By Tom Snyder, Ph.D.
Some people claim that the religious faith of the Founding Fathers of the United States was deism — the view that God created the universe but does not or cannot take an active role in guiding the universe or interfering in the affairs of men. This claim is completely false.
It is time to confront this lie and those who propagate it. The best way to fight falsehood is by showing the truth. That truth can be tested by using logical arguments and factual evidence.
The Faith of Our Founding Fathers
According to Gary DeMar in America’s Christian History, “A study of America’s past will show that a majority of Americans shared a common faith and a common ethic. America’s earliest founders were self-professing Christians and their founding documents expressed a belief in a Christian worldview (DeMar, America’s Christian History, 5).”
The late scholar M. E. Bradford spent much of his academic career examining all of the private and public writings of the Founding Fathers. According to Bradford in A Worthy Company, all but about five of the 55 Framers of the U.S. Constitution were orthodox Christians. These men had no intention of abolishing the Anglo-Christian culture which they had inherited, says Bradford. In Original Intentions, Bradford notes, “The concept of the Framers as ordinary Christians, as members in good standing of the various Christian communions found in early America, is supported by the recorded pattern of their lives. . . . The assumption that this majority was likely to agree to totally secular institutional arrangements in the very structure of American politics contradicts almost everything we know about human nature, as well as the most self-evident components of Christian teaching concerning the relation of the magistrate to the ultimate source of his authority in God (Original Intentions, 88-89).”
“Of course,” adds Bradford, “the most unmistakable evidence of orthodoxy comes in references made by the Framers to Jesus Christ as Redeemer and Son of God. These are commonplace in their private papers, correspondence and public remarks — and in the early records of their lives….Such declarations are so frequent in the papers of the Framers as to belie the now familiar theory that our Republic came into being in a moment of absolute tolerance, of religious neutrality qua indifference or deistic rationalism….And not all of this evidence is relegated to wills or very private documents (Original Intentions, 89-90).” Many of the Framers speak explicitly “of the promise of the Cross,” Bradford states (Original Intentions, 90). “The variety of surviving Christian witness in the papers and sayings of the Framers is indeed astonishing,” Bradford concludes (Original Intentions, 91).
DeMar and Bradford’s research is confirmed by other fine scholars.
M. Stanton Evans in The Theme Is Freedom: Religion, Politics, and the American Tradition proves, by citing many historical sources, that America’s political traditions and governmental institutions are rooted in the Bible and in medieval and Protestant Christianity. Among the traditions and institutions he cites are the right to own property, the right to buy and sell freely, the notion that the powers of all rulers and all government institutions should be limited, the idea of representative government, and traditions of economic and scientific progress. “All of these conceptions,” Evans says, “come to us from the religion of the Bible (Evans, 307).”
The Christian era of the Middle Ages in Europe “nourished the institutions of free government,” Evans shows (150). Biblical ideas about kingship and the separate but overlapping duties of Church and State led to the medieval idea of constitutionalism, which established limits “on the power of kings, and on the scope of government in general (Evans, 151).” The rejection of this medieval doctrine by the leaders of the Renaissance and the French Enlightenment put Western liberties in jeopardy. The Protestants in Colonial America, however, kept this idea alive. They were influenced by Calvinist notions of covenantal government, a network of social, political, moral, and theological contracts between God and Man, and between people and their government. In their view, kings, presidents, legislators, and judges derive their sovereignty first from God and then from the people under them. Evans shows how this view led first to the Declaration of Independence then to the United States Constitution, and finally to the Bill of Rights. In other words, our whole system of government was founded by the religious right of the 18th century, not by deists, not by French intellectuals, and certainly not by pagans or atheists. Christian faith and American freedom must go together, Evans concludes.
“The spiritual world of the Founding Fathers was one of Protestantism,” Saul Padover declares in The World of the Founding Fathers (Padover, 43). Padover also notes that, despite some of the Founding Fathers’ antagonism toward traditional orthodox Christianity, “a residue of iron Calvinism remained in their souls, nourishing their stubborn sense of personal independence and giving moral support to their systematic refusal to accept [human] authority without questioning it (Padover, 44).” Padover adds that the Founding Fathers were, for the most part, Anti-Roman Catholic, Anti Church of England, and Anti Puritan theocracy.
In The Roots of American Order, the late Russell Kirk, the father of the modern conservative political movement, also shows how great the Christian influence was on the Founding Fathers. In that book, he also says the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are “more nearly related to the Hebrew understanding of the Covenant (Kirk, 364)” than to Thomas Hobbes’ or John Locke’s ideas about the social contract.
According to Kirk, the preaching of Jonathan Edwards and others led America away from deism: “The New England mind, which had been sliding into Deism, returned under Edwards’ guidance to its old Puritan cast. For the rest of the eighteenth century, and for long thereafter, an evangelical Christian revival rooted in Calvinistic doctrines [my emphasis] spread through New England and presently throughout the rest of America (Kirk, 340).” Kirk points out that Thomas Jefferson had to hide his personal religious views because “it was not in ‘Nature’s God’ that the American people generally believed, by the end of the colonial period: they believed in Jonathan Edwards’ absolute God, the source of all goodness, the being of beings. Later it would be said that Jonathan Edwards’ philosophy was the foundation of the Democratic party — during the administration of President Jackson: Jeffersonian Deism was defeated even within the political organization that Jefferson had created (Kirk, 343).”
“Although Deism in America would seem to be at floodtide during the American Revolution,” writes Kirk, “actually a revived Christian orthodoxy already was vigorous then — and would be stronger still by the time of the Constitutional Convention. The American people came to expect their public men to be Christians, or at least give lip-service to Christianity (Kirk, 342).”
Six other scholars support Kirk’s statements on American deism. Ernest Campbell Mossner in the Encyclopaedia of Philosophy says, “Before the Revolution, deism made relatively little progress (Mossner, 333).” Rousas J. Rushdoony writes, “Actually, Deism was a late arrival in America, and very slight in extent and influence prior to the American Revolution (Rushdoony, 2).” Historians Forrest McDonald and Ellen Shapiro McDonald point out that not only did the French Enlightenment have no impact on America but also the Founding Fathers “cited the Bible more than any other source (Requiem, 6).” Most Americans “shared a Protestant Christian world view (Requiem, 12),” add the McDonalds.
Finally, in 1989, the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company published God and Politics: Four Views on the Reformation of Civil Government. Both Gary DeMar and John Eidsmoe, in two separate chapters, present evidence which denies the charge that the Founding Fathers were mostly deist (see pages 200-212 and 221-230).
Besides Thomas Jefferson, many people cite Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine as well-known deists. Even the evidence for this is faulty.
For instance, Franklin admits in his autobiography that although he thought deism was true when he was a teenager, he later found it not to be practical. Also, later in his life, Franklin publicly expressed a belief in Divine Providence and said so publicly at the Constitutional Convention. Such a belief is certainly not common to deists. Franklin was also one of the signers of the 1783 Treaty of Paris, a public treaty between the United States and Great Britain. This treaty opens with the phrase, “In the Name of the most Holy & undivided Trinity.” Even if Franklin privately was a deist and a Unitarian, he publicly signed a Christian document supporting the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, an essential doctrine for believers!
Ernest Campbell Mossner in the Encyclopaedia of Philosophy says that Thomas Paine was not “overtly” a deist until 1794-96 when he published The Age of Reason in France (Mossner, 334). Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, which was published anonymously in 1776 and which helped spur the Revolution, only had a temporary popularity, and Paine didn’t even live in America until 1774 (Rushdoony, 25). Jerome D. Wilson and William F. Ricketson in their biography Thomas Paine assert that, in Common Sense, Paine “gives throughout the pamphlet the impression of being a very devout Christian (Wilson, 26),” because he knew that most of his readers were raised Protestant. In that pamphlet, Paine also “shows a very deep respect for the Bible, a hatred of the devil, distrust of Roman Catholics, and himself to be a God-fearing man. In fact, he rested his case against monarchy almost entirely on scriptural authority. Furthermore, the character he projects is one who subscribes to the Puritan work ethic (Wilson, 26).” These comments about Common Sense can be confirmed if you actually read the document. For instance, at one point in Common Sense, after Paine urges the framing of a Continental Charter among the Thirteen Colonies, he writes, “Let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth placed on the divine law, the word of God (Paine, 98).” Here, Paine makes a statement affirming the divinity of the Bible, which he would later apparently condemn in his other, certainly more radical writings!
Thus, Paine’s private belief in deism did not really affect the American Revolution or the U.S. Constitution. Paine was not a signer of the Declaration of Independence nor was he a signer of the U.S. Constitution. It is therefore not even accurate to call him a true Founding Father.
Sometimes people say that John Adams, one of the leaders of the American War for Independence, was not a Christian. Such statements are based on a series of private letters Adams wrote to Jefferson between 1812 and 1814, where Adams attacks the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. These letters, however, although they probably represent Adams’ personal view throughout most of his life, are a private correspondence. Publicly, Adams behaved differently. For instance, he was one of the main negotiators and signers of the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which opens with a statement supporting the doctrine of the Christian Trinity. Here again, we have an example of a Founding Father who keeps private any hint that he has unorthodox views about God, Jesus Christ, or Christianity. Thus, it is completely inappropriate to use these private writings as evidence because they contradict Adams’ public actions.
Admittedly, the Founding Fathers were not solely influenced by Christian doctrine. They also had a great knowledge of history and political science, from the Ancient Roman Republic to their own century. Not only Russell Kirk but also Bernard Bailyn in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution and Gordon Wood in The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 point this out.
Bailyn writes that the leaders of the American Revolution not only had great fears of a national body of bishops like that of the Church of England, they also had a great fear of parliamentary power and of using taxes to support national churches. This doesn’t mean, however, that they had a problem with using public funds to support Christianity because they did indeed occasionally use public money for that purpose. Bailyn also says the revolutionary leaders sometimes showed a superficial knowledge of Locke, Montesqieu, and Voltaire. Wood writes in his book that they found no problem combining the ideas of such writers with all sorts of facts from history and all sorts of quotes from the Bible to support their politics. Just because they used unorthodox writers to support their politics, therefore, does not mean that they were not founding a Christian nation. Significantly, Bailyn adds that the leaders of the Revolution believed “that America had a special place, as yet not fully revealed, in the architecture of God’s intent (Bailyn, 33).” In no way can such a belief be called deist. A deistic god does not have an architecture or design for a nation’s history.
The Christian Faith of the American Public
The Christian faith of most of the Founding Fathers was pretty much the same as that of the American people at the time and for many years thereafter.
In Democracy in America, first published in 1835 and 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville declares, “For the Americans the ideas of Christianity and liberty are so completely mingled that it is almost impossible to get them to conceive of the one without the other (de Tocqueville, 293).” Adds the great historian, who traveled throughout America in the 1800s, “In the United States. . . Christianity itself is an established and irresistible fact which no one seeks to attack or defend. . . . the Americans have accepted the main dogmas of the Christian religion without examination [and] receive in like manner a great number of moral truths derived therefrom (de Tocqueville, 432).” Could someone please explain to me how deism supposedly flourished in such an atmosphere as this?
Christian historian Kenneth Scott Latourette describes the Christian influence on the founding of the United States in A History of Christianity: “In general, perhaps because of its predominantly Reformed heritage, American Protestantism was activistic. . . . This extreme Protestantism with its strong Reformed strain was helping to shape the nascent nation. Even though those with a formal church membership constituted only a small fraction of the population, ideals and institutions were being moulded by their faith. Moral standards were set by it. . . . The Protestantism of the Thirteen Colonies was laying the foundations for the democracy which found expression in the American Revolution and the United States (Latourette, 963).” This quote from Latourette’s book, a classic work on the history of Christianity, is echoed by Earle E. Cairns in Christianity Through the Centuries, who praises Protestant reformer John Calvin’s influence on education in America and on the growth of democracy and capitalism (Cairns, 312).
Rousas J. Rushdoony discusses the strong Christian influence on the founding of the United States in This Independent Republic: Studies in the Nature and Meaning of American History. He writes, “The American political system, thus, is, first, a development of Christian feudalism, with, as shall be noted, Reformation concepts. Second, it is therefore markedly different from the doctrines of John Locke, Whig politics, and the political faith of the Enlightenment. Third, while rooted in the English tradition, it represented a new development in political and constitutional theory (Rushdoony, 22).”
After discussing the legality and morality of the American Revolution, Rushdoony declares, “Basic to all colonial thought was the ancient and Christian sense of the transcendence and majesty of law. According to John Calvin, ‘the law is a silent magistrate, and a magistrate a speaking law.’ In terms of the authority of this silent magistrate, the rebelling colonials moved, and in terms of this faith, their magistrates became speaking laws. Constitutionalism, for the colonials, meant, as Baldwin has demonstrated with reference to the New England clergy, the absolute and sovereign God and His law undergirding the silent magistrate and the speaking law (Rushdoony, 32).”
Rushdoony adds that the colonials were inspired by the Christian notion that government power and sovereignty should be limited. “This meant, first, a division of powers, which naturally implied, second, a multiplicity of powers, and, third, a complexity of powers (Rushdoony, 33).” Their esteem for complexity “had more than Calvinistic roots,” Rushdoony asserts. “It was deeply imbedded in the Augustinian and feudal inheritance of the Colonists (Rushdoony, 34).” Rushdoony concludes: “The colonial denial of [absolute governmental] sovereignty was an aspect of the Christian faith of the day (Rushdoony, 40).”
M. Stanton Evans in his recent book The Theme Is Freedom: Religion, Politics, and the American Tradition also lends much factual support to the view that the roots of many of America’s political traditions and governmental institutions can be found in the Bible and in medieval and Protestant Christianity. Among the traditions and institutions he cites are the right to own property, the right to buy and sell freely, the notion that the powers of all rulers and all government institutions should be limited, the idea of representative government, and traditions of economic and scientific progress. “All of these conceptions,” Evans says, “come to us from the religion of the Bible (Evans, 307).” Christian faith and American freedom must go together, Evans concludes.
Much more evidence about the Christian faith of our Founding Fathers and the rest of their fellow citizens can be given, but I trust the reader will find the evidence above to be more than sufficient to show that the United States of America was indeed founded as a Christian nation.
The Two Kingdoms of God
Several times I have cited evidence that the religious and political ideology of the Founding Fathers stems from the ideas of one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin. Here’s what Calvin says about church and state:
There is a twofold government in man: one aspect is spiritual, whereby the conscience is instructed in piety and in reverencing God; the second is political, whereby man is educated for the duties of humanity and citizenship that must be maintained among men…the former sort of government pertains to the life of the soul while the latter has to do with concerns of the present life…the former resides in the inner mind, while the latter regulates only outward behavior (McNeill, Calvin, 847).
At one point, Calvin calls these two governments “the spiritual kingdom” and “the political kingdom (Calvin, 847). Although he makes a distinction between these two kingdoms, Calvin also declares, “They are not at variance (Calvin, 1487)” because they are both instituted by God. That is why he admonishes his readers, “We are not to misapply to the political order the gospel teaching on spiritual freedom (Calvin, 847).” In other words, although we are saved by grace through faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-10), God still makes certain moral demands on the political order or the civil government, and on all believers and nonbelievers who live under that political order. The civil government “pertains only to the establishment of civil justice and outward morality,” Calvin asserts, but “is ordained by God (Calvin, 1485 and 1489).” Therefore, we should not think of civil government as “a thing polluted, which has nothing to do with Christian men (Calvin, 1487).” We need the civil government to restrain sin even among Christians, contends Calvin. To think of doing away with civil government “is outrageous barbarity (Calvin, 1488).”
According to Calvin, the civil government “prevents idolatry, sacrilege against God’s name, blasphemies against his truth, and other public offenses against religion from arising and spreading among the people; it prevents the public peace from being disturbed; it provides that each man may keep his property safe and sound; that men may carry blameless intercourse among themselves; that honesty and modesty may be preserved among men (Calvin, 1488).” The civil government also ought to hand out justice, deliver the oppressed, protect the alien, the widow and the orphan, stop murder, and “provide for the common safety and peace of all (Calvin, 1496).” Calvin condemns stealing, murder, adultery, and promiscuity. He admits that the Mosaic penalties for such crimes should be geared to the people, time and place but that times of great social stress require harsher penalties from the state.
Thus, Calvin strongly implies that the Church, as well as individual Christians, should work together to promote these biblical principles concerning the civil government, the political kingdom ordained by God. Historian John T. MacNeill confirms this understanding of Calvin’s writings. “It was Calvin’s aim,” he says, “to bring religious influences to bear upon magistrates….Calvin attempted to call forth among all citizens a political conscience and a sense of public responsibility….God, he said, should be held ‘the president and judge of our elections’ (McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism, 187).” (See also pages 224 and 225 of McNeill’s book.) Calvin concludes: “No one ought to doubt that civil authority is a calling, not only holy and lawful before God, but also the most sacred and by far the most honorable of all callings in the whole life of mortal men (Calvin, 1490).”
In “Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed,” Martin Luther makes the same distinction between a spiritual government or kingdom and a temporal government. He says there will be few people who actually live a truly Christian life. “For this reason,” he declares, “God has ordained two governments (Lull, 665).” Both governments are necessary, Luther contends: “the one to produce righteousness, the other to bring about external peace and prevent evil deeds (Lull, 666).”
Christians may quibble with some aspects of Calvin and Luther’s thinking about the Protestant doctrine of the Two Kingdoms of God, but their viewpoint is mostly a biblical one, as passages like Matthew 22:22, Acts 4:19, Romans 13:1-7, and 1 Peter 2:13-17 appear to demonstrate. Our Founding Fathers operated under this same sacred principle, as do many of the people in the so-called religious right today.
The United States Constitution actually says “in the year of our Lord,” a direct reference to Jesus Christ as God. This phrase was not a “mere convention” as some people claim; it was an expression of honor to the one true God. We can know this to be true because we know that many atheists today hate to make any such reference to Christianity. If references to Christianity in 1787 were mere convention, then lack of reference to Christianity today would also have to be mere convention. Just ask atheists why they want to remove “In God we trust” from our coins if such a removal represents “mere convention.”
The Constitution also requires elected officials to take an oath of office. According to Bradford in Original Intentions, at the time the Constitution was written, to take an oath of office was to swear publicly by Almighty God. That is one reason the framers and ratifiers of the Constitution felt it unnecessary to require elected officials to also take a religious test in order to run for office. Why take a religious test when you have already sworn by God to uphold a document that expresses an explicit belief in the Christian Trinity? Although the Constitution forbids the federal government from mandating a religious test, it does not prohibit state or local governments or American voters from applying a religious test. Therefore, it is fully constitutional for a state or local government or any Christian political group to require candidates to believe in the Trinity or any other Christian doctrine from the Bible. If other people don’t like the test, then they can fight it in the political arena, through the ballot box.
David Barton shows in Original Intent: The Courts, the Constitution, & Religion that the idea of having no religious test meant only that the federal government could not force political candidates to become members of one Protestant denomination. Thus, when the Constitution forbids making a religious test, it did not mean that candidates must be non-Christians. It meant they could be Anglican, Baptist, Presbyterian, or a member of any other orthodox Christian denomination.
The United States Constitution and the American political system were based on Christian principles. Included in those Christian principles are the following theological and moral imperatives:
- Government power and sovereignty should be limited to the specific theological and moral commands of the Christian God.
- There should be a balance and separation of powers within the government so that a small group of evil people will be unable to tyrannize others.
- All citizens should have the right to own property and to buy and sell freely, according to the moral law of the Christian God.
- The right to life and property cannot be abridged without due process.
- The ultimate source of all authority lies with the God of the Bible.
- The American Government was designed to be a sacred covenant between the people, the state, and God. If the state breaks this covenant, then the people have the right, and the duty, to oppose the state but to use violence only as a last resort.
- As the Constitution clearly states, Jesus Christ is our Lord because He is the second member of the “most Holy and undivided Trinity.”
- Although the Constitution affirms a belief in the deity of Christ and in the Holy Trinity, neither the church nor the state is allowed to physically force people to believe these biblical teachings. The state should, however, do everything it can to facilitate the spread of the Christian Gospel and to place moral limits on the behavior of people.
As the last constitutional, and biblical, principle shows, a truly Christian government should not really frighten atheists or non-Christians because a truly Christian government would recognize that people must have freedom to reject the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A truly Christian nation would thus actually demand a high degree of religious freedom for everyone. A non-Christian government, however, as the current situation in our public schools demonstrates, violates this law of God. Our public schools may pretend to be neutral when it comes to Christianity, the Bible and politics, but such pretensions do not match reality.
Separation of church and state does not mean separation between politics and religion or politics and the Bible. As Gary DeMar points out, there is a difference between an ecclesiocracy where “the Church rules in society with religious leaders (ministers and priests as the government officials) DeMar, “Theocracy,” 11)” and a theocracy, where God rules the outward behavior of all people through the civil government. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way may want to completely separate Christian theology and morality from the government’s social policy, but such a separation is not only impossible it is also unconstitutional. All these groups will ever end up doing is replacing one theology and morality with another. In effect, they are guilty of doing the same thing they accuse other people of doing. Their agenda is filled with intellectual and moral hypocrisy!
The Christian republic founded in America in 1776 and 1787 was not a perfect one, but it was eminently preferable to the bloated, atheistic government that radical liberals and other extremists, backed by an ignorant and increasingly totalitarian Supreme Court, have established in this century. We must oppose the tyranny of the Supreme Court and the theological and moral corruption of the American legal system. Let us return to the Christian vision of our Founding Fathers! Let us free all Americans from their ignorance of the Christian heritage which formed this once-mighty nation.
True love does not delight in evil but rejoices with God’s truth. Rejoice in the Christian heritage of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America! Remember the words of Jesus Christ in Mark 1:15: The reign of God is near. Repent and believe the Gospel!
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