The Supposed Faith of our Founding Fathers

I’ve written about this before. I get frustrated every time I talk to a fellow evangelical who has uncritically bought into the mythology that America was founded as a “Christian Nation” by “Christian Founding Fathers.” It’s not their fault…many Christian leaders have made it their life’s work to perpetuate this myth...

  • People like Jerry Falwell and his "Liberty Alliance" which claims that if we examine the Declaration of Independence, we will “discover that our Founding Fathers believed in four basic Christian tenets.”

  • People like D. James Kennedy and his "Center for Reclaiming America" which provides “non-partisan, non-denominational information, training, and support to all those interested in positively affecting the culture and renewing the vision of our Founding Fathers, as expressed in America's founding documents.”

  • People like James Dobson who, on his radio show and his appearances on cable talk shows, talks about "the Founding Fathers’ Judeo-Christian beliefs."

  • People like David Barton and his "Wallbuilders" which stresses “America’s Godly Heritage.”

  • People like Rod Parsley and his "Center for Moral Clarity" and "Reformation Ohio" which make the same claims.

Well, the evidence is very contrary. Anyone who wants to know the facts can easily find them in the book, The Search for Christian America by Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch and George M. Marsden. Noll, Hatch, and Marsden are recognized as evangelicalism’s finest historians. In 2005, Time magazine named Noll one of America's 25 most influential evangelicals; he just moved from Wheaton College to replace the retiring Marsden at Notre Dame (Marsden had previously taught at Calvin College). Hatch is President and Professor of History at Wake Forest University.

They write,

"There were, to be sure, a few founding fathers who affirmed the cardinal tenets of orthodox Christianity: John Witherspoon, Patrick Henry--an evangelical Anglican, John Jay--co-author of the Federalist Papers and 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. 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."

For some extended quotes from this essential book, check out my previous post.

A new book by Newsweek’s Managing Editor, Jon Meacham (American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation [Random House, April 2006]) affirms what Noll, Hatch and Marsden have articulated.

Meacham writes,

“However dominant in terms of numbers, Christianity is only a thread in the American tapestry—it is not the whole tapestry. The God who is spoken of and called on and prayed to in the public sphere is an essential character in the American drama, but He is not specifically God the Father or the God of Abraham. The right's contention that we are a ‘Christian nation’ that has fallen from pure origins and can achieve redemption by some kind of return to Christian values is based on wishful thinking, not convincing historical argument.”

To read an excerpt from Meacham’s book, go to the Newsweek website.

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ScottB said...

Sounds like a great read - thanks for the recommendation.

Great to have you back, by the way. ;)

p.a.hiles said...

i have to agree with you! America was not founded as a "christian" nation (and I'm not saying this because I'm British either!) as a matter of fact, when the puritan settlers first set sail for this country, starting a christian religion wasn't the first thing on their minds! their minds and hearts were set on escaping tyrannical rule, making a profit, and starting a new way of life!if we are to fix the future by looking to our past, we must be sure to get our facts straight!

rich said...

Glad to see someone else blogging about this. My wife and I have both posted about this in the past. She is black so has an even lower view of a lot of these FF.

Jamie Arpin-Ricci said...

Karen Armstrong's "Battle For God" also explores how the seeds of this misconception were planted early in the nations history with clear intentions. Great post.


Bob Robinson said...

pa hiles,
You've nailed it when you say, "if we are to fix the future by looking to our past, we must be sure to get our facts straight!"

the human rights violations of our founding fathers must give African-Americans pause to place them on pedestals.

Thanks for the heads-up on Armstrong's book. I didn't know she dealt with this subject there.

Joshua said...

"There laid they Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed."

-Last sentence of "The Jefferson Bible"

DLW said...

I wonder do they interact at all with the theses in Robert Fogel's book, "The Fourth Great Awakening", that holds implicitly that it has been traditionally through religious revival/renewal that the US has progressed in its social/political institutions to catch up with the cultural turmoil caused by changing technology?

I'd be willing to argue that the Founding Father's dream was implicitly influenced by the first awakening and that the 2nd great awakening was just as if not more important than the specific form that the US Constitution took, as it most definitely was and is a living document.

My problem with the religious right is that they're simply elevating their traditional understandings of Christianity, whereas I think the future is going to depend on us experiencing another awakening, hopefully drawing heavily on the experiences of Christainity from the 2/3rds world where Christainity is most vibrant these days....


Ted Gossard said...

Thanks Bob. Well put, and your statement is sorely needed today. And unfortunately I think this phenomena is related to the religious right's marriage to the Republican party and conservative politics. There is not a good vision of the kingdom of God in Jesus, in all of this, I believe.

Scot McKnight said...

Bob, you are now officially back! I've got enough to read, but I might need to read this one. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the additional quotes...

It is a thoughtful polemic that must be thoroughly disseminated.


driz said...

Let's distinguish "christian nation" from a "nation established by christians." keep in mind, the vast majority of souls who populated this new nation were "christian" of one stripe or another. until the late 1800's, nearly 90% of all universities established were done so by cnristian organizations. christian faith permeates the establishment of the USA. that said, the USA wasn't established as a theocracy, contrary to what some politically entrenched conservative believers are trying to promote today.

Bob Robinson said...

Thanks for your contribution.

Here's another quote from Noll, Hatch, and Marsden on the Christianity of early America, which sheds light on your comment.

"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 of 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."

Anonymous said...

I'd argue that the US has always had a diversity of manifestation of Christianity with differing views on Church-State issues.

I do think that the self-image as new Israel and manifest destiny and a racist view of Anglo-Saxonism superiority had long been part of the dominant ideology in the US.

One can also find Christian themes stemming from the first great awakening in "The Ideology of the American Revolution".