Whenever I go to Barnes & Noble, I spend time at the “Bargain Book” shelves. There I frequently find some of my best reads – sometimes a discontinued hardback book cheaper than the newly issued paperback – often books I never got around to reading or books I have never heard of.
A while ago I came across a book in that last category that caught my attention: Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers by Brooke Allen. What really grabbed me was the jacket illustration, a caricature of six of America’s most well-known founding fathers. The book was originally published in 2006, but its thesis is always relevant.
The author tells us in her preface that she writes in reaction to claims made during the 2004 election campaign “asserting that this nation was founded on Christian principles.” She goes on to say, “This seemed to me so demonstrably untrue that a strong refutation was called for” (page xi). “Most Americans seem to be under an erroneous impression, given by teachers, preachers, textbooks, and pundits, that the Founding Fathers were pious bores.” “The eighteenth century was not an age of faith but an age of science and skepticism. And the American Founding Fathers were in its vanguard” (page xiii).
Pretty bold and heavy claims! She says that her “primary motive was to tell some personal stories about the Founding Fathers and their attitudes toward religion in general, and Christianity in particular” (page xv).
Ms. Allen’s presentation impressed me as being fairly objective. It is difficult at first to determine where her actual sympathies lie, though by the time we reach the end, it becomes clear that her strongest sympathies are with the Enlightenment thinking of these men.
The stories given, present (it would appear to me) irrefutable evidence to back up her thesis. They are reinforced by numerous quotes, many from the private writings of these men. (Politicians then, though not as much as now, said many things publicly which were more “religious” than their own private thoughts, although these men said and wrote many of these thoughts publicly.) Also included are two Appendices which verify her thesis.
The six men of whom she wrote (among whom are our first four presidents): Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton all said things disparaging of Christianity, and none but Hamilton would come close to fitting the definition of Christian that is held by modern evangelicals. Though not all claimed to be such, the label “Deist” would seem to be the one that best fit them. A Deist was one who believed in one god who had created all, but had little or nothing to do with the affairs of mankind – “Nature’s God,” as he is called in the Declaration of Independence. The universe and the world are left to run by natural law.
Benjamin Franklin spent most of the period of the American Revolution as the American Minister to France. There he rubbed shoulders with thinkers and skeptics of the French Enlightenment. Though he was sometimes even accused of being an atheist, he denied that label. He came from a devout Protestant (Huguenot) family, but began early to have doubts about divine revelation, not only of that in the Bible but even of its possibility. “I soon became a thorough Deist,” he claims (page 9). Franklin held to an ethical and moral code which the author claims, owed more to the Stoics and Epicureans than to Christianity (page 18). He felt that Jesus of Nazareth had a “system of morals … the best the world ever saw or is likely to see,” but had “some doubts about his divinity” (page 29).
George Washington spoke and wrote very little compared to the others and so left much room for speculation by believers and unbelievers alike. Jefferson wrote that it was said of him “that he had never, on any occasion, said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion” (page 26). The author tells us, “Jesus himself is not named in any of his correspondence” (page 35). He did not apparently, as many of the others did, even hold Jesus as a great moral teacher.
Because of Washington’s heroism and virtuous life as well as that he was our first president; he is regarded as “the Father of our Country.” This coupled with his silence made for the growth of much mythology. Pious artwork and mythical tales after his death gave him almost a god-like status. It is ironic that tales of his honesty and virtue were invented in order to teach these virtues. (“I cannot tell a lie.”)
John Adams, though raised in a strict Calvinist upbringing said, “… I cannot class myself under that denomination” (page 49). Unlike the others, though he rejected the doctrines of Calvinism, he maintained a Puritan ethic. He apparently did not hold to the optimism of other Enlightenment thinkers, but regarded mankind as fallen. In his later correspondence with Jefferson, he expressed views basically in agreement with that man. Though unlike the others he believed in the immortality of the soul, he seemed uncertain as to what form that would take.
Thomas Jefferson was the great champion of religious liberty. He was always suspicious, often hostile, toward organized religion and this drove his thinking in that direction. He felt that the establishment of any sect was dangerous and that the various sects counterbalanced one another. His opinion of Jesus was that he was simply a great moral philosopher and Jefferson took scissors and paste to the Gospels to purge them of Jesus’ miracles and claims to Deity.
James Madison, like Jefferson was a champion of religious liberty. Though he early held to orthodox religious beliefs, his opposition to the excesses of church and clergy led to what in later life our author could describe as agnostic.
Madison was the most prominent former of our Constitution and its secular tone reflects his thinking. “Religion and government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together” (page 113).
During his presidency and the War of 1812, Madison proclaimed several days of prayer, which he claimed later to have done under constraint. He said that such proclamations “seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion” (page 115).
The author notes that “Madison was noticing what was becoming a peculiarly American phenomenon: namely, that full religious freedom, protected by the Constitution, seemed actually to foster religious and fan its flames rather than to spread atheism, as its opponents had feared” (page 121).
Alexander Hamilton was, of the six discussed, probably the most difficult to analyze. He was, as the author tells us, “Pious at certain moments of his life, he was at other times thoroughly irreligious and was never a churchgoer except during his youth” (page 125). He was involved in sexual affairs for years. He did not fit the high standards he often professed.
In fact, Hamilton was one of the first prominent political leaders to use religion in politics. He was the one who inserted religious jargon into Washington’s well-known Farewell Address. He believed that pious talk could be used to political advantage. In recommending that then President Adams call for a day of fasting and prayer, he commented, “On religious ground this is very proper – on political, it is very expedient” (page 131). (Does this sound like one of our modern “values” politicians?)
The author, however, believes that shortly before his death, Hamilton may have been genuinely converted. This would seem to make him the only one of the six who could really be called a Christian, though it had little effect on his political actions.
I believe that the author’s real purpose in writing this book is not simply to show that our nation was not founded as a Christian nation by Christian Founding Fathers, but that one of our great freedoms, the freedom of religion enshrined in the First Amendment was put there because our Founding Fathers were not Christians. These men had seen what the established churches had done in “Christian Europe” and even in the American Colonies. Their hostility to organized Christianity was based, not only on their lack of faith in Christ and the Scriptures, but on their experiences and witness of the oppression that the church could inflict.
There were perhaps many other motives for their advocating religious freedom, some even contradictory. One reason was that they felt that the numerous opposing sects could keep a sort of “balance of power” with no particular sect in ascendancy. This could (at least they may have hoped) lead to religion’s weakening and eventual disappearance. If so, that didn’t work. The United States is today the most religious nation in the Western World.
And that is the great irony. Religious liberty’s great opponents in the days of our Founding Fathers were the members and leaders of the established and powerful churches. Yet ultimately Christians became the greatest recipients of its benefits. In a free society the truths of the gospel can be argued on their own merits. They don’t have to be forced.
Those of my fellow Evangelicals who want to rewrite history to make America a Christian nation are working to our own detriment. Though I know it can’t happen, I would dread the day that it actually did occur.
As Jefferson himself said (Notes on the State of Virginia), “It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself” (page 89).
Or as he said in his 1802 letter to the Committee of the Danbury Baptist Association, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State” (page 73).
I suppose those Baptists – a minority sect in that day – took comfort in Jefferson’s words. I wonder how many Baptists or their fellow Evangelicals would take comfort in them today?