A recent article in The New York Times Magazine, titled “How Christian Were the Founders?,” has evoked extensive discussion. So has the decision of the Texas State Board of Education to include more religious content in social studies books. That decision is what inspired the magazine article in the first place. Because of our country’s complex history and its current religious and ideological pluralism, this question has provoked great controversy.
Confusion about – and misunderstanding of – the founders’ religious beliefs abound.
Some assert that almost all the founders were evangelical Christians, while others insist that virtually all of them were deists. Some contend that the founders wanted to establish a distinctively Christian nation, and others counter that they strove to create a secular republic. Opponents, especially, debate the founders’ views on church-state separation.
Sadly, much misinformation is being presented. Consider one example: A letter in response to the The New York Times Magazine article makes misleading claims about both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who powerfully influenced the new nation’s position on religious liberty and the relationship between church and state. Madison, the respondent asserts, complained that for almost 15 centuries, Christianity’s fruits had been “pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution,” suggesting that “the Father of the Constitution” was hostile to Christianity.
What Madison actually said in his famous Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785) was that “the legal establishment of Christianity” had produced these results.
Rather than criticizing Christianity, Madison was calling for its disestablishment, because the “duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.”
Madison, like many other founders, believed that Christianity was much more likely to thrive when it was voluntary. The Virginian also argued in Memorial and Remonstrance that Christianity “flourished, not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them, and not only during the period of miraculous aid, but long after it had been left to its own evidence and the ordinary care of Providence.” Moreover, in the 1820s, Madison rejoiced that ministers of every denomination were zealously providing religious instruction in Virginia and winning people to Christian faith by “the purity of their lives.”
Garrett Sheldon, author of The Political Philosophy of James Madison, contends that Madison’s education, writings and actions all reveal his Christian worldview. In an essay called “Religion and the Presidency of James Madison,” in an edited work published by the Columbia University Press in 2009 titled Religion and the American Presidency, Sheldon maintains that Madison’s intellectual life and long public service to his nation were directed by his “firm Christian faith and principles.”
These included belief in God’s sovereignty, humanity’s innate sinfulness, pride, selfishness (which required a government of checks and balances to prevent oppression), and the need for redemption through Christ.
Part of Madison’s education took place under three Scottish Calvinist teachers. One was at a boarding school, another was his tutor, and the third, John Witherspoon, was the president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton). And his various writings, especially his presidential proclamations and addresses, validate Sheldon’s claims. Madison repeatedly thanked God for protecting Americans in the midst of difficulties and trials (most notably the War of 1812) and supplying them with religious and civil “privileges and advantages.”
Second, the respondent to The New York Times Magazine article maintains, “Thomas Jefferson compared the story of the virgin birth of Jesus to a Roman fable and prohibited the teaching of religion to undergraduates at the University of Virginia.” It is true that Jefferson repudiated the Christian contention that Jesus was God’s unique Son. On the other hand, he wrote to Benjamin Rush that “I am a Christian in the only sense which I believe Jesus wished any one to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others.”
Moreover, Jefferson strove to follow Christ’s ethical teachings in his personal conduct and work as a statesman. Like George Washington, John Adams and virtually all his successors as president, Jefferson asserted that because religion fostered morality, stability and social cohesion, it was indispensable to the new nation.
Jefferson’s proposed curriculum for the University of Virginia did exclude biblical and theological studies. He refused to appoint a professor of divinity at the university, but he wanted the professor of ethics to discuss the proofs for God’s existence as the “supreme ruler of the universe [and] the author of all the relations of morality.” He also wanted the institution to provide instruction in “religious opinions” and “duties,” because people’s relationship with their Maker and their responsibilities were extremely “interesting and important.” Moreover, he hoped that different denominations would establish divinity schools on the perimeter of the campus, to enable students to participate in the religious exercises of their faith communities. These provisions would help students espouse Christ’s principal ethical teachings and be virtuous citizens of the new republic.
Unfortunately, incorrect and misleading information about our nation’s founders is plentiful. We must carefully consider the context of the founders’ writings, and look carefully at their entire lives, to ensure that we properly interpret the intentions and meanings of their statements and actions. This is crucial to accurately assessing their religious beliefs and evaluating to what extent Christianity helped shape the new United States.
Dr. Gary Scott Smith is a fellow for faith and the presidency with The Center for Vision & Values, and he chairs the history department at Grove City College. He is author of “Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush” (Oxford University Press, 2009).