Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Lehrman Institute's Essay on Founding Fathers & Religion

I can't remember whether I linked to this before. It sums up much of what we've reproduced at American Creation over the years. A taste:

The Founders' Private Religion 
When in 1820 he was 85, John Adams wrote: "My opinions...on religious subjects ought not to be of any consequence to any but myself."211 Religious reticence was a Founding trait. John Jay enjoyed the practice of religion but not the discussion of it. Jay Biographer Frank Monaghan wrote that "Jay conveniently made it a rule never to discuss his religious beliefs with a person with whom he was not in substantial agreement. One evening at Dr. Franklin's [outside Paris] he was engaged in a long conversation with a learned visitor, who suddenly turned the conversation to religion and laughed at the idea of the divinity of Jesus. Jay glared but said nothing, arose, turned on his heel and walked away. At another time a physician attending Jay began to scoff at the belief in a resurrection. Jay at once stopped him: "Sir, I pay you for your medical knowledge, and not for your distorted views of the Christian religion!"212   
The Founders differed in their attitudes toward religion, but generally they kept their own religious beliefs rather private. The nation's fifth president, James Monroe, was a nominal Episcopalian – attending St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House as President as occasionally did his predecessor, James Madison. The written record about what Monroe believed, however, is virtually nonexistent. Religious scholar John McCollister wrote: "The religious conviction of President James Monroe is best classified as 'decision by indecision....No records offer any evidence that Mr. Monroe rejected the Anglican faith; at the same time, we have no record that he endorsed it, either."213 
Even if their personal faith wavered, the religious practice of prominent Founders did not. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall was devoted to attendance at Episcopal services. Historian Alf J. Mapp, Jr., wrote: "Many writers have assumed that his faithfulness was influenced not so much by personal conviction as by a desire to encourage the attendance of those whose conduct would otherwise deteriorate. Still other writers have suggested that he attended church in deference to his wife, Mary, the 'Dearest Polly' of his intimate correspondence."7 Biographer Jean Edward Smith wrote: "John Marshall never rejected the church openly, but his acceptance was environmental rather than doctrinal. Throughout his life the chief justice declined to become a member of any congregation, unable to believe in the divinity of Christ."214


Tom Van Dyke said...

When in 1820 he was 85, John Adams wrote: "My opinions...on religious subjects ought not to be of any consequence to any but myself."

I heartily agree. Especially about Adams. Much is made of his post-presidential correspondence with Jefferson and their sophomoric natterings on theology but I think it's simply because those materials are available, not because of any intrinsic worth or historical importance.

We know little of Ronald Reagan's personal theology, but we are none the poorer for it. It is the public man that matters.

Art Deco said...

We know little of Ronald Reagan's personal theology, but we are none the poorer for it. It is the public man that matters.

I think John Adams could read Sallust in the original. Very few people have that kind of liberal education anymore. Since Wilson's departure, few of our Presidents have been idea men, though several have been bibliophiles (Truman, Nixon, and, surprisingly, George W Bush). The public men often carried with them curios. Harding, Roosevelt, Truman, and Gerald Ford were all freemasons. Truman held some senior position in the masonic order of which he was a member and packed the Supreme Court with masons. Eisenhower had a peace-church background; his famous 'and I don't care what it is' remark was likely just a manifestation of his chronically garbled syntax, but I'm not aware he ever clarified matters. Surviving exchanges of correspondence between Richard Nixon and his professors suggest he adhered to a spare liberal protestantism which tended toward deism. Harding and Roosevelt were serial adulterers at a time when that was severely status-lowering. Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton had histories of gross and persistent sexual misbehavior. Kennedy was given the last rites 9x during the course of his life due to illness (Addison's disease), but he seemed to have no thought of death in his daily life. Nixon enlisted in the military, much to his mother's disappointment. Not sure anyone has reconciled the maintenance of a Quaker affiliation (Hoover, Nixon) with commanding troops. Coolidge, Carter, Reagan, Bush - pere, and Bush - fils
are the only recent occupants of the office whose outward behavior does not render them a puzzle.