Monday, December 13, 2010

Does it even matter if any of the Founders were Christians?

Here at American Creation we tend to get into discussions about the faith lives of the Founders.  Were they Christians?  What kind of Christians?  Devout?  Lax?  Orthodox?  Unitarian?  How can anyone even coherently describe whatever Thomas Jefferson happened to believe at any given moment?  This kind of questioning also shows up quite a bit in constitutional law scholarship discussing the First Amendment's religion clauses and the role of faith in public life.

Over at The American Conservative online, writer Paul Gottfried argues that that whole line of questioning is mistaken:   Was George Washington a Christian?  According to Gottfried's approach the relevant question isn't what did Washington believe? rather it is what kind of social and political order did Washington intend to create?  Gottfried has some thoughts on both questions, and his ideas are well worth pondering.  I particularly am struck by his framing of the debate about religion and the Founding.


Jonathan Rowe said...

Gah. Not a badly written article but Gottfried makes a really embarrassing gaffe: His centerpiece that is supposedly GW's 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation is really GW's 1783 Circular to the States.

King of Ireland said...

We hit on this a while back when I asked Lilliback "Does it really matter whether George Washington took communion or not?". I think this is the correct main frame for these discussions and all the trinity ect. At best on only spokes on the main wheel toward the truth about our founding.

Anonymous said...


That is a pretty bad mistake on Gottfried's part, but it doesn't touch on the substance of his approach. I think that he is right that much of our concern about the Founders' own religious views obscures the more relevant question about the type of civic order they hoped to preserve and reform.

Jason Pappas said...

It matters now because of the false alternative of subjectivism vs. religion. If one can agree that there is in nature—human nature—a basis for moral law and individual rights (and that there is no conflict between religion and reason), there is no pressing need to know the details about the Founding Fathers religious beliefs.

I blame David Hume.

Since his argument that is doesn’t imply ought is taken to imply that there is no natural ethical law, some advocate that only religion or some transcendent order can provide a basis for law and rights. Thus, it has become important for many who want to oppose subjectivism to claim that the religious beliefs were the basis for the ethical and political beliefs of our Founders.

Laci the Chinese Crested said...

Haym Solomon was definitely Jewish!

Solomon was among the prominent Jews involved in the successful effort to have the Pennsylvania Council of Censors remove the religious test oath required for office-holding under the State Constitution.

"I am a Jew; it is my own nation; I do not despair that we shall obtain every other privilege that we aspire to enjoy along with our fellow-citizens."