The New York Times

October 22, 2006

God of Our Fathers


Our Skeptical Founding Fathers
By Brooke Allen.
235 pp. Ivan R. Dee. $24.95

Not since the medieval church baptized, as it were, Aristotle as some sort of early — very early — church father has there been an intellectual hijacking as audacious as the attempt to present America’s principal founders as devout Christians. Such an attempt is now in high gear among people who argue that the founders were kindred spirits with today’s evangelicals, and that they founded a “Christian nation.”

This irritates Brooke Allen, an author and critic who has distilled her annoyance into “Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers.” It is a wonderfully high-spirited and informative polemic that, as polemics often do, occasionally goes too far. Her thesis is that the six most important founders — Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton — subscribed, in different ways, to the watery and undemanding Enlightenment faith called deism. That doctrine appealed to rationalists by being explanatory but not inciting: it made the universe intelligible without arousing dangerous zeal.

Eighteenth-century deists believed there was a God but, tellingly, they frequently preferred synonyms for him — “Almighty Being” or “Divine Author” (Washington) or “a Superior Agent” (Jefferson). Having set the universe in motion like a clockmaker, Providence might reward and punish, perhaps in the hereafter, but does not intervene promiscuously in human affairs. (Washington did see “the hand of Providence” in the result of the Revolutionary War.) Deists rejected the Incarnation, hence the divinity of Jesus. “Christian deist” is an oxymoron.

Allen’s challenge is to square the six founders’ often pious public words and behavior with her conviction that their real beliefs placed all six far from Christianity. Her conviction is well documented, exuberantly argued and quite persuasive.

When Franklin was given some books written to refute deism, the deists’ arguments “appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough deist.” Revelation “had indeed no weight with me.” He believed in a creator and the immortality of the soul, but considered these “the essentials of every religion.”

What Allen calls Washington’s “famous gift of silence” was particularly employed regarding religion. But his behavior spoke. He would not kneel to pray, and when his pastor rebuked him for setting a bad example by leaving services before communion, Washington mended his ways in his austere manner: he stayed away from church on communion Sundays. He acknowledged Christianity’s “benign influence” on society, but no ministers were present and no prayers were uttered as he died a Stoic’s death.

Adams declared that “phylosophy looks with an impartial Eye on all terrestrial religions,” and told a correspondent that if they had been on Mount Sinai with Moses and had been told the doctrine of the Trinity, “We might not have had courage to deny it, but We could not have believed it.” It is true that the longer he lived, the shorter grew his creed, and in the end his creed was Unitarianism.

Jefferson, writing as a laconic utilitarian, urged his nephew to inquire into the truthfulness of Christianity without fear of consequences: “If it ends in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comforts and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you.”

Madison, always common-sensical, briskly explained — essentially, explained away — religion as an innate appetite: “The mind prefers at once the idea of a self-existing cause to that of an infinite series of cause & effect.” When Congress hired a chaplain, he said “it was not with my approbation.”

In 1781, the Articles of Confederation acknowledged “the Great Governor of the World,” but six years later the Constitution made no mention of God. When Hamilton was asked why, he jauntily said, “We forgot.” Ten years after the Constitutional Convention, the Senate unanimously ratified a treaty with Islamic Tripoli that declared the United States government “is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”

Allen neglects one argument for her thesis that the United States is a “secular project”: the Constitution mandates the establishment of a political truth by guaranteeing each state the same form of government (“republican”). It does so because the founders thought the most important political truths are knowable. But because they thought religious truths are unknowable, they proscribed the establishment of religion.

Allen succumbs to what her six heroes rightly feared — zeal — in her prosecution of today’s religious zealots. In a grating anachronism unworthy of her serious argument, she calls the founders “the very prototypes, in fact, of the East Coast intellectuals we are always being warned against by today’s religious right.” (Madison, an NPR listener? Maybe not.) When she says “Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, among other recent American statesmen,” have subscribed to the “philosophy” that there should be legal impediments to an atheist becoming president, she is simply daft. And when she says that Bible study sessions in the White House and Justice Department today are “a form of potential religious harassment that should be considered as unacceptable as the sexual variety,” she is exhibiting the sort of hostility to the free exercise of religion that has energized religious voters, to her sorrow.

Two days after Jefferson wrote his letter endorsing a “wall of separation” between church and state, he attended, as he occasionally did, religious services in the House of Representatives. Jefferson was an observant yet unbelieving Anglican/Episcopalian throughout his public life. This was a statesmanlike accommodation of the public’s strong preference, which then as now was for religion to have ample space in the public square.

Christianity, particularly its post-Reformation ferments, fostered attitudes and aptitudes associated with popular government. Protestantism’s emphasis on the individual’s direct, unmediated relationship with God, and the primacy of individual conscience and choice, subverted conventions of hierarchical societies in which deference was expected from the many toward the few. But beyond that, America’s founding owes much more to John Locke than to Jesus.

The founders created a distinctly modern regime, one respectful of pre-existing rights — natural rights, not creations of the regime. And in 1786, the year before the Constitutional Convention constructed the regime, Jefferson, in the preamble to the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, proclaimed that “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.”

Since the founding, America’s religious enthusiasms have waxed and waned, confounding Jefferson’s prediction, made in 1822, four years before his death, that “there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian.” In 1908, William Jennings Bryan, the Democrats’ presidential nominee, said his Republican opponent, William Howard Taft, was unfit because, being a Unitarian, he did not believe in the Virgin Birth. The electorate yawned and chose Taft.

A century on, when the most reliable predictor of a voter’s behavior is whether he or she regularly attends church services, it is highly unlikely that Republicans would nominate a Unitarian. In 1967, when Gov. George Romney of Michigan evinced interest in the Republican presidential nomination, his Mormonism was of little interest and hence was no impediment. Four decades later, the same may not be true if his son Mitt, also a Mormon, seeks the Republican nomination in 2008.

In 1953, the year before “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared July 4 a day of “penance and prayer.” That day he fished in the morning, golfed in the afternoon and played bridge in the evening. Allen and others who fret about a possibly theocratic future can take comfort from the fact that America’s public piety is more frequently avowed than constraining.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company