Was America founded as a Christian nation?
That is the question that sparks heated debate among several groups of people who have somewhat of a vested interest in the answer. The question deserves an answer.
What you won’t find in Fea’s book, however, is a conclusion that the author draws for you. And you know, I really love to read history that is presented that way. Present the research and draw your own conclusions. That’s the way I always tried to teach it, anyway.
What you will find in the book is some very detailed research regarding the religious beliefs of a number of America’s founding fathers, the prevailing religious influences of the time, and how all of those elements came together to produce what they did. What Fea points out is that Protestant Christianity was indeed an overwhelming influence from the time of the American Revolution, through the war, through the formative period that included the writing of both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, and into at least the first century of the country’s existence. Secular history generally gives a lot of credit to the development of the American republic to the enlightenment, but Fea’s research punches big holes in that claim.
Fea’s approach is not just “well balanced.” It turns out that way simply because his research points to facts which make certain conclusions pretty clear. Whereas some Christian reconstructionists downplay the influence of Deists, Agnostics and Universalists in favor of the more orthodox Christian beliefs of others, Fea turns up all kinds of written evidence to determine the religious beliefs of most of the founding fathers. He also points out that many of those who didn’t accept orthodox Christian beliefs such as the dual humanity and divinity of Christ or the trinity still accepted the moral teachings of Jesus, and held great respect for the moral foundation of the Christian faith found in the scripture. The enlightenment wasn’t a heavy weight in the room when the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution were written.
For me, the research into the individual faith of seven of the founding fathers were the most fascinating chapters in the book. George Washington’s faith remains a mystery, since he never put anything in writing to indicate what he actually believed when it came to the matter of personal salvation. He belonged to the Anglican church, was faithful in attendance and support of several congregations, and was a student of the Bible. There are those who conclude that he was less interested in correct doctrine, and more interested in the influence of the church on society. I’ve visited both Mt. Vernon and Christ Church in Alexandria, and would like to think that there was a point in his life when he made a profession of faith in Christ.
Jefferson and John Adams made their beliefs pretty clear. Neither would be considered orthodox by evangelical Christian standards, since they did not believe that Jesus was the divine son of God. Adams was unitarian, and did not accept the doctrine of the trinity, and Jefferson separated out Christ’s moral teachings from the passages of scripture that point him out as the savior from sin. But they were both very familiar with the Bible’s teachings, and allowed at least portions of Christian teaching to influence their perspective. Then there were professed believers like Samuel Adams, John Witherspoon and John Jay. Their writings make their beliefs in the personal saving power of Christ, and in their own salvation by their faith in him, quite clear. In their day, sitting down at a table to discuss the common good of the people of their forming nation seemed to take priority over doctrinal arguments. Nevertheless, the influences of Christianity were strongly present.
Benjamin Franklin is, from my perspective, the most interesting of all of the founders with regard to their faith. Franklin was probably more influenced by the enlightenment and its ideas than any of the others, though he was also heavily influenced by Puritan Christianity as well. He, too, did not accept the divinity of Christ, nor a belief in personal salvation, but he did acknowledge the existence of a sovereign God and believed it was necessary to have his favor on the new, developing nation, as well as encouraging its citizens to be obedient to the principles and precepts of the Bible.
The attitude of these founders, regardless of their religious differences, was remarkable. While they did not hold common religious beliefs, they expected, in their own way, that God’s providence was a necessary element in the success of the new republic. Their common desire for the good of the people made them set aside their personal religious differences and work together to make it happen, to the point where they developed a system in which the religious freedom of all citizens was respected, and indeed, protected by the constitution.
It would be wonderful if we had a Congress today that shared this same perspective.