The recent discussion of the Founding Father’s Deism seems to have generated some dissent. One respondent lists various quotes to deny this aspect of the historical record..even though they are incomplete and out of context. An example is the Franklin letter to Stiles lauding Jesus’ moral system; the writer left out the rest of the letter where Franklin states he doubts Jesus’ divinity. He also missed Franklin’s autobiographical statement: “I soon became a thorough Deist.”
Madison is credited with the 1773 statements the writer details; he also is responsible for a 1774 letter to Bradford that states “religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind.” Adams approved of “the general principles of Christianity”, but he also stated “this would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it.” In 1816 Jefferson was “a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus”, but in 1814 he wrote Dr. Cooper saying “Christianity neither is, nor ever was, a part of the common law.”
The Founders exhibited a continuum of thought ranging from Washington who was prone to publicly commending religion but did little in the way of private practice, to Jefferson who cut up the Bible to make it correspond to his view of the subject. Their variety of attitudes is explained not only by the enlightenment’s emphasis on rational thinking, but also by the religious choices of the day.
The Anglican church (the King’s church), the Calvinists, and a few splinter sects were the alternative to reliance on one’s own God given reason.
Which brings us back to the original point – the Founders’ beliefs and their relevance to present day political choice: our country was not the result of people’s delusional faith in God-provided storms to aid their army, or some bogus belief in “exceptionalism”. We’re here, in 2012, because hard working and rational people devoted their time and talent to improving the politics of their time. That improvement can continue if we avoid the arrogance of those who claim to be privy to God’s design for our political future!
A balanced – as opposed to Glen Beck/ Ayn Rand, etc. – perspective on the founders and Deism can be found in David Holmes “Faiths Of Our Founding Fathers”; an overview of the matter is available at Colonial Williamsburg’s ‘history.org/journal.’ Select James Breig’s article in the spring 09 issue.