Volume 32 - Issue 3
THE FAITHS OF THE FOUNDING FATHERSby David L. Holmes
Is the United States of America a ‘Christian country’? Does it have a God-given prerogative to bring evangelical principles to bear upon world affairs? Is the American Constitution fundamentally opposed to abortion, same-sex marriage and embryo research? The controversy rages within contemporary American politics in a tug-of-war between left-wing secularists and the ‘religious right’. One major battlefield is the historiography of the Revolution in the 1770s, when the United States came into being as an independent nation. What were its founding ideals? Tele-evangelists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and popular authors like Tim LaHaye, argue passionately for the evangelical convictions of the founding fathers. George Washington and his friends are presented as quasi-messianic figures, sent by God to save the people. This interpretation has a long pedigree, reaching back at least to Pastor M. L. Weems in his best-selling but untrustworthy Life of George Washington from 1800.
Professor David Holmes offers a balanced and dispassionate introduction to this debate, concluding that the orthodox Christian origins of the United States are largely mythical. He examines the faith of six of the founding fathers—Benjamin Franklin and the first five presidents (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe)—showing that they would be better described as Deists than Christians. Deism is notoriously difficult to define, and the founders did not hold identical views, but they were all sceptical about religious dogma and believed Reason to be paramount. They respected the moral teachings of Jesus, but rejected the Bible as revelation from God. Jefferson, for example, deleted all the prophecies and miracles from his copy of the New Testament and re-wrote it as The life and Morals of Jesus. The early presidents maintained formal affiliation to Christian denominations, but rejected core Christian doctrines.
Holmes’ thesis is plausible and supported by most recent scholars, but is not finally persuasive in this form. His book is a beginners’ guide, rather than the last word, and leaves us wanting much more. A revisionist and hotly contested claim of such import needs to be argued thoroughly with the full array of evidence. Holmes only lets us dip our toes into the historical material, before rushing to a conclusion. Least convincing are his numerous arguments from silence—such as the rare mention of church-going in the presidents’ diaries and their lack of desire for episcopal confirmation. He points out that their public statements speak of God as ‘the Supreme Being’ or ‘the Great Architect’, rather than ‘Lord’, ‘Saviour’ and ‘Redeemer’, but this does not necessarily imply Deist principles At the same period in England, the great philanthropist William Wilberforce often spoke of God as ‘the Supreme Being’, but his evangelical credentials were impeccable.
Professor Holmes adds texture to his account with two fascinating contrasts. First he shows that the wives and daughters of the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary periods were considerably more orthodox than their men. He speculates that this may be because women were barred from two key breeding-grounds for deism—college and the masonic lodge. The second intriguing contrast is with the religious views of the last five American presidents (Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush), who have often welcomed ‘partisan evangelical influence’ into the White House (165). It is precisely because evangelicalism is now such a force to be reckoned with in US politics that debate about the founders’ faith will run and run.
Andrew Atherstone is tutor in history and doctrine, and Latimer research fellow, at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.