Why is this such a timely question? We Americans debate our values so strongly because values matter—values help us understand who we are, what we have in common, and where we are going. Our history is a part of the story of our values. That’s why debates about the founding of the nation are relevant today. With the 2012 elections looming, this debate about the founders’ story is heating up once again.
“Was America founded as a Christian nation?” Historian John Fea has tackled this question in a thoughtful new book by that title. One angle he takes is focused on the religious beliefs and practices of the founding fathers. Liberals and conservatives alike can cherry pick quotations from our founding fathers and offer them as proof that our founders were (or weren’t) Christians. Fea’s book is a warning of the hazards of doing so. The reality of our founders’ beliefs and practice is more complex and often more ambiguous. The founders were, in Fea’s words, “an eclectic religious group.” Washington regularly attended church services, for example, but seemed to do so more because it was an opportunity to meet and discuss political matters. His true religious beliefs are a mystery.
Others, like Jefferson, were followers of Jesus but rejected central Christian doctrines like the divine inspiration of the Bible. He considered the four traditional Gospels to include irrational stories about miracles and resurrection. Jefferson, like John Adams, had little use for any doctrine that could not be explained by reason.
Franklin was a mighty moralist who rejected most Christian doctrines and is best known as a promoter of the religion of virtue—and the virtue of getting ahead. John Jay and Samuel Adams were the closest to the idea of Christian statesmen—devout Christians who worked hard to align their belief in Christian doctrine to their behavior. But the behavior that betrayed many founders (like Jefferson) who claimed to be Christian was slave ownership. Washington freed his slaves upon his death; Jefferson did not.
The one belief that unites our founders is the conviction that religion was the moral backbone of the new republic. Only religion—whatever that religion might be—could get people to rise above their narrow self-interest and become citizens who cared about others.
Regardless of the complexities of the founding fathers’ religious beliefs and practices, we still want our elected leaders in Washington to profess religious affiliations. Only 1% of our seated Senators and Representatives do not specify a faith tradition, according to a new Pew Research Center study. This means that a large segment of the American population—those who do not profess any religious affiliation—are virtually unrepresented.
Today, please Comment on …
Do you think elected officials should believe in God?
Should our leaders practice some religious faith?
And, how important is the faith of our founding fathers?
(Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an online experiment in civil dialogue on American values.)