Mitt Romney’s recent reflections on the role of religion in American politics implicitly called to mind a disturbingly distorted version of history that has become part of the conventional wisdom of American politics in recent years.
That version of history suggests that the Founders intended to create a “Christian Nation,” and that we have unfortunately drifted away from that vision of the United States. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Those who promote this fiction confuse the Puritans, who intended to create a theocratic state, with the Founders, who lived 150 years later. The Founders were not Puritans, but men of the Enlightenment. They lived not in an Age of Faith, but in an Age of Reason. They viewed issues of religion through a prism of rational thought.
To be sure, there were traditional Christians among the Founders, including such men as John Jay, Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams. Most of the Founders, however, were not traditional Christians, but deists who were quite skeptical of traditional Christianity. They believed that a benevolent Supreme Being had created the universe and the laws of nature and had given man the power of reason with which to discover the meaning of those laws. They viewed religious passion as irrational and dangerously divisive, and they challenged, both publicly and privately, the dogmas of traditional Christianity.
Benjamin Franklin, for example, dismissed most of Christian doctrine as “unintelligible.” He believed in a deity who “delights” in man’s “pursuit of happiness.” He regarded Jesus as a wise moral philosopher, but not necessarily as a divine or divinely inspired figure. He viewed all religions as more or less interchangeable in their most fundamental tenets, which he believed required men to treat each other with kindness and respect.
Thomas Jefferson was a thoroughgoing skeptic who valued reason above faith. He subjected every religious tradition, including his own, to careful scrutiny. He had no patience for talk of miracles, revelation, and resurrection. Like Franklin, Jefferson admired Jesus as a moral philosopher, but insisted that Jesus’ teachings had been distorted beyond all recognition by a succession of “corruptors,” such as Paul, Augustine, and Calvin. He regarded such doctrines as predestination, trinitarianism, and original sin as “nonsense,” “abracadabra” and “a deliria of crazy imaginations.” He referred to Christianity as “our peculiar superstition” and maintained that “ridicule” was the only rational response to the “unintelligible propositions” of traditional Christianity.
John Adams, who identified most closely with the early Unitarians, also believed that the original teachings of Jesus had been sound, but that Christianity had subsequently gone awry. He wrote to Jefferson that the essence of his religious beliefs was captured in the phrase, “Be just and good.” As President, Adams signed a treaty, unanimously approved by the Senate in 1797, stating unambiguously that “the Government of the United States . . . is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”
George Washington was respectful of traditional Christianity, but he did not have much use for it. His personal papers offer no evidence that he believed in biblical revelation, eternal life, or Jesus’ divinity. Clergymen who knew Washington well bemoaned his skeptical approach to Christianity. Bishop William White, for example, admitted that no “degree of recollection will bring to my mind any fact which would prove General Washington to have been a believer in Christian revelation.”
Tom Paine, the author of Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason, insisted that “the religion of Deism is superior to the Christian religion,” because it “is free from those invented and torturing articles that shock our reason.” Paine explained that deism’s creed “is pure and sublimely simple. It believes in God, and there it rests. It honours Reason as the choicest gift of God to man” and “it avoids all presumptuous beliefs and rejects, as the fabulous inventions of men, all books pretending to revelation.” Paine dismissed Christianity as “a fable, which, for absurdity and extravagance, is not exceeded by anything that is to be found in the mythology of the ancients.” In Paine’s view, traditional Christianity had “served to corrupt and brutalize mankind.”
These words no doubt sound shockingly blunt and “politically incorrect” to modern ears, but they were in fact the views of many of our most revered Founders. The fable that the United States was founded as a Christian Nation is just that – a fable.
It is worth noting that the Declaration of Independence does not invoke Jesus, or Christ, or Our Father, or the Almighty, but the “Laws of Nature,” “Nature’s God,” the “Supreme Judge,” and “Divine Providence,” all phrases that belong to the tradition of deism. The Declaration of Independence is not a Puritan or Calvinist or Methodist or Baptist or Protestant or Catholic or Christian document, but a document of the Enlightenment. It is a statement that deeply and intentionally invokes the language of American deism. It is a document of its own time, and it speaks eloquently about what Americans of that time believed.
The Constitution goes even further. It does not invoke the deity at all. Unlike the Puritan documents of the early seventeenth century, it makes no reference whatever to God. It cites as its ultimate source of authority not “the command of God,” but “We the People,” the stated purpose of the Constitution is not to create a government “according to the will of God” but to “secure the Blessings of Liberty.” Significantly, the only reference to religion in the 1789 Constitution expressly prohibits the use of any religious test for public office.
The Founders were not anti-religion. They understood that religion could help nurture the public morality necessary to a self-governing society. But they also understood that religion was fundamentally a private and personal matter that had no place in the political life of a nation dedicated to the separation of church and state. They would have been appalled at the idea of the federal government sponsoring “faith-based” initiatives. They would have been quite happy to tolerate Mitt Romney’s Mormonism – as long as he keeps it out of our government.