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Religion and the Founding

Joseph Knippenberg blogged recently in praise of an article by Michael Novak and Christopher Levenick on "Religion and the Founders." At the beginning of the article Novak and Levenick criticize someone for having said that "[o]ur nation was founded not on Christian principles, but on Enlightenment ones." In response they write:

"What a strange distinction! It certainly would have been foreign to the Founders, who thought the moral precepts of Christian faith indispensable to the survival of the infant republic. And it's a distinction that remains foreign to the vast majority of Americans today."

This claim is insupportable. Most of the founders believed that a reasonable or civil religion was necessary for good government but this was not revealed religion and certainly not "the moral precepts of Christian Faith." The civil religion most Founders thought important for politics did without the first four of the ten commandments.

Toward the end of their article, Novak and Levenick return to this point:

"Every single one of the Founders believed that, at the level of both individual morality and public policy, the demands of reason and of revelation powerfully reinforce one another. They understood that with respect to the ultimate questions -- the creation of the universe, the purpose of human existence, and the hope of life after death -- faith and philosophy might differ. In the practical world they inhabited, however, the Founders believed that both Socrates and Jesus enjoined their followers to accord all persons truth, justice, and charity."

It is true that on the surface some of the dictates of reason and some of the dictates of revealed religion overlap but this does not mean that the United States was founded on the dictates of revealed religion or Christianity. On the contrary, Washington appears to have been indifferent to revealed religion and Jefferson and Franklin were hostile to it. But we can look beyond the Founders to judge the religious character of the founding. At the time of the Founding perhaps no more than 20% of Americans belonged to a Church. America became a Christian nation and religious after the Founding. Church membership increased throughout the nineteenth-century. The figure for Church membership today is several times higher than it was at the Founding.

This last point is worth pondering. It leads one to suspect that, precisely because America is now more Christian and religious than it was at its founding, some people feel the need to make the Founding appear more Christian and religious than it was.

Finally, I would like to note that on the profound difference between reason and revelation with regard to questions of morality and the foundations of politics, a wonderful guide is Thomism and Aristotelianism: A Study of the Commentary by Thomas Aquinas on the Nicomachean Ethics by Harry Jaffa. The epigraph of the book is a quote from Winston Churchill: "It is baffling to reflect that what men call honour does not correspond always to Christian ethics."

Categories > Religion

Discussions - 34 Comments

Mr. Tucker, where did you get those statistics on church attendance in colonial America? It is customary to cite sources.

If the founders were guided by the Enlightenment more than by Christianity, they had a funny way of showing it. Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and Jean Rousseau believed in the inherent neutrality or goodness of human beings. On the other hand, the elaborate checks and balances built into the constitutional framework of our government suggests the founders were deeply suspicious of human nature (akin to Burke’s ’crooked timber of humanity’). This is why America did not go the way of Jacobin France...ours was a revolution deeply influences by the Judeo-Christian view of ’fallen man’.

I for one grow weary of people who point to Jefferson and Franklin as proof that nascent America was irreligious. Most of the signers, and indeed the vast bulk of the population, were quite explicitly religious, if their diaries and other historical documents are any guide.

Jaffa’s book was what turned me off Straussianism. He just didn’t understand St. Thomas’s handling of magnanimity and humility.

David:

My thoughts also regarding the weakness of Novak and Levenick’s defense. The founding is not based on revealed religion. But N&L are at least right that that generation saw Christianity and the Enlightenment as compatible (they could quote the Bible to support Locke and vice versa), not fundamentally at odds the way Brooke Allen, Garry Wills, and others assume.

While I just disagreed with Mr. Crenshaw on a thread about Lincoln, I have to agree with him here. The figures about formal church membership in 18th-century America may reflect as much as anything the relatively primitive level of formal organization of any kind in American society at the time as well as factors such as the dispersed nature of settlement, and so on, and should not be taken at face value as prima facie evidence of indifference or hostility to Christian belief and piety.

David Hackett Fischer’s recent Washington’s Crossing argues--with recourse to primary documents--that a sense of something like what Christians call "special providence" was strong in "Whig" (the contemporary name people like George Washington used for themselves) ranks, both in the Continental Army, the militia, and civilian society. Fischer says that many Americans who took the Whig side believed in one form or another that America had a special divine mission and thus enjoyed God’s special favor or protection--clearly ideas drawn from revealed religion.

And about Washington’s personal religiosity there is enormous dispute. The man is simply not an open-and-shut case for either believers or secularists, and neither Dr. Tucker nor anyone else should pretend that he is.

I think there is a difference between moderating Christianity and rejecting it. Washington’s stoicism notwithstanding, he kissed the Bible at his inauguration. Jefferson, despite his deism (no less "revealed" than Biblical religion), in his First Inaugural Address spoke of America’s "benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them including honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude and love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greatere happiness hereafter." Adams believed that popular government was possible only for a religious people.

Now if Christians were not the majority at the founding, why did John Jay write in Federalist 2 that Americans "profess[ed] the same religion?" And it must have happened pretty suddenly (as history goes), as Tocqueville said in 1835 that one could not understand America without reference to her religion. After all, the first Great Awakening occurred in the 18th century, not the 19th.

That revealed religion, with its foundation in other worldly piety, presents a difficulty for political life is certainly true; that the founders rejected it, is not. As they stressed the point of agreement between reason and revelation on the equality of man in the Declaration, so they protected men’s right of conscience and welcomed their morality in our public and private lives.

As to Harry Jaffa, it was he who wrote a pamphlet showing how virtually every state constitution, following the Declaration, recognized God as the author of our rights, thereby providing a sufficient refutation of the tortured reasoning of the Supreme Court’s long-standing project to banish religion from public life. We should find friends wherever and whenever we can for republican government, encouraging the patriotic sentiments of millions of believers who cherish a republic that secures their freedom to worship.

Finally, even though its best fruits were not in coming, it is hard to imagine millions of human beings recognizing the natural rights of all human beings without the prior centuries-long experience of Christianity. Reason invites some to reflect on our doings; revelation inspires millions to act well. Both are inevitable, and indispensable.

Most of what Edward Crenshaw says is irrelevant to my post. For example, the word "enlightenment" in my post appears only in a quotation from someone else. And of course nowhere do I say that "nascent America was irreligious." My source for the 20% figure is Jon Butler, "Why Revolutionary America Wasn’t a Christian Nation," Religion and the New Republic, ed. James Hutson (Rowman and Littlefield, 2000), p. 191. Similarly, irrelevant is Crenshaw’s remark that most people were religious. I believe that both Franklin and Jefferson could be described as religious. But one can be religious in that sense without believing in revealed religion or Christianity (the divinity of Christ.)
The issue is not whether the American people and the Founders were religious, but their attitudes toward revealed religion and Christianity.

I think that JBK is right, although it is difficult to generalize in this regard about the Founding. But if religion and the enlightenment are compatible in the Founding it is because the enlightenment and the revolutionary struggle changed Christianity in America much more than Christianity changed or guided the revolution.

PJC raises an interesting point about 18th century society but as far as I can tell it was more organized than 18th century British or European society. There were all sorts of churches and clubs and so forth. Franklin was a greater former of organizations. The frontier is different and PJC may be right that isolation there contributed to what most observers (e.g., contemporary travelers) saw as its unchurched and irreligious ways. PJC might be right to imply that, if circumstances had been different, then those on the frontier would have been more overtly religious but this does not change what appears to have been the case.

PJC’s point about special Providence is a very good one and is perhaps the most powerful argument for a generalized belief in revealed religion at the time of the founding. But precisely because there was widespread agreement among the leaders of the revolution that religion was politically useful, we have to be careful about moving from their expression of a politically useful belief in America’s special providence to claims about what they believed. Even Jefferson could speak about God’s wrath when he needed to (e.g., in Notes on Virginia, when discussing slavery.) I for one have never seen it as a strong argument for revealed religion to say that there are no atheists in foxholes.

Also, there are various ways to understand how God interacts with the world. It is possible to believe that God has a plan and that America is part of it without believing that he must or can intervene at any given moment. I believe much talk about God in 18th-century America was of this sort, which is different from the God of the Bible or at least most of the Bible. This sort of view changed into the view that, in effect, history has a plan. "Something like" special providence may not be much like special providence at all.

PJC and I will have to disagree about Washington.

Whoops" I should have said, "Finally, even though its best fruits were LONG in coming ..." (fourth line from bottom)

I was commenting on comments apparently while Richard Reeb was posting. I have interspersed some comments among his comments.

RR: I think there is a difference between moderating Christianity and rejecting it. Washington’s stoicism notwithstanding, he kissed the Bible at his inauguration. Jefferson, despite his deism (no less "revealed" than Biblical religion), in his First Inaugural Address spoke of America’s "benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them including honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude and love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greatere happiness hereafter."

DT: these are examples of politically useful acts and speech. Are you claiming that the Founders believed that only Christians could be good republican citizens or that only those who believed in some revealed religion could be?

RR: Adams believed that popular government was possible only for a religious people.

DT: again, what does one mean by religion? TJ could and did say the same sort of thing but also took all the revealed parts out of the Bible.

RR:Now if Christians were not the majority at the founding, why did John Jay write in Federalist 2 that Americans "profess[ed] the same religion?"

DT: He was wrong or he was referring to the least common denominator religion of reason that was so prevalent during the era of the revolution.

RR:And it must have happened pretty suddenly (as history goes), as Tocqueville said in 1835 that one could not understand America without reference to her religion. After all, the first Great Awakening occurred in the 18th century, not the 19th.

DT: It did happen fairly quickly, in a generation in some cases, as one can see in the differences between John Adam and John Quincy Adams. Why do we assume that Tocqueville actually knew or understood the historical America about which he wrote?

RR: That revealed religion, with its foundation in other worldly piety, presents a difficulty for political life is certainly true; that the founders rejected it, is not. As they stressed the point of agreement between reason and revelation on the equality of man in the Declaration, so they protected men’s right of conscience and welcomed their morality in our public and private lives.

DT: I think this is a non-sequitur. It does not follow from the fact that both reason and revelation agree on the equality of men that the founders, by accepting equality, also accepted revealed religion. “Founders” is a term that includes all sorts of people. I believe that it is clear that Founders did reject revealed religion. Not everyone who might be included in that term did.

RR:As to Harry Jaffa, it was he who wrote a pamphlet showing how virtually every state constitution, following the Declaration, recognized God as the author of our rights, thereby providing a sufficient refutation of the tortured reasoning of the Supreme Court’s long-standing project to banish religion from public life.

DT: this may be true but I don’t see its relevance to what I said about Jaffa.

We should find friends wherever and whenever we can for republican government, encouraging the patriotic sentiments of millions of believers who cherish a republic that secures their freedom to worship. Finally, even though its best fruits were not in coming, it is hard to imagine millions of human beings recognizing the natural rights of all human beings without the prior centuries-long experience of Christianity. Reason invites some to reflect on our doings; revelation inspires millions to act well. Both are inevitable, and indispensable.

DT: Some Christians (Baptists traditionally) dislike the politicizing of religion, since they fear it will corrupt religion. Madison used this to forge an alliance with Baptists in order to disestablish Anglicanism in Virginia. Christianity became compatible and encouraging to natural rights only after the slaughter of the early modern religious wars in Europe and after the enlightenment moderated it. The American Revolution and Founding was an important part of this effort. As I said in an earlier response, the revolution changed Christianity in America and in the world one could argue more than Christianity changed or affected the Revolution.

I think I agree with Proffesor Tucker...

This is a question of frameworks...

For starters: I don’t think Locke and Rousseau can be lumped together as thinkers bound to a particular time, such as the enlightement. Both Locke and Rousseau would recommend various checks and ballances. Rousseau because he did not believe in the inherent neutrality or goodness of human beings(in a state of society man is alienated, corrupted... a sort of fall from eden(by the way, biblically was man free in the garden previous to original sin?), and Locke because he understood this simply as "power" or free will, the capacity for greatness or evilness in human beings.

Edward Crenshaw is right. America at the time of the founding was a Christian nation, and it was founded on mostly Christian principles. What does not matter is whether or not these "Christian morals" were revealed or simply learned/read in the Bible (unless one considers reading the Bible revelation). While the Founders argued for a civil religion, there can be no doubt that Americans and the Founders wanted this civil religion to be of Christian origins and espouse Christian principles.

Evidence of Early America:

1. Maryland "declaration of rights" of 1776 gave religious freedom only to Christians.

2. South Carolina’s Constitution (1778) said "the Christian protestant religion shall be deemed the established religion of this state."

3. Only four of the thirteen colonies (Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey) failed to establish a state religion of Christian origin.

these 3 facts can be found on p 664 of O’Briens Constitutional Law and Politics V 2, Ed 5.

American government has trended away from religion (Christianity) not towards it, and I believe that the people are generally about the same in their beliefs/Christianity as at the time of the Founding (except a greater number of Catholics than previous).

I conclude that "Church attendance" is totally irrelevant to the level of Christianity of America considering the difficulty of travel in colonial times and the independence of the people.

For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.
Matthew 18:20

Such dedication! Writing comments in the middle of the night! Commenting on David Tucker’s rejoinders:

DT: These [Washington/Bible, Jefferson/benign religion, Adams/religious people] are examples of politically useful acts and speech. Are you claiming that the Founders believed that only Christians could be good republican citizens or that only those who believed in some revealed religion could be?

RR: Washington’s, Jefferson’s and Adam’s acts and speech recognize the reality which, as far as I am aware, you are the first to dispute, is that the vast majority of Americans in the founding period were Christians. The Founders never said or implied that only Christians or believers in some revealed religion could be good republican citizens, but they knew which religion predominated. They made their peace with it and understood their duty to be encouraging the best in these believers while doing nothing to mock them.

DT: Again, what does one mean by religion? TJ could and did say the same sort of thing but also took all the revealed parts out of the Bible.

RR: You’re right about Jefferson’s deism and rationalism but he could not deny the fact of Christianity’s predominance in the country.

DT: [Jay] was wrong or he was referring to the least common denominator religion of reason that was so prevalent during the era of the revolution.

RR: This is the main factual point at issue. Frankly, your claim reminds me of the one made by the professor who argued that most early Americans did not own guns. Why was it necessary to encourage and capitalize upon what Madison in the Tenth essay referred to as "the multiplicity of sects" unless Christians predominated? And why could not the framers of the Bill of Rights get a clause to ban state establishments, as well as federal ones? The current critics of separation of church and state, who go to such absurd lengths as to call it a myth, have based much of their case upon the fact that Christian establishments existed in several of the states at that time. There were no others.

DT: It [the spread of Christianity] did happen fairly quickly, in a generation in some cases, as one can see in the differences between John Adams and John Quincy Adams. Why do we assume that Tocqueville actually knew or understood the historical America about which he wrote?

RR: That spread did not come out of nowhere, and I repeat that a Great Awakening had already occurred in the 18th century. If Tocqueville observed the predominance of Christianity in 1835, that is just about right, accepting your claim. But his argument is that the idea of equality as a political force goes back 800 years, after 1000 years of the faithful waiting for the return of Jesus Christ. The first political expression of it may have been the Magna Charta. In any event, Tocqueville was not the only witness to these developments.

DT:. . . It does not follow from the fact that both reason and revelation agree on the equality of men that the founders, by accepting equality, also accepted revealed religion. “Founders” is a term that includes all sorts of people. I believe that it is clear that Founders did reject revealed religion. Not everyone who might be included in that term did.

RR: Again, I maintain that the Founders (shall we say the leading Founders) unavoidably accepted revealed religion as a partner because that was the religion that existed in the country, and still does. That they were not governed by revealed religion themselves is not the issue; it is whether they made use of existing materials, so to speak, rather than doing what the French did, which was to abolish Christianity and establish a "Temple of Reason."

DT: This [Jaffa opposing the Supreme Court’s war against public recognition of God] may be true but I don’t see its relevance to what I said about Jaffa.

RR: In the Aristotle/Thomas work, Jaffa shows that Aristotelian morality and Christian morality are not the same (as Winston Churchill said too). That does not rule out prudent adaptation to existing religious realities by the American Founders. The Claremont Institute probably still has copies of Jaffa’s pamphlet, which argues for retaining the authority of the Declaration’s theology. Jaffa’s own thoughts about the adequacy of Christian morality notwithstanding, he no more than the Founders cannot do anything more than make common cause with revealed religion.

DT: Some Christians (Baptists traditionally) dislike the politicizing of religion, since they fear it will corrupt religion. Madison used this to forge an alliance with Baptists in order to disestablish Anglicanism in Virginia. Christianity became compatible and encouraging to natural rights only after the slaughter of the early modern religious wars in Europe and after the enlightenment moderated it. The American Revolution and Founding was an important part of this effort. As I said in an earlier response, the revolution changed Christianity in America and in the world one could argue more than Christianity changed or affected the Revolution.

RR: Political prudence more than the Enlightenment moderated Christianity, as the absence of the former in France demonstrates. Alliances like Madison’s in Virginia were necessary for disestablishment and freedom of religion, and those efforts were uneven over the country as a whole. True, state establishments faded away, as they should have, but they were evidence of the power of Christianity.

I am reminded of David Zuckert’s closing statement in his essay about Puritanism in the Claremont Review a couple of issues back. He said, correctly, that the Puritan way was not America. But that didn’t keep Puritans and generations of Calvinists since from believing that it was. Thomas West has reminded us that Puritans learned some valuable political lessons from their relationships with the Indians, and many Christians during the Revolution came to understand that the country that secured their religious freedom was worth fighting for. But that does not show that there was no modus vivendi between reason and revelation--quite the contrary.

In short, the Founders did not reject what they could not eliminate, whatever their private thoughts. They relied on Christianity’s morality and privatized its revealed theology as much as possible. That morality remains a force today, as it powers most of the opposition to moral relativism in general, and abortion on demand and legalized homosexuality in particular. Were in not for so much public belief in the Bible, there would be no effective resistance to these things. We are not a Christian republic, but we are a Christian people, certainly one of Biblical faith, as we always have been.

Whoops again. Sixth exchange regarding Harry Jaffa (sorry, my attempts to make paragraphs failed) "He no more than the founders CAN AVOID MAKING common cause . . ."


Fourth line from bottom: "Were IT not for so much public belief in the Bible . . "

Richard Reeb writes: "The Founders never said or implied that only Christians or believers in some revealed religion could be good republican citizens . . ." We agree on this essential point. I am not so sure about Clint.

Richard continues "but they knew which religion predominated." I never disputed which religion predominated in 18th century America. There was no other religion besides Christianity (except for a bit of Judaism and the Indian and some African religion, which were politically irrelevant), so by definition it predominated. But it does not follow from the fact that Christianity was the predominant religion that most Americans in 1776 were Christians. Also, it is necessary to define what we mean by Christianity and Christian faith. If one accepts as Christianity a belief in morals largely compatible with Christianity and a belief in the existence of Nature’s God, then we could say that most, perhaps all, Americans in 1776 were Christians. Finally, even if most Americans were Christians, if we agree that it is not only Christians or believers in some revealed religion who could be good republican citizens, then it doesn’t matter if most Americans were Christians.

I will close with another question: would the revolution and the Founding have occurred substantially as they did, if there had been no religious establishments and no Great Awakening in the colonies? I believe that the answer is yes.

So, Mr. Tucker, if my post was irrelevant, I apparently can’t make out the obvious point of your initial post. Could you clarify it please? You seem to have a talent for obfuscation.

My point remains...and you ignore it. The framework of government laid down by the constitution reflects a strong skepticism about the nature of human beings...a skepticism that would not be acquired from either Locke or Rousseau (sorry, John, I disagree with you on your reading of these Enlightenment philisophers). Checks and balances in Rousseau!!! Such stuff!

Most of the founders believed that a reasonable or civil religion was necessary for good government but this was not revealed religion and certainly not “the moral precepts of Christian Faith.”

This is the general basis of the Dr. Tucker’s original post it seems to me. I would not argue that the Founders thought that revealed religion was necessary, but they did think that the "moral precepts of Christian Faith" were needed. I believe in this discussion Dr. Tucker has backed away from his original statement and has tried to argue (correctly I think) only that revealed religion (of which Christianity may or may not be included in) was not a requirement of republican government. Unless he is arguing that all religion (Christianity, Islam etc) is revelation and that reading the Bible and following its principles is revealed religion. If he believes this, then we part ways. Revelation may not have been key to the Founding, But Christian principles were. The "civil religion" of the Founders by definition included most of the moral concepts of Christianity.

Edward -- Why are you talking about Locke and Rousseau? You are the only one talking about the enlightenment. It is not the case that skepticism about human nature, and hence the need for checks and balances, arises only from belief in Christianity (and hence proves that the Founders were Christians). One merely has to be alive to come to the conclusion that checks and balances are a good idea.

Clint -- As I said there is a superficial similarity between the moral concepts of civil religion and Christianity. Richard Reeb is happy with this and wants to encourage the happiness of others with this superficial similarity. You seem to believe that the similarity is an identity. I disagree. You can arrive at almost all of the morality of the civil religion of the Revolution or Founding without reference to God or Jesus. My statements on this have been consistent from the beginning, but perhaps Edward is right and I am just too obscure.

Because this has come up earlier, I will add another reference on the issue of Church membership. Rodney Stark, "American Religion in 1776: A Statistical Portrait," Sociological Analysis, 49(1988), pp. 39-51 cites various estimates of membership ranging from 10 to 20 per cent. Stark also provides a lot of other statistics worth considering.

I think Dr. Tucker’s argument is fair although I must disagree that the similarity of morality is superficial. I think that Christianity has real truths that other religions have failed to grasp, and the founder’s believed in these principles which would have been in their civil religion.

You can arrive at almost all of the morality of the civil religion of the Revolution or Founding without reference to God or Jesus.

Then why did Jefferson say "we are endowed by our Creator?" An endowment, much like perhaps a revelation, cannot come from logic, Socrates, or anything but a Supernatural, Omnipotent God. I still take objection with the way he often seems to interchange "revealed religion" with Christianity. These two are not always the same. Lastly I must disagree that Church membership, attendance or anything of the sort is a reliable or even meaninful statistic to prove the "Christianity" of a society.

Mr. Tucker, you are prevaricating. Your initial thread starts by claiming that Novak and Levenick are wrong in saying that the Founders relied on Judeo-Christian precepts rather than on the Enlightenment philosophes. My point, that the entire structure of the nascent republic reflects a Judeo-Christian sensibility, is valid. Your assertion that "checks and balances" would occur to the Founders as a "good idea" quite apart from Christian sensibilities makes me wonder why we don’t find such government forms in Africa, Asian, or indeed Latin America (until, of course, we introduced them). These checks and balances are a product of the Western view of man, which is deeply informed by the doctrine of Original Sin and the Fall from Grace. Indeed, these countervailing institutions arose during the Middle Ages, informing both Enlightenment thinkers as well as subsequent experiments in governance.


When a country did try to cleanse government of Christianity (France in the 1790s), the anemia of "reason" as a god became apparent very quickly. Into the power void stepped Bonaparte, and the rest is history.


Maybe I am the only one talking about the Enlightenment, but I shouldn’t be. What the heck is your point, anyway?

Clint -- I didn’t say that Christian morality was superficial, only that it had a superficial similarity with the rational morality prevalent at the time of the Founding.

Jefferson used the term Creator, presumably, because in a public document he sought to express a common view. But believing in a Creator or a benign superintending Being is not the same as espousing Christianity or any other revealed religion. That is, one can believe in a Creator without being a Christian.

Church membership, or the lack of it, is an imperfect measure of the beliefs of a population but it is a fact, more or less. What do you suggest as an alternative?

I am drawn to Edward Crenshaw’s view that the whole structure of the American Republic is, in its ensemble, unimaginable (or at least extremely hard to imagine--tho’ that concession wd represent about a half-step back from Crenshaw’s claim) apart from the reality of America’s own appropriation of Judaeo-Christian living traditions. (And David Tucker is arguing a counterfactual here, which is often a tough type of argument to clinch anyway.)

I also suspect, however, that we need to go beyond the fairly narrow topic of "checks and balances" to weigh this matter. I say this b/c it seems pretty evident from the historical record that societies w/ no relationship to Biblical religion have displayed keen awareness of the inevitable "moral harzards" of unchecked power (Tucker rightly says that this is just common sense), and have adopted de facto checks and balances in response. I’m thinking, for example, of the Athenian custom of having a rotating board of ten strategoi (commanders) to run military affairs, or the Roman Republic’s custom of having two consuls serving (IIRC) one-year terms, with resort to a dictator (single commander) exceeding rare and saved for only the gravest emergencies. This shows that the decidedly non-JudeoChristian polities of Athens and Rome grasped the value of both alternation in office and checks & balances. I’m sure other readers could suggest more examples to go with these.

That said, I do think there’s a strong dose of Augustinianism (broadly construed) in the Founders--[and conversely, a broad streak of proto-liberalism in St. Augustine, but that’s another story].

We shd also recall that the mainstream of the JudeaoChristian tradition teaches not only a certain suspiciousness toward "the old Adam" but also a certain hopefulness about humanity (i.e., the mainstream rejects "total depravity") and we hear echoes of both Augustinian caution and duly sober Biblical hopefulness in Federalist 55’s judicious claim that:

"As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these [i.e., the estimable and confidence-worthy] qualities in a higher degree than any other form."

David Fischer in "Washington’s Crossing" could have been describing this insight from Publius when Fischer says that American Whigs of the Founding Era, much like Americans still today, were inclined to embrace an "optimistic fatalism" that had something to do with their parallel inclination to believe in one version or other of a special Providential mission or calling for America. Is Augustine hovering somewhere in the background of all this? I say probably yes, because the Romans didn’t "do" anything like Providence (at least not before Virgil, as best I can tell), but instead were head over heels into that most fickle of goddesses, Fortuna. Some Americans--possibly including Washington--may have been more "Roman" than average in this regard, but Fischer says the weight of evidence shows that the Providential model was subscribed to by more people.

Mr. Tucker--I do not think that the Creator/God of the Declaration or the Founding was a benign Being. The last sentence of the Declaration, "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor." Relying on Providence for protection indicates to me that the God of the Founders was active not passive. Also it does not make sense that the Founders would refer to God as a political calculation if, as you claim, only twenty percent of America was Christian. The Founders really believed in the principles of Christianity. Founders like Franklin who saw religion as a superficial prop for government were not the norm.

I do not doubt the rough validity of such membership statistics, yet they mean little. Think of the high church membership in England compared to the relative lack of Christianity. The Catholic Church has a larger "membership" in America than Evangelical denominations, but American Christianity is much more influenced by Evangelicals than Catholics. Examples are numerous. Your question about what should be looked at is a tough one. I guess I would focus on rhetoric and politics. The fact that much of the writing of the Founding references God so often idicates to me that the people at the Founding were quite religious. I don’t believe that you refute that, as religion and Christianity are not necessarily equal. My argument that Christianity was the religion widely practiced at the founding stems from the laws. All of the nine colonies that established religion had a Christian religion, and every law that limited religion or made religious tests for office favored Christianity.

PJC -- As I wrote earlier, in principle, the argument from a general belief in special providence is a good one but ultimately this is a question of how many people believed in special providence and what they meant when they said God acted in favor of the United States. My reading of the evidence leads me to make less of it than you do.

Clint -- I think you are confusing some terms. One can refer to God without being a Christian. Many of those at the time of the Revolution who referred to God had in mind something very different from the Biblical God. One can be religious without being a Christian. (By the way, to repeat, I never said Americans at the time of the Revolution were irreligious.) Many people at that time saw religion as a political prop, probably even some who believed in the divinity of Christ. It was a fairly common idea.

I don’t think that establishment helps your case. If the establishment at the time of the Revolution proves that Americans were religious or Christian, then disestablishment after the Revolution must show that they were not religious or Christian. This would make the Revolution a great secularizing event. That is the implication of your argument about establishment.

PJC -- all societies have evolved forms of checks and balances...that’s just part of power politics. The difference here is that the Founders explicitly designed an entire government to fight against itself because no single human or group of humans could be trusted with absolute power. As you say, St. Augustine’s voice is echoed throughout our government’s design. By comparison, Athens and Rome were remarkably unbalanced (particularly Athens).


As for the church attendance thing, I think this Bellesiles-like argument is fraudulent. I doubt data quality allow any authoritative estimates here, but I suggest a quick survey of Revolutionary-era graveyards. The ones I’ve been to (e.g., Hillsborough in NC, Philadelphia, various in Virginia) suggest the majority of people were quite explicitly Christian.

I’m still not clear about Mr. Tucker’s man point. If he is arguing that the American experiment was explicitly humanist and secular, he is wrong. If he is arguing that the Founders sought a good dose of secularism (in order to avoid a national church), then I would tend to agree with him. The Founders were relying on an explicitly religious civil society to carry the day.

Just a quick question: Were the "graveyards" also churchyards? If that’s so, then wouldn’t a prior selection bias undercut the value of the sample? (i.e., one would be looking at the headstones of folks who were by definition church-affiliated enough to get buried next to a church building on church land and so highly likey to have Christian messages on their stones) Or are the places you’re talking about civic or "secular" graveyards--and how common were these relative to church graveyards? How many people of all those who died made it into formal graveyards of any kind w/ lasting grave markers anyway? Was the "churched" population somehow different (more affluent, perhaps?) in ways that made its members more likely to wind up w/ grave markers that are still around for us to see? If one wanted to pursue this line of inquiry, one wd have to also look into 18th-century North American burial practices generally, I suppose. Interesting idea, at any rate, even if the data are thin and a bit problematic.

I’m glad most of us agree that the America of the Founding was religious. Obviously this is a standard belief. If the God of the Founding wasn’t the Christian God, what God was He?

The logic on establishment.

Agreement 1: America was religious in the Founding era.

Fact 1: Nine of the thirteen colonies expressed their religious beliefs by establishing state religions.

Fact 2: These established religions were Christian.

So why isn’t Agreement 2 that Americans were Christian at the Founding, since they established Christian religions?

A religious people establishing one religion indicates to me that they are expressing their belief in this religion (Christianity). The opposite is not true. A religious people disestablishing a religion does not mean they do not believe in that religion anymore. Much of the argument against established religion was that it was just as bad for religion as it was for government. America disestablished religion not because they fell away from it, but because they found government laws were a poor way to express religion.

PJC -- yes, I thought that might come up, and it’s a valid point. Historical data always poses the problem of selection bias, and that might be especially true for graveyards. Nonetheless, even non-believers end up in church graveyards (e.g., Franklin’s grave, which I visited in Christ Church Cemetery in Philadelphia -- his wife is also there).

Some of the graveyards I visited in Virginia were family, some church-owned, and some owned by townships. I can’t remember if the one in Hillsborough was originally associated with a church. In all cases, however, Scripture and other overtly-Christian stones are ubiquitous.

What I’d really like to know is Mr. Tucker’s "beef." What is it about Christian influence on government that’s bothering him? I don’t understand why he even brought this up...Christian influence on our government isn’t something I worry a great deal about (that contemporary influence is pretty thin, as I see it).

One might also ask whether the conclusion that Tucker imputes to Novak & Levenick (i.e., "that the United States was founded on the dictates of revealed religion or Christianity") is in fact what those gentlemen are claiming. Is Tucker beating a straw man here? Much could turn on just how one defines terms such as "founded," "dictates," and "revealed religion."

I think that the Founding is informed by Christian insights or teachings such that it could not have been the Founding as we know it--the "really existing" Founding as it actually happened and not as Dr. Tucker counterfactually imagines it might have happened were revealed religion somehow abstracted from the American psyche--w/out the influence of Christian insights or teachings, but I would stop short of saying that the American Republic gives special legal/institutional status to confessional "dictates" qua confessional dictates (of course it doesn’t, so it’s not "founded" on a particular relgious confession or view about revelation). I suspect that Novak & Levenick would join me.

Prof. Tucker: Now I’m not sure whether you think the enlightenment had any influence on developments in America or not. Your reply to me said it moderated Christianity but in your reply to Mr. Crenshaw, you asked, "Why are you talking about Locke and Rousseau? You are the only one talking about the enlightenment." The question, I think, is just how profound an effect did the enlightenment have on American thought? That it affected it is undeniable, but as I said earlier, the soil in which both enlightenment thought and political prudence had to work was that of Biblical faith, primarily Christian. So, even though many men of affairs, as well many of trhe leading founders, seemed to drift from formal Christianity, it was not as easy to drift away from its moral/theological tenets. The Founders did all they could to support the right of conscience so as to make theological differences no longer the ground for political differences. That the founding ultimately led, I believe, to the end of state establishments did not, as is evident, lead to the decline of Christianity, however much it may have splintered.


The belief in God, no less than the whole of Biblical theology, is based on revelation, as God’s existence cannot be demonstrated, however compelling that may be to both faithful and rational persons. (It certainly is to me.) It is absolutely incomprehensible to me that a non-Biblical faith like Islam could have provided the storehouse of belief, so to vital to the American founding, that all men are equal in the sight of God and, indeed, are precious in the sight of God. John Locke once wrote that Christianity was providential in that way. That’s what I meant when I first wrote that revelation inspires millions while enlightenment (as distinguished from the pseudo-enlightenment that is the curse of our age) inspires a few. That is why Rousseau, of all people, was critical of it. Locke certainly had no illusions, nor did Madison (see Federalist no. 69, p. 340 in Cooke edition).


Many who profess to be enlightened have merely exchanged one set of prejudices for another with no rational process intervening. Indeed, what is modern liberalism but secularized Christianity--the brotherhood of man without the fatherhood of God? The Founding did not contribute to THIS development, but rather European historicist thought in its various forms. Before that occurred, either historically or in men’s minds, Christianity has been an ally to natural rights philosophy in the campaigns against slavery and racial segregation, and most recently against abortion on demand. Bill Allen, when running for the Senate in California, derived considerable support from Christian groups, whom he said were the only people in the country with any real "moral energy." I think he was right. The alliance has been there from the beginning. Anti-American Revolution thought is determined to destroy the influence of both. The alliance is more than a marriage of convenience; it is mutually beneficial. Neither can subsist in decent form without the other.

That’s Federalist 49.

Clint – I don’t think you have answered the argument. If establishment before the Revolution means that Christianity is important then disestablishment after the revolution must mean it is unimportant and suggests that the Revolution, in the context of the time, was a secularizing event. I think that is true.

Edward – My beef is that I dislike the effort to make the Revolution an expression of Christianity when it was not.

PJC – you are getting too subtle for me. Novak & Levenick wrote that "the moral precepts of Christian faith [were] indispensable to the survival of the infant republic." If that doesn’t mean what it says, what does it mean? Maybe we can argue about that.

Richard -- some comments:

RB: Prof. Tucker: Now I’m not sure whether you think the enlightenment had any influence on developments in America or not. Your reply to me said it moderated Christianity but in your reply to Mr. Crenshaw, you asked, "Why are you talking about Locke and Rousseau? You are the only one talking about the enlightenment." The question, I think, is just how profound an effect did the enlightenment have on American thought? That it affected it is undeniable, but as I said earlier, the soil in which both enlightenment thought and political prudence had to work was that of Biblical faith, primarily Christian. So, even though many men of affairs, as well many of the leading founders, seemed to drift from formal Christianity, it was not as easy to drift away from its moral/theological tenets.

DT: I believe that Christian Theology had little to do with the Founding. Christian morality had a lot to do with it in a residual, inertial and culturally habitual way. If that is all people want to claim, then I have no beef with that. BUT: elements of Greek and Roman morality were also present in the Founding in the same way and in some ways more powerfully. So no one can make a special claim for Christianity. Also, I would point out that such morality has other roots and that shorn of its theological roots, one might expect Christian morality to wither.

The Founders did all they could to support the right of conscience so as to make theological differences no longer the ground for political differences. That the founding ultimately led, I believe, to the end of state establishments did not, as is evident, lead to the decline of Christianity, however much it may have splintered.

DT: My argument would be that disestablishment revived Christianity in the US. Anglicans and Congregationalist quickly became minorities and Methodists and Baptists majorities among Protestants.

The belief in God, no less than the whole of Biblical theology, is based on revelation, as God’s existence cannot be demonstrated, however compelling that may be to both faithful and rational persons. (It certainly is to me.) It is absolutely incomprehensible to me that a non-Biblical faith like Islam could have provided the storehouse of belief, so to vital to the American founding, that all men are equal in the sight of God and, indeed, are precious in the sight of God.

DT: I believe that third century Christianity would not have been a good basis for Republican government. I suspect and hope that some day Islam will be a good basis for Republican government. Locke and people like him helped make Christianity safe for Republicanism


John Locke once wrote that Christianity was providential in that way. That’s what I meant when I first wrote that revelation inspires millions while enlightenment (as distinguished from the pseudo-enlightenment that is the curse of our age) inspires a few. That is why Rousseau, of all people, was critical of it. Locke certainly had no illusions, nor did Madison (see Federalist no. 69, p. 340 in Cooke edition). Many who profess to be enlightened have merely exchanged one set of prejudices for another with no rational process intervening. Indeed, what is modern liberalism but secularized Christianity--the brotherhood of man without the fatherhood of God? The Founding did not contribute to THIS development, but rather European historicist thought in its various forms.

DT: This kind of liberalism was present in the Founding, at least it is a certain version of Jeffersonianism.

Before that occurred, either historically or in men’s minds, Christianity has been an ally to natural rights philosophy in the campaigns against slavery and racial segregation, and most recently against abortion on demand.

I think it is possible to read the Temperance Address as a critique of Christianity’s influence on American politics. By asserting that some are born again and others are not or that some are damned and others are not, Christianity undermined the doctrine that all men are created equal. The Christian abolitionists were as wrong from Lincoln’s point of view as the Christian slaveholders. Lincoln’s rationalized Christianity was right.

Bill Allen, when running for the Senate in California, derived considerable support from Christian groups, whom he said were the only people in the country with any real "moral energy." I think he was right. The alliance has been there from the beginning. Anti-American Revolution thought is determined to destroy the influence of both. The alliance is more than a marriage of convenience; it is mutually beneficial. Neither can subsist in decent form without the other.

Mr. Tucker -- I guess we’ll just have to disagree then. While I don’t see the Revolution or the American Experiment as a necessarily Christian undertaking, I think it was strongly informed by Christianity (and that this dominated any classical roots, which I saw superficial and much blunted by Christian sensibilities). Indeed, I would go further and say that the American Experiment would be impossible in a non-Christian setting (at least, given the universe of competing worldviews at the time).

I’d say it’s rather hard to separate Christian from European paganism, even in the 18th Century. Christianity ennobled the Roman world, which (if you look at the murals of Popeii etc.) you realize so much of that ancient world was ALIEN. True, our Founders did have a bad case of ancients-worship (just as the Western world had a bad case of Egyptosis after Napoleon’s adventures there), but that worship was practiced through the lens of centuries of Christianity. A bit of labeling (e.g., the Senate) and tons of Greek-revival architecture don’t change the fact that Christians designed and built the American Republic. The veneer was classical, but as I’ve argued above, the structure was solidly Christian in sensibilities.

I would affirm the following syllogism:

A) Revolutionary-era Americans’ embrace of ideas about special providential support was indispensable to the survival of the infant republic (almost certainly during the crisis of 1776-77, and maybe later as well).

B) The very existence, much less the widespread influence of such ideas is impossible to understand or imagine apart from the powerful influence of Christianity on Americans’ thoughts and sentiments.

C) Therefore, the influence of Christianity was indispensable to the survival of the infant republic.

To counter that such influence was merely inertial strikes me as anachronistic: that is, you are using a claim about a future condition toward which American Christianity was supposedly trending (i.e., allegedly cut off from its theological sources, it was supposedly withering on the vine, so to speak) in order to deny the influence of Christianity at the time of the Founding, which is the decisive period in question.

I close with a thought suggested to me by your exchange with Clint: If the American Revolution was a secularizing event, how is it that in the decades following the Revolution America actually became measurably more religious by your own standard of measurement (e.g., church membership)? It seems odd to claim that a country which was about to experience the Second Great Awakening and even give birth to a new revelational religion (Mormonism) was in the grip of a secularizing trend, unless you are using the word secularization in an unusual sense that I’m not kenning. I agree with you that Lincoln in the Temperance Address very likely is critiquing at least some of the political side-effects of the 2nd Great Awakening, but doesn’t this bolster the suggestion that American political culture became more and NOT less religious between the Founding and Lincoln’s day? After all, if Christianity was a spent and fading force as early as the 1770s, it would seem odd to find Lincoln cautioning urgently as late as 1842 against its politically worrisome consequences, would it not? Was Lincoln beating a dead horse, or was he trying to rein in a rearing and kicking stallion?

Perhaps my establishment argument is unclear.

The colonies established Christian religions to support Christianity in America because it was the religion of the majority. They copied this directly from Europe where establishing a religion was thought key to the success of the religion. They wanted a Christian nation so they established Christian Churches because this was the agreed upon way of making good Christians.

Starting in the Revolutionary era (begining I believe with Virginia) the colonies/states begain to disestablish religion. This is not because they had been secularized. Some very smart men (Madison, Jefferson etc) argued against establishment. While there were secular arguments against establishment, much of Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments was dedicated to showing how establishment harmed Christianity.

Establishment harmed Christianity by: 1. Tension between Christian sects caused by establishment. 2. Establishment contradicts the principles of Christianity itself. 3. Effects of establishment have been corruption, lazyness and failure in the Church (Europe). 4. Something as high as God/religion should not be placed in the hand of secular government.

So really one could see the disestablishment as a Christian movement not a secular movement. Statesmen and churchmen correctly showed that the people had been misled when the established religion to defend Christianity.

The Establishment of Christianity showed the Christianity of America in the European sense. The disestablishment of Christianity showed the Christianity of America also as they disestablished religion and Christianity in order to protect it. (As well as protect the country) I believe that both the establishment and disestablishment movements were fueled by Christianity not secular ideals.

Richard Reeb’s observations come much closer to the Founder’s notions of religion and politics than do those of David Tucker, whose dismissive attitude seems oddly determined. The North Pole of the American Revolution, John Adams, held that the America’s inevitable independence was founded in the spirit of the Reformation carried from Britain in the first waves of immigration. The Reformation was " . . . a great struggle that peopled America."

That spirit did not imagine a barrier separating faith from law, but understood that without the appeal to divine Revelation, there could be no standard upon which to distinguish between that law to which true duty was owed and the mere whims of a legislature.

Adams makes this connection clear: ". . . the design of Christianity was not to make men good Riddle Solvers or good mystery-mongers, but good men, good majestrates and good subjects, good Husbands and good Wives, good Parents and good Children , good masters and good servants . . . "

The Revolution itself. according to Adams, was guided by " . . . general Principles (which) were the only Principles in which (the Revolutionary generation) could Unite . . . And what were these general Principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all . . . Sects were United . . . "

Those who advance the argument of a Reason - Religion dichotomy in the Founding most often depend on the writings of Thomas Jefferson. When Jefferson was assigned the task of summing up the general view of his generation of political leaders on the question of Reason and Religion in language most likely to obtain the support of the common people for the Revolution, however, he chose the words, "the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God." That is AND, not OR. The compatibility of Reason and Revelation was "self-evident" to our founding generation, and those who wish to advance the view of their incompatibility may do so, but without the authority of our Forefathers.

Reeb gently reminds Tucker that this is much more than a mere quibble among antiquarians. By denying the appeal to a transpolitical standard for political justice, we do not remove God from the world, but we do remove His authority from our Constitution. On one side, this weakens the claim of the law on our dutiful submission, while on the other, it destroys the ground on which the law might be limited in its claim on our liberties. Like the Fact - Value distinction, the Reason - Religion distinction is a dagger aimed at the heart of this Republic and all that the Revolution stands for.

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