Friday, March 4, 2016

Back to the Culture Wars

PBS website:

Like the other Founding Fathers, Jefferson was considered a Deist, subscribing to a liberal religious strand that values reason over revelation and rejects traditional Christian doctrines, including the Virgin Birth, original sin and the resurrection of Jesus.

Actually, the other Founding Fathers are NOT considered deists, as John Fea of Messiah College explains here.

"The founding fathers were deists."
I have probably heard this statement affirmed just as much as I have heard claims that the founders were Christians. It is one of the many pieces of ammunition used by the opponents of the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. If the founders were indeed deists, the argument goes, they could not have founded a uniquely Christian republic.
In actuality, there were a lot more founders who were Christians than deists. And of those founders who did not identify with the doctrines of historic Christianity, few could be called deists.
So it goes.  Unfortunately, those who minimize our religious heritage are in control of quangos like PBS, and of course the lion's share of academia, and for the large part control the general public perception of history. Thus amateurs such as David Barton arise in response, whose most trivial of errors and inconsistencies are hunted down with the persistence of Javert.

For those at home without scorecards, that's the gist of it.


jimmiraybob said...

Kuddos to you and John* for emphasizing that there is no such thing as “THE founding fathers” as in THE founding fathers were (fill in the blank) or THE founding fathers thought (fill in the blank). Whether used through laziness or as propaganda for a cause, it’s wrong.

Which is why I find it curious…and somewhat disconcerting…that John then commits the same error of universal inclusion by saying, “Deism was the belief that God created the world and then let it operate according to natural laws.”

Deism was far more complex than that and those who called themselves deists or those who never called themselves deists but who, nonetheless, were later labelled as deists, were a diverse bunch with diverse beliefs about deity and religion and religion in the public square. I like John’s writing and perspective but, as an academic and historian, I think that he needs to explore the literature more closely. This is touched on in earlier posts here that highlight Joseph Waligore’s* work(1)(2) and is thoroughly explored in references that I’ve cited here in the past (which, are also incorporated into Waligore’s work), including:

Rosalie L. Colie*, 1959. Spinoza and the Early English Deists. Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 20, No. 1. (January), pp. 23-46.

*Department of History, Wesleyan University – Available online @

Hudson, W., 2008. The English Deists: Studies in Early Enlightenment (The Enlightenment World). Pickering & Chatto, 224 pages.

Hudson, W., 2009. Enlightenment and Modernity: The English Deists and Reform (The Enlightenment World). Routledge. 240 pages.

If there was one commonality among the “deists” it seems to have been an adherence to natural religion guided by reason and devoid of revelation (but not necessarily devoid of Biblical principles and wisdom) and their antipathy to priest craft and undue ecclesiastical authority in the civil realm. But, other than possibly that, there was no central doctrine or confession that defined a deist system to which one had to adhere. (And deism, as emphasized by Hudson, whether English or American, did not imply a necessary hostility to Christianity.)



*Hopefully Dr. Fea and Dr. Waligore will excuse the informality that I use in the comfort of the pub-like atmosphere of the comments section.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The English deists were a different breed. There were precious few American deists and they were largely idiosyncratic.

Jonathan Rowe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan Rowe said...

“Deism was the belief that God created the world and then let it operate according to natural laws.”

The way I see it is, 1. this is one of a number of viable definitions of "Deism." But 2. problematically this is what "Deism" has come to MEAN to many people's ears when we talk about definitions about what the Founders were.

Likewise with the term "Christians" as in "they were all or almost all 'Christians.'"

What does "Christian" mean. If it means all connected to some kind of Christian church (like all of the Presidents of the modern era including all the liberal Democrats) then they were all "Christians." Yes Obama and Hillary Clinton are both "Christians."

Somehow I don't think this is how the Christian Right want to understand what it means to pass the "Christian" test.

Drs. Noll, Hatch and Marsden have a term for it: "weak generic Christendom." Yes all the Founding Fathers (including Jefferson) and like Hillary and Obama pass the "weak generic Christendom" test of "Christianity."

jimmiraybob said...

"1. this is one of a number of viable definitions of 'Deism.' But 2. problematically this is what "Deism" has come to MEAN to many people's ears when we talk about definitions about what the Founders were.

I agree. And, that is my point. Just as there is no such thing as THE founding fathers there is no such thing as THE deists. As a public academic - a public historian - I think that Dr. Fea could help to shape a more accurate, more nuanced understanding - the way that he is focused on correcting the record regarding the founders.

" There were precious few American deists...."

If you use the narrowest definition then the number certainly shrinks - whatever that number is. But if someone makes the effort to who the proto-deists were, and here the English deists were quite influential on the American religious-political rhetoric, then the numbers expand.

" Unfortunately, those who minimize our religious heritage ...."

Denying or glossing over the influence of natural religion and deism during the American founding is, in fact, minimizing our religious heritage.