Sunday, July 20, 2008

A Brief Commentary on the Founders and Religious "Labeling"

For those that regularly follow this blog, I am sure you are more than aware of the fact that the greatest source of debate and controversy we see invariably has to do with the specific religious beliefs of our mainstream founding fathers. What typically happens is that someone will write up a posting that argues for or against a particular religious label – i.e. “Jefferson was a deist,” “Washington was a Christian,” etc. In response, those opposed to the thesis of the post will present a number of quotations, primary sources and other forms of evidence that he/she feels will successfully “debunk” the posting’s claim.

Though I am not opposed to this style of debating – in fact, I have participated in a plethora of such postings and debates and actually enjoy them quite a bit – I do feel that such a practice of assigning a religious “label” to our founders is counterproductive at best. As bpabbott has argued in a former posting:

"What is the point of debating the founders faith? They should be known for their deeds and their words. We should not attempt to label them with a theological label as if such sheds any light upon the details of their individual personal opinions; religious, political, or otherwise." [1]

While I disagree with abbott’s notion that debating the religion of our founders is somewhat a futile effort, I do agree with him when he states that theological labels do not always shed light “upon the details of their individual personal opinions; religious, political, or otherwise.”

The bottom line is this: the religious beliefs of our founding fathers were, much like they are for people today, very complex. Assigning one specific religious label in the hopes that it will somehow reveal all that is needed to know about a particular founder’s religion is silly. For instance, let’s look at the founder that is perhaps the most controversial of them all when it comes to his religious views: George Washington.

When it comes to “claiming” the legacy of our founders, both Christian Nationalists and secularists have fought tirelessly in proving that George Washington is one of their own. Naturally, this is due to the man’s Herculean status that seems to trump that of the other founders. Or as Washington biographer, Joseph Ellis put it, Washington was “the palpable reality that clothed the revolutionary rhapsodies in flesh and blood, America’s one and only indispensable character…the American Zeus, Moses and Cincinnatus all rolled into one.” [2] For both Christian zealots and hard-core secularists, having America’s premiere founder in your corner is a prestigious trophy to say the least.

But when it comes down to the “nitty-gritty” of proving that Washington was a Deist, U(u)nitarian, Christian, etc., things are not as clear cut as they may seem, even when die-hard activists like David Barton for the right, or Howard Zinn for the left continue to insist that the religion of our founders is a simple and obvious endeavor.

For this particular post, I am not interested in diving into the actual historical records to prove that Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, etc. were Christians, Deists, etc. For those arguments I will simply refer you to the numerous postings that have been done on each founder at this blog and the many other blogs/websites that are dedicated to the same goal. Instead, it is my hope that people will at least consider the possibility that there is MUCH more to the religion of our founders than meets the eye. To the Christian Nationalists, I would ask you to take a step back and ask yourselves why you are so adamant on insisting that our founders were devout men of a Christian God. Do the opinions of secularists, who, for the most part, are trying to be as sincere in their scholarship as you are, really have a secretive agenda to destroy all remnants of Christianity in our nation’s history? To the die-hard secularists, do you really think that embracing a religious heritage could constitute a legitimate threat to our nation’s founding principles? Are Christian conservatives really attempting to rewrite history, or are they simply trying to demonstrate the importance of religion in our nation’s founding?

By no means am I trying to be offensive here. For myself, I realize that I too need to take a step back at times so that I can effectively see things as they are. To do otherwise would essentially “label” me as an irresponsible student of history. And in the end, isn’t this what we all want to avoid?

In conclusion, when it comes to “labeling” the religion of our founders make sure that you do so with a grain of salt. As Mark Twain once said, “There is no such thing as a simple person. We are all complex beyond our wildest imaginations.” So it is with the religion of our founding fathers.

[1] bpabbott’s comment on, Jefferson still wasn’t a Deist, OK? July 17, 2008. American Creation Blog.
[2] Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Random House Publishing, 2000), 121


Anonymous said...


I'm still inclined to think that Washington is the sort of noble Roman portrayed on our coinage. I used to have the same idea of Jefferson until I saw the Houdon bust on which the nickel was based. Tom's hair went out to HERE! Major hairdo, way
too much time with the friseur.

The American Revolution seems to be situated between two great awakenings, from the second of which we have yet to fall asleep.

Our ostentatiously secular Constitution originated in that anomalously non-religious epoch (and how odd that Franklin's request for an invocation to the almighty was given such short shrift!)

The founders had other things to do (a war to win, a nation to build) and they may have regarded religion as something as likely to divide as to bind their diverse communities.

In other words, they probably didn't give as much thought to their religious beliefs as they did to their horses.

Which detracts not one whit from their relevance to us.

Brad Hart said...

Thanks for the comments, bad jim. That is a very good way of seeing the founding generation, as "situated between two great awakenings."

bpabbott said...


Great post!

I offered the quote, by Jefferson, because it was the closest I could find to convey my opinion that it is inappropriate for anyone to make claims regarding the faith of any founder in order to substantiate their own personal philosophy/agenda.

I should have been more explicit regarding "what is the point [...] ?" My intent was to ask (in each instance) what is the point/intent of those making claims regarding the faith of the founders? Is the intent dominated by historic accuracy (or the defense thereof), or is the intent to popularize a particular philosophical view? ...

In any event, I should have avoided the implication that debating/discussing the faith of our founders and framers was pointless ... after all I post on this and other blogs with sufficient regularity that my interest in the founding period and the founders faith is apparent.