I don't often endorse articles by First Things, but this one by Avery Cardinal Dulles is interesting and quite good. I'm doing some research on the Deism of the Founding Era. I might want to write/publish something on it, or if not expect it to be one of the continuing themes of this blog because there is confusion on both sides of the issue.
On the one hand, the claim from the secular left that "just about all the Founders were Deists, and believed in a remote Watchmaker God who didn't intervene" is wrong. But so too is the claim by David Barton et al., and believed by millions of fundamentalists that only a handful of Founders were Deists, the rest inspired fundamentalist Christians like themselves who wanted to "found" the US as a "Christian Nation," in a public sense.
As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between. The article details the evolution of Deism which was a product of Enlightenment thinking. And as such, early Enlightenment thinkers were responsible for Deism's genesis. For instance, while Locke and Newtown weren't Deists in the strict sense, they paved the way for it by putting the focus on man's Reason and away from Revelation. It's true that there were earlier "rationalist" in Christendom, like Aquinas. But whereas Aquinas used Reason to strengthen Revelation and Church Dogma, Locke and Newton used Reason to break with the traditional dogmas of the day -- most notably the Trinity -- and clearly made Revelation subservient to Reason.
From the article:
Shortly after its invention by Lord Herbert, deism received indirect support from the physics of Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and the philosophy of John Locke (1632-1704). The physical world, according to Newton, was explicable in terms of "insurmountable and uniform natural laws" that could be discovered by observation and formulated mathematically. By mastering these laws human reason could explain cosmic events that had previously been ascribed to divine intervention. The beauty and variety of the system, Newton believed, was irrefutable evidence that it had been designed and produced by an intelligent and powerful Creator. Close though he was to deism, Newton differed from the strict deists insofar as he invoked God as a special physical cause to keep the planets in stable orbits. He believed in biblical prophecies, but rejected the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation as irrational.
Newton's close friend John Locke, though not a deist, supplied an epistemological grounding for deism more plausible than the innatism of Lord Herbert. Beginning with human experience of the external world, he accepted a version of the argument from causality that demonstrated, as he thought, the existence of God as the uncaused Necessary Being, eternal, all-powerful, and all-knowing. Locke also believed in Christian revelation on the ground of biblical prophecies and miracles. But he held that reason should be the ultimate judge of all truth and that the firmness of our assent to any proposition should not exceed the strength of the evidence that we could produce in its favor. It followed that revealed truths, which rested on indirect proofs from reports in Scripture and tradition, were less certain than things known directly by reason. He rejected certain Christian doctrines such as the Trinity and the Incarnation, which in his judgment failed to meet the test of rational coherence....
From Locke's system it was but a small step to deism. In 1696 his disciple John Toland published the book Christianity not Mysterious, in which he attributed the mysteries of Christianity to pagan conceptions and the machinations of priestcraft. In 1730 another disciple, Matthew Tindal, published the book Christianity as Old as Creation, in which he sought to demonstrate that all rational creatures have access to "a law of nature or reason, absolutely perfect, eternal, and unchangeable; and that the design of the gospel was not to add to, or take from this law," but only to rescue humankind from superstition. Tindal's work, more radical than Toland's, came be used as a kind of Bible of deism. Both Toland and Tindal were Christian deists; they accepted revelation but maintained that it was nothing more than a republication of the religion of pure reason. Reason alone, they believed, could establish the fundamental truths necessary for salvation.
The article goes on to mention -- something many don't understand -- that there were different kinds of deism: The more radical versions of deism that posited a strictly non-interventionist God, and softer versions that believed in an intervening Providence.
Three forms of deism may be distinguished, at least schematically. The first, most friendly to faith, admitted two channels of truth: reason, which gave access to the essential and necessary truths, and revelation, which communicated certain supplementary truths, useful but not essential for salvation. According to the second version, revelation was an aid to reason, but it could do no more than confirm or clarify truths accessible to reason alone. The most radical form held that reason was the sole font of truth and that revelation was nonexistent.
Our founders -- the ones we would call "Deists" -- were comprised of all three but probably mainly the second kind of Deism. He even uses the term "Christian Deist" for those founders who were members of Christian Churches but had deistic tendencies. (How we label such founders is a matter of controversy among scholars. Do we call a member of a Christian Church, who may believe in an intervening Providence, but nonetheless rejects much of his Church's or orthodox Christianity's dogma which he regards as "irrational," and puts his faith in Man's Reason, a Christian, Deist, (small u) unitarian, theistic-rationalist, deistic-unitarian, Christian-deist?)
He also weighs in on the categorizing the Founders, always interesting and controversial.
The deist outlook also gained a foothold in the American colonies, where it became popular among the rich and well-born about the time of the Revolution. Of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence, the theological leanings of some twenty have been identified. Three have been characterized as deists: Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, and Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island. Two others, John Adams of Massachusetts and George Wythe of Virginia, are described as liberal Christians strongly influenced by deism. Four, including Jefferson's friend Benjamin Rush, were liberals not inclined toward deism. About eleven were definitely orthodox believers. Samuel Huntington, Philip Livingston, and John Witherspoon, president of Princeton University, were prominent in this last group.
Among the founders of the American republic who were not signers of the Declaration of Independence, George Washington, James Madison, and George Mason were religious liberals leaning toward deism. Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, and Alexander Hamilton were generally orthodox Christians opposed to deism.
I knew Adams (Samuel not John) and Henry to be orthodox Christians, but I thought Hamilton was like Washington, a nominal Christian with deist leanings.