Wednesday, October 25, 2006

What about the religious faith of America's founders?

A vital faith of our fathers

Michael and Jana Novak together have penned an article entitled, “Faith of Our Fathers: The Religion of our Founders.” In it they incisively respond to the secular claim that our Founding Fathers were mostly religious skeptics, or deists.

The piece is very well written. Michael and Jana show that, much like the “Historical Quest for Jesus” writers, who painted romantic, humanistic self-portraits while purporting to write about Jesus, many historians reveal more about themselves than real facts of the founders.

For instance, these historians often use Benjamin Franklin as a classic example of early irreligious sentiment. However, Michael and Jana say that though Franklin is “undoubtedly one of the three or four least orthodox Christians among the top one hundred Founders,” he still stated his belief in God, the obligation of worshipping God, and in an afterlife where he would discover the truth about Jesus. In a letter to the president of Yale, Franklin expressed his faith and doubts clearly:

I believe in one God, creator of the universe. That He governs it by His Providence. That He ought to be worshiped. That the most acceptable service we render to Him is doing good to His other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental principles of all sound religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever sect I meet with them.

As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of morals, and His religion, as He left them to us, the best the world ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England some doubts as to His divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.

Of this quote Michael and Jana ask rhetorically, “How many professors at American universities today are so certain that they will meet Jesus Christ after death, to see the evidence for themselves?”

The point is well-taken: If Franklin is one of the least Christian of the founders, what does this say of the rest? And, comparing Benjamin Franklin to today's secularist professors, he was practically an evangelist, lol. Maybe there's a reason Billy Graham named his son Franklin Graham! :-) [Warning: high winds of hyperbole alert, lol!]

Seriously, the article is too good not to quote in large chunks [emphases mine]:

As the greatest of all American historians, Gordon Wood, has been pointing out very forcefully in recent months, he has not found a single atheist during the Founding period (not even Tom Paine), and certainly not among the Founders. Second, he finds even the least religious of the Founders considerably more religious than the average professor at American universities today. Ours is a far, far more secular age, our leaders and our people are far more ignorant of religious ideas. Third, he finds that Jefferson—the Founder most attended to today—was an outlier among the Founders.

Wood has also argued that George Washington, while not being by any means an enthusiast or an evangelical in the modern sense, was probably one of the more religious of the Founders (and certainly of Allen’s top six). Further, Wood points out that Washington’s frequent expressions of gratitude for the “signal interpositions” of Divine Providence (interpositions that Washington had personally experienced) make it impossible to call him a Deist in the conventional sense (that is, anti-Christian). If by Deism you mean a belief in a watchmaker God who has no intimate concern for human individuals or individual nations, a God for whom interpositions in history are out of the question, Deism is contrary to Judaism and to Christianity — and to the public (and private) convictions of George Washington

Among the 89 signers of the Declaration and/or the Constitution, nearly a dozen had studied theology, were ordained ministers, were preachers though not ordained, were chaplains to a militia unit, or were officers of national Bible societies and the like. Historians of the last hundred years have been remiss in their study of the religion of the Founders. We urgently need good studies of all of them, if we wish to have a fairer idea of “the faith of the Founders.” Let us suggest, for starters, studies about the depth of the Christian faith of Roger Sherman; Samuel Huntington; William Williams; the Carroll cousins Charles, Daniel, and John; Hugh Williamson; Robert Treat Paine; William Paca; John Dickinson; Rufus King; William Livingston; John Hancock; Benjamin Rush; Patrick Henry; James Wilson; and George Mason.

Evidence does suggest that Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and James Monroe may have been the least religious of the top 100 Founders. James Madison is harder to be exact about, without a very close study, because many of the motives for his initial resistance, as president, to pay for chaplains for the military, or to issue thanksgiving proclamations, were themselves religious. He feared that government would corrupt religion. Madison had gone back for an extra year of study at Princeton under the Reverend John Witherspoon, one of the greatest defenders of religious and civil liberty in that generation. Because of Madison’s early support for their religious liberty, the Baptists of his congressional district were his most numerous and devoted bloc of supporters. As is well known, Madison at first resisted the idea of amending the Constitution. But these Baptists gave him their votes on the promise that he would get the First Amendment, at least that amendment, into the Constitution. Although reluctant, Madison complied. Yet other evidence suggests that Madison may also, by the end, have been rather estranged from the religion of most Virginians.

As the driving intellectual force behind the new Massachusetts Constitution, John Adams insisted upon the mandatory teaching of the Protestant religion in all the schools of the Commonwealth, at government expense where necessary. This is no infringement on religious conscience, he argued; you don’t have to believe in religion. But if you want the good habits and sound morals that come from religion, you must pay for its presence in the schools.

When looking at the facts, it is certain that a there has been a hijacking of the belief of the founding fathers. Michael and Jana can only conclude that many historians have painted their own portrait “while painting in pale colors the faith of their fathers.”

In sum, the most astonishing thing to say about the religion of the Founders is how little it has been studied during the past hundred years, and how cavalierly and unsympathetically — most often by historians who paint their own portrait while painting in pale colors the faith of their fathers. As a nation of countless students, writers, and professors, surely we can do better than that.

Read the whole thing, and learn! And, be humbled...

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