Some ill-informed people have perpetuated the myth that America's Founding Fathers were all evangelical Christians.
I offer the following insights from the excellent book, The Search for Christian America by Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch, George M. Marsden. These three men are regarded as three of the finest historians on American religious history. And all three of them are evangelical Christians. Noll is Professor of History at Wheaton College, Hatch is President-Elect and Professor of History at Wake Forest University and former Provost and Director of Graduate Studies in History at Notre Dame, and Marsden is Professor of History at Calvin College.
The Faith of the Founding Fathers
It is difficult for modern Americans to recapture the religious spirit of the country’s great early leaders—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and their colleagues. The difficulty arises because these brilliant leaders, surely the most capable generation of statesmen ever to appear in America, were at once genuinely religious but not specifically Christian. Virtually all these great men had a profound belief in ‘the Supreme Judge of the world’ and in ‘the protection of Divine Providence,’ to use the words of the Declaration of Independence. Yet only a few believed in the orthodox teachings of traditional Christianity—that, for example, Christ’s death atoned for sin, that the Bible was a unique revelation from God, or that the miracles recorded in Scripture actually happened.
There were, to be sure, a few founding fathers who affirmed the cardinal tenets of orthodox Christianity…John Witherspoon…Patrick Henry, an evangelical Anglican… (and) John Jay, co-author of the Federalist Papers, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and like Henry, an Anglican of decidedly evangelical sentiments.
Most of the early leaders, however, did not share the Christian convictions of Henry and Jay.
Thomas Jefferson’s views are perhaps best known…the deity of Christ and his resurrection, the Trinity, the divine authority of Scripture—these were the ‘deliria of crazy imaginations.’
Benjamin Franklin…saw Christ primarily as a moral teacher and true religion as an expression of perfectible human nature.
George Washington was a reserved man who did not express his inward feelings easily on any personal matter, least of all religion…A recent biographer, Marcus Cunliffe, sums the matter up well: "It is true that he was a sound Episcopalian, but his religion, though no doubt perfectly sincere, was a social performance…He was a Christian as a Virginia planter understood the term. He seems never to have taken communion; he stood to pray, instead of kneeling; and he did not invariably go to church on Sundays."
The God of the founding fathers was a benevolent deity, not far removed from the God of the eighteenth-century Deists or nineteenth-century Unitarians…They were not, in any traditional sense, Christian. What historian Daniel Boorstin, now Librarian of Congress, once wrote about Jefferson and his friends applies to most of the founders: they had found in God what they most admired in men. (pp. 72-74)
One of the frequent themes (in the history of the United States) is the declaration of Americans that their nation is like a New Israel. From Puritan New England to the popular Christianity of today rings the refrain that America is to be understood not only in the light of Scripture, but especially through the parts of the Old Testament which describes the Hebrews as God’s special people.
For just as long, however, another heritage, going all the way back to Roger Williams, has questioned the America-as-Israel theme…Many Baptists, especially when concerned about the separation of church and state, have followed Williams in this New Testament emphasis. Anabaptists and most Lutherans in America, preserving older Reformation traditions, also have usually refused to seek political manifestations of the Kingdom. Revivalists from a variety of heritages have urged a simple New Testament message of personal salvation while carefully steering clear of any divisive social-political issues.
Even within the more Calvinistic tradition one important nineteenth-century teaching said that America was more like Babylon that like Israel. This was dispensationalism, which eventually spread widely in twentieth-century fundamentalism and Pentecostalism, which specifically repudiated the idea of ‘Christian’ nations or new Israels.
It is remarkable then that, despite so much in America’s theological heritage which repudiates political programs to establish a biblical nation or New Israel, these ideals persist with such power. Especially notable is the fact that these ideals flourish in some traditions where one might not expect them. So we find Jerry Falwell, a Baptist and a dispensationalist, directly repudiated his earlier view that clergy should stay out of politics. Falwell’s change of heart reflects his adoption of Puritan Old Testament models for understanding Christianity and the nation… America is to be brought back to her Christian heritage through political action. ‘It is time,’ proclaims Jerry Falwell, ‘for Americans to come back to the faith of our fathers, to the Bible of our fathers, and to the biblical principles that our fathers used as a premise for this nation’s establishment.’ Tim LaHaye concurs. Christians, he urges, must ‘vote in pro-moral leaders who will return our country to the biblical base upon which it was founded.’ (pp. 124-126)
Here then is the "historical error": It is historically inaccurate and anachronistic to confuse, and virtually to equate, the thinking of the Declaration of Independence with a biblical world view, or with Reformation thinking, or with the idea of a Christian nation. In other words it is wrong to call for a return to "Christian America" on two counts: First, for theological reasons--because since the time of Christ there is no such thing as God's chosen nation; second, for historical reasons, as we have seen--because it is historically incorrect to regard the founding of America and the formulation of the founding documents as being Christian in their origins. Yet this error is one of the most powerful ideas of our day. (p. 130)
Does it really matter if people hold to this mistaken view that America is, or was, or could become a truly Christian nation? Yes, it does matter. It matters because, if we are going to respond effectively to relativistic secularism, then we need to base our response upon reality rather than error. This is not to deny the positive influence that Christianity has indeed had upon the American way of life. Rather, it is to take it all the more seriously so that we may respond to it all the more effectively. (p. 131)