John Ashcroft, Attorney General of the United States, recently repeated an old chestnut about America being a Christian nation whose founders were Christian gentlemen.
The claim is common among the country’s fundamentalist Christians, but it is so ignorant of actual history one wonders whether it should not be taken as another serious indictment of American public education. Some readers may not be aware that Mr. Ashcroft’s background includes familiarity with such arcane subjects as speaking in tongues. As for Mr. Bush, who touched the same theme in China, perhaps no comment on his grasp of history is required.
The late eighteenth century, following on the Enlightenment and waves of reaction to the violent excesses of the Reformation and counter-Reformation over the previous two centuries, was perhaps the lowest point for Christian influence ever. Virtually all educated people in Europe were deists and many were open skeptics.
America was not free of this influence despite its many Puritan immigrants. Indeed, many of the best educated citizens at this time were educated in Europe, and the small number of good libraries owned by educated people often contained the works of Enlightenment authors. Virtually all the ideas in the Declaration of Independence and even some of the words of the Constitution derive from these European sources. It is due precisely to the unique qualities of the period that we owe America’s early embrace of religious tolerance. The immigrant Puritans had displayed no religious tolerance, and in fact were some of the worst fanatics from Europe.
George Washington was a deist. He was a member of the Masons, a then comparatively-new, secretive fraternal organization widely regarded as unfriendly to traditional Christianity and reflecting European secular attitudes. He did attend church regularly, but this was done with the aristocratic notion that it set an example for the lower classes, Washington being very much a planter-aristocrat (he used to refer to the independent-minded Yankee recruits in the revolution, who had had the practice of electing their officers before he was appointed as commander, as “a dirty and nasty people.”). This was a time when there was an established church in Virginia, and it functioned as an important quasi-political organization.
Washington always used deistic terms like Great Providence. His writings, other than one brief note as a very young man, do not speak of Jesus, and he died, knowing he was dying, without ever calling for prayer, Bible, or minister. There is a story given by some of his best biographers shedding light on his church-going. He apparently never kneeled for prayer nor would he take communion. When one parson brought this to his attention after the service, Washington gave him the icy stare for which this aloof, emotionally-cold man was famous and never returned to that church.
Thomas Jefferson was accused publicly of being an atheist. More than any other founder, Jefferson was under the spell of European (and particularly French) thought. His writings, and references to him by friends, certainly make him sound like a private skeptic. He belonged to no church. He explicitly denied the divinity of Jesus, viewing him as a great teacher of human values. At best he was a deist referring in his private writings to God as “our god.”
Jefferson who, despite high-sounding words, was something of a hypocrite on many aspects of civil liberties and particularly on slavery, was at his best on the need for religious liberty. Despite his free-thinking reputation, he formed alliances with groups like the Baptists, who deeply resented paying taxes to the established church in Virginia and won a long battle for a statute of religious liberty.
Thomas Paine, whose stirring words in Common Sense contributed greatly to the revolution, was often accused of atheism because of his religious writing, but deism is closer to the truth. His later writing done in Europe, “The Age of Reason,” was regarded as scandalous by establishment-types. France, during the terror under Robespierre, turned to a new kind of state religion. This, the very brave Paine, living in Paris, also rejected, writing,
“I do not believe in the creed professed…by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the protestant church, nor any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.”
The great Dr. Franklin, who incidentally lived about a quarter of his life on diplomatic missions in Europe and who as a very young man had run away from a home where rigid religious principles were imposed, was a typical deist of the period. He was an active member of the first Masonic temple in America. His attitudes were so amicable to French intellectuals and society, he was embraced, as no other American has ever been, as a national figure in that country.
Alexander Hamilton, undoubtedly the most intellectually gifted of the founders other than Franklin, paid lip service to religion, but he was known during the Revolution as a rake. Later, his distinguished career in Washington’s cabinet was marred by a great sexual scandal. Generally, Hamilton used religion to promote his political aims, ignoring it whenever it was convenient. In this respect, perhaps he qualifies as a thoroughly modern American version of a Christian.
Gouveneur Morris, who wrote the draft of the Constitution we all recognize from the notes of others, was an extremely worldly and aristocratic man. He was also one of Washington’s most trusted confidants. He was perhaps the most rakish, womanizing diplomat America ever sent to Europe, sharing at one point a mistress with Talleyrand, the most amoral ex-cleric who ever practiced statecraft. In general, Europeans were astonished that a man so worldly and so arrogantly patrician in temperament represented the young republic for a period in France.
Abraham Lincoln, while not a founder, is the most beloved of American presidents. Lincoln’s closest friend and most interesting biographer, Herndon, said flatly that Lincoln was a religious skeptic. This has always so upset America’s establishment historians that Herndon has been accused of writing a distorted book, a rather ridiculous charge in view of a close friendship with his subject and twenty years spent collecting materials.
Lincoln never attended church and when he refers to God in speeches during the Civil War, it is always with words acceptable to secular, educated people who regarded the King James Bible as an important cultural and literary document apart from any claims for its sacredness.
There is reason to believe that as the bloody war continued, Lincoln, who suffered from severe depressions, turned to the Bible for consolation, especially to the story of the struggle of the Hebrews.
Lincoln was also an extremely astute politician who used every means at his command in the great battle with secession, and his references to the Almighty may well have been part of his psychological artillery. He certainly did not invoke the name of Jesus.
Patrick Henry, who incidentally opposed ratification of the Constitution, was a Christian, but he was once described by Jefferson as “an emotional volcano with little guiding intelligence.”
Just a little brush up on history…