by Dave Miller, Ph.D.
The standard claim by those who wish to minimize the role that Christianity has played in the establishment and propagation of American civilization is that the architects of American political institutions were deists and atheists who did not subscribe to religion in general or Christianity in particular. It is further claimed that they insisted that religion be confined to private life, excluded from public life, i.e., public schools and government. Of course, abundant proof exists to refute this outrageous, though widely believed, claim. But one must go back to the original documents—not history books written in the last fifty years—to allow the Founders to speak for themselves.
Were the Founders “deists”? A standard dictionary definition of the word is: “The belief, based solely on reason, in a God who created the universe and then abandoned it, assuming no control over life, exerting no influence on natural phenomena, and giving no supernatural revelation” (American Heritage…, 2000, p. 479). One would be hard-pressed to identify a Founder that fits this description. Indeed, the writings of the Founders are replete with their belief in and promotion of the Christian religion in its enlarged sense. Even Thomas Jefferson, who probably questioned the deity of Christ, nevertheless advocated and defended true Christianity. In a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush on April 21, 1803, he wrote:
Dear Sir, In some of the delightful conversations with you, in the evenings of 1798-99, and which served as an anodyne to the afflictions of the crisis through which our country was then laboring, the Christian religion was sometimes our topic; and I then promised you, that one day or other, I would give you my views of it. They are the result of a life of inquiry & reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others (“The Thomas Jefferson Papers…,” n.d., emp. added).
Among the small handful of those who were not particularly whetted to the Christian religion, Thomas Paine is conspicuous, especially in his production of Age of Reason. Though he challenged the inspiration of the Bible, denounced the formal world religions, including the perversions of Christianity that were in abundance, and opposed the promotion of any national church or religion, nevertheless he was not an atheist. He claimed to believe in God and afterlife: “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life” (1794). He also wrote: “Were man impressed as fully and as strongly as he ought to be with the belief of a God, his moral life would be regulated by the force of that belief; he would stand in awe of God and of himself, and would not do the thing that could not be concealed from either” (1794). Paine not only believed in “the certainty of his existence and the immutability of his power,” he asserted that “it is the fool only, and not the philosopher, or even the prudent man, that would live as if there were no God.” In fact, he stated that it is “rational to believe” that God would call all people “to account for the manner in which we have lived here” (1794)….
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