A Student of History

October 25, 2006

Faith and the Founders

Filed under: New books — John Maass @ 5:15 pm

 From the National Review today, a piece by By Michael Novak & Jana Novak:

George Will is a very civilized man, and Brooke Allen, by all accounts from our friends, is a courteous and highly cultivated woman. Between them, they have generated another round of argument about the religion of the American Founders. We hope soon to have the pleasure of reading Allen’s new book, Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers, having only read her article in The Nation. What both writers say about the religion of six Founders (Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, and Washington) is within the bounds of 20th-century conventional wisdom.

There seems to be a lot of this kind of work recently.  Just try googling “founding fathers” and “religion,” and see what you get.  One site has a whole list of what Jefferson wrote on religion.  For example in 1816 he wrote “On the dogmas of religion, as distinguished from moral principles, all mankind, from the beginning of the world to this day, have been quarreling, fighting, burning and torturing one another, for abstractions unintelligible to themselves and to all others, and absolutely beyond the comprehension of the human mind. Were I to enter on that arena, I should only add an unit to the number of Bedlamites.”  One gets the impression that TJ sponsored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom so he could practice no form of it, not a certain brand of Christianity.  Or at least the (then) current version of it, for he noted a few years later that “The genuine and simple religion of Jesus will one day be restored: such as it was preached and practised by himself. Very soon after his death it became muffled up in mysteries, and has been ever since kept in concealment from the vulgar eye. To penetrate and dissipate these clouds of darkness, the general mind must be strengthened by education.”

A 1995 article by Steven Morris appears here, which refutes the claim that the founders were trying to set up a religious nation.  Unfortunately, Morris seeks first and foremost to attack the so-called “Christian right,” and his tone leaves me skeptical about his historical objectivity.

I think this site is interesting: Religious Affiliations of the Founding Fathers.  It notes that there are 204 unique individuals in the group we call “Founding Fathers.” These are the people who did one or more of the following:

– signed the Declaration of Independence
– signed the Articles of Confederation
– attended the Constitutional Convention of 1787
– signed the Constitution of the United States of America
– served as Senators in the First Federal Congress (1789-1791)
– served as U.S. Representatives in the First Federal Congress

Within this group, it identifies the religious affiliation of each one, and concludes that “The signers of the Declaration of Independence were a profoundly intelligent, religious and ethically-minded group.”  Hmmmm.  I am not sure at all that assigning denominations to Founders, and then calling them religious is a way to say that the Founders were a religious lot.  Look at Jefferson–was he religious?  The website says he was an Episcopal “deist.”  What’s that??  There’s quite a write-up on him at a linked page, here.

One may also wish to question Washington’s religious beliefs as well.  Check out Peter R. Henriques’ book Realistic Visionary, for its chapter on GW’s faith, in which he concludes that GW was not a Christian as many people then and today would define that word. 

Novack’s point is that beyond the well-known religious murkiness of the top founders (GW, TJ, Adams, Franklin, etc.) most of the others were in fact devout~~and so were the American people as well.

The author’s (Mr. Novack) website is here.

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