Robert Meyer
Was America the creation of Deism? Part 3
By Robert Meyer
February 2, 2016

There are those few who contend that the big problem in Christianity vs. Deism debate, is that both sides are wrong about the religious nature of the founding fathers. Perhaps so, but again, focusing only on the theological positions of certain key founders is only a subset of the issue we are asking about. Suppose someone asks me if I drive a Chevrolet and I say, "No, I drive an Impala." All Impalas are Chevrolets, but not all Chevrolets are Impalas. In principle, you face the same problem when you argue that you can determine America's philosophical underpinnings by examining theological views of a few key founders.

Having said that, let's look at this middle position. Dr. Gregg Frazer's doctoral thesis was that some of America's key founders were neither orthodox Christian, nor deistic, but a hybrid that Frazier calls "Theistic rationalism." While Frazer did not invent the term, he adapts it to his thesis. I think Frazer is definitely barking up the right tree in this analysis, but a few additional observations must be made as mitigating factors. Often personal writings drawn from the founders that identify unorthodox beliefs, are taken from private letters written long after these men retired from public service. These statements are then misapplied to activities of the founders while in office. Is it good historical analysis to look at statements made circa 1810 and use them to understand actions or statements made by certain founders in 1776 or 1787?

A textbook I used for a history course in college began with this paraphrase: "A foolproof way to misunderstand history is to observe the habits, practices and behaviors of past societies, and interpret them according to how the same habits, practices and behaviors would be viewed in contemporary culture." This is a sociological bias known as Modernism.

While some founders held beliefs that could be considered unorthodox, is it equally true that these founders considered themselves non-Christian? Those who were known as "Biblical Unitarians" in 1820 would have thought of themselves as Christians.

Notice the comments of Joseph Story in his Commentaries on the Constitution:

"At the time of the adoption of the Constitution, and of the Amendment to it now under consideration, the general, if not the universal, sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the State so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience and the freedom of religious worship. An attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation. But the duty of supporting religion, and especially the Christian religion, is very different from the right to force the consciences of other men or to punish them for worshipping God in the manner which they believe their accountability to Him requires...."

Notice the special emphasis on the reverence for Christianity. Likewise consider this quote from Washington's Farewell Address:

"And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion."

Many secularists will argue that Washington was merely speaking of religion in general (as if that would rescue their own position). But in the sentence before, Washington states.

"Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?"

Were not these oaths taken with a hand on the Bible? Were not the founders' upbringings bathed in the Christian milieu? It would be a reach to suppose the founders' reference to religion extended far beyond the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Another thing to consider is that views of men change over time. For example, John Adams said things profoundly evangelical regarding Christianity in his youth, but more slanted toward Unitarianism in his older age. I can see that sort of evolution in my own life. Things I said 35 years ago I would never say now, but I never considered myself non-Christian way back when.

Many secularists make much of the claim that the country was founded as a secular nation. While such is factually the case, only in the sense that "secular" means non-ecclesiastical. It was certainly not anti-theistic.

If it's alleged that certain founders made positive affirmations about Christianity only to dupe the public, or that doing otherwise would have courted political suicide, it tells us something significant about public perception and consensus of that time. And that circles back to the broader definition of "Christian Nation" alluded to in earlier pieces.

I think the definitive statement was made by Chief Justice David Brewer, as dicta in the 1892 SCOTUS Trinity decision:

..."From the discovery of this continent to the present hour, there is a single voice making this affirmation.... These are not the sayings, declarations of private persons; there are organic utterances; they speak the voice of the entire people.... These and many other matters might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation."

In closing I would like to thank my good friend Dr. Jake Jacobs. His 2001 radio debate on this topic inspired my interest.

© Robert Meyer


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Robert Meyer

Robert Meyer is a hardy soul who hails from the Cheesehead country of the upper midwest... (more)


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