Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Deism and a Jr. High American History Scholar

An eighth grade American History student asked me a very insightful question. They were going over the Declaration of Independence in some detail and speculating as to how some of those 18th century words might sound in today’s language. The question had to do with the following phrase,

“that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights"

This student was matter of fact in stating that she was fine with the fact that it exhibited a belief in a God who granted them rights that cannot be taken away. Then the teacher threw this student for a loop by stating that many of the authors were very faithful to the Christian faith.

It confused her because even as a mere eighth grader, she “knew for a fact” that the Founding Fathers were Deist and that Deists were not really all that religious. When pressed, her teacher countered that the subject was above her classmates heads and there wasn’t time to get into it.

My young friend thought that was a pretty lame excuse. (Wouldn't you agree?) She asked me if I thought her teacher was “off her rocker” or if the authors of the Declaration really were “Christian” in their faith. I applauded her willingness to question what she had already stated she knew as fact. Here was my answer.

Neither her nor her teacher are "off their rockers". (Which, by the way, is a very interesting euphemism when applied to the study the history ... but I digress). Many people will claim that most of the founding fathers are Deists. While many certainly were (and that debate will go on and on), a Deist is someone who believes in an all powerful being and, especially in that time period, referred to that being as God.

A Deist believes that this being created everything and then kind of took a hands off approach in any specific matter. This being let their creation run on its own without interference in small things but with an overall hand on the wheel in large things.

So calling on the creator would not have been inconsistent with a Deists form of beliefs. Most of the founding fathers, even the ones who specifically claimed to be Deist, intimated that their Deity was the one that is historically claimed by Christianity in the Bible. They might have departed from traditional Christian beliefs in regard to whether the historical Jesus was actually God, which in itself was quite a departure from orthodox Christianity. However, in most, not all but most other instances they felt that what we now call Judeo-Christian ethics and laws represented in the Bible would be the best standard by which a Republican form of government would survive.

These values held great sway even while the Constitution was written but were tempered with the philosophy that everyone should be able to follow their conscience when it came to religious beliefs. Many people today would like us to believe that a Deist was more an Atheist or Agnostic in their view of religion. This could not be further from the truth. A Deist, especially in that day, had a profound belief that there actually was a God that created everything. The difference was that these Deist’s were just less sure that this God had much to do with our day to day lives in a personal way to the extent that traditional Christianity teaches.

I thought it was very interesting that a young eighth grade scholar would have already been so quick to claim that “all of the Founding Fathers were Deists". I think it is very indicative of the secular influence in all areas of Academia today. We are so quick (yes, all of us have to fight this) to color and shade facts to support our own academic bias. I think in this case it is just as important to acknowledge that fact that the religious views of many of those founders were Christian in orientation as it is to fully acknowledge that many were also Deist or even some (though the pervading social-religious views discouraged outward manifestations) were not religious in their outlook at all.

This debate gets so bogged down when we try to make a choice between whether America is a Christian nation or a non-religious nation or even one with an Atheistic center of gravity. The fact is that the First Amendment was very clear when it said that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”. The next clause is also clear: “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. The United States, as long as the First Amendment is not repealed, will never be a “Christian Nation”. However, Judeo-Christian principles as taught in the Bible are uniquely and obviously influential in the laws that this American experiment has held so dear. We must also remember that influence is not establishment and the final arbiter of these legal principles is not Christianity or any other religious belief system, it is “We the people”!

Does that make this nation Secular? Not any more than the possibility that all of the Founding Fathers were Deist!


Pinky said...

Ah, Roger.
An interesting paper you have presented here.
Should we talk about the points you are trying to make?
I know a lot of Christians and, in every case, every one of them, when pressed about their idea of God, makes no bones whatsoever about who or what God is--it is Jehovah God, the one in the Bible, Jesus, the Spirit, and God the Father. Not a one of them is bashful about that. What Founder do you know of who was as clear about their belief in the "traditional" Christian God as those we see today? Which one of them continually referenced the Bible and any specific Scriptures even in their personal papers? I'm sure there must have been some...
And so, answer me this, Roger, why do the Founders speak of the unambiguous God of Nature?

Jonathan said...

I think there is a strong kernel of truth in Roger's post. One thing I might point out though is their sense of virtue wasn't entirely "Judeo-Christian." There was also a "noble pagan" or Greco-Roman stoicism that profoundly influenced their sense of virtue. In many ways the Greco-Roman complemented and was consistent with the Judeo-Christian. However, there was some tension. For instance, in the play "Cato" a favorite of GW's and many of the other Whigs, the lead character commits suicide as a matter of principle, which I find to be a profoundly un-Christian act.

jimmiraybob said...

..whether America is a Christian nation or a non-religious nation...

Isn't this like asking whether America is an apple nation or an orange nation when the real question is whether America is an apple nation or not an apple nation?

What we are, in my humble opinion, is a nation of peoples that have always embraced religion (and certainly mostly of a Christian flavor), sometimes to the point of squeezing the soul out of it. And, like it or not, we have always been enveloped by religion with it sometimes squeezing the soul out of us.

What we are is a nation with a clearly radical secular form of government that was intentionally constructed to allow the dance to continue relatively least as long as we keep the faith that the civil sphere can remain separate from the religious to the betterment of all.

As soon as we concede America to be a Christian nation rather than a nation inhabited with many Christian and non-Christian religious, agnostic, and atheist citizens we concede the principle of liberty and freedom of conscience that the nation was founded on and the experiment is over.

So, when speaking of the Nation, as in the State, isn't it best to make the distinction that the Nation is in fact secular or neutral to religion but that the large part of the Nation, as in the People, are religious?

Lindsey Shuman said...

This seems to be a reoccurring topic on this blog. I think that instead of following the tradition of placing our founders in the Deist/Christian camps, we should see these two opposing ideals as opposite sides of a magnet. Both Deism and Christianity had a "charge" that pulled the founders in both directions. Some founders were more "attracted" to the Deist side, while others went towards Christianity. The important thing to keep in mind is that BOTH forces influenced the religious outlook of our founders. I cringe at the suggestion of putting any person exclusively in the Deist or Christian camps.

Lindsey Shuman said...

By the way, welcome to the blog, Roger!

Pinky said...

I have to say that jimmyraybob has made some good points.
And, as far as Christians and Deists being at opposite ends of anything, I disagree. Objectively, they are quite close to each other.

Deism is more influenced by Enlightenment thinking and, therefore, closer to being secular.
America is a secular nation--thank God!!

bpabbott said...

It is impossible to qualify the religion of the "founders" as of one flavor.

Each individual had his own unique religious opinion.

Regarding Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams (the principle authors of the DOI) none may be claimed to be either Christian or Deist.

Pinky said...

One of the main problems I see with looking at history in the traditional sense of events and individual leaders is that students and scholars, alike, tend to get hung up on specificities. For example, that George Washington was/was not a Christian and the Gettysburg Address caused certain attitudes to change, etc.
The First Amendment is much more far reaching than speech, press, religion, and association. It is deeply involved with our personal development as individual free thinkers. Instead, it is all about the role these issues play in the developement of our personal identity and protection against it being designed and built by the state or any other powerful force in society. The Declaration of Independence is all about the right to self government and the will of the people.
In the final analysis, we are a secular nation even though we are predominately a religious people.