There is much controversy regarding the religious and political views of the men who founded these United States of America. There are two reasons why the views of the Founding Fathers are important. First, it is an issue of national heritage and cultural history. When someone tries to claim something about these men that is perceived to be false, it seems like an attempt to steal something great and intangible.
Second, it is a question of interpretation. The meaning of the US Constitution, and various state constitutions, depends in part on what the men who shaped and sign these documents believed.
This is where the debate is centered. There are those that claim the men who founded America were Christians and some claim they were Deists. Technically, both are wrong. In order to say (rightfully) that the Founding Fathers were Deists or Christians it would be necessary for all of them to be so. The Founding Fathers were a diverse group of individuals; they held differing theological and philosophical views. However, several were Christians but few (if any) were strict Deists.
How can we know this? Well, the Founding Fathers were prolific writers. If we examine their writings, a picture comes to view. They envisioned a secular society with laws based on natural law. Most, if not all, saw these laws as coming from the Creator. They saw religion in general, and Christianity in particular, as being formative in the hearts, minds, and morals of the American people (and thus the Constitution).
At this point, many people would object. They would bring forth a quote from a Founding Father demonstrating contempt for organized religion. A few founding fathers were not professing Christians and even the ones that were , at times, said bad things about religion in general, or a particular religion. Usually, the views of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine are mentioned (although not always). Admittedly, these men were not Christians. However, both Jefferson and Franklin sought guidance from Providence (usually in the form of prayer) and this is hardly the act of Deist.
Thomas Paine is a different situation . First, it should be noted that some do not count Paine among the Founding Fathers. He was neither a signer of the Declaration of Independence nor the US Constitution. However, he was influential in early American politics and as such, some consider him among the Founding Fathers. Was he a Deist? Possibly, he was a Deist. He was clearly not an Atheist and could even be considered a Theist. However, both Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Adams had issues with his anti-religious leanings. For letters to Paine from Franklin and Adams to Paine go here: http://personal.pitnet.net/primarysources/franklintopaine.htmlhttp://www.deism.com/paine_essay_sam_adams.htm
So, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were not Christians, but were Theists. Thomas Paine is possibly a Founding Father and a possible Deist. However, there were for more men than three Founding Fathers, all of whom a strong argument could be made that they could be considered “Christian” in a loose sense.
If the Founding Fathers could be put on a religious continuum, Franklin and Paine would be on the more irreligious end and Samuel Adams and John Witherspoon (an ordained minister) would be on the fundamentalist end. Most of the remaining Founding Fathers would be somewhere in the middle. Many belonged to Christian sects, but were somewhat removed from modern, evangelical Christians. Some were Masons; many seemed to have Universalist or Unitarian leanings. They were not “good Christians” from a fundamentalist’s viewpoint but they were religious.
At the time of the American Revolution, it would be fair to say America was a Christian nation (in a loose sense). This does not mean it was a theocracy, or that the Founders wanted such a thing. It just means that the nation was predominantly of one Christian stripe or another, and that the nation’s laws reflected this. Thailand is considered a Buddhist country. The people there are largely Buddhist and Buddhism influences the laws, but Thailand is not a theocracy. Many religious minorities exist there and participate in politics. The same could be said of India. India’s population is predominately Hindu, and the nation is secular, but Hinduism definitely influences its laws. No one seems to have a problem with that. The same can be said of many (most) of the countries around the globe. A nation’s morals influence its laws, and religion is a big influence on many an individual’s morals. The sacred and the secular cannot help but intertwine at some point in time.
So, when one comes to the establishment clause of the Constitution – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” – history and culture matter. The Founding Fathers were men of their times and for men of 18th century, Western culture that meant that they were “Christian”. In addition, they were influenced by the Enlightenment. While some may see the two as mutually exclusive, the Founders did not.
Clearly, they at the very least wanted their new nation to refrain from adopting a national religion (like the Anglican Church in England). What is less clear is how they would approach religious issues of a more generic nature. It seems based on their writings and actions (like praying before entering Congressional session) that they held that some forms of public religious expressions were acceptable or even good. They supported having chaplains and using government buildings for religious services. The Ten Commandments being publicly displayed on government buildings would probably be acceptable to them as it can be considered the foundation for Western, civil law and its mere display is generic/ecumenical in nature.
Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists is famous for it is where the words “separation of church and state” are invoked. To add some cultural context to Jefferons words, it should be noted that Baptists were persecuted by other Christian sects for hundreds of years in Europe prior to the formation of the U.S.A. Jefferson is reassuring these Baptists that the U.S. will not adopt a state religion or require certain creedal confessions in order to be a part of civic life. Some today see these words as forbidding anything religious being a part of civic life.
It should be noted that the extra-constitutional words and actions of the Founding Fathers are themselves not law. They are aids used in trying to assertain the Founders’ intent. As such, it is possible to reconcile the first view of the esablishment clause (that the Founders simply intended to refrain from adopting a national religious denomination) with the actions of the Founders and the writings of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison where they use the words, “separation of church and state”. It can legitimately be argued that those two great men simply meant that the US government did not want to adopt a national denomination (hence, why the word “Church” and not “Religion” or “Morals” is used).
However, it is in my humble opinion that the second view of the establishment clause (absolutely nothing of a religious nature in anyway connected to the US or State governments) cannot be reconciled with what we know of the Founders. This view fits with the words “spearation of church and state”, but it goes against the deeds and words of the Founders that took place during the first three presidential administrations. Both the Continental Congress and George Washington on separate occassions issued proclamations for a day of Thanksgiving – and the word “God” was used by both. John Adams issued a call for fasting and prayer. Word length constraints prevent me from giving more examples though numerous more exist.
I have not even mentioned some of the more religious of the Founding Fathers like John Jay, Charles Carroll, or Patrick Henry. For a fairly accurate asseessment of the religious leanings of the Founding Fathers, go here: http://www.adherents.com/gov/Founding_Fathers_Religion.html
I hope that I have presented a balanced and fair assessment of the Founding Fathers. Objectivity is not to be confused with neutrality and I think the Founders would agree with me on this one. If you did not think that a collective assessment of the thoughts and views of a group of men can be had, then disregard this article. Lastly, what article on the Founding Fathers would be complete without finishing with a quote from one of them? Here is one from George Washington –
“To the distinguished character of patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of Christian”