My readers knew I'd eventually get to this. I'm glad this issue is being discussed and wish it were more often. Indeed, there are so many current books on topic (James Hutson's, David Holmes's, Jon Meacham's, and Michael Novak's book on Washington), and many past ones that you would think this topic would be more popular on the blogsphere.
It began with George Will's review of Brooke Allen's newest edition to the line of current books on the Founders and Religion, "Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers." Will's review is sympathetic to Allen's thesis, but, as he notes, "It...as polemics often do, occasionally goes too far." After a brief mention by Matthew J. Franck of Bench Memos wanting for a response from an expert like Michael Novak, Novak and his daughter/co-author Jana, responded.
My analysis: Where Allen is right and where she, in Will's words, "goes too far." [Note, like the Novaks, I haven't yet read Allen's book, but did read her article in The Nation, and am basing my claims on Will's review.]
Will notes the prime motivation for Allen's book is "an...attempt to present America's principal founders as devout Christians. Such an attempt is now in high gear among people who argue that the founders were kindred spirits with today's evangelicals, and that they founded a 'Christian nation.'" Allen sets out to debunk this notion as historical revisionism. And she is right.
Where she gets it wrong (like many on the secular left) is in, as Will puts it, "[h]er thesis...that the six most important founders -- Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton -- subscribed, in different ways, to the watery and undemanding Enlightenment faith called deism....Eighteenth-century deists believed there was a God but...[h]aving set the universe in motion like a clockmaker, Providence might reward and punish, perhaps in the hereafter, but does not intervene promiscuously in human affairs. (Washington did see 'the hand of Providence' in the result of the Revolutionary War.) Deists rejected the Incarnation, hence the divinity of Jesus. 'Christian deist' is an oxymoron."
The problem with this thesis is that the term "Deist" is understood as one who believes in a remote Watchmaker God, and each of those six men, as they founded the nation, consistently, in their public proclamations and private correspondence invoked a warm intervening Providence. They were perhaps "deistic," yes, strict Deists, no.
Allen and Will, apparently, slightly recognize this inconsistency. We are told that the Founders subscribed, "in different ways" to Deism, that God doesn't intervene "promiscuously" in human affairs. And that Washington believed God's intervention in the American Revolution.
The Novaks jump on this disconnect between the notion of a non-intervening Deist God, and all of the quotations that show these Founders clearly believed Providence often intervened, as the central flaw in the secular left's notion of a Deist Founding. And they are right in that regard. But, the Novaks falter by trying to reconcile what these Founders really were with Christianity.
Much of this depends upon what it means to be "Christian." Today, as during the Founding era and throughout history, people who believe in all sorts of things call themselves Christians (see today's Episcopalians). What is clear, though, is that these Founders' beliefs cannot be reconciled with what is commonly termed, "orthodox Christianity."
In rejecting our Deist Founding, the Novaks write: "If by Deism you mean a belief in a watchmaker God who has no intimate concern for human individuals or individual nations, a God for whom interpositions in history are out of the question, Deism is contrary to Judaism and to Christianity -- and to the public (and private) convictions of George Washington."
Yet, it is equally true that though these key Founders believed in an intervening God, their religious convictions, in other ways, were just as contrary to Judaism and Christianity. And the Novaks refuse to properly inquire here. Instead, we get equivocations like the following:
Some of the Founders were uncertain about the divinity of Jesus and how to think of it -- as Christians have always been since the beginning (not only in individual hearts, but also in great public debates and Councils of the Church). That Jesus Christ is both God and man is central to Christian faith; and yet how to understand that is not easy.
"Uncertain"? Jefferson and Adams, in no uncertain terms, bitterly ridiculed the Trinity, and its subsidiary doctrines, thus rejecting what is, in the Novaks's opinion, "central to Christian faith." Most probably realize this fits Jefferson's personality. But few realize that Adams entirely agreed with Jefferson on these matters. The Novaks note that Gordon Wood finds "Jefferson -- the Founder most attended to today -- was an outlier among the Founders." Perhaps in his desire to Separate Church and State. But regarding his personal religious faith, not a shred of meaningful difference can be shown between what Adams and Jefferson believed (or what the other four Founders in question believed; some of them are harder cases because they were so reticent to discuss their personal faith). Here is John Adams on the Incarnation:
"An incarnate God!!! An eternal, self-existent, omnipresent omniscient Author of this stupendous Universe, suffering on a Cross!!! My Soul starts with horror, at the Idea, and it has stupified the Christian World. It has been the Source of almost all of the Corruptions of Christianity."
John Adams to John Quincy Adams, March 28, 1816
Sounds like it could have come right from Jefferson's mouth. Indeed, in 1823, Jefferson explicitly stated to Adams, they worshipped the same benevolent unitarian Deity, not Calvin's malignant, demonic Tri-God.
I can never join Calvin in addressing his god. He was indeed an Atheist, which I can never be; or rather his religion was Daemonism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did. The being described in his 5. points is not the God whom you and I acknowledge and adore, the Creator and benevolent governor of the world; but a daemon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin.
The Novaks discuss how Franklin politely dismissed the Trinity while speaking to the then President of Yale. Franklin wrote:
As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of morals, and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England some doubts as to his divinity; tho' it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.
Though, the Novaks applaud Franklin when they ask -- "How many professors at American universities today are so certain that they will meet Jesus Christ after death, to see the evidence for themselves?" -- their fundamentalist friends might note that if you don't believe Jesus is God when you die, you aren't going to meet Him. And that contrary to praising Franklin, perhaps they should castigate him for his hubris is asserting that he need not bother himself with the question of Jesus Divinity, that is, the ultimate nature of God.
And Franklin, understandably, walked on eggshells when speaking with Ezra Stiles, a leading orthodox Christian of the day. In that same letter, Franklin asks that its contents remain secret, else his public reputation be hurt. And this, in turn, tells us something that few understand about the context of the Founding and Religion.
These Founders adhered to what orthodox Christians, both during that era as well as today, would term "infidel principles." Besides denying the Trinity, they thought man's reason superseded biblical revelation, and though some revelation legitimately came from God, parts of the Bible contained error "fit" for man's reason to edit. They also were universalists who denied eternal damnation and thought most if not all world religions contained the same basic Truth as Christianity and were thus valid ways to God. And, as noted, their God was, contrary to Deism, a warm-intervening Providence. (See Dr. Gregg Frazer's thesis.)
Yet, orthodox Christianity was far more socially and legally entrenched back then. Thus, one couldn't wear one's infidelity on one's sleeve. Paine did so and paid the price by being publicly ruined and dying a pauper. Importantly, these founders wanted to transcend this era and believed that by Founding American on the light on man's reason, the Christian religion would further reform to incorporate their unitarian-universalist beliefs, or otherwise fully tolerate those who openly profess heresy. And men like them, in the future, could wear their so called "infidelity" on their sleeve without being publicly ruined as "infidels."
Finally, let me answer the Novaks's assertion that if the Founders really were the Deists that Brooke Allen makes them out to be they were hypocrits for publicly uttering things inconsistent with Deism. (As the Novaks put it: "This tiny minority of six expressed a very different set of beliefs privately from those they showed in public.") They would be right if the Founders were Deists like Allen argues. But, as we have seen, they weren't. Virtually nothing that those six Founders ever publicly uttered conflicted with their private beliefs. These Founders commonly invoked a warm-intervening Providence, but never publicly identified Him in terms that conflicted with their heterodox theistic rationalism. Rather, they were vague and simply left-out the specific details which might get them into trouble. Publicly, they invoked a generic Nature's God. Privately, Adams told Jefferson that the laws of Nature demonstrate Nature's God to be unitarian, not Trinitarian in His attributes, something a national politician could not publicly utter back then (or perhaps even today).
But, thankfully, the private correspondence that Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin left behind explicitly details what they really believed. Madison and Washington were not so generous to future generations, but left behind some important clues, which unmistakably point in the direction of their belief in the same "infidel" principles, not orthodox Christianity. For one, these two hid in a religious closet regarding their specific religious beliefs (though they did, as we have seen, publicly and privately invoke an intervening, generically defined Providence). And we have seen that the context of the time demonstrates keeping religious secrets means personal belief in "infidel" principles. Jefferson certainly believed this to be the case for Washington:
The following is taken from the notes of Thomas Jefferson on February 1, 1800.
Dr. Rush tells me that he had it from Asa Green that when the clergy addressed Genl. Washington on his departure from the govmt, it was observed in their consultation that he had never on any occasion said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Xn religion and they tho[ugh]t they should so pen their address as to force him at length to declare publicly whether he was a Christian or not. They did so. However he observed the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly except that, which he passed over without notice. Rush observes he never did say a word on the subject in any of his public papers except in his valedictory letter to the Governors of the states when he resigned his commission in the army, wherein he speaks of the benign influence of the Christian religion.
I know that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets & believed himself to be so, has often told me that Genl. Washington believed no more of that system than he himself did.