One clever reader of mine reacted with the question: Was America founded, in a political-theological sense, on a “Christian heresy?”
The proliferation of Protestant sects made a true orthodoxy impossible. For as Locke writes:
“It will be answered, undoubtedly, that it is the orthodox church which has the right of authority over the erroneous or heretical. This is, in great and specious words, to say just nothing at all. For every church is orthodox to itself; to others, erroneous or heretical. For whatsoever any church believes, it believes to be true and the contrary unto those things it pronounce; to be error. So that the controversy between these churches about the truth of their doctrines and the purity of their worship is on both sides equal; nor is there any judge, either at Constantinople or elsewhere upon earth, by whose sentence it can be determined.”
Our colleague King of Ireland commented:
I think sotierology is a red herring here.
Perhaps John Locke’s most elegant argument in the storied A Letter Concerning Toleration is that government can’t get you into heaven.
“We have already proved that the care of souls does not belong to the magistrate. Not a magisterial care, I mean (if I may so call it), which consists in prescribing by laws and compelling by punishments. But a charitable care, which consists in teaching, admonishing, and persuading, cannot be denied unto any man. The care, therefore, of every man’s soul belongs unto himself and is to be left unto himself. But what if he neglect the care of his soul?
I answer: What if he neglect the care of his health or of his estate, which things are nearlier related to the government of the magistrate than the other? Will the magistrate provide by an express law that such a one shall not become poor or sick? Laws provide, as much as is possible, that the goods and health of subjects be not injured by the fraud and violence of others; they do not guard them from the negligence or ill-husbandry of the possessors themselves. No man can be forced to be rich or healthful whether he will or no. Nay, God Himself will not save men against their wills.”
[Unlike the Roman model, where one could become divine by vote of the Senate.]
I cringe when I hear “the founding fathers” or “the founders” named as a singularity, as if they were of like or similar mind on matters of politics, law, religion, and so forth.
Still, there evolved a consensus, what Avery Dulles called The Deist Minimum, which was more than the cold deism of the God of the Philosophers, more than what the Supreme Court has called “ceremonial deism”:
“Our American republic has therefore had what, following Jean-Jacques Rousseau, we may call a civil religion. Rousseau enumerates the positive dogmas of such a religion as follows: 'the existence of a mighty, intelligent, beneficent divinity, possessed of foresight and providence, the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked, and [Rousseau added] the sanctity of the social contract.'”
[Just how sacrosanct that "social contract" actually is remains a question for another day.]
Mr. Rowe calls his witnesses and expert testimony:
Yet I do know experts (many of them tending to be evangelical Christians themselves) in history like John Fea at Messiah or Gregg Frazer at The Master’s College with whom I see eye to eye. Likewise what I say is confirmed by Mark Noll (of Notre Dame) who is the preeminent evangelical historian of the American Founding.
However, each of these gentlemen has his own "orthodox" bent, and in the case of Mark Noll, his reading of Locke is based on a "Straussian" view of Locke, that he is "modern" and secular.
But there was no sharp bifurcation between philosophy and theology as there is today, between the sacred and the secular: God was [with a few exceptions like Hume] considered a reality. A close reading of Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration shows it's quite theological, some common sense about the growing diversity of Protestantism and a clarification of Christian theology, and not a rejection of it for an "Enlightened" secularism.
It was in this light that men of the Founding era like the orthodox Calvinist Samuel Adams read him.