The Founding Fathers and the faith of a nation

Published 12:51 pm Friday, July 1, 2016

It is usually around July 4 that Americans are exposed to the proposition that America was established by the Founders as a Christian nation, tolerant of other faiths but meant to be grounded in the tradition of one.

Arguments in support of the proposition are culled from high school history texts and the New Testament; Founding Fathers are quoted as supportive and portrayed as ardent followers of the Christianity’s Founding Fathers; national documents are quoted as proof of their intention to establish Christianity as the one and only national faith.

Those supporting the proposition have been effective in convincing most Americans that those who gave birth to America intended to establish Christianity as the nation’s religion. As late as 2010, 65 percent of Americans believed that the Founders designed the United States to be a “Christian nation” and over half of us think that this intention is clearly spelled out in the Constitution.

It is important, however, to keep in mind that polls measure perception rather than reality, impressions of history rather than the facts of history. Granted, some Founders were, in fact, ardent Christians: Patrick Henry, John Hancock, John Jay and Sam Adams all professed belief. Many others, however (and arguably the most influential Founders — Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, George Washington, James Madison and John Adams) did not. Each was more comfortable with a Deistic understanding of God than a Christian one and would have failed most 18th-century tests of Christian orthodoxy.

George Washington, for example, was a nominal Episcopalian. He avoided Holy Communion and did not seem interested in the divinity of Jesus. Jefferson did not believe in the Trinity, the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, original sin or the miracle stories and literally excised those parts of the New Testament containing references to them. Nor did he believe the Bible was the inspired word of God.  John Adams was a Unitarian. Madison not only opposed chaplains in Congress and the military but also government prayer proclamations.

Yes, the Declaration of Independence refers to a deity but uses words and phrases common to Deism rather than Christianity — Supreme Architect, Author of Nature, Nature’s God. The text of the Constitution contains no references to God (Deist or Christian), Jesus Christ or Christianity.

An unadorned reading of history (rather than an uncritical acceptance of popular perceptions as manufactured by Christians with an axe to grind) shows that the religious beliefs of the Founders reveal a group of men who not only had no intention of founding a Christian nation but consistently resisted attempts to establish any religion as the established faith of the nation.

I pray that we might have the wisdom and courage to continue to honor their legacy.

The Rev. Polk Culpepper is a retired priest who lives in Washington.