Was America the Creation of Deism? Part 1

dsmA byproduct spun off from the cultural wars, is the question of what philosophical underpinnings influenced America’s founding. Ask most college educated folk with some background in America History, and they will predictably mention “The Enlightenment” and Deism.

This conclusion is derived from two major observations. First of all, a tendency to focus on the unorthodox theological perspectives of a few key Founders. Secondly, a belief that the phraseology from the Declaration of Independence is exclusively deistic in origin.
When confronted with the question of whether America was founded as a Christian nation, secularists often retreat into a strategy of demonstrating that certain key founders were not Christians. They may focus on historical claims, such as the allegation that George Washington would not receive communion during the church services he attended.

Even more common, is to mine isolated quotes that seem to be critical of Christianity when removed from their context. Discussions with secularists have produced lists of such citations, which, when carefully examined, are actually condemning government control over religion, not Christian doctrine itself.

One such quotation that frequently appears is attributed to James Madison.

“During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”

Note that fifteen centuries of legal establishment takes us back from Madison’s day, to roughly the time when The Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. Before that time you will find scarcely little evidence of “Christian atrocities.” Read carefully, and recognize that what Madison is decrying is the adverse consequences of “legal establishment,” not a populist observance of Christian precept and morality. Madison was concerned about how legal establishment could harm the church itself. The problem is secularists have defined establishment as any mere acknowledgement of God.

Washington, in his Farewell Address identifies what he believes is the proper relationship between God and government.

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

We could belabor this point more, but eventually we must reconsider the original proposition itself. Was American founded as a Christian nation? Do we answer the question by asking if it was legally founded on Christianity? Do we ask whether all the key founders were Christians? Or do we ask whether the ideas that grounded the nations founding were rooted in a history of Christian political and philosophical thought, and what was the general zeitgeist of the population? The secularist tackles a straw man by only addressing the first two questions.

The late historian, Perry Miller lays an axe to the contemporary boilerplate disseminated by contemporary university professors and historians.

“Actually, European deism was an exotic plant in America, which never struck roots in the soil. ‘Rationalism’ was never so widespread as liberal historians, or those fascinated by Jefferson, have imagined. The basic fact is that the Revolution had been preached to the masses as a religious revival, and had the astounding fortune to succeed.” [Nature’s Nation, p. 110 (1967).

Miller’s observation is important for two reasons. Not only is he an eminent historian on early America, but, as an atheist himself, he is immune to the criticism often bandied about, that some historians are guilty of Christianizing the founding era through the lens of their own worldview.

Another important issue is to observe the pejorative response certain Founders articulated against Thomas Paine’s treatise “Age of Reason,”  written in the 1790’s. Why would affirmed deists react negatively to an exposition critical of Christianity from another known deist?

In the second installment we look into the language of the Declaration.

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