To further their political agenda, many on the secular Left misrepresent the religious beliefs of America’s founders and their intent in framing the US Constitution. Very few of these men were deists, believing that nature is the only revelation from God and that the Creator is an absentee God who is not present and active in this world. We could count the number of deists on one hand. Furthermore, the framers of the Constitution were not opposed to Christianity, and they did not intend to create a strictly secularist nation characterized by a wall of separation between religion and the public square.
Unfortunately, it is easy for evangelical Christians to fall into the same trap as the Left, letting our own political aims distort how we view the religious beliefs of the nation’s founders and their intent in framing the Constitution. Some of the founding fathers were Christians—certainly many more than were deists—but that does not mean that the key founders who wielded the most influence were orthodox Christians. Nor does it mean that the framers of the Constitution intended to create a Christian nation.
Although there were Christians among the founding fathers, these eight men arguably had the most influence among the founding fathers. All were theistic rationalists.
On the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, second president of the USA
On the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence
Primary author of the Declaration of Independence, third president of the USA
Primary author of The Federalist Papers advocating adoption of the Constitution
“Father of the Constitution,” fourth president of the USA
“Penman of the Constitution,” authored large portions of the Constitution
President of the Constitutional Convention, first president of the USA
On the Committee of Detail that drafted the Constitution
One reason for confusion is the false premise that there are only two options: the founders were either Christians or deists. This convenient false dichotomy allows secularists to “prove” that the founders were deists by showing that they were not biblical, orthodox Christians. On the flipside, some advocates of the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation think they can “prove” that the founders were Christians simply by showing that the founders were not deists.
In reality, however, there is a third option that I call “theistic rationalism.” Many people believe in one God and espouse the Bible’s code of behavior without being true believers in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We still see this problem today in Washington, D.C., as politicians promote “Judeo-Christian ethics”—and even follow them—but never repent of their sins and place their personal faith in Jesus Christ.
Theistic rationalism was a hybrid belief system that combined elements of Christianity, natural religion or deism, and rationalism. It held that these three would lead to the same place most of the time, but that when conflict among them could not be resolved or ignored, reason must be the final authority. In practice, theistic rationalists retained as much of Christianity and of deism as they could, but rejected whatever parts or beliefs of each of those systems they considered to be irrational.
Unlike deists, theistic rationalists believed in a present and active God; and since God was “there” and might act, it made sense to pray. Unlike orthodox Christians, however, they believed in only some written revelation from God and they determined it for themselves based on what seemed rational to them.
Unfortunately, they rejected as irrational most of what constitutes biblical Christianity. Theistic rationalists rejected justification by faith, the atoning work of Christ, the deity of Christ, the Trinity, original sin, the Virgin Birth, eternal punishment for sin, and the inspiration and authority of the Bible.1 The key founders honored and respected Jesus as a moral teacher, but not as God or Savior.
A few of them self-identified as “Christians,” but they meant something very different by that term than evangelical Christians do. For them, “Christianity” was simply a matter of being good and moral. The public language of the theistic rationalists was neutral and not offensive to Christian sensibilities, so the Christians among the founders were comfortable in supporting it.
Theistic rationalism was a hybrid belief system that combined elements of Christianity, deism, and rationalism.
Isolated quotes, when taken out of context, may appear to support the view that the founders were secularists or orthodox Christians. This is possible because the theistic rationalists constructed their belief system with ideas from both of the other systems. Consequently, at times theistic rationalists express deistic views, and at other times they reflect Christian influence. To see the founders as either secularists or orthodox Christians often requires extraordinary efforts to explain away or ignore inconvenient statements reflecting the opposite influence. An honest approach recognizes that both influences were present and important.
For this article’s purposes, the term Christian applies to those who actually hold Christian beliefs and have a relationship with Jesus Christ—not simply to those who pray or attend church.
In contrast to the secularist view, the founders did not favor or create a wall of separation disallowing or removing any religious influence in government or society. On the contrary, they believed that morality was absolutely indispensable to a free society—and that religion was the best source of morality. Consequently, they stressed the necessity of “religion and morality” in the public square—not just in private life.
It is critically important for the question at hand to note that they did not specify Christianity as being necessary, but simply “religion.” Some of them quoted from the Bible, but usually because it was the most familiar and widely read religious book in the colonies. In their experience, all religions taught morality and good citizenship, so any and all religions met the need. This is why they allowed freedom of religion.
In practice, theistic rationalists retained as much of Christianity and of deism as they could, but rejected whatever parts or beliefs of each of those systems they considered to be irrational.
In creating a “wall of separation,” later justices on the US Supreme Court, as they often do, substituted their own preference for the actual text of the Constitution. Evangelicals are right to criticize the Court’s imposition of a standard that the founders did not put in the Constitution and would not support; but we are wrong if we substitute another such standard that we prefer.
It is equally invalid to claim that the founders intended to create a specifically Christian nation. There is no record of any United States founding father indicating that the intent was to create or establish a Christian nation. If there were such a statement, every Christian in the United States today would know it, as it would be emblazoned above the entrance to almost every Christian school, inscribed on the cover of countless books in Christian bookstores, and included in countless email promotions.
No framer said that was his intent. The colonial American culture was nominally Christian, but the Constitution does not even mention God, much less Christ (unless one sheepishly counts that century’s standard dating method, “the year of our Lord”)—a curious omission for a document supposedly based on biblical principles and written as the foundation of a Christian nation.
There are no specifically biblical or Christian principles in the Constitution. The more than 400 pages of notes from the Constitutional Convention contain no instances of any constitutional principles being explicitly based on the Bible—much less the whole. Nor are there any expressly biblical teachings mentioned in The Federalist Papers, 85 essays written at the time to explain the Constitution and its principles to an audience very open to religious authority.
Some parts of the Constitution are consistent with, or not in opposition to, biblical principles. But there is no evidence that the framers took the principles from the Bible, and most of the supposedly “biblical” or “Christian” principles claimed by Christian America advocates are not uniquely biblical or Christian. The framers cited other sources for these principles, in particular “experience” and “history”—not the Bible.
Similarly, there is no specifically Christian or biblical language in the Declaration of Independence. Of the four references to God, the only biblical term in the Declaration is the general term Creator—a term used by deists, Jews, Christians, and secularists alike in 1776. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration artfully to allow people to read their own view of God into the document and, thereby, to make it acceptable to all. It worked: secularists today point to its invocation of “Nature’s God” as proof that it is deistical, and Christians point to “Creator” as proof that it is Christian.
Most people who colonized America in the 1600s identified with some version of Christianity. Doctrines differed significantly among denominations across the thirteen colonies, but they shared a generally Christian moral and cultural framework. The Bible was by far the most familiar book and a common cultural reference point.
Roughly 100 years passed between the establishment of the thirteen colonies and the founding of the United States republic. During that time, materialism took a toll on orthodoxy. Humanistic, antibiblical philosophies infiltrated the most prominent seminaries; and consequently, rational religion replaced the Bible as the ultimate authority in many churches. But the loosely Christian moral consensus—the Golden Rule and basically biblical ethics—remained intact.
After the American Revolution, the new state constitutions promoted a nominal brand of Christianity as a sort of cultural and ethical anchor to help the colonies through their divorce from the cultural influence of Great Britain. A generic form of Christianity became a stabilizing and civilizing force as the new nation entered uncharted waters. After a decade of moral stability under the state constitutions and Articles of Confederation, the new nation’s leaders produced a Constitution that reflected little if any discernable Christian influence.
Evolutionary ideas in the mid-1800s further eroded respect for the Bible’s trustworthiness regarding issues such as history and science. But the broad “Christian” moral consensus of the 1700s arguably persisted on a fairly widespread basis into the 1900s. Then the great societal turmoil of the 1960s brought to an end this last vestige of the Bible’s morally positive influence. “Progressive” and anti-Christian attitudes first gained national acceptance and then were transmitted to generations of children through public schools. Since the 1960s, the Bible’s confining notion of “shame” has been replaced by a narcissistic celebration of doing one’s “own thing.”
The generally Christian moral framework of the previous 200 years has now been rejected as an overly restrictive relic of a bygone age. In an atmosphere hostile to even nominal Christianity, the public square no longer welcomes any appeal to God’s Word or the now-defunct “moral consensus” related to that Word.
I have published an extensive and comprehensive study of what the key founders actually said they believed. It reveals that all eight key founders were neither born-again Christians nor deists, but theistic rationalists. These “key founders” are those most responsible for the content of the Declaration of Independence (Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin) and those most influential in the writing and implementation of the Constitution (James Madison, George Washington, James Wilson, Gouverneur Morris, and Alexander Hamilton). Although there were Christians among the founding fathers, these eight theistic rationalists arguably had more influence than any of the Christians, with the possible exception of Roger Sherman.
John Adams maintained that the Bible cannot supersede philosophy or reason. So he called the deity of Christ and His atonement for men’s sins “absurdity.” He said that focusing on grace and faith rather than good works was “Antichristianity.” Adams so completely rejected the concept of the Trinity that he said he would not believe it even if God Himself told him it was true. Adams claimed that belief in the Incarnation and in God suffering on a cross “has been the source of almost all the corruptions of Christianity.” In a private letter, he asked Thomas Jefferson rhetorically, “Where is to be found theology more orthodox . . . than in the introduction to the [Hindu] Shastra?”
In 20,000 pages of his writings, there is no record of George Washington claiming to be a Christian. Washington prayed and attended church regularly when in the public eye, but there is no reference to Jesus in his handwriting, and he once replaced “God” with “the Great Spirit above” in a speech to Indians written by a clerk. The so-called Washington Prayer Journal is the source of Christian-sounding quotes attributed by some to George Washington. But it is not in his handwriting, and there is no reliable evidence that it belonged to him. No experts on Washington’s papers accept it as his.
Washington steadfastly refused to take communion and referred to Christians in the third person. Ministers of churches he attended testified that he died “without one expression of distinctive belief, or Christian hope” and that they could not bring to mind “any fact which would prove General Washington to have been a believer in the Christian revelation.”1
Christian America advocates focus on Plymouth (150 years before the founding of the United States!) as if it were the definitive colony and fully representative of “America.” The Puritans founded Massachusetts—they did not found the United States of America. Massachusetts was not the first colony; it was not the largest colony. Catholics and Quakers founded colonies, as did Puritan dissenters. Seven colonies were not founded for any particular religious reason. Furthermore, the vision of the original Puritans was gone by 1700. By the mid-1700s, the descendants of the original Puritans in Massachusetts were heavily engaged in the slave trade, rum production, and smuggling.
Christian America advocates regularly appeal to a 1983 study done by Donald Lutz in support of their claim for the Bible’s influence on the Constitution. They trumpet the fact that the study indicates that the Bible was the most widely cited source in the founding era. However, they neglect to mention that the study specifies that “reprinted sermons accounted for almost three-fourths of the biblical citations” and that “the Bible’s prominence disappears” during the founders’ debate on the Constitution—the very document for which they claim its influence.
Those who contend for the Christian America thesis emphasize the denominational affiliation of certain men. If denominational affiliation equals Christian faith, then most of those in early American government were Christians—but then so are most of the members of Congress today, along with the last six presidents. So, why should we be upset about the religious condition of America today?
Identifying “religious” people as Christians makes the gospel one of moral behavior and pronouncements rather than the saving work of Christ and personal commitment to Him. The belief that America was originally Christian leads many believers to confuse cultural heritage with biblical Christianity and to lose the ability to distinguish between the truly biblical and mere American tradition. They place their confidence in political processes and institutions rather than in the sovereign God, and they misdirect the resources of the church toward correcting the political system.
As followers of Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, born-again Christians have a duty above all others to “speak the truth” in every matter. If we are careless about the facts, or impose our own agenda on history, why should anyone listen to us when we talk about the gospel?
Before making claims about the religion of America’s founders, believers should ask themselves two simple questions. If America’s founders were really intending to create a Christian nation, wouldn’t the governing document say so? Wouldn’t someone have made that intention crystal clear—somewhere, in a public or private document?
If we can’t quote the founders in their own words, then it’s wrong to claim we know what was in their minds.