God and the Founding Fathers: what they practiced and preached

The Founding Fathers have arguably never been bigger.

With popular histories by the likes of David McCullough, Joseph Ellis and Richard Brookhiser dotting the best-seller lists of late, everyone wants to claim the Framers as their own.

The Founding Fathers have arguably never been bigger.

With popular histories by the likes of David McCullough, Joseph Ellis and Richard Brookhiser dotting the best-seller lists of late, everyone wants to claim the Framers as their own.

Even when it comes to religion. The right points to the essentially Christian character of the country, going back to 1776 and before, while reminding us of the devout Protestantism of most of the Founders. The left, meanwhile, attempts to add ever more bricks to Jefferson’s “wall of separation,” looking not only to Jefferson but to other Christian radicals, such as Tom Paine, for their inspiration.

Into this breach step three new volumes designed to illuminate the Founders’ beliefs and the religious character of the nation’s beginnings — David Holmes’s The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, Michael and Jana Novak’s Washington’s God and Jon Meacham’s American Gospel.

Holmes, a professor of religious studies at William and Mary, has written a straightforward survey of the Framers’ religious tenets. This quick read, almost a primer, surveys the various pockets of faiths — from Puritans in Massachusetts to Quakers in Pennsylvania — in the prewar colonies, before devoting a chapter to each of the major figures and their beliefs.

The key Founders were uniformly Protestant; while a few were Presbyterians or Congregationalists, most were members of the Anglican Church, the spin-off of the Church of England that would come to be known as Episcopalian in America.

As educated men of the 18th century, however, they highly valued reason — a perspective that bore two fruits: one political, the other religious.

Perhaps owing to the multiplicity of beliefs in the New World, the idea of the freedom of worship, voiced most famously by Jefferson, became an early part of American political culture.

“It does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are 20 gods, or no god,” he wrote in his Notes on Virginia. “It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

The second result of the Framers’ rational outlook was that many of them tended toward a form of deism.

Influenced by the Enlightenment and related to the Masonic affiliation of many of the Founders, deism is Western monotheism stripped of most of Christianity’s trappings, including in most cases the Trinity and the incarnation. Deists posit a God — often referred to as “Nature’s God,” a “watchmaker” or some similar term — who created the universe and all its laws and simply stepped back to let events unfold.

Similar to today’s intelligent-design theorists, they “saw the magnificent design of nature as revealing a Creator,” writes Holmes. But unlike today’s more conservative Christians, they looked to virtue, not faith or prayer, as the “principal element” of worship.

Holmes quotes Franklin: “I think vital religion has always suffered when orthodoxy is more regarded than virtues.”

Yet Franklin and his peers also recognized the value of church and religion from a perspective of social order: Washington demanded that his troops attend services, noting its effect on morale and stability.

Fierce individualists that they were, the Founders also possessed a revisionist streak.

Franklin rearranged the Book of Common Prayer to suit his beliefs.

Jefferson pored through the New Testament with a razor blade, excising those passages with which he disagreed, regarded as corrupt or found lacking in proof.

Washington was never confirmed in the Anglican Church, nor would he take Communion or even kneel during church services, preferring to stand throughout.

It should also be noted, however, that despite their independence and skepticism they spoke often of an abiding belief in providence, especially as it governed their victory over the British and the forming of a government.

Former Ambassador Michael Novak, here with his daughter Jana, emphasizes this fact in his work on Washington’s religion. In this spirited defense of Washington’s Christianity, Novak sets out to rebut three misconceptions he sees in earlier scholarship: that Washington was a deist, that he was a tepid Christian and that his references to providence were more akin to the ancient Greeks’ conception of fate.

Self-styled detectives, the Novaks unearth plenty of references to a providential God even by a young Washington. After surviving a rough engagement near Fort Duquesne in 1755, he wrote his brother, “I take this opportunity … of assuring you that I now exist and appear in the land of the living by the miraculous care of Providence.”

The Novaks’ Washington is an observant, prayerful leader. They quote his step-granddaughter, Nelly Parke Custis, writing to a biographer: “I never witnessed his private devotions, I never inquired about them. … His life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian. He was not one of those who act or pray ‘that he may be seen of men.’ He communed with his God in secret.”

Meacham’s book concerns itself less with such debates, or even with subtle variations in the Founders’ theology, than with the religious tradition they midwifed into being.

Meacham, managing editor of Newsweek, offers a history of “public religion” in the United States. Public religion is that common vocabulary of belief that Americans — most of them, at least — have long accepted, especially when hearing from their leaders.

Thus we get the unifying language of presidents, from Washington’s calls on providence to Lincoln’s request of the citizens for a “firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land.” We hear FDR invoking passages from Exodus and Joshua in the dark days of the Depression. We accept “In God We Trust” being added to our coins, and we respond to Martin Luther King’s appeals to Christian ethics.

Meacham is clearly uncomfortable with the right’s appropriation of America’s religious tradition. He writes: “The right’s contention that we are a ‘Christian nation’ that has fallen from pure origins and can achieve redemption by some kind of return to Christian values is based on wishful thinking, not convincing historical argument.”

Nevertheless, he argues that the Christian tradition in American public life has been a net positive. “The wall Jefferson referred to is designed to divide church from state, not religion from politics,” he writes. For Meacham, toleration coexists with our shared traditions; it doesn’t threaten them.


The Faiths of the Founding Fathers
By David Holmes
Oxford University Press, 2006
225 pages, $20

Washington’s God: Religion, Liberty and the Father of Our Country
By Michael Novak and Jana Novak
Basic Books, 2006
282 pages, $26

American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation
By Jon Meacham
Random House, 2006
399 pages, $23.95