Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fleming on "Christian America":

Hard right paleo-conservative Thomas Fleming explains why America was not founded to be a "Christian Nation." He writes:

Despite the number of religious fanatics who landed on our shores early on, America has never been a Christian nation. Conservative evangelicals are fond of saying that the Founding Fathers were all pious Christians, but few of the men who led the Revolution or drafted the Constitution could be described as pious or even orthodox. George Washington was an ordinary Episcopalian who showed no conspicuous attachment to religion. His biographer Parson Weems has preserved touching stories about Washington’s faith, but Weems was a notorious liar, and his morale-building stories have repeatedly been debunked. The chaplain to the First Continental Congress knew Washington well and respected him, but, when asked in 1832 about the first president’s religion, he replied, “I do not believe that any degree of recollection will bring to my mind any fact which will prove General Washington to have been a believer in the Christian revelation.”

Revelation, miracles, and mystery were a stumbling block to John Adams, who was an undoubted Unitarian, like his wife, Abigail. Ben Franklin turned deist at the age of 15, before turning into a freethinker and Freemason. He was also a notorious philanderer who fathered bastards and wrote a famous essay on how to get and keep a mistress. Small wonder that Newt Gingrich says Franklin was “great in the way he lived his life.” Thomas Jefferson was also a mildly anti-Christian deist.

As Tocqueville told us 150 years ago, we are a conventional people, afraid of controversy. Going to church, in most periods of our history, has entailed fewer social complications than a reputation for atheism. No known atheist has ever been elected president: Lincoln learned to keep his skepticism to himself. America’s tradition of toleration—a peculiar blend of public hypocrisy and personal indifference to religion—is often explained by the First Amendment. Anti-American Catholics and ACLU liberals agree that the development of a Christian social order (much less a religious establishment) was prevented by the so-called wall of separation between Church and state. The phrase comes from a letter that Thomas Jefferson addressed to a Baptist association in Danbury, Connecticut, in 1802....


To be fair to that good man, Jefferson was in something of a bind. His indifference (at best) to religion was well known, and he knew that anything he wrote could and would be used against him by political rivals who had always tried to represent him as the enemy of Christianity. Cleverly, Jefferson did not even answer the Baptists’ main point: He wrote nothing about the rights of Baptists in Connecticut or the power of the legislature but spoke only of the national legislature—that is, the U.S. Congress—which is forbidden to establish a church or interfere in the exercise of religion.

Jefferson’s wall of separation cannot honestly be used to justify the government’s campaign to eliminate Christianity from public places. The President thought, rightly or wrongly, that he was merely restating and applying the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, which says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

It is not easy today to get the point of this clause, since so few of us have lived in a country with an established religion....

The First Amendment, then, forbids Congress either to establish a national church or to interfere in the exercise of religion. Why Congress, specifically? Because Congress, elected from the people, is the supreme lawmaking body. As Jefferson understood, it was up to Congress to pass laws, which the president executed. The president could not have his own policies on religious freedom any more than he was entitled to have his own policies on war (much less the special “war powers” that Lincoln invented and subsequent presidents have abused): For a president to impose his own ideas on the nation would be tyrannical. Nor did anyone (except possibly Jefferson) ever think the federal courts would get involved in such an issue, since their role was to interpret the Constitution and federal laws, and they had virtually no authority to intrude themselves into the affairs of the separate sovereign states.

The fears of the Danbury Baptists were legitimate: Under the First Amendment, the states could, theoretically, interfere in the exercise of religion or establish a church, whether Anglican or Congregationalist. The fear of a national establishment came natural to Americans. What sort of national church could America have that would unite the Anglicans of Virginia and South Carolina with the Puritans of New England and the Quakers of Pennsylvania? Even the Southern states were religiously diverse. The Carolina backcountry was dominated by Presbyterians and, eventually, Methodists, Baptists, and Campbellites, while Charleston had a significant Catholic population even in the early 19th century, and eventually the number of Irish Catholics in the lower South and, after the Louisiana Purchase, French and Spanish Catholics in Louisiana was too great to be ignored. So, although Christianity held a privileged position, it was, for practical reasons, virtually impossible for states to maintain a church establishment.

Although the Bill of Rights is interpreted today as a guarantee of individual and minority rights to exercise freedoms of expression and religion, this was not the original reading. In this respect, Jefferson’s letter points in the wrong direction. The primary object of the Bill of Rights was to restrain the national government, particularly the Congress.



bradlytle said...


One might think that you have "cherry-picked" 3 signers of the Declaration of Independence (George Washington was not a signatory) to make a point.

Would you be able and willing to tell us about the education, training and particular religious views for the rest of them?

NEW HAMPSHIRE: Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton

MASSACHUSETTS: John Hancock, John Adams, Samuel Adams, Robert Treat Paine

RHODE ISLAND: Elbridge Gerry, Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery

CONNECTICUT: Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott

NEW YORK: William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris

NEW JERSEY: Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark

PENNSYLVANIA: Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross

DELAWARE: Ceasar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean

MARYLAND: Samuel Chase, Thomas Stone, William Paca, Charles Carroll of Carrollton

VIRGINIA: George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton

NORTH CAROLINA: William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn

SOUTH CAROLINA: Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Authur Middleton

GEORGIA: Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton

Jonathan Rowe said...

Hi Brad,

That's a big list. I can talk about many, but not all.

I've poured over the Founding record and know that almost all of them -- and this includes Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Washington, J. Adams -- have formal/nominal connections to a Christian Church that was tied to an orthodox creed.

Period. On the surface that's all you get. In order to figure out what the FF believed in detail you have to carefully examine their writings. And even then we are left with question marks. The key FFs were neither deists nor orthodox Christians.

A lot of 2nd and 3rd tier FFs were indeed orthodox Christians.

bradlytle said...

Hi John,

Thank you for your response.

I'm curious, how did you come to your conclusions?

It's my understanding that of the 56 signers, 29 held seminary degrees.

How is it that you conclude that they only had nominal connections to Christian churches...Period?

Benjamin Rush started the American Bible Society.

John Witherspoon was the best known Gospel Evangelist of his day.

And there's more...

Jonathan Rowe said...


Only one FF -- John Witherspoon -- had a seminary degree.

The 29 figure is a David Barton talking point, one that's been debunked.

I come to my conclusions by meticulous examination of the record. And unfortunately, even after spending as much time as I have (and having my feet held to the fire by careful readers) we come up with question marks re most 2nd and 3rd tier FFs. Heck, we have question marks on some first tier "key FFs" whose work we have meticulously uncovered (for instance Washington, Madison, Hamilton before his deathbed conversion to Christianity and others).

I would say that yes B. Rush was a "Christian" because he believed in Trinitarian orthodoxy (you have to draw the line somewhere; and for "Christian America" heritage debates, it makes sense to draw it there). However, he was a fairly liberal orthodox Christian for his day (perhaps even today): He explicitly denied eternal damnation but rather believed in the Universalist heresy, believing all would eventually be saved.

David Barton has an open invitation to debate me on the radio thru my friend and co-blogger Jim Babka.

I've debated Herb Titus on the radio with Babka moderating. Titus is more of an authority than Barton. Titus has a JD from Harvard. Barton only a BA from Oral Roberts in Education.

Jonathan Rowe said...


Feel free to hit me with everything you've got. Even better do it over at American Creation, my group blog (where most of the reading/commenting action is).

Though we have a lot of readers, we have about a half dozen or so careful readers/commenters (some of them frontpage bloggers) who know the record as well as ANYONE, including David Barton, William Federer or your favorite book author on the matter.

We are fair but critical and, importantly, not monolithic in our views. We come from all over the place and you'll find a number of folks sympathetic to your personal worldview and/or opinion on religion & the American Founding.

We hold eachother's feet to the fire in a way that equals (or is probably superior) to any kind of "peer review" in the academic world (indeed, many of us come from that world).

Jonathan Rowe said...

How is it that you conclude that they only had nominal connections to Christian churches...Period?

Also, you have to read my assertion very carefully. I noted they only PROVABLY had nominal connections to Christian Churches. That means they may have been orthodox devout believers (like Patrick Henry) or may have denied every single tenet of Christian orthodoxy (like Thomas Jefferson). But what Jefferson and Henry had in common was a provable nominal connection to the same Christian Church (in the same state).