A short while back I blogged about a live lecture Geoff Stone gave on the Christian Nation question. The lecture is now a law review article. Stone's take is important because as a professor and former Dean of the University of Chicago School of Law, he's one of the most prominent public intellectuals. Indeed, he's certainly one of the most prominent intellectuals ever to tackle this issue in detail. And indeed the major difference between this and the live lecture is we get to examine Stone's footnotes.
What follows is Stone's thesis with which I agree, although I would clarify it's *some/many* modern day evangelicals and other religious conservatives who assert this:
Invoking that past, modern-day Christian evangelicals assert that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation,” but that in recent decades out-of-control secularists have broken faith with our most fundamental traditions.13 Nothing could be further from the truth. Long before the American Revolution, the Puritan vision of a unified and orthodox religious community had proved unattainable.
My biggest criticism is Stone's conclusions are too slanted towards the secular left. If you want to see what America, in principle, in the ideal, was supposed to be all about, you don't turn to Thomas Paine anymore than you turn to Timothy Dwight or Jedidiah Morse. Rather look at those things in which Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Franklin agreed. And there you will find the more moderate Enlightenment American Founding. This passage reflects Stone's over reliance on the more extreme Enlightenment views of Paine:
Under the influence of Enlightenment ideals, the American colonists converted their frustration with overbearing British rule into a bold new conception of freedom, a conception that involved new understandings “of God, man, human rights, the state, and history.”16 With the Declaration of Independence, these new understandings became a “cornerstone of the American political tradition,” a tradition that “was born in the full illumination of the Enlightenment.”17
Thomas Paine reminded Americans of the Revolutionary era that they had boldly thrown off the prejudices of the Old Order and had embraced a new, enlightened, more rational conception of man: “We see,” he said, “with other eyes; we hear with other ears; and think with other thoughts, than those we formerly used.”18 The ignorance and superstition of the Old World, he declared, had finally been expelled, and the “mind once enlightened cannot again become dark.”19 The United States was conceived “not in an Age of Faith . . . but in an Age of Reason.”20 The Framers viewed “issues of religion and politics through a prism” that was highly critical of what they saw as Christianity’s historical excesses and superstitions.21
And then, there is the issue of Deism which Stone, after many other established scholars, sees as the dominant religion of the principle Founders. But as I've long noted, there are problems with this paradigm. Though, to his credit, Stone notes the existence of a "hybrid" religion that was not quite strict Deism, not quite orthodox Christianity. As he notes:
Many of our founding fathers, including Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, and Gouverneur Morris, were flat-out deists, and many others, such as John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, James Monroe, and George Washington, were at least partial deists who accepted most elements of the deist critique.44
Jefferson and Franklin and probably G. Morris do not belong in the same box with Paine and Allen as the "flat-out deists." They belong in the box with those other mentioned Founders as "partial deists" if it's proper to label them as "deists" at all. Accordingly, they were also "partial Christians" as well.
When Stone explores the religious beliefs of certain "key Founders" in detail, I think he makes a mistake by including Paine. He should have substituted Madison for Paine.
To that end, I would like to explore the beliefs of five key members of the founding generation: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Paine.
Paine had too many problems because of his outspoken public infidelity. Those who cast him off as an outlier have a point. However, the five "key Founders" (the first four Presidents and Ben Franklin) can hardly be termed "outliers."
In this passage, I think, Stone well understand the Founders' concept of "civil religion":
The vast majority of the founders believed that the principle “be just and good” could play a critical role in nurturing the sort of public-spiritedness they deemed essential to self-governance. And they believed that some version of what Rousseau called “civil religion,” and what Jefferson referred to as “Nature’s God,” would be salutary in fostering the spirit of American republicanism.123 But this was a far cry from endorsing the sanctity of Christian doctrine.124
Stone also, I think well understands Washington's faith, although I would use more cautious language; it's possible to read Washington's personal letters and come to different conclusions.
It is not even clear that Washington considered himself a Christian. Although he maintained a connection with the Anglican Church, this was prudent behavior for a cautious political leader. Washington’s personal papers, however, offer no evidence that he believed in biblical revelation, eternal life, or Jesus’s divinity. In several thousand letters, he never once mentioned Jesus, and the name of Jesus was “notably absent from his will.”131 All in all, Washington’s practice of Christianity has aptly been characterized as “limited and superficial,” at best.132
This isn't the time for an extensive exegesis on Washington's faith; I would note that his letters do show that he believed in the afterlife, but it's not clear whether Washington believed in the personal "eternal life" of the biblical (as opposed to the Greco-Roman) version of the "immortality of the soul." Also, Washington's view on revelation is hard to pin down. From his private writings, it's certainly not clear that he accepted the Bible as the inerrant infallible Word of God. He did make biblical allusions (as just about everyone from that era did and even today still do) and sometimes quoted from the Bible, but never verses and chapters as "authority" to settle the matter as you would expect someone who believed the Bible inerrant and infallible to do. I have concluded that GW probably believed, like the other key Founders that the Bible was a partially inspired book and that reason determined which parts of the Bible were true. This is the "theistic rationalist" position.
And speaking of "theistic rationalism" Stone mentions the term in describing Washington's faith, the hybrid that is not quite strict deism or orthodox Christianity:
Washington has variously and accurately been described as a “cool deist,”134 a “warm deist,”135 a “theistic rationalist,”136 a “Stoic,”137 and a “Christian Deist.”138
Yet, the problematic term "deist" leads Stone to unfairly push Washington to the "secular" side of this false dichotomy, Christianity or deism.
As president, Washington was always careful not to invoke Christianity. His official speeches, orders, and other public communications scrupulously reflected the perspective of a deist. His references to religion omitted references to Jesus, Christ, Lord, Father, Redeemer, and Savior, and he invariably edited such terms out of his official documents whenever his subordinates tried to insert them. Instead, he used such deistic phrases as “Providence,” the “Supreme Being,” and the “Deity.”139
Like Adams, however, Washington believed that some form of religion was useful both to public morality and republican government. In his Farewell Address, for example, he warned that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in the exclusion of religious principle.”140
It's certainly true that Washington's public supplications to God as President were careful to omit explicitly Christian language. However it does not follow that Washington was a "deist." The use of terms like "Providence" and the avoidance of explicitly Christian language like "Jesus, Christ, Lord, Father, Redeemer, and Savior," was done to unite not divide, to form a lowest common denominator among various orthodox and heterodox theistic belief systems. Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and Timothy Dwight could all unite around the term "Providence."
There is much more. And the footnotes reveal Stone cited many of the sources I've blogged about over the past few years including the works of James H. Hutson, Brooke Allen, David Holmes, Peter Henriques, Mark Noll, Jon Meacham, Gordon Wood, Henry May, Sydney Ahlstrom, Isaac Kramnick, R. Laurence Moore, and many others.
Check out Stone's excellent article.