Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Replacing One Myth With Another:

I still regularly discuss the Founding Fathers/what religion were they? issue because it still keeps coming up, especially around July 4! The notion that the Founders were all Deists is indeed a myth. However, the Christian Right tends to replace that myth with another.

Exhibit A, Brannon Howse's most recent Worldview Weekend article:

The strategy of secular humanists is simple: If you say something often enough, people tend to believe it. So, in various forms, they repeat the myth that America’s Founders held to a secular, deistic worldview.

Howse's article adopts the same strategy -- keep repeating something long enough in his "Christian Nation" circles that people will believe it. This works in closed off systems where people dialog only with other folks in their system. This is one reason why I try to, when I can, penetrate those systems and dialog with folks from both the secular left or religious right who may view the issue differently. The Internet gives us that opportunity. And the American Creation blog is founded with that purpose of getting folks from different perspectives together to analyze the issue of religion and the American Founding.

But anyway back to Howse's article. In order to "prove" almost all of America's Founders were "Christian," Howse cites the research of Dr. M. E. Bradford of the University of Dallas which purported to find the following:

He discovered the Founders were members of denominations as follows: twenty-eight Episcopalians, eight Presbyterians, seven Congregationalists, two Lutherans, two Dutch Reformed, two Methodists, two Roman Catholics, and three deists.15

Notice Dr. Bradford’s study found that only three out of fifty-five Founders were possibly deists. These are Hugh Williamson of North Carolina, James Wilson of Pennsylvania, and Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania.

I've seen it further argued that since Church membership at that time involved sworn oaths to God, that these men took sacred oaths attesting to their orthodox Christian faith. The problem is Bradford's research doesn't support the conclusions for which "Christian America" advocates argue. All Bradford found was some kind of formal or nominal affiliation with a Christian Church that professed orthodoxy (as all of them did) on behalf of those 52 men. I know for certain he didn't find official Church membership or sworn oaths to the creeds of orthodoxy because I've personally studied the religious history in meticulous detail of a number of Bradford's "Christians" and know there is no evidence for many of them of official Church membership or sworn sacred oaths to orthodox Christianity.

Take for instance, Alexander Hamilton, of one Bradford's "Christians" and one of the most notable Founders. This was a man who never joined a Church, even after he became a Christian! And Hamilton demonstrated no evidence of orthodox Christianity during the time in which he was involved in founding America. The historical record doesn't show Hamilton becoming an orthodox Christian until the end of his life, after his son died in a duel.

Or take James Madison, another of Bradford's "Christians." There is no evidence that he was either confirmed or a communicant in the Anglican/Episcopal Church. No evidence shows he ever took any sacred oaths to orthodox Christian doctrines.

George Washington did take oaths to the doctrines of the Anglican/Episcopal Church when becoming a Vestryman and then a Godfather in said Church. However, Thomas Jefferson took those oaths when becoming a Vestryman and he was a man who explicitly rejected every single tenet of orthodox Trinitarian Christianity.

Or consider G. Morris, another of Bradford's "Christians," of whom the orthodox Christian Roger Sherman said:

With regard to his moral character, I consider him an irreligious and profane man—he is no hypocrite and never pretended to have any religion. He makes religion the subject of ridicule and is profane in his conversation.

In short, all Bradford demonstrated is some sort of formal or nominal connection to a Christian Church that professed orthodoxy. But virtually all of the notable Founders whom we think of as "Deists" likewise, you'll see if you dig deep enough, had connections to Christian Churches. And this applies to all three of Bradford's "Deists."

Indeed Howse's article alludes to this: "Hugh Williamson, though, was licensed to preach by the Presbyterian Church, which makes it questionable just how serious a deist he really was."

I know little about Hugh Williamson, but have studied the religion of Ben Franklin and James Wilson in detail and know both of them had connections to both Presbyterianism and Anglicanism/Episcopalianism.

Again Howse's article notices the unsound classification of Bradford's "Deists":

Benjamin Franklin clearly was a deist as a young man, but he later became disenchanted with deism. While Franklin probably never became a Christian in the orthodox sense, he came a long way from deism in his eighty-four years.16 At the Great Convention it was Franklin who called for prayer, declaring that “God governs in the affairs of men.”17 (Remember, according to deism, God does not so intervene.)

So if Bradford's classification of the "Deists" is unsound, then what makes the Worldview Weekend crowd assume that his classification of the "Christians" is sound?

My meticulous detective work shows that the key players at the Constitutional Convention -- far more than just "3" -- were neither Deists nor orthodox Christian, but somewhere in between. What we've seen above from Franklin -- belief in a Providential God who intervenes in the affairs of man, but rejection of orthodox Christian doctrines -- is actually the creed of most of America's key Founders, including Hamilton, Washington, Madison, G. Morris, Wilson, J. Adams, Jefferson and many lesser founders like Williamson.

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