Kerry Walters, a professor of philosophy at Gettysburg College and author of several books on the Founding Fathers and religion, takes the religious right to task for their false claim that America was founded as a Christian nation. that’s a good thing, of course, but unfortunately he gets some of the details wrong himself.
He’s absolutely right to criticize the Christian nation apologists for their focus on the Puritans, whose theocratic communities could hardly be more opposite the ideas enshrined in the Constitution. That’s why their constant quoting of the Mayflower compact and early colonial charters is not just pointless but is strong evidence against their position. But then there’s this:
The problem, as scholar after scholar has pointed out — how often must it be repeated before the reality breaks through the myth? — is that it simply isn’t true. The Founding Fathers weren’t all Christian. Some, of course, were: Patrick Henry (Episcopalian), John Hancock (Congregationalist), John Jay (Episcopalian), and Sam Adams (Congregationalist), for example, were all devout and pretty conventional Christians. But the big players in the founding of the United States — such men as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and probably Alexander Hamilton — weren’t. Each of them was much more comfortable with a deistic understanding of God than a Christian one. For them, the deity was an impersonal First Cause who created a rationally patterned natural order and who was best worshiped through the exercise of reason and virtue. Most of them may have admired the ethical teachings of Jesus (although Paine conspicuously did not), but all of them loathed and rejected the priestcraft and superstition they associated with Christianity.
There are two mistakes here. First, most of those men did not believe in an “impersonal First Cause,” a deistic god who set the universe in motion and then never intervened. Ben Franklin, for example, while he did not accept the divinity of Jesus and was thus not a Christian, did believe in a provident God who gave us punishment or reward in the afterlife. From his famous letter to Ezra Stiles:
Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this.
Jefferson also did not believe in a distant, watchmaker deity. He famously wrote in his Notes on Virginia:
“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever; that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation is among possible events; that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.
Clearly someone who thinks God can and may well exact justice on us by supernatural interference does not believe in the non-intervening deistic god. Washington likewise believed firmly in a personal, provident God. Madison wrote very little on the subject and Hamilton started out as a theistic rationalist but converted to Christianity later in life.
The second mistake is the claim that Thomas Paine “conspicuously” did not “admire the ethical teachings of Jesus.” This is a particularly baffling claim to hear from someone who has actually edited a critical edition of Paine’s Age of Reason. In the very first chapter of that book, in fact, Paine conspicuously expresses his admiration for the ethical teachings of Jesus:
NOTHING that is here said can apply, even with the most distant disrespect, to the real character of Jesus Christ. He was a virtuous and an amiable man. The morality that he preached and practiced was of the most benevolent kind; and though similar systems of morality had been preached by Confucius, and by some of the Greek philosophers, many years before, by the Quakers since, and by many good men in all ages, it has not been exceeded by any.
It is important to be accurate in such discussions. There are many falsehoods offered by the Christian nation crowd and it is important that we counter them, but the only rational way to do so is to avoid offering falsehoods ourselves.