Your RDA of Irony

Blind Faith and Imposing Your Myopia On Everyone Else

How Christian Were the Founders?

New York Times Magazine. February 14, 2010

Did the Founding Fathers intend America to  be a Christian nation? Well, they did insist that their slaves be Christian.  Does that prove how much the Founders thought of Christianity or how little?   There certainly is nothing in the Constitution to indicate any theological preference, unless the letter “t” in the word constitution really signifies a crucifix. 

However, Fundamentalism asserts its faith over facts.  It knows the unspoken, unwritten and unimagined intentions of the Founders.  As the self-anointed ventriloquist for the Founding Fathers, the Rite Wing demands that school textbooks indoctrinate children with a Christian interpretation of history.  Some school boards have complied, and their students will learn this preamble to the Constitution:  “I am Jesus’ little sunbeam.”

In truth, Christianity has its role in our early history.  During the 17th century, a number of colonies were founded as religious havens and had a theocratic character tyrannical enough to gratify any Fundamentalist.  By the 18th century, however, the secular spirit of the Enlightenment prevailed among the educated classes in America.  Some of the Founding Fathers did not even think of themselves as Christians.  They regarded God, not as  a demanding Semitic busybody, but as “the watchmaker”: the rational creator who set the universe in motion. Thomas Jefferson, along with Benjamin Franklin, had that theological view: Deism.

John Adams was an Unitarian, a creed that regards Jesus as an exemplary human being but not divine.  George Washington and James Madison were Episcopalians but they showed more fervor as members of the Freemasons. Indeed, the Masonic influence was more prevalent than Christianity in this nation’s founding: check out the back of the dollar bill. That is not the eye of Jesus staring at you.

Since the Founding Fathers were not belligerently Christian, the Rite Wing has to quote Founding Nephews and Founding Second Cousins. You will be relieved to know that Elias Boudinot was a determined defender of the Gospels. (See if Boudinot is even in Wikipedia.) In his personal correspondence, John Marshall referred to American as a Christian society; however, the Chief Justice refrained from imposing that view in any Supreme Court decisions.

Nonetheless, a number of the Founders were Christians, and some even were clergymen. So why they did acquiesce to the secular character of the constitution and the government? The fact is that these Christians did not trust each other. Today, Protestantism is largely homogenized: can you tell the difference between a Lutheran, a Congregationalist, an Episcopalian and a Methodist? But in the 18th century, those differences were very pronounced and frequently antagonistic. The Congregationalists and the Episcopalians disliked each other, and you can only imagine how they felt about Catholics. Quakers were none too popular either (and they were not allowed to defend themselves). The Mother Country was only too happy to dole out a colony to each and every denomination–just to get them out of England.

The Congregationalists of New England, the Episcopalians of the South, the Catholics of Maryland, the Quakers of Pennsylvania, and the Methodists and the Presbyterians scattered throughout the colonies were never going to agree on the definition of Christianity. And each of these denominations knew it. So they reconciled themselves to a compromise and accepted secularism over sectarianism. It was the rational choice; in a society where no creed is dominant, all creeds are equal.

If the Founders had intended a Christian society, America would never have succeeded.

  1. Rene says:

    I can tell the difference between a Lutheran and a Methodist.

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