Written By: Dr. Gregg Frazer, Professor of History & Political Studies at The Master’s University
Did America’s Founders intend to create a Christian nation? Does it matter today and, if so, why? In order to arrive at a proper answer to the first question, one must recognize that “the Founding Fathers” were a diverse group of individuals who held diverse views on most subjects – including religion. Generally, one cannot accurately make blanket statements beginning with “the Founding Fathers believed.” Second, not everyone who lived during the Founding era was a “Founding Father”; so not all voices are equal as evidence. Third, the Puritans did not found America – they founded Massachusetts. There is no reason to elevate their views or experience above those of other colonies; the Founders themselves did not give Massachusetts or its representatives preeminence philosophically or politically. Fourth, some of the more prominent Founders meant something different by the word “Christianity” than do 21st-century evangelical Christians. Consequently, it is not appropriate or intellectually honest to quote their uses of the word to audiences today without explaining that they meant a system of moral teachings and not orthodox biblical Christianity. Fifth, like today, denominational labels were not very accurate determinants of personal belief in 18th-century America.
Finally, Christianity and deism were not the only two religious options available to 18th-century Americans. It is inaccurate and misleading to lump all of the Founders into one of those two camps. That creates a false dichotomy. If one demonstrates that someone was not a deist, that does not necessarily mean that he was a Christian – and vice versa. In reality, a number of the key American Founders were neither Christians nor deists, but theistic rationalists. Theistic rationalists believed in a powerful, rational, and benevolent creator God who was present and active in human affairs. They believed that the main factor in serving God was living a good and moral life, that promoting morality was the central value and purpose of religion, and that religion was indispensable to society because it engendered morality. They believed that virtually all religions fulfilled that purpose – not just Christianity. That is why they allowed freedom of religion. Theistic rationalists rejected most of the fundamental doctrines of biblical Christianity, including: the deity of Christ, the Trinity, original sin, the atoning work of Christ, justification by faith, eternal punishment for sin, and the inspiration of Scripture.
There were Christians among the Founders – no deists – but the key Founders who were most responsible for the founding documents (Declaration of Independence and Constitution) and who had the most influence were theistic rationalists. They did not intend to create a Christian nation. Not a single Founding Father made such a claim in any piece of private correspondence or any document. If they had, it would be blazoned above the entrances of countless Christian schools and we would all be inundated with emails repeating it.
This matters today because: 1) as purveyors of truth, Christians damage their witness by promoting historical inaccuracies. 2) Designating a mixture of naturalistic influences as “Christian” or “biblical” tarnishes and taints the Word of God and attaches the authority and reputation of the inerrant Word to man-made principles. 3) Identifying moral or “religious” people as Christians makes the gospel one of moral behavior and character rather than the saving work of Christ and personal commitment to Him. 4) Promotion of the “Christian America” idea causes believers to confuse their cultural/American heritage with biblical Christianity. Many conflate what is truly biblical with American tradition. 5) Belief that the system was originally Christian and biblical places undue confidence in processes and institutions rather than in the sovereign God. It directs efforts toward correcting the political system rather than redeeming lost people. 6) It sometimes leads to national idolatry and national self-righteousness and treats naturalistic political ideals on a par with Scripture. 7) The Bible becomes a tool of a political agenda. Proper use and interpretation of the Bible is viewed as less important than how many times it is quoted.
In sum, both the Christian Right and the secular Left are largely wrong about the religious beliefs of America’s key Founders and, consequently, their prescriptions for America based on those assumptions are also wrong. America’s Founders were not all Christians and they did not intend to create a Christian nation. On the other hand, they were not rank secularists who intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state. They were religious men who wanted religion – but not necessarily Christianity – to have significant influence in the public square.