The eminent scholar Joseph Ellis has been posting this week about the Founders at the Encyclopaedia Britannica blog. Today he posts on the Founders and their religious beliefs. My biggest problem with his analysis is that he finds "diversity" of belief where, in fact, little diversity exists. Now, there was a split between the strict Deists, the orthodox Christians, and the "theistic rationalists" (a middle ground between strict Deism and orthodox Christianity with "rationalism" as the trumping element). But the key Founders -- the ones that everyone thinks of when we say the term "Founding Fathers" -- indeed the only ones that Ellis mentions here -- all believed the same: They were the "theistic rationalists." Ellis writes:
In recent decades Christian advocacy groups, prompted by motives that have been questioned by some, have felt a powerful urge to enlist the Founding Fathers in their respective congregations. But recovering the spiritual convictions of the Founders, in all their messy integrity, is not an easy task. Once again, diversity is the dominant pattern. Franklin and Jefferson were deists, Washington harbored a pantheistic sense of providential destiny, John Adams began a Congregationalist and ended a Unitarian, Hamilton was a lukewarm Anglican for most of his life but embraced a more actively Christian posture after his son died in a duel.
Jefferson and Franklin Deists? Neither of them referred to themselves as Deists in their adult life. Franklin embraced Deism as a teenager but rejected Deism his entire adult life. Both Franklin and Jefferson, contra the Deists, invoked an active, personal God. Ellis apparently is unaware that Adams' Congregation preached Unitarianism as of 1750 and Adams testified being one since a teenager.
When one examines the specific doctrines in which each of the five key Founders Ellis invokes believed, it turns out that little difference can be found between Jefferson's and Franklin's "Deism," Adams' "Unitarianism," Washington's "pantheistic sense of providential destiny," and Hamilton's "lukewarm Anglicanism."