The Church, the State and the Founding Fathers



Many conservative Christians yearn for this “old time religion” of the Founding Fathers and a closer relationship between church and state. But is this what our founders wanted?

Historian David Holmes argues that many of the founders were Christian deists, including our first three presidents: Washington, Adams and Jefferson. It was an age of enlightenment from a religious and philosophical perspective, and Christian deism was popular. For deists, understanding the laws of nature leads to acceptance of a great creator – a supreme being.

Holmes states that Washington’s speeches, letters and orders rarely refer to Christianity and omit words such as “Father”, “Lord” or “Savior”. In their place he used deistic terms – “Providence”, “Heaven”, “the Divinity”, “the great architect”, and “the great ruler of events”.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Washington, historian Ron Chernow states that the nation’s first president was raised in a family “steeped in godliness.” While some see this as a sign of Washington’s commitment to the Anglican faith, others note that anyone with political ambitions in colonial Virginia had to be a member of the Anglican Church, and George Washington was an ambitious man. .

According to Chernow, Washington issued many “eloquent” statements on religious tolerance in an era not particularly known for its favorable views of non-Christian religions. This tolerance, notes Chernow, even embraced atheism. When hiring carpenters and masons at Mount Vernon, Washington said that “if they are good workmen, they may be Mohammedans, Jews, or Christians of any sect, or they may be atheists “.

If John Adams was a Christian deist as Holmes postulates, he was closer to Christianity than to deism. A descendant of early Puritan settlers, Adams was a Congregational-Unity who called Christianity the “religion of wisdom, virtue, fairness, and humanity…” Harvard-educated Adams was, according to the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, “both a devout Christian and an independent thinker.

In his book “Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson”, the eminent historian of colonial America Gordon S. Wood states that Adams came to deny “the divinity of Jesus and the miracles of the Bible”, and like Washington and Jefferson, believed in total religious freedom. Wood argues that, in line with the majority of the Founders, Adams believed that “religion was essential to the maintenance of order and morality in society.” Order and morality were especially important to the new republic these individuals were trying to establish.

While Washington and Adams found much to admire in Christianity, Thomas Jefferson was, as Wood notes, “hostile to organized religion” and “Orthodox Christianity”, viewing the latter as an “engine of the enslavement of mankind. “. Jefferson rejected the divinity of Jesus and viewed the Trinity as “a mere Abracadabra” imposed on people by priests. For Jefferson, Jesus was “an extraordinary man,” one of the great moral thinkers in human history, but he was not divine.

For Jefferson, the New Testament was filled with “lies, charlatanism and imposture…” He viewed the book of Revelation as “merely the ramblings of a maniac…” In his reading of the Bible, Jefferson concluded that Jesus never claimed to be God, and while the president began to piece together his own version of the Bible, he omitted the virgin birth of Jesus, the miracles attributed to Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus. Upon completion, Jefferson told a friend that this “little little book” was “proof that I am a true Christian, that is, a follower of Jesus…” No doubt with a touch of humor, Jefferson said it was a Christian sect “by myself, as far as I know”.

Like Washington and Adams, Jefferson was tolerant of religious diversity, stating “it does me no harm if my neighbor says there are twenty gods or no god”. While Adams believed that religion was the foundation of societal morality and virtue, Jefferson was indifferent to the social significance of religion, writing in 1786 that “our civil rights depend no more on our religious opinions, no more than our opinions in physics and geometry”. .”

David Holmes states that deism represented rational pursuit, skepticism of dogma and mystery, and religious tolerance, with many of its proponents supporting freedom of the press, universal education, and separation from the Church and the state. “While the nation owes much to the Judeo-Christian tradition,” he writes, “it is also indebted to deism, a movement for reason and equality that prompted the Founding Fathers to adopt liberal political ideals remarkable for their time. “.

George J. Bryjak, of Bloomingdale’s, is a retired professor of sociology at the University of San Diego.

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