Log in

Wed, Feb. 17th, 2010, 11:20 am
The Founding Fathers Were Christians

It really can't be contested that the Founding Fathers were Christians. Many of them refer to their faith in God and Jesus Christ in letters, diaries, and other personal writings. Several of them spoke publicly about their faith guiding them, and some even said that good, Christian morals are something they look for in democratically elected leaders. Even noted skeptic and Deist Thomas Jefferson still held some portions of the Bible to be accurate.

Recently, there has been a push from social conservatives to re-write history textbooks to put an emphasis on this Christian influence on the Founding Fathers. This has been playing out particularly in Texas, a state which has had its education standards adopted by most other states, and therefore tends to have textbooks written to its standards and then used nationwide. The point, of course, is to emphasize that it was the intention of the Founding Fathers that this should be a Christian nation, and that the First Amendment was merely intended to prevent any one denomination from becoming the official religion of the entire United States of America.

To be clear, in the late 18th Century, there were state religions in the United States. Most of the New England states had Congregational churches (the denomination that grew out of the Puritan movement) that were supported by tax money, and it was common for laws requiring church attendance to still be on the books. Disestablishment wasn't completed in New England until the 1830s. Most of the Southern colonies, at the time of the Revolution, were still swearing allegiance to the Church of England.

Of course, state religion wasn't everywhere. Maryland was founded as a haven for Catholics, though Parliament reversed course shortly thereafter and by the time of the Revolution it was majority Protestant and does not appear to have had an official religion. Pennsylvania was colonized by English Quakers and Germans, who mostly followed Lutheranism, though, again, as an early adopter of freedom of religion (at least among monotheists), it can't be said that Pennsylvania had a state religion.

But, at least on the surface, the argument that the Founding Fathers were Christians (or at least monotheists) holds water. But does that translate to an assumption that they intended this to be a Christian nation?

Well, as the New York Times Magazine article I've linked to above points out, there's a major flaw with that logic: The Founding Fathers never once mention Jesus Christ in the Declaration of Independence, or in the Constitution.

These are men who were comfortable referring to God and to Jesus Christ, and yet the Declaration of Independence's only religious references are the oddly phrased "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," the broad "endowed by their Creator" statement -- a term for the divine that seems more at home in Native American culture than among Christians -- and the closing reliance on the "protection of Divine Providence." This is not clearly a Christian document. It certainly bespeaks of having been written by men who were comfortable with religious expression, but it does not imply an intention to form a Christian nation.

The Constitution is even more damning to the "Christian nation" case. The preamble to the Constitution does not say, "We the God-fearing Christians of the United States," as the Founding Fathers might have said in their personal speeches or letters. It says, "We the People." There is absolutely no reference to God in the Constitution, which was meant to be the guiding document for our entire government. In fact, Article VI explicitly prohibited the use of a religious test as a requirement to hold public office. If the Founding Fathers had really intended Christianity to play an official role in governing, would they really have overlooked it and accidentally created a thoroughly and completely secular document?

But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that we're reading the intention of the Founding Fathers all wrong. They simply meant that there shouldn't be any one Church of the United States, and instead all the churches to which they belonged should be obeyed when it comes to public policy. Let's see how that plays out. Let's look at a current political issue, preferably one where the Christian history of our nation is coming into play: same-sex marriage.

Let's create a fictional religious council where the various Christian denominations of the Founding Fathers get to vote.

The United States in 1787 was majority Congregational. The Congregational Church is today the United Church of Christ (though many of the church buildings themselves retain the "Congregational" title for historical reasons). But, in the interest of religious equality, let's ignore the demographics and give the UCC one seat on the council.

The U.S. branch of the Church of England is the Episcopal Church. Since the South was majority Anglican, let's give the Episcopalians one seat on the council.

Quakers are still around. Check. Give them one seat.

Lutherans are still around, though there have been a couple of schisms and reformations in its history. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America is, by far, the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S., so we'll give them one seat.

Though the Catholics weren't a majority in Maryland, they were (and still are) the largest denomination in the state. There were enough of them that it's unlikely Maryland would have joined the union without Catholics being represented. Fine. As a powerful minority religion we'll give them a seat on the council as well.

Of course, if we're going to include powerful minority religions, we can't overlook the Baptists. They were a major force behind the First Amendment, because their fundamentalist view of the Bible was out of favor and they feared that without an explicit amendment prohibiting the establishment of religion and protecting their freedom of belief, laws would be passed to outlaw their denomination (or, at least, relegate it to obscurity). It's safe to assume there were Baptists present at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. In the interest of fairness, we'll give the Baptists one seat.

And, of course, we can't forget the fact that a great many -- perhaps a majority -- of the Founding Fathers were Deists. The Deists never formed churches, but both the Unitarian Church and the Universalist Church were founded based on Deist principals. Today they've merged into the Unitarian Universalist Church, so I think it's fair to give them, as the largest extant representative of the belief system, one seat as well.

Now, let's see where our theoretical council stands on same-sex marriage:

United Church of Christ: For.
Episcopal Church: For.
Quakers: For.
Evangelical Lutheran Church of America: For.
Catholic Church: Against.
Baptist Church: Against.
Unitarian Universalist Church: For.

So, the vote of the Founding Fathers' churches comes out 5-2 in favor of same-sex marriage.

Do we think that's what those trying to emphasize the Founding Fathers' religion hoped the outcome would be?

Wed, Feb. 17th, 2010 07:28 pm (UTC)

This is excellent. Mind if I share it around?

Wed, Feb. 17th, 2010 07:30 pm (UTC)

Please do!

Wed, Feb. 17th, 2010 07:36 pm (UTC)

While I know a few historians (from my days working at a religious site for the PA Historical Society) who could blast your over-simplification within an inch of its life... its very interesting, and clever. The biggest group you are missing a whole bunch of early religious orders (that couldn't agree with each other on all points) that fled Europe due to their belief in celibacy -- not just for the clergy but of all members. My guess is they would be another Against vote... but they mostly died out for some reason.
(My favorite of these sects, whose name I have forgotten-- had a pretty groovy costume which the wore as they traveled through the forests looking for a virgin giving birth to the re-born savior while on the back of a mule. They were told this would happen at night in the new world, and calculated N./W. Virginia, western PA, Western New York would be the location. I always suspected they died of frost bite -- oh and they didn't allow women in their lives -- no women ever.)

Wed, Feb. 17th, 2010 07:47 pm (UTC)

Yes, but how many of the Founding Fathers belonged to these odd little sects?

Clearly early America was made up of an enormous religious plurality, much as it is today, which, of course, is why the Founding Fathers created a deliberately secular nation. I'm attempting to mock the notion of reliance on the Founding Fathers' religions in present-day public policy, not by any means to imply that we should be adopting this model.

Wed, Feb. 17th, 2010 09:27 pm (UTC)

You have beautiful points that I am going to ignore in favor of a joke:

"This has been playing out particularly in Texas, a state which has had its education standards adopted by most other states, and therefore tends to have textbooks written to its standards and then used nationwide."

Hasn't their book depository caused enough problems?

I return you to thoughtful and appreciated commentary on religion and politics.


Wed, Feb. 17th, 2010 09:40 pm (UTC)


Thu, Feb. 18th, 2010 06:00 am (UTC)


Wed, Feb. 17th, 2010 10:07 pm (UTC)

I get a vote! Woot! Now, if only the rest of my "sect" would get themselves in gear on the whole marriage thing... stupid schisms. Sadly, we may just have to wait for them to die off, mercenary as that sounds.

Wed, Feb. 17th, 2010 10:10 pm (UTC)

Unfortunately, that is the major way societal shifts occur. It would be nice if we could all remain as open-minded as young people throughout our lives. I strive to do so myself, but I fear the tendency to become stuck in the past may be a large genetic hurdle to overcome.

Thu, Feb. 18th, 2010 02:05 am (UTC)

I would argue that a Deist is not the same thing as a Christian, and lots of non-Christians find some wisdom in the Bible. Seeing that does not make someone Christian.

Thu, Feb. 18th, 2010 04:13 am (UTC)

There are many who do not consider the Unitarian Universalists to be Christians along similar lines of reasoning. Ultimately, it's about semantics, as I once had a friend who described herself as an "atheist Christian" because she embraced the philosophy, but not the belief system.

Wed, Feb. 2nd, 2011 05:42 pm (UTC)

Actually, the founding fathers were Protestants. Still a form of Christianity, however nothing like the Christianity we know today.

Fri, Feb. 4th, 2011 05:34 pm (UTC)

Well... so much for the Senatorial method of counting votes (one vote per denomination)

Lets go to the other side of the aisle and use the House voting based on population.

For Against Denomination Source

Fri, Feb. 4th, 2011 06:09 pm (UTC)

That sounds like fun! Let's see... in 1787 (lack of census data makes this challenging, so I'll pull some plausible numbers based on my own research) the U.S. was approximately 48% Congregational, and 44% Episcopalian. Remember, the other religions I gave a seat to were small, unpopular religions. I gave them a vote out of a desire to make sure everyone had a say, not because they represented a significant portion of the population. (Much like the Senate gives as much weight to the opinion of Delaware as it does to the opinion of California.)

But, let's assume instead that we adjust for the current religious breakdown of the country every 10 years. Well, as of 2007, 57% of Americans self-identified as atheist, agnostic, or non-practicing. It's not rational to assume that these people would be content to be excluded from the lawmaking process, so there would almost certainly be seats on said council for those with no religious affiliation. So those who would meet a Constitutional definition of "Christian" on the council of belief become the minority. And how does that affect the votes on a council that looks solely at whether or not there is a religious objection to a law? Well, if the majority do not meet the definition of religious, we can assume that the majority of Americans have no religious objection, and 57% automatically vote to allow a law to go forward no matter what.

In other words, our theoretical council can immediately be dissolved, since religion has no place in American lawmaking.