How Christian were the founders? Who cares?
The most popular story at NYTimes. com this hour focuses on the never-ending story to define the Founding Fathers in religious terms.
The one thing that underlies the entire program of the nation’s Christian conservative activists is, naturally, religion. But it isn’t merely the case that their Christian orientation shapes their opinions on gay marriage, abortion and government spending. More elementally, they hold that the United States was founded by devout Christians and according to biblical precepts. This belief provides what they consider not only a theological but also, ultimately, a judicial grounding to their positions on social questions. When they proclaim that the United States is a “Christian nation,” they are not referring to the percentage of the population that ticks a certain box in a survey or census but to the country’s roots and the intent of the founders.
The narrow answer to the question, of course is that some of the Founders were Christians and some, like Thomas Jefferson, were deists at best, and thus “Christian” only in the sense that Unitarians are Christians — which is to say, not really Christians at all.
The broader answer to the question of whether the Founders were Christians, though, is this: Who cares?
As a thought experiment, let’s consider asking a similar question: How slavery-loving were the Founders? The answer would be about the same; some were, some weren’t — and it doesn’t really matter all that much today. Truth is: The Founding Fathers thought a lot more about slavery than religion in putting together the Constitution: The clause that designates slaves as three-fifths of a person appears in the fifth paragraph of the document. The entire structure of the legislative branch — the bicameral thing — was designed to let slave-owning states feel comfortable the free states wouldn’t run roughshod over them. Religion, meanwhile, makes no appearance until the First Amendment; it’s an important amendment, but — coming four years after the main body of the Constitution had been adopted — a bit of a historical afterthought. And rather than enshrine religion, of course, the First Amendment serves to keep the state and the church out of each other’s ways.
In thinking back to the Founders, too, it’s important to remember that they lived in a much less ecumenical age than we. The Catholics of Maryland probably thought the Puritans of Massachusetts were going to Hell — and vice versa. Connecticut and Rhode Island were, in fact, founded by religious splinter groups that found the Massachusetts colonists too stifling. If the Founding Fathers had sought to enshrine Christianity is the state religion, then, they would’ve had to answer a critical question: Whose Christianity? It’s likely the whole project might’ve died in the cradle.
It’s fair to say, then, that the United States exists because the Founders sidestepped the question. So the project to confer a “Christian” history upon the United States then, isn’t merely annoying — it’s also deeply dishonest.
But still: Who cares? The Founding Fathers should be treated with respect and a bit of reverence, I suppose, but we often seem to be in danger of fetishizing them.