[UPDATE: I always feel a need to note, when we talk about the upscale founders being Christian, the degree to which so many of them were reflexively, traditionally, and virulently anti-Catholic, a feeling shared in most cases by the evangelical working-class left discussed below …]
Smart post from Jonathan Rowe at American Creation (whence the picture of Whitefield preaching) on nuances in the historiography of the question “Were the founders Deists or Christians?” It’s a hot political one. With George Washington getting constructed by the religious right as a fervent born-again evangelical, and secularists hoping against hope that none of the famous American founders would believe in anything they couldn’t repeat under laboratory conditions, Rowe’s thinking is helpful. He says in part:
I’ve concluded that the “key Founders” — the FFs on American currency — if pushed would have considered themselves “Christians” not “Deists.” Though they may have endorsed an understanding of Deism that didn’t view itself as incompatible with “Christianity.” Yet many in the academy endorse the line “the FFs were Deists not Christians.” . . . The standard line from “Christian America” is the FFs were virtually all “Christians” and the bad, secularist revisionists “stole” that heritage, knowingly and duplicitously. That narrative, of course, is as phony as “the Founders were all Deists” narrative.
Rowe tells what really happened: the rational, liberal Christianity that most of the famous founders would probably have signed on to was condemned by
evangelical [UPDATE: Probably less evangelical than just old-light orthodox?] clergy of the day as no better than Deism. (Maybe because it wasn’t? I suggest. But that’s another story.) Thus was the founders’ Christianity branded a closet Deism by more fervent [UPDATE: orthodox?] peers. “That kind of irony,” says Rowe, “I dig.” Me too.
I have a feeling most of the founders would privately have shrugged. They professed a rationalist Christianity, which had some natural connections, at least, with Deism; they were skeptics about “literal truth”; and they may not have cared what the clergy thought about any of it. I don’t get the feeling most of them lost sleep over this stuff.
What’s most interesting to me, which might interest Rowe too (I don’t know his work all that well yet) is that pace the secularist liberals, there were fervent Christian enthusiasts present and significant at the founding — they’re just not to be found (pace the Christian right) among the famous founders, who even if they were professed Christians, professed a Christianity that many on today’s evangelical right too would condemn (possibly wisely) as no better than secularism.
Christian America doesn’t [UPDATE: No, I mean “Christain Nation” types don’t] look at the working-class evangelicalism, steeped in the Great Awakening, that contributed to the radical militia uprising in Pennsylvania and gave us the Declaration. James Cannon, Benjamin Rush, and Christopher Marshall (major characters in Declaration), never made it onto U.S. currency, but as millenialists and evangelicals, they represent thousands of ordinary people on whom the militias depended and without whom Pennsylvania would not have been turned toward independence in June 1776.
Right-wing Christianity can’t claim those real founding evangelicals because their millenialist enthusiasms made them, unlike the famous founders, social radicals of an early American left. So the religious right keeps ignoring the committed evangelical Cannon, who organized laborers for social equality, and keeps trying to make the icon George Washington some kind of holy roller.
Liberals too have a problem with the Cannons, Rushes, Marshalls, and with Herman Husband (the most interesting of them all, he plays a major role The Whiskey Rebellion). If you want to find socialist impulses in the American founding — a counter-narrative to the anti-government Tea Party — it’s not hard to do, as I show in Declaration. But liberals would then have to accept American drives toward social equality as largely bound up in Great Awakening evangelicalism. And that would defeat the secularism that liberals keep seeking in the founding. So they try to make the elite founders (who were more secularist than the working class) even more secularist than they probably were –and more liberal than they certainly were.
History can be a mug’s game. But on the bright side: Despite the “godlessness” of Marxism, left historians are far fairer to the role of evangelical Christianity in working-classs 18th C. America than mainstream liberal historians are. (See Gary Nash’s Urban Crucible, e.g. And check out my founding-era left-history reading lists.)
If the Christian right wants to find fervent Christianity at the founding, they’ll need to leave poor old Washington and Adams alone and learn about the 18th C. laboring left. And if liberals want to find the origins of the labor movement, the New Deal, and the Great Society in the founding, they’ll have to open their minds to Christian evangelicalism. And how likely does any of that sound?
[UPDATE: More on the “faith of the founders” and American Creation in this later post.]