Founding Faith

Pandering to the Christian Right, Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain recently stated that United States was a Christian Nation, despite the fact that United States has no official religion and has a clear separation of Church and State. According to Garry Wills, historian and Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern University, the Founding Fathers were deists who believed in creation, providence and after life. They did not believe that Jesus was divine and you could get things by praying for them.

Steve Waldman has a new book, Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America
which explores the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers.

Franklin, we learn, believed that God created the universe, then gave over its governing to various minor gods. (Waldman describes this as a form of deism, though it strikes me as vaguely Gnostic.) John Adams’s “disdain for Calvinists was surpassed only by his contempt for Catholics,” and he appears to have been equally disgusted with many facets of orthodox Christian theology. For instance, he refused to accept that one bite from an apple “damned the whole human Race, without any actual Crimes committed by any of them.” Eventually, Adams joined a liberal Unitarian church, which emphasized Christ’s teachings rather than his divinity.

George Washington was raised as an Anglican but seldom went to Sunday service, refused to kneel and never took communion. In many ways, he was more active as a freemason than as a Christian. But he spoke up strongly for religious tolerance, even during the Revolution: “While we are contending for our liberty,” he wrote, “we should be very cautious of violating the Rights of Conscience in others, ever considering that God alone is the Judge of the Hearts of men, and to him only in this Case, they are answerable.” Waldman describes Thomas Jefferson as a “pious infidel” and James Madison as a “radical pluralist.” Jefferson viewed Jesus as a moral teacher and nothing more: He actually cut up a copy of the Gospels, removing all references to miracles and any claims that Jesus was more than human.

Madison appears to have respected religion without being seriously attached to any sect in particular. But, like his fellow Virginians, he did feel strongly the need for tolerance, and it is to him that Waldman believes we owe our freedom of conscience. He helped frame the Constitution, which mentions neither Jesus nor God, and later the First Amendment.

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