Ideological battles over religion and the founding
Let us now consider the question of whether America was founded as a "Protestant nation," a "Christian nation." On one side of the skirmish are Protestant enthusiasts who look back to the Pilgrim Fathers, Massachusetts Bay Puritans, and great awakenings in American history, the first of which occurred in the decades leading up to the revolution. They plausibly argue that many immigrants came to these shores to practice their Christian faith unmolested. The majority of colonists was churchgoing. The majority possessed a Bible. The majority was given a Christian baptism and/or a Christian burial. Many left a final will and testament that invoked Jesus Christ. Since numerous clergy preached fiery sermons urging separation from London, the War for Independence was arguably won from the pulpit before it was attained on the battlefield. There were established churches in five of the original thirteen states even after independence had been declared -- a telling fact. Throughout the founding period, governments at the state and national level proclaimed days of thanksgiving, fasting, and prayer. Without a doubt the evidence shows that, to a significant degree, America was settled by men and women whose culture and laws were steeped in the Protestant understanding of man.
On the other side of the skirmish are secular progressives who spring from the Enlightenment. They plausibly ask how many prominent founders were professing Christians during the founding period -- the period that counts. In reality, most seemed more attached to Freemasonry than to the carpenter and tent maker. Of the nine most prominent founders, only one, John Jay, was a professing, orthodox Christian who regularly attended church. John Adams went to a church, but not a Christian one since he was Unitarian. George Washington invoked Jesus exactly two times in his public discourse. Six other prominent founders were regarded as deists during the War for Independence and Revolution.
Moreover, the founders knew their religious history and it wasn't pretty. The Reformation had sparked horrific conflagrations in Europe -- more than a hundred years of wars of religion. Religious strife was also found in British North America, albeit on a smaller scale than on the Continent. Nonconforming Christians (mostly Baptists) were harassed, beaten, and jailed by mainstream Christian authorities. Catholics were disenfranchised and terrorized even in Maryland. Given this sorry record of some followers of Christ persecuting other followers of Christ, there were good reasons to embrace secular Enlightenment ideals to promote domestic tranquility. The distancing from a specifically Protestant faith is reflected in one of the most famous state papers of the era, Jefferson's "Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom." The distancing can also be seen in the "no religious test clause" in Article VI, paragraph 3, of the U.S. Constitution. Thus the evidence shows that, to a significant degree, America was midwifed into existence by political leaders who would refrain from conflating their private beliefs and their public duties.
A telling incident occurred in June 1776, as Thomas Jefferson was composing the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was no Christian but a deist, and so had the tendency to downplay that old-time religion in the public square. Yet his first draft of the Declaration read, out of deference to the many believers in the Colonies, "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable" [emphasis added]. It was Benjamin Franklin, another deist at the Second Continental Congress, who toned down the phrase to read, "We hold these truths to be self-evident." Note this bow to the secular Enlightenment in the document that was to "sell" independence to Americans, the French, and the rest of the world. The Declaration acknowledges the Creator (in a vague term that could be in the image of either deists or theists), but its writer and its editors did not fret over offending the sensibilities of Protestants by omitting the name of Jesus.
Evidence surrounding the founders and Christianity has often been abused or sloppily handled. Many of the founders' lives traced an arc not unlike that of Alexander Hamilton's. Their beliefs morphed as they got older. As Douglas Adair and Marvin Harvey explain,* Hamilton went through four religious phases. (1) He had a conventionally religious upbringing through adolescence. (2) As a young adult from 1777 to 1792 -- through the critical period of the American founding -- he expressed indifference to religion. (3) At some point in the early 1790s, while serving as Washington's secretary of the treasury, he embraced an "opportunistic religiosity" that brazenly used Christianity for political gain. (4) Only after the death of his son Philip, in a duel in 1801, did his suffering lead him to profess orthodox Christianity.* It would be dishonest to take one phase of Hamilton's life and make it pertain to the whole of his life, or to impose a phase on the founding period that did not, in fact, characterize those years. No intellectual alchemy can turn Hamilton into an orthodox, practicing Christian during the Battle of Yorktown or Constitutional Convention.
What about where the founders mention religion in general but not Christianity in particular? As already noted, the Declaration of Independence mentions the "Creator" and "nature's God" -- not Israel's Yahweh or Christianity's Trinity. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 observes that "religion, morality, and knowledge" are "necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind." But whose religion? Whose morality? Likewise George Washington, in his 1796 "Farewell Address," and John Adams, in his 1798 address to the military, argue for religion and morality among the citizenry. Again, whose religion or morality is not specified. The language is latitudinarian enough so as to include mainline as well as nonconforming Protestants, Catholics as well as Jews, Trinitarians as well as Unitarians, Deists as well as Freemasons. Pause and ponder that fact. Is it not a striking development in the early modern period, coming as it does on the heels of the wars of religion? Is this not the novus ordo seclorum proclaimed by the founders? The evidence proves that, although many of the framers were not themselves orthodox professing Christians, they espoused toleration and expressed the hope that religion would be at the foundation of America's families and culture.
To complicate matters further, note this: There was to be no "wall of separation" between faith and culture, only between faith and Congress -- a principle chiseled into the First Amendment. Jefferson himself, though criticized as a deist and accused of being an atheist, was supportive of religion even if he didn't adhere to one. The Library of Congress observes about the third president's 1801 inaugural address: "Jefferson strongly stated his belief in the importance of religion in the address. He closes the speech listing the 'freedom of religion' prominently among the constitutional freedoms."
An exceedingly complex history, this. Based on the evidence, no one ideology can take home the prize. The new republic was built on a foundation of Christian faith and Enlightenment reason. If we are scrupulous researchers, we have to accept that historical tension at the founding.
Such tension vexes ideologues who want the American Revolution to be one thing or the other. But history is rarely one thing. It's been said that even God cannot change the past. Historians have to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds. Since both sets of facts are part of the historical record, shouldn't both be taught? Such an approach may frustrate ideologues, but no student should ever be sacrificed on the altar of political correctness. Isn't one of the most important values we teach our youth is to have the courage to go wherever the evidence may lead, even when it runs counter to the powers that be, and especially when it runs counter to their own previously held notions? The discipline of history is ideal for inculcating the value of courage -- the courage to change one's mind.
Quiz: Was the United States founded as a Christian nation or as an Enlightenment nation?
*Douglas Adair and Marvin Harvey, "Was Alexander Hamilton a Christian Statesman?" William & Mary Quarterly, 1955. For an excellent article on the complexity of Hamilton's intellectual and spiritual arc, see Donald D'Elia, "Alexander Hamilton: From Caesar to Christ," Chapter 6 in The Spirits of ’76 (Front Royal, VA: Christendom College Press, 1983), 87-114; accessed March 6, 2011, here.