Which of the Founders Was a Deist? Who Cares?

August 4, 2010

I was invited to give a talk the other day about “The Myth of a Christian Nation.” This is a serious issue, even though the claim that the United States is officially a Christian nation is pure rubbish. All too many people believe this nonsense and are using it in efforts to influence our public policy and the content of our public school textbooks. But today I will not burden you with the details of the specious arguments typically offered by Christian nation advocates. Essentially, the arguments rely on disjointed snippets of American history (for example, excerpts from the Mayflower Compact, comments by various statesmen, a phrase or two from the Declaration of Independence) while ignoring or discounting the evidence most relevant to this question, namely the U.S. Constitution.

But there is one aspect of the arguments I want to discuss. This is the claim that various of the prominent Founding Fathers were Christian. I want to discuss this claim because it seems to engage some of those who correctly reject the Christian nation myth; they also appear to think that the exact nature of the religious beliefs of some of the Founding Fathers is an important issue. As a result, there is a flourishing debate about whether individuals such as Washington or Adams were deists, Unitarians, or Christians. One website I reviewed in preparation for my speech devoted significant space to discussing the implications of George Washington not taking communion.

Frankly, I find this debate over the religious beliefs of the Founders not very meaningful or productive. Far too much weight is placed on this issue by some. The religious beliefs of these individuals were at most tangentially relevant to the question of whether they intended to establish a Christian nation or a secular nation that respects freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. A person may have little or no religious belief and still think that religion is useful as a manipulative tool and should be closely allied with the government. Benjamin Franklin was almost surely not an orthodox Christian; he is also the only person who proposed that the sessions of the Constitutional Convention be opened with a prayer. (His motion, fortunately, did not pass.) On the other hand, there were Christians in the 1780s, as there are Christians today, who believe in the strict separation of church and state. Madison was almost surely a Christian, yet he is, arguably, the Founder most responsible for ensuring that the United States is officially a secular nation.

If there is no logical connection between one’s personal religious beliefs and one’s commitment to church-state separation, why does this issue absorb so much attention? I understand why Christian nation advocates want to make the claim that all or almost all of the Founders were Christians. They will grasp at any straw that they (mistakenly) think will bolster their arguments. But freethinkers should recognize that the personal beliefs of the Founders are not terribly germane to the issue of whether the U.S. is a Christian nation.

It seems to me the eagerness to debate the Religious Right crazies on this issue arises at least in part from a lingering insecurity on the part of some atheists and skeptics. Despite the increase in the number of nonbelievers and the lessening of some of the stigma associated with being a nonbeliever, atheists remain a mistrusted and misunderstood minority. One reaction to this prejudice is a desire to show that some prominent individuals—individuals that others might admire—have shared our views. So we try to argue that the Founders, if not atheists, were at least very skeptical of religion. “You think George Washington was a great leader? Well, Washington was one of us; he didn’t believe that Christian crap.”

Similar motivations underlie the enthusiasm many feel for contemporary atheist celebs. How many of you have been in a conversation with fellow atheists or humanists when someone excitedly announces, “Hey, did you hear that [well-known actor, entertainer, or writer] said s/he was an atheist?” OK, so Brad Pitt told a reporter he is part-atheist, part-agnostic. And? Does this validate our beliefs?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m always happy to see atheism get some positive publicity. I’m also happy about any event that might diminish the stigma associated with being a nonbeliever—although I think ordinary people coming out and informing their friends and colleagues they are atheists probably has more of an effect than some throwaway remark by a celebrity.

But I don’t think we should invest too much time and energy in efforts to prove some Founder or another was a skeptic. First, for most of them, the historical record is much too ambiguous to draw definitive conclusions. Second, as indicated, the importance and consequences of their work are not affected by the character of their personal beliefs. Finally, we don’t need celebrity endorsements. Our views are supported by something much more secure—reason and evidence. It doesn’t really matter whether Washington didn’t take communion because he was not Christian, he didn’t believe in the ritual, or he simply didn’t want to wake up and get out of his pew.