An easy way to measure the relevance of questions is to quickly check in with Google’s autocomplete for a reading of the public consciousness. A search for “Were the founding fathers…” quickly leads to “Christian” as the top choice, followed by “democratic reformers,” “deists,” and “liberals.” It turns out the second choice of “democratic reformers” ranks so high because it’s the title of a chapter in a history textbook, which also might point to how kids do their homework these days. Nonetheless, two of the top three questions were about the Founding Fathers’ religion, apparently a lot of people want an answer to what seems like a fairly simple question.
It’s not. In the grand culture war that has devoured 90% of cable news time, the religious views of the Founding Fathers is of top importance. The belief seems to be that if we can figure out how they envisioned the country then we can settle all our arguments about what the country should be. It’s an appeal to authority, patriotism, and sentimentality all rolled into one. It might seem completely trivial then, but Constitutional law does somewhat depend on the intent of the authors. However, even though intent might matter, major rulings are often nothing more than a reflection of the current political and cultural landscape. Would the Supreme Court really have outlawed contraception in Connecticut, made VCR’s illegal, or cast the country into chaos in order to recount more votes? The court is fairly pragmatic because they have to be – they simply weigh whether any disruption to the status quo is worth forgoing legal stringency or greater benefits in the future.
In other words who cares what the Founders’ intent was? We have their legacy, tons of legal precedence, the laws themselves, and a pragmatic legal system. If we’re trying to decide what’s right then appealing to the religion of the Founders shouldn’t be too high on the list in the present.
What’s the real debate?
It should be mentioned then that this debate over the religious views of late 18th century American statesmen really isn’t about laws, or it is, but only as a means to an end. It’s much more about the culture war that’s supposed to exist between secular progressives and the religious right. Is America a nation built on Christian (or the more-recently-called Judeo-Christian) values or was it conceived as a secular state, free of any religion? That translates to issues like referencing God on currency, prayer in school, whether evolution should be taught (or now, whether creationism should be taught too), and of course the perennially-hyped “War on Christmas.”
For Christian traditionalists the view of the founders is coincidentally, or perhaps not at all, one of infallibility and their writings second only to scripture. Therefore it comes as no surprise that they insist the founders were Christians and built the nation on those theological roots. Secularists also attempt to claim the founders and in such impose a strong Enlightenment philosophy on their struggle, contrasting progress with the yoke of religious authoritarianism.
Dispensing with the “who cares/make our own future” attitude towards the question, there’s also some other reasons to simply avoid this question. First and foremost is that it’s incredibly vague. Calling somebody a Christian in 1787 and calling them one today are two very different things with totally different connotations. Not only has Christianity evolved tremendously, but so has the role Christianity plays in society, and how Christians as a social group function in society. For instance, in today’s society many have a clear choice and opportunity, outside of some mild social pressures, on whether or not they identify as Christian. In 18th century America that was never the case – everyone, except for a couple thousand Jews, was Christian – it was never even thought as an option to identify as another religion. Therefore criticisms of religion from founders shouldn’t necessarily be seen as anti-Christian, but as those commenting on the state of a society to which they belonged. At the same time, however, you could still refer to plenty of people as Deists or people who just believed in a higher power, one who created all the laws of the universe, and perhaps was a grand watchmaker. So the first question to ask before anything else is whether Deism is part of Christianity, or whether they’re mutually exclusive groups. While this question is not by any means dumb, it is ultimately fruitless except to say that plenty of Christians don’t think other self-labeled Christians are really Christians. There are plenty of things deists, like any sect of Christianity, had in common with the others, and some things it didn’t. To label Deism as the 18th century equivalent of atheism is to miss out on the actual intellectual climate of the time, a time where science still did not make sense without purpose behind God’s laws. The enterprise of science could not even have occurred if philosophers didn’t think they were searching for some divine plan. The point is that how intellectuals thought about religion back then is nearly incommensurable with how we interact with and understand religion today – what we even mean by Christian is totally different.
Who were the Founding Fathers?
So how we define Christian is problematic. The founders might be identified as Christians as they were members of a Christian society but some had chosen to cast off the more ornamental features of the religion and criticize its organization after centuries of post-Reformation fighting. But did they have the same conception of America as a Christian nation that many Christians hold today? Depends on which ones.
That brings us to the second, perhaps equally unanswerable part of the equation: who were the Founders? The broadest group of people considered Founding Fathers includes everyone who was present at the First Continental Congress, the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and the delegates at the Constitutional Convention. Then there’s also the signers of the Articles of Confederation, and people who played other important roles like the naval captain John Paul Jones, Abigail Adams, or even people who influenced the nation after the Revolution like Noah Webster and Andrew Jackson. So in its broadest sense, the Founding Fathers comprise hundreds of people. It also includes some weird instances where a “Founder” actually worked against independence, like the loyalist Joseph Galloway.
In a much more narrow sense most of these individuals are discarded for a few minds that we’re taught were responsible for the ideas behind everything. This group more or less consists of Ben Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison. I’ve already noted that in the last GOP presidential primary all the candidates chose from one of these five when asked who their favorite was. Somewhere in between these five and several hundred people are a group that most Americans would consider “The Founders.”
Also note that of the six I’ve mentioned as the core Founders, four served as the first four presidents and one, Franklin, is considered the grandaddy of the nation. These Founders were the ones with the most celebrity, particularly from their roles in the revolution, to be elected president. Therefore, it’s no surprise that their values and ideas are also the ones that lived on to shape the nation. Even if the ideas attributed to them are not necessarily their own, or were commonly held by others, our interpretation of the past places their names as more important and more influential. Not to discount their importance with their contemporary status either as history breeds its own history; a person’s place in the national narrative magnifies their influence over time.
If we approach the question as one between Deism and Christianity and only limit it to the most influential Founders then we can at least try to answer the question. Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were both clearly Deists, which might explain why conservatives generally don’t point to either of them as inspirations. Thomas Jefferson’s antagonism towards religion is so despised amongst the right that he was nearly excluded from Texas textbooks. The rest are harder to pin down. George Washington was a freemason, an organization often at odds with organized religion, and Madison definitely held some deistic views. Adams was probably the only full-fledged Christian of the bunch, yet, like many others at the time, he championed and embraced intellectual liberty. That’s about the shortest answer you’ll get to that fairly specific question, but of course that answers nothing about the real reasons people ask the question. Not only is it unfair to exclude other Founders who were perhaps just as important in forging a new nation than those mentioned, but it also doesn’t say anything about whether they envisioned a Christian nation, or whether Christianity holds a privileged place in the country.
In the larger group of Founders we find much more traditional Christians and a few more Deists. You also find a fair amount of freemasons, maybe somewhere around 15-20% of founders and patriots. While it would be historically unfair to attempt to de-couple the Enlightenment ideas from the Christian ideas, it has already been done retrospectively by some modern-day Christian groups. Secularism for them only extends to the free practice of religion rather than limiting any state ties to it. They reject Jefferson’s contention that the First Amendment designates a “wall of separation” between religion and government. Whether other Founders would agree is up to debate, but will never be answered because the documents simply don’t exist.
So there you have it. In the small group of core Founding Fathers, one, John Adams, was a professed Christian. Whether his Christianity is the same as our Christianity today is debatable. We should remember that Christian Fundamentalism didn’t even come into existence until at least 100 years after the Constitution was written. Therefore, organizations like the American Family Association that insist the Founders were Christian are certainly wrong to believe that the Founders would agree with their own beliefs. However, the degree to which they differ is a discussion for theologians and historians that I’m simply not prepared to answer.
If we take a broad definition of Christianity that focuses on more of the cultural than strictly religious aspects and include all possible Founders, then the picture is quite different. Take the Thanksgiving tradition, which had a long-running Christian connotation. The Founders sought to celebrate this decidedly Christian tradition, yet at the same time secularize it. Ben Franklin even wrote an account of the origin of Thanksgiving in which he separates it from it’s more religious roots and gives it a more pragmatic significance, stating that a simple farmer argued that it should be a feast instead of the traditional fast. It should be noted that Franklin’s account appears to be nothing more than fiction.
To simplify all of this, we’re essentially left with two definitions for two categories. A small and large group of Founders, and a broad and narrow definition of what it means to be Christian. Therefore to provide a simple answer in conclusion I put together a colorless chart in MS paint, because that’s what Franklin would have done. I’ll leave you with it in summary.