relativists, and, yes, hedonists. An upside-down world, God help us. A wayward culture, God forgive us.

  8. Joe Monte says:

    History is rife with people quoting the Bible yet when their lives are examined they fall far short. This observation will often elicit the “Well, nobody’s perfect” defense as if that were enough to squelch criticism. The Founding Fathers painted as demigods by some (e.g. Mr. Marshall) were no exception and had a lot in common with today’s politicians – they unevenly used the Scriptures to justify themselves and condemn their opponents (e.g. Mr. Marshall).

    Anyone who thinks America has had a Golden Age at one time in the past is ignorant (perhaps wilfully) of history and human nature. Since when is the Supreme Court of the 19th Century now the final arbiter as to whether or not we are a “Christian Nation”?

    Words are cheap – including those haphazardly quoted from the Bible. As the hymn goes (paraphrasing I Cor 13) “They will know we are Christians by our love”. So, if I doubt that you are a Christian because of the way you live your life and the way you treat me does that mean that you may not be a Christian after all (Matt 25) or am I just a self-loathing American?

  9. Mike Atkinson says:

    Good stuff, Rick. And Keaggy is on my storied list of top 10 artist. Have all of this albums. Glad you saw him live. Quite an experience…

  10. Mr Monte, I am not sure I understand all your imputations; but I am fairly certain you misapprehend some of my points.
    Parenthetically, your use of “e.g. Mr Marshall” (not Marschall) made me nostalgic for the actor E G Marshall; so, thanks.
    OK. I do not really treat the Founders as “demigods,” as you charge. I was quite clear about my disappointment, from my point of view as a Christian, that many of them were unorthodox, even unbiblical, in their theological views. Where I admire them — and hoped to persude my readers — is the CIVIL aspect of their efforts, invariably formed by and faithful to, biblical principles. It is a distinction with a difference, worthwhile for patriots to consider.
    Do I believe America had a Golden Age? Surely I do. You suggest that any estimation of any culture’s “Golden Age” is ignorant of history and human nature, perhaps willfully so. I suggest that your attitude is ignorant of history and human nature. Athens did not have a Golden Age? Rome did not? Was the Renaissance a Golden Age in any manner? The Great Awakening? The Enlightenment? German Romanticism? They might not suit you… but you cannot deny a host of arguments in favor of such views. (Perhaps you would nominate the French Revolution? The Weimar Republic?)
    Concerning the 19th-century Supreme Court as “final arbiter” of whether the United States is a Christian nation: You ask, “Since when?” Well, since 1892, which I believe I documented. My only point in raising this is that the Court reminded us in terms cultural, not legal, that the overwhelming traditions of American society were Christian. To claim that is anything more or less than a historical fact would also expose someone to question “Judeo-Christian” traditions, Natural Law, English Common Law as a basis for jurisprudence, the weight of the Magna Carta, and so forth. Ours is an organic society, and government.
    … which leads me, and I think you too (if I can understand your “words are cheap” comment and evidently sarcastic umbrage as a self-loathing American) to whether there are anti-traditionalists in our midst. Yes, I think so. Do I think that many of them are “self-loathing” in the sense that many Jews decry “self-loathing Jews” in their own communities? Yes, I do. Do I think that some of our citizens would be quite happy if our system of government — and the spiritual heritage I wrote about — collapsed? Yes, I do: that attitide has grown more common, and is palpable. I know some such people, and attending college with many. Do I think many of the ideas (and, increasingly, rules and laws) abroad in the land are destructive? Yes I do — threatening our heritage, our present condition, and our future.
    I am certain, finally, that you and I will not and perhaps never agree on such views. This dilemma was once a fringe aspect of our national discourse, but is now mainstream, another sympton — even viewed in the abstrct — of our decay.

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About The Author

... Rick Marschall is the author of 74 books and hundreds of magazine articles in many fields, from popular culture (Bostonia magazine called him "perhaps America's foremost authority on popular culture") to history and criticism; country music; television history; biography; and children's books. He is a former political cartoonist, editor of Marvel Comics, and writer for Disney comics. For 10 years he has been active in the Christian field, writing devotionals and magazine articles; he was co-author of "The Secret Revealed" with Dr Jim Garlow. His biography of Johann Sebastian Bach for the “Christian Encounters” series (Thomas Nelson) was released in April, 2011. Read More