I decided to do some research on James Huston after seeing him on Coral Ridge's propaganda special. He's actually a legitimate scholar (Kennedy's special featured a few legitimate, well respected scholars like Daniel Dreisbach, along with hacks like David Barton and William Federer). On the special, Huston remarked that George Washington was a vestryman in the Anglican/Episcopalian Church (which proves nothing about Washington's orthodox belief, because so was Jefferson) and the notion that virtually all of our founders were Deists is historically false (I agree with him there, though, so too is the notion that virtually all but a handful of founders were orthodox, Trinitarian Christians).
Huston works for the Library of Congress and wrote a good paper on James Madison and religion. You can see that he's not a "Christian Nation" propagandist because he doesn't try to claim Madison as an orthodox Christian (which they all do). He gets to the bottom of Madison's religious belief or lack of evidence thereof:
Madison, on the other hand, defies definition or description. Seeking evidence of his faith quickly leads to the conclusion that there is, in the words of the poet, no there there, that in the mature Madison's writings there is no trace, no clue as to his personal religious convictions.
Madison, like George Washington, was conspicuously silent about the specific details of his religious beliefs. Both men did however profess a belief in a Divine Providence. The question then is what are we to make of the silence of Washington and Madison?
As I have noted before, there is positive evidence that Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin were all deistic-unitarians, that is they followed a "natural" religion that profoundly broke with traditional Christian doctrines like the Trinity, eternal damnation, inerrancy of scripture, miracles and prophesies written in the Bible that seemed to contradict the laws of science and nature, etc.
(Note: When I use the term "natural" as I will many times in this essay, I mean, in the words of Forrest McDonald, what is "discoverable by reason as opposed to revealed by God." Therefore, the "natural religion" or "natural law" is what we can know about God and His rules through "Reason" not "Revelation.")
Washington and Madison, on the other hand, give little positive evidence that they were either orthodox-Bible believing Christians, or that they, like the other three mentioned, rejected such tenets. I think one could make a case that the silence of Madison and Washington points in the direction of unorthodox belief in the natural religion like Jefferson, et al. Putting things into historical perspective, churches and the forces of "religious correctness" had far greater social and legal power back then than they do today. One could not easily wear one's religious unorthodoxy on one's sleeve and get away with it. Thomas Paine did so and was absolutely personally ruined and died a pauper for his public thoughts on religion. Jefferson straddled the line with his public pronouncements and was vilified by more than a few orthodox Christians. And most of Jefferson's and Adams's explicit criticisms and rejections of orthodox Christianity were taken from their private correspondence -- correspondence, by the way, which they knew they were writing for future generations to read and absorb.
To provide a useful anecdote: One letter from their correspondence which I am fond of quoting (one of Adams's best) is an 1813 letter of Adams to Jefferson where Adams clearly reveals that he is a deistic-unitarian like Jefferson -- he loathes Calvin; he denies the Trinity; he disbelieves in Eternal Damnation; he elevates Reason over Revelation...it's all in there. The context of the letter is that England -- which was socially, pretty similar to America -- had just repealed a law making it a crime to publicly deny the Trinity!
In other words, whereas Madison and Washington couldn't get in trouble by publicly affirming the tenets of orthodox Christianity, they likely would get in trouble for publicly denying those tenets. I know I have some bias in the matter, but I think that Madison's and Washington's silence on religious matters gives evidence of their deistic-unitarianism.
There is other secondary evidence as well that demonstrates the unorthodox beliefs of Washington and Madison. For instance, Washington was an Episcopalian and sometimes attended church. He, however, systematically refused to take communion (something orthodox members didn't do) leading his own ministers to brand him a "Deist." He was publicly excoriated in Church for doing this, not by name, but by example, by one of those ministers, after which Washington never again attended Church on communion day.
Huston's paper unearths some interesting quotes from men whom were personally acquainted with Madison:
"To make his case, Brant relied on the testimony of Madison's contemporaries, one of whom knew the fourth president well--the Reverend Alexander Balmaine, the husband of one of Madison's favorite cousins and the Episcopal priest who officiated at his marriage to Dolly Paine Todd. Brant also used the testimony of the Episcopal Bishop of Virginia, William Meade, who claimed, on at least one occasion, to have talked religion with the former president. Balmaine's account, as recorded by Meade, asserted that after returning to Montpelier from college Madison
"Offered for the Legislature, and it was objected to him, by his opponents, that he was better suited to the pulpit than to the legislative hall. His religious feeling, however, seems to have been short-lived. His political associations were those of infidel principles, of whom there were many in his day, if they did not actually change his creed, yet subjected him to a general suspicion of it
"According to Bishop Meade:
"I was never at Mr. Madison's but once, and then our conversation took such a turn--though not designed on my part--as to call forth some expressions and arguments which left the impression on my mind that his creed was not strictly regulated by the Bible.
"Brant also cites a Bostonian's account of an 1815 dinner table conversation with Madison:
"He talked of religious sects and parties and was curious to know how the cause of liberal Christianity stood with us, and if the Athanasian creed was well received by our Episcopalians. He pretty distinctly intimated to me his own regard for the Unitarian doctrines."
Madison also, like Jefferson et al. believed that traditional religious beliefs must give way to the new discoveries of science and reason:
Perhaps a better clue to Madison's outlook is a letter to Jefferson, December 31, 1824, in which he complained about Presbyterian "Sectarian Seminaries," armed with charters of incorporation, disseminating obsolete religious doctrines, by which he clearly meant Calvinism.
Unassailable charters allowed a "creed however absurd or contrary to that of a more enlightened Age" to be perpetuated indefinitely. The Reformation itself, Madison continued, must be considered the "greatest of abuses," if legal impediments could prevent its doctrines from being brought up to date. The idea that Madison was espousing, that religious truth must evolve to incorporate the discoveries of science and other branches of modern learning, was far from the theological orthodoxy of most 19th century American churches. It can be inferred that his own religious views had evolved from the verities he had learned at Princeton, but how and in what direction neither this nor other writings disclose.
Finally, the public acknowledgements of God made by Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin, strikingly parallel one another. All of them made supplications to an interventionist Divine Providence, but none of them ever referred to God in explicitly orthodox-Trinitarian Christian terms or cited verses and chapters of Scripture in doing so.
This passage from James Madison's Address to the People, Virginia General Assembly, January 23, 1799 is typical of such a supplication:
Pledged as we are, fellow-citizens, to these sacred engagements, we yet humbly, fervently implore the Almighty Disposer of events to avert from our land war and usurpation, the scourges of mankind; to permit our fields to be cultivated in peace; to instil into nations the love of friendly intercourse; to suffer our youth to be educated in virtue, and to preserve our morality from the pollution invariably incident to habits of war; to prevent the laborer and husbandman from being harassed by taxes and imposts; to remove from ambition the means of disturbing the commonwealth; to annihilate all pretexts for power afforded by war; to maintain the Constitution; and to bless our nation with tranquillity, under whose benign influence we may reach the summit of happiness and glory, to which we are destined by nature and nature's God.
So we see Madison making a supplication, not to the God of the Bible, but rather to "Nature's God," meaning what man can know about God through his Reason. This is more evidence that Madison adhered not to conventional Christianity but to the "natural" deistic-unitarian religion. I know...these concepts are not mutually exclusive. It's possible that "Nature's God" and the God of the Bible are one and the same, that what we "discover" about God through Reason perfectly complements Revelation.
However, in those rare events when our Founders explicated Nature's God's specific attributes, often they described Him in ways not consistent with traditional teachings. For instance, back to Adam's 1813 letter, "Reason" reveals Nature's God to be theologically unitarian!
It's true that when our Founders did invoke God, they spoke to a public comprised of many orthodox Christians, who would not have taken too kindly to their supplication of a God in which they didn't believe. So this is why our Founders were purposefully vague when making their supplications. They drew a lowest-common-denominator. Justice Scalia, in fact, noted something similar in his dissent in McCreary but ultimately missed the point. He argued that our Founders drew a lowest-common-denominator between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. This is wrong because anyone with good historical knowledge of religion and the founding knows that Judaism and Islam were not socially respectable religions and tended to be placed in the same box with "Hindus, Pagans and Infidels." What our Founders actually did was draw a lowest-common-denominator between orthodox Christianity on the one hand and the unorthodox deistic-unitarian religion to which they ascribed on the other.
But in any event, the "kernel of Truth" to the claim that "our Founders were Deists," is that, even if they were a statistical minority, the key framers, indeed arguably the five most important Framers -- Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin -- were not orthodox Christians but rather ascribed to an Enlightenment influenced "natural" religion.