The American founders' theological rationalism

“WE DO not consider ourselves a Christian nation,” President Obama recently remarked in a speech in Turkey, where he hoped to assure Muslims that the United States is not at war with their faith. The predictable backlash underlined the fact that an old cultural debate is still alive and well: the argument over the religious orientation of America’s founders and therefore, America itself.

The secularists—the most dogmatic “separation of church and state” folks—insist the Founders were Deists with little interest in organized religion, working toward a neutral, secular state where religion would have no influence in governance or policy-making. Equally noisy are the “Christian America” proponents, who insist that the Founders were devout Christians with explicit faith in Jesus Christ and established a governmental system based on Biblical principles. Any attempt to extricate governance from these principles is an attempt to destroy the very foundations of the country. References to “God” and “Providence” in the founding documents, such as the Federalist Papers and the Declaration of Independence, are explicit and intentional references to similar evangelical concepts.

What’s confusing is that both camps can support their view with books, films, seminars, scholarly works, magazine articles, and more, all with direct quotations from the Founders themselves. And obviously, both sides can’t be right. So when it comes to the ever-raging debates about the foundations of our nation, which side should Christians take?

I spent the last several months in a graduate class on the history of modernism, reading philosophers chronologically from Descartes to Derrida. Studying modernist thought by reading its founders—hearing it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak—had a radical effect on my understanding of the trajectory of the twentieth century. In particular, as I read the Enlightenment thinkers, it began to dawn on me what was really going on in 1776.

During that time, scientific experimentation was the cool thing to do on the weekends. Science was considered a way for people to discover things about nature, and therefore, discover things about God. God revealed himself most completely in nature, through what could be scientifically proven. And to these people, as I understand it, nature included not just the trees and the birds and human anatomy, but the mind and the “organism” that is society and government.

This was the predominate climate in which the founders—many of whom were wealthy and highly educated—were immersed. Not all of them would have considered human reason to supersede the literal authority of the Bible, but we know from their writings and action that some of the most influential thinkers who shaped our government—Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and Adams, as well as some preachers—held to nature-based understandings of God and society.

Thankfully, Gregg Frazer, a professor of history and political studies at The Master’s College, has spent far more time thinking about this subject than me. In his doctoral dissertation and some subsequent work, he says—I believe rightly—that these men were neither secularist Deists nor evangelical Christians, but “theistic rationalists,” who believed that God was active in human affairs but that nature, not the Bible, was the only, inerrant, complete source of divine revelation.

Any part of the Bible that seemed irrational or not in keeping with the revelation of nature or their idea of what God would do was simply in error. Reason was legitimate revelation from God, the “final ‘trump card’” that could make the difference between accepting and rejecting a tenet of theology. To theistic rationalists, God would not do anything that they would not admire in the behavior of man. Order and morality were the highest virtues. Men had a free will and the ability to be moral, and God ultimately desired all men to live happily.

Clearly, this had significant political implications, best enumerated in the Declaration of Independence: Man was endowed by his creator with inalienable rights, the most important of which were life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And because all men were endowed with these rights, then the civil government can only limit them if all consent. A civil government that ruled without gaining this consent would not be sanctioned by God, who demands that tyrannical governments be replaced – and, handily, would therefore support the American Revolution. (For now, we must set aside the fact that people such as slaves were not considered equally endowed with these rights.)

Religion was important to society in that it promoted morality—and thereby happiness—but the particular religion was relatively unimportant. Because the ultimate goal was a moral society, rather than one in which the “correct” religion was promoted, the Founders created an environment that recognized but did not impose or restrict the role of religion in society. (It’s worth noting that several Christian denominations opposed this idea of freedom of religion, since it would allow many people to practice religions that they did not believe led to the truth.)

At the risk of simplifying Frazer’s idea, the end result of this emphasis on morality and freedom was that theistic rationalism became the de facto national religion. Most people in early America identified with a Christianity of some stripe, and so these principles also became woven into the fabric of American Christianity and the dominant public desire for morality and order. (The numbers suggest it’s still going strong.) Only when postmodernism erupted and new voices spoke out in the public sphere—minorities, women, people of other religions or no religion at all—were they challenged, spawning the debate that still rages today.

With this in mind, we can begin to understand the flaws in the views of those on both sides of the debate. Some of the most influential Founders did in fact believe in the value of religion for a moral, organized society—which weakens the position of the secularists. But they also did not believe that a theologically orthodox Christianity was the only or even the best option for promoting that society—undermining those who would have us believe we’re citizens of a “Christian nation.”

I’d submit that the debate over America’s founding has been polarized to suit political purposes. If we can insist that our Founders favored secularism—the eradication of religion entirely from the public square—then we needn’t really listen to anyone who takes their religious beliefs seriously. Alternatively, if we can insist that they favored our own religion, one that understands the Bible to be God’s revelation to man, God’s grace as the force that holds the world together, and Christ as the Son of God, then we can privilege our political ideas over those of others not on their theological rightness but on a faulty historical basis. Not only that, but we lazily identify Christianity with a particular political system, rather than carefully examining the Bible to determine how we should understand and participate in various spheres of society—economics, politics, morality, etc.

When we understand the climate in which the country was founded, we can understand how the Founders could speak with a language that sounds Christian to our ears but not necessarily believe in the Bible as the totality of God’s revelation. And we can become responsible citizens by knowing our history, and cutting through the rhetoric to rely on God’s common grace in seeking peace for our country.

About The Author

Alissa Wilkinson

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