Thursday, July 17, 2008

Jefferson still wasn't a Deist, OK?

Dennis Prager is fond of saying he values clarity over agreement. Words to live by.

Only my second post for this splendid little blog, so where to start?

Instapundit today links [approvingly, we'd think] to another bland assertion of the "common knowledge" that Thomas Jefferson was a Deist. He was not, or at least probably not, as I argue here. The LA Times---which printed the same "fact"---hasn't responded either, unsurprisingly. But Deists believe(d) that the Creator did his creating watchmaker-like, then took a powder on human history, closing his shop for returns or repairs.

The discussion below the post Instapundit links is what's truly problematic, full of people expressing little but opinion, emotion, and drawing lines in the sand. Whatever substantive arguments are made (few) are ignored.

All of which is emblematic of America 2008: what passes for dialogue is merely the firing of salvos between ships passing in the night, each using their Founding myths trying to get home to a home that never was, either a Christian Nation or a rigorously secular one. But America wasn't founded on either Jonathan Edwards or Jean-Jacques Rousseau, although they're both prowling about in there someplace.

The Christian Nation thesis, which implies some level of theocracy or at least Biblical authority, is fairly easy to pick apart, starting with the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment and the rather soggy religious beliefs of the first four presidents. No one sect agreed 100% with another's interpretation of the Bible, so sogginess was a desirable republican virtue. In fact, John Adams attributed his loss to Jefferson in the 1800 presidential election to Adams being seen as too closely allied with the Presbyterians. Better an atheist, or Jefferson!

Yes, folks, they had their doubts about Jefferson's religiosity even back then. It was pretty obvious he was no orthodox Christian. What, do we think these Founder guys were stupid? [Jefferson's VP Aaron Burr was the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, by the way. Call it what you will, but I call it a balanced ticket.]

So we come to the modern Rousseau crowd, who want to reduce the Founding landscape to the sum of the articles of the Constitution, as if America is no more and no less than a social contract. The legalists, the empiricists.

As if the Continental Congress that invoked not only God but Christ the Redeemer in their 1779 proclamation of thanks when war started going well was replaced by a whole new crew who signed the Constitution 8 years later. Thanks for risking your lives and fortunes, here are your gold watches, and we Enlightenment types will take over now.


The young America---virtually without exception---thought that Divine Providence smiled on the rightness of its cause, and even Jefferson wondered whether it was "probable" that "supernatural interference" would one day punish America for its sin of slavery. See, Deism does not acknowledge a God who "interferes" in human history, either to favor a young nation's cause or punish its wickedness. Neither do social contracts.

So, can we put the "Jefferson was a Deist thing" to bed? I'm counting on the gentle reader to spread the news or at least spread a shred of doubt. I mean, the "Jefferson Bible," after cutting out the miracles and Son of God stuff, still left The Lord's Prayer in. Deists don't pray. There's no point. The hotline to God is disconnected.

Which brings us to George Washington, and a merciful end to this post. I quite agree with Jonathan Rowe that there is no "smoking gun" to make Washington anything resembling an orthodox Christian. I strongly doubt he was, based on the evidence, although I remain unsure. Even his contemporaries had no certainty; we 21st Centurians have no chance.

However, it is a fact that in birthing the new American republic, George Washington grabbed a Bible and swore on it as its first president. Whether or not this was merely a symbolic gesture, it is in such symbols and myths that history is made. What Washington believed in his heart of hearts is secondary, perhaps even irrelevant.

Because anyone who thinks men fight and die over taxation without representation or start a Great Civil War over tariffs misses the point not only of what it is to be American, but to be human.

The "Christian" part can wait, as I believe we have bigger fish to fry in this day and age.


bpabbott said...

Say nothing of my religion. It is known to my god and myself alone.
-- Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to John Adams, 11 January 1817

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.

Ray Soller said...

For whatever it means, one shouldn't put too much weight on the fact of Washington swearing on a Bible. We do know that Congress did not plan for a Bible. We do know that Washington planned ahead for his inauguration by having his brown suit prepared by American manufacture, so it seems odd that he would choose, on his own, a Bible of British manufacture. There's also no record of Washington using a Bible at his second inauguration, which indicates that he didn't consider swearing on the Bible as a precedent he wanted to set. It, therefore, appears most likely that using the Masonic KJV Bible was Chancellor Livingston's idea and Washington went grudgingly along with it. It may only be a matter of coincidence, but Livingston probably paid the price for his inaugural initiative by having his repeated requests for a prominent position in Washington's administration both summarily and ignominiously turned down.

Phil Johnson said...

Seeing that George Washington was the Worshipful Master of his Masonic Blue Lodge, I suspect his thinking was heavily influenced by Masonic teaching and ritual--in fact, I'm sure of it.
And, there is a great amount of Bible history involved that peaks with the idea of building highly organized structure into society.
Deism fits in nicely with Masonry at the Blue Lodge level.

Larry Cebula said...

Tom: A nice set of posts and I largely agree with you. Yet I think you (and many others) make a mistake by applying a dictionary definition of Deism as if it were a set of principles equivalent to a religious test. Surely 18th century Deism was much more loose than that, more a set of inclinations and ideas than a set of fixed principles. It is hard to define precisely but I know it when I see it. If Deism was a big tent, Jefferson was at least a frequent visitor, and often made his home there.

Brad Hart said...

bpabbott stated:

"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."

I disagree. Understanding the personal religious views of our founders -- and of the masses in colonial America -- is at the very heart of the matter. Whatever the influence -- deism, Christianity, U(u)nitarianism, etc. -- there is no question that religious views played a central role during this era. Just look at the fights that took place between the Baptists and the Anglicans in Virginia, or the arguments over religion in the Constitutional Convention. Understanding a person's religious beliefs -- or the lack thereof -- helps to put the pieces of the puzzle together. We gain a fuller perspective of how and why certain individuals did the things they did.

Now, I do agree that sometimes people will get caught up in the "classifying game" instead of looking at a person's "deeds and words" as you stated. But I believe that in this instance we can have our cake and eat it too. A person's deeds and words can be indicative of his/her religious leanings, and by incorporating all of these components we can effectively take a step back and survey the entire picture with greater clarity.

Jonathan Rowe said...


You may be right that "Deism" had a big tent, but arguably so did Christianity. "Orthodox Trinitarian Christianity" is a fairly narrow creed [and what evangelicals and Catholics tend to think of as the only "real" form of Christianity]. Yet, if Christianity likewise defines broadly to include anyone who calls himself a Christian or follows Jesus as a great moral teacher, then Thomas Jefferson [and J. Adams, Washington, Franklin, Madison] was a Christian!

That's why David Holmes could term Jefferson et al. "Christian-Deists."

Phil Johnson said...

I imagine our forefathers were well aware of the fact that people tend to want to see things in strictly black and white definitions.
That's what seems to be going on with the Religionists today so they can declare that George Washington got down on his knees and prayed to God in Jesus' name. Etc, etc., etc..
And, that is precisedly why our First Amendment denies congress the power to legislate on religion. Can you imagine where we would be today if congress had that power?
Many of the questions we ask today would be cause for being found guilty of a capital crime.

David Mabry said...

I think that the Founders wanted to slippery on religious labels...purposefully, for the exact same reason as say, a David Barton. Washington, for example, had an entire team edit his war correspondence and he was well aware that his public and private comments would be scrutinized by later generations. Now, Jefferson and Madison did not seem to possess the awareness that Washington displayed about their correspondence but we can all agree that the founders were aware that religious controversy would easily spill into religious and real conflict. The not too distant religious wars in England would surely give them pause.

Brad Hart said...


I completely agree with your main conclusion that Jefferson was not a deist.

Dr. Cebula, who commented above, stated:

"Surely 18th century Deism was much more loose than that, more a set of inclinations and ideas than a set of fixed principles. It is hard to define precisely but I know it when I see it. If Deism was a big tent, Jefferson was at least a frequent visitor, and often made his home there."

While I agree that there is a great deal of truth to this statement, I still maintain that your central argument holds. The "Jefferson was a Deist" argument is far too simplistic for a man that was anything but simple. David Holmes' assessment in his book, Faiths of the Founding Fathers is probably best. He calls Jefferson a Christian-Deist. This definition best incorporates what you and Dr. Cebula point to.

For me, I still maintain that Jefferson was a restortationist in many respects. I am currently working on a post that I hope will effectively explore this idea.

Lindsey Shuman said...

After reading this article and Brad's recent article on Jefferson I am forced to admit that you both have changed my opinion of Jefferson. You are both right to point out that calling Jefferson a deist is lacking. There was much more to this incredible man.

Anonymous said...

He was a Deists in every sense of the word....Google The Treaty of Tripoli Article 11 of that treaty. Its an absurd gesture to think that the Founders were Christian when the evidence totally suggest otherwise. The US was founded on a secular form of goverment.

bpabbott said...

Anon, you imply a false dichotomy.

The choice is not between Deism and Christianity.

A more appropriate framing is between human reason, and the claim of divine relevation.

Burr said...

I'm reading a book entitled "The Faiths of our Founding Fathers" by David L. Holmes which basically states that most of our Founding Fathers were deists.