The Place of Christian Religion in the American Founding

"Mark Hall’s new book adduces solid evidence to dispel many contemporary myths concerning religion and the American founding. Let us finally be done with false claims that the founders were deists, or that they were hostile to religion and wanted to exclude it from public life." - Public Discourse

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

For audiobookers, this one is available in Audbile format.

I’m skeptical of blanket claims that the founding fathers were not deists. Fact, though: there was no Deist denomination you could join or leave in those days, and there isn’t a concise definition of deism everyone agrees on. So, there’s little hope of ending the “were they deists” debate.

What we see in the available evidence, though, is that some of the founders were pretty deistic in some ways, while not in others. And some show little evidence of deism at all.

I’m putting this one on my “hopefully read soon” list, though, because it would like to see what the arguments really are and what sort of evidence he’s gathered. … and even more, I’d like to see if he can help me understand why it matters at this point in time. I’m all for getting history as right as possible, but how much can that do to help where we now are, with Western Civilization in an advanced state of decay?

Mark_Smith's picture

I am not convinced by the claim that the "Founding Fathers" were Deists in the classic European sense, with a few notable exceptions like Thomas Payne. Even Jefferson, if you call him a Deist, was certainly a Moralist whose basis was solidly Christian. Washington purportedly never (or rarely) took communion, but he was solidly Christian influenced in morality and character. Even Franklin, while certainly not a Christian, was heavily influenced by Christianity. Men like John Adams were more Christian, but even he called himself a universalist. But, his writings reveal a man who took Christian morality very seriously and thought a free society needed such an influence.

They wanted America to be a Christian influenced nation, but not a theocracy.

Bert Perry's picture

Mark_Smith wrote:

I am not convinced by the claim that the "Founding Fathers" were Deists in the classic European sense, with a few notable exceptions like Thomas Payne. Even Jefferson, if you call him a Deist, was certainly a Moralist whose basis was solidly Christian. Washington purportedly never (or rarely) took communion, but he was solidly Christian influenced in morality and character. Even Franklin, while certainly not a Christian, was heavily influenced by Christianity. Men like John Adams were more Christian, but even he called himself a universalist. But, his writings reveal a man who took Christian morality very seriously and thought a free society needed such an influence.

They wanted America to be a Christian influenced nation, but not a theocracy.

Mark, I think you inadvertently give us a decent working definition of deism, apart from the conventional "God wound the universe up like a clock and then let it run" that I learned in school.  If Washington was "solidly Christian influenced in morality and character", that's entirely consistent with the notion that God created a universe with certain ground rules--laws of metaphysics that one violated at one's peril--and then let the clock run.  Christianity is not centrally about morality and character, but rather about a relationship with the person of Jesus Christ.  

Confusion about this point is, really, why many joke that all too often, Christianity does indeed decay into a form of "moral therapeutic deism", where we can recite verbatim the "laundry lists" of Paul, but struggle with the Gospels.  Now I don't know completely where Washington really fell, but I would argue that not attending church (I've read he hunted foxes more often) and a pattern of moralism could well "fit" as evidence of deism on his part.  Obviously I hope, for Washington's sake, that he did actually have saving faith, but let's keep in mind that morality and character are perfectly compatible with deism.

One place where the Founders seem to depart from deism, IMO, is where they prayed during the Constitutional Convention, and things like that.  Prayer only makes sense if you believe God intervenes, and hence that's an argument against deism on their part.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Mark_Smith's picture

Guys like Washington believed in Providence, but they were not sure about miracles. They refer to Providence, which is God's silent, unseen beforehand but clear afterwards, influence on the world.  I also think Washington as a man of the Enlightenment saw communion/Lord's Supper as some kind of left over from primitive religions. That is why he did not partake. I think Washington firmly believed in God as Creator, and Jesus as a divinely inspired moral and religious Guider. No way Washington was a Deist. He was too much into Providence. He referred to it often.

Deists don't believe in Providence or any of the other.

Bert Perry's picture

When we talk of Providence, we are much closer to an argument against deism (much like prayer at the Constitutional Convention) than morality and character.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Got a review posting tomorrow, Lord willing, on a different book that interacts some with this topic. On Western Civilization.

There are some thought in it that are somewhat helpful for understanding Deism... and the author takes the view that the deism of the Founding Fathers has often been overstated.