A great article by Mark Lilla on Church State issues. He cautions those of us who believe in secular government not to get too hung up on David Barton types (he actually names Barton). Refuting him may be easy and satisfying, but there is a larger reality out there.
At the low end there is the schlock history written by religious propagandists like David Barton, the author of the bizarre pastiche ''The Myth of Separation,'' who use selective quotations out of context to suggest that the framers were inspired believers who thought they were founding a Christian nation. But there is also serious work being done by historians like Mark Noll and George Marsden to counter the tendency in American historiography to rummage through the past for anticipations of our secular, egalitarian, multicultural present. This is a useful corrective and reminds us that the role of religion in American life was large and the separation of church and state less clear than today.
Lilla gets to the heart of how the Founders really viewed religion (and takes a fair middle grounded approach).
What distinguished thinkers like David Hume and John Adams from their French [Enlightenment] counterparts was not their ultimate aims; it was their understanding of religious psychology. The British and Americans made two wagers. The first was that religious sects, if they were guaranteed liberty, would grow attached to liberal democracy and obey its norms. The second was that entering the public square would liberalize them doctrinally, that they would become less credulous and dogmatic, more sober and rational.
That's absolutely true. In many ways the tenets of liberal democracy took a great deal of power away from Churches [at least the dominant ones] and worked to quell the religious passions of the populace quite a bit. But on the other hand, the founders thought that religion was good for morality and a religious citizenry was superior to an irreligious one. The Founders attempted to thread the needed between our Constitutional order (the theory of modern politics and liberal democracy) which was derived not from the Bible but rather reason and philosophy, and the Christian religion itself by arguing that Christianity, properly understood, is wholly compatible with liberal democracy.
Therefore, the Calvinistic-Puritian understanding of Faith & Government which believed in basing a public order on "Revelation" -- and these governments typically would force their citizens to attend Church and criminally penalize, even go so far as to execute heretics and blasphemers -- was not "Christianity, properly understood," but rather an "erroneous" doctrine of how religion and government ought to exist together.
And while it's true that the liberal Protestantism of the Founding era -- highly influenced by deism and unitarianism, and which rejected many traditional Christian orthodoxies -- was compatible with political liberalism, it's also true that some very fundamentalistic, evangelical strains of Christianity were compatible with political liberalism as well. Roger Williams and the Baptists were as fundamentalist as it gets. They believed in keeping religion so absolutely pure from corrupt worldly influences that religion and civil government be kept as distinct from one another as possible. The notion of any civil government -- a worldly institution comprised of fallen men -- as a "Christian" entity was, to Williams, downright blasphemous.
Jefferson and Madison, of course, believed in the more theologically liberal deistic-unitarian "natural" religion, but they seemed to be keenly aware of this evangelical strain of dissident Protestants who desired to keep their religion pure from worldly influences and in fact, often played up on those sentiments, when making their arguments (Madison especially talked about keeping religion & government separate as to preserve the "purity" of both).
Anyway let me dig deeper and give an example how Adams tried to build a bridge between philosophy and civic religion arguing that Christianity, properly understood was compatible with liberalism, and in the mean time, demonstrate how David Barton (when he manages to cite our Founders accurately), misrepresents when he plucks our founders quotes from context. Context is everything.
For instance, one of David Barton's "proof quotes" about our "Christian Nation" is from John Adams: "The general principles, on which the Fathers achieved independence, were...the general Principles of Christianity."
That this quote is from an 1813 letter to Thomas Jefferson (I'm pretty sure the quote is accurate, although I don't have the letter in front of me) is ironic. If you've read their correspondence, especially from some of the other letters that particular year (1813) you would appreciate the irony in plucking that quote from context in trying to prove Adams was arguing that America was founded on "Biblical Christianity." Those letters read in their entirety reveal that Adams and Jefferson pretty much saw eye to eye on matters of religion. And although Jefferson was more harsh in his attacks, both men strongly disapproved of Calvinistic Trinitarian Christianity. (As Gary North puts it -- not the way I would put it -- on page 140 in his book critiquing the Founders and Religion, "Their letters reveal that they were almost totally agreed on religion. They hated Christianity, especially Calvinism.")
It would be wise to turn to another letter from Adams to Jefferson in 1813. In it Adams clearly denies the Trinity as "unreasonable" and states, "The Calvinist, the Athanasian divines ... will say I am no Christian. I say they are no Christians, and there the account is balanced."
In terms of how Adams came to understand what was "True," especially those "Truths" upon which political orders would be built, Adams's writings reveal that, as a true Enlightenment liberal, he turned to Reason over Revelation. As he wrote in "A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America,"
The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature....It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.
Thirteen governments [of the original states] thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind.
Adams did indeed have some positive things to say about "Christianity"; but, as we have seen it was Christianity as Adams wanted it to be, certainly not the Christianity of D. James Kennedy, David Barton, et al., which arguably Adams reviled. As Lilla notes, Adams believed in Christianity as sort of a "civic religion," but it was a watered down version of Christianity that would complement Enlightenment liberalism.
In terms of Adams own "Christian" beliefs, he was a capital U Unitarian who 1) denied the Trinity, 2) didn't believe in Eternal Damnation, 3) didn't believe that Revelation was inerrant and, like Jefferson, flatly rejected much of it as incompatible with "Reason," and 4) certainly didn't accept Jesus as his personal savior or claim to be born-again. We must therefore keep in mind when Adams discusses Christianity in a positive sense, that this is Adams's version of "Christianity," properly understood. This is not the understanding of today's fundies who claim that America was founded as a "Christian Nation."