George Will: The founding fathers didn't establish a Christian nation

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....

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....

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