America’s Unchristian Beginnings?
by Greg Koukl
Greg responds to an L.A. Times Op-Ed article by this title (sans question mark), subtitled “Founding Fathers: Despite preachings of our pious Right, most were deists who rejected the divinity of Jesus.”
There has been a lot of confusion on the issue of whether or not we’ re a Christian nation, and I’m not exactly sure why. But it is hotly debated in our culture right now. The reason I say I’m not sure why is because the historical record is quite clear. I think that Christians, though, often make inappropriate, unfounded, or inaccurate applications of some of the information, and I want to speak to that in just a moment.
As to the faith content of those who were our Founding Fathers, there can be absolutely no confusion about the fact that virtually every single one of them shared a Christian, biblical world view. There is some question as to whether every single one of them held to all the orthodox teachings of classical Christianity; but it seems to me that there is very little question as to what their religious persuasions and world views were.
There was a piece in the L.A. Times on the third of this August on the Op-Ed page entitled “America’s Unchristian Beginnings.” It is subtitled “Founding Fathers: Despite preachings of our pious Right, most were deists who rejected the divinity of Jesus.” There are a couple things that trouble me about this article, the biggest thing is the word “most” in the subtitle. “Most of our Founding Fathers” apparently were deists, according to this person’s assessment. This is a canard that’s been tossed around even by some Christians who ought to know better. This piece was written by Steven Morris who is a professor of physics at L.A. Harbor College and he is also a member of the L.A.-based Atheists United.
Some might say, what does a physicist know about history? Just because he is a physicist doesn’t mean that he can’t have an accurate opinion about this particular issue. I take issue with his research. It’ s simply bad.
He goes on to reply to the Christian Right, who he says is trying to rewrite the history of the United States in its campaign to force its view of religion on others. His approach is to quote seven different people: Thomas Paine, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ethan Allen, James Madison, and Ben Franklin. His point is to quote these individuals who he thinks apparently are, first of all, Founding Fathers, and secondly, characteristic of the lot of them in rejection of Christianity and in acceptance of deism.
I am frustrated by this because it is characteristic of the way a lot of people want to treat this issue. They think that they can take names that we associate with that period and are well known, sift through their writings and find some things that they think are hostile to Christianity, and therefore conclude that not only these people are anti-Christian, but all of the rest of them are anti-Christian, as well.
It’s an example of Steven Morris turning the exception into the rule. Since he can find what he thinks are seven different people that are important personalities during this period of time, who at some time in their lives may have written something that can be understood to be non-Christian, then that characterizes the whole group of them as deists, ergo the subtitle “Most were deists who rejected the divinity of Jesus.”
Morris’ sightings are simply specious. Thomas Payne and Ethan Allen, for example, were in no- wise intellectual architects of the Constitution. Rather, they were firebrands of the Revolution. Was that important? Sure, they made an important contribution, but they weren’t Founding Fathers. Period.
Now, as for Washington, Sam Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. If one looks at the literature of the time–the personal correspondence, the public statements, the biographies–he will find that this literature is replete with quotations by these people contrary to those that Mr. Morris very carefully selected for us. Apparently, he also very carefully ignored other important thinkers: John Witherspoon, for example, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, John Adams, Patrick Henry. All individuals who were significant contributors to the architectural framework of this country and who had political philosophies that were deeply influenced by Christianity, especially Calvinism.
But there is another thing that he completely overlooks in this analysis. Something that makes a mockery out of his analysis, and also answers the question quite simply and directly and in the affirmative for us about the Christian beginnings of our Republic…
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