Our Skeptical Founding Fathers
by Brooke Allen
Ivan R. Dee, 256 pp., $24.95
Why should we care what the Founding Fathers believed, or did not believe, about religion? They went to such great trouble to insulate faith from politics, and took such care to keep their own convictions private, that it would scarcely matter if it could now be proved that, say, George Washington was a secret Baptist. The ancestor of the American Revolution was the English Revolution of the 1640s, whose leaders and spokesmen were certainly Protestant fundamentalists, but that did not bind the Framers and cannot be said to bind us, either. Indeed, the established Protestant church in Britain was one of the models which we can be quite sure the signatories of 1776 were determined to avoid emulating.
Moreover, the 18th-century scholars and gentlemen who gave us the U.S. Constitution were in a relative state of innocence respecting knowledge of the cosmos, the earth, and the psyche, of the sort that has revolutionized the modern argument over faith. Charles Darwin was born in Thomas Jefferson's lifetime (on the very same day as Abraham Lincoln, as it happens), but Jefferson's guesses about the fossils found in Virginia were to Darwinism what alchemy is to chemistry. And the insights of Einstein and Freud lay over a still more distant horizon. The furthest that most skeptics could go was in the direction of an indeterminate deism, which accepted that the natural order seemed to require a designer but did not necessitate the belief that the said designer actually intervened in human affairs. Invocations such as "nature's god" were partly intended to hedge this bet, while avoiding giving offense to the pious. Even Thomas Paine, the most explicitly anti-Christian of the lot, wrote The Age of Reason as a defense of god from those who traduced him in man-made screeds like the Bible.
Considering these limitations, it is quite astonishing how irreligious the Founders actually were. You might not easily guess, for example, who was the author of the following words:
Oh! Lord! Do you think that a Protestant Popedom is annihilated in America? Do you recollect, or have you ever attended to the ecclesiastical Strifes in Maryland Pensilvania [sic], New York, and every part of New England? What a mercy it is that these People cannot whip and crop, and pillory and roast, as yet in the U.S.! If they could they would. . . . There is a germ of religion in human nature so strong that whenever an order of men can persuade the people by flattery or terror that they have salvation at their disposal, there can be no end to fraud, violence, or usurpation.
That was John Adams, in relatively mild form. He was also to point out, though without too much optimism, the secret weapon that secularists had at their disposal--namely the profusion of different religious factions.
The multitude and diversity of them, You will say, is our Security against them all. God grant it. But if We consider that the Presbyterians and Methodists are far the most numerous and the most likely to unite; let a George Whitefield arise, with a military cast, like Mahomet, or Loyola, and what will become of all the other Sects who can never unite?
George Whitefield was the charismatic preacher who is so superbly mocked in Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography. Of Franklin it seems almost certainly right to say that he was an atheist (Jerry Weinberger's excellent recent study Benjamin Franklin Unmasked being the best reference here), but the master tacticians of church-state separation, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were somewhat more opaque about their beliefs. In passing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom--the basis of the later First Amendment--they brilliantly exploited the fear that each Christian sect had of persecution by the others. It was easier to get the squabbling factions to agree on no tithes than it would have been to get them to agree on tithes that might also benefit their doctrinal rivals. In his famous "wall of separation" letter, assuring the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, of their freedom from persecution, Jefferson was responding to the expressed fear of this little community that they would be oppressed by--the Congregationalists of Connecticut.
This same divide-and-rule tactic may have won him the election of 1800 that made him president in the first place. In the face of a hysterical Federalist campaign to blacken Jefferson as an infidel, the Voltaire of Monticello appealed directly to those who feared the arrogance of the Presbyterians. Adams himself thought that this had done the trick.
"With the Baptists, Quakers, Methodists, and Moravians," he wrote, "as well as the Dutch and German Lutherans and Calvinists, it had an immense effect, and turned them in such numbers as decided the election. They said, let us have an Atheist or Deist or any thing rather than an establishment of Presbyterianism."
The essential point--that a religiously neutral state is the chief guarantee of religious pluralism--is the one that some of today's would-be theocrats are determined to miss. Brooke Allen misses no chance to rub it in, sometimes rather heavily stressing contemporary "faith-based" analogies. She is especially interesting on the extent to which the Founders felt obliged to keep their doubts on religion to themselves. Madison, for example, did not find himself able, during the War of 1812, to refuse demands for a national day of prayer and fasting. But he confided his own reservations to his private papers, published as "Detached Memoranda" only in 1946. It was in those pages, too, that he expressed the view that to have chaplains opening Congress, or chaplains in the armed forces, was unconstitutional.
Of all these pen-portraits of religious reservation, the one most surprising to most readers will probably be that of George Washington. While he was president, he attended the Reverend James Abercrombie's church, but on "sacramental Sundays" left the congregation immediately before the taking of communion. When reproached for this by the good Reverend, he acknowledged the reproof--and ceased attending church at all on those Sundays which featured "the Lord's supper." To do otherwise, as he put it, would be "an ostentatious display of religious zeal arising altogether from his elevated station."
Jefferson was content to take part in public religious observances and to reserve his scorn and contempt for Christianity for his intimate correspondents, but our first president would not give an inch to hypocrisy. In that respect, if in no other, the shady, ingratiating Parson Weems had him right.
In his 1784 book, Reason: The Only Oracle of Man, Ethan Allen wrote: "The doctrine of the Incarnation itself, and the Virgin mother, does not merit a serious confutation and therefore is passed in silence, except the mere mention of it." John Adams was prepared to be a little more engaged with theological subjects, in which he possessed a huge expertise, but he also reposed his real faith in the bedrock of reason. Human understanding, he wrote (seemingly following David Hume), is its own revelation, and:
[h]as made it certain that two and one make three; and that one is not three; nor can three be one. . . . Miracles or Prophecies might frighten us out of our Witts; might scare us to death; might induce Us to lie; to say that We believe that 2 and 2 make 5. But we should not believe it. We should know the contrary.
From David Hume via ridicule of the Trinity to a prefiguration of Winston Smith! The connection between religious skepticism and political liberty may not be as absolute as that last allusion implies, but there is no doubt that some such connection existed very vividly in the minds of those "men of the Enlightenment" who adorned Philadelphia and Boston and New York and Washington as the 18th century evolved into the 19th.
In a first-class closing chapter on the intellectual and scientific world that shaped the Framers, Allen discusses the wide influence then exerted by great humanist thinkers like Hume, Shaftesbury, Bolingbroke, Locke, and Voltaire. It became a point of principle as well as of practice to maintain that liberty of conscience and the freedom of the individual were quite incompatible with any compulsion in religion, just as they would be incompatible with any repression of belief. (This is precisely why the French revolution, which seemed to negate the promise of Enlightenment, was to become such a painful cause of disagreement, and worse, between Federalists and Republicans.)
In 1821 Thomas Jefferson wrote of his hope "that the human mind will some day get back to the freedom it enjoyed 2000 years ago. This country, which has given the world an example of physical liberty, owes to it that of moral emancipation also." I think that Allen is not wrong in comparing this to the finest passages in Edward Gibbon. She causes us to catch our breath at the thought that, at the birth of the United States, there were men determined to connect it to a philosophical wisdom that pre-dated the triumph of monotheism. It is the only reason for entertaining the belief that America was ever blessed by "Providence"--as Roger a named his open-minded settlement in Rhode Island, a refuge from the tyranny of Pilgrims and Puritans.
In a time when the chief declared enemy of the American experiment is theocratic fanaticism, we should stand together and demand, "Mr Jefferson: Build Up That Wall!"
Christopher Hitchens, a columnist for Vanity Fair, is the author, most recently, of Thomas Jefferson: Author of America. His study of Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man will be published in 2007.