Friday, February 19, 2010

"With a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence"

The New York Times Magazine last Sunday published an article about efforts by certain members of the Texas Board of Education to specify what schoolchildren would read in their textbooks about the influence of Christianity on the foundation of the Republic. I'm inclined to think that such decisions, as is true in most states, ought to be left to local school boards and teachers. It is nevertheless true that what is often taught fails to get it right. Gary Scott Smith, a professor of history explains that whether Christian or not [and most were], Christianity was considered a positive good by all but a few of the founders:
Conservative Christian authors such as David Barton, Peter Marshall Jr., and Tim LaHaye contend that most of the founders were devout Christians who sought to establish a Christian nation. Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore in “The Godless Constitution” and Brooke Allen in “Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers” counter that very few founders were orthodox Christians. They and others often generalize from famous founders, such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Thomas Paine, to argue that most founders were deists who wanted strict separation of church and state.

The truth lies between these two positions. Almost every major founder belonged to a Christian congregation, although a sizable number of them were not committed Christians whose faith strongly influenced their political philosophy and actions. ....

...[M]any who played leading roles in the nation’s Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress, and the devising and ratification of the Constitution were devout Christians, as evident in their church attendance, commitment to prayer and Bible reading, belief in God’s direction of earthly affairs, and conduct. Among others, these books discuss John Witherspoon, James Wilson, Samuel Adams, George Mason, Oliver Ellsworth, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Benjamin Rush, and Roger Sherman.

...[T]he faith of Congregationalist John Hancock, Quaker John Dickinson, Presbyterian Elias Boudinot, and Episcopalian Charles Pinckney, and others helped shape their political views, policies, and practice. Abigail Adams and Catholics Charles Carroll, Daniel Carroll, and John Carroll also were dedicated Christians. Moreover, Jay, Boudinot, Pinckney, and numerous other founders served as officers of the American Bible Society.

Even many of those often labeled as deists—Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Alexander Hamilton—do not fit the standard definition of deism, which asserts that after creating the world, God has had no more involvement with it. Deism views God as a transcendent first cause who is not immanent, triune, fully personal, or sovereign over human affairs. All of these founders, however, repeatedly discussed God’s providence and frequently affirmed the value of prayer. .... Those espousing this perspective believed in a powerful, benevolent Creator who established the laws by which the universe operates. They also believed that God answered prayer, that people best served Him by living a moral life, and that individuals would be rewarded or punished in the afterlife based on their earthly deeds. Only a few founders, most notably Thomas Paine and Ethan Allan, can properly be called deists.

Despite their theological differences, virtually all the founders maintained that morality depended on religion (which for them meant Christianity). They were convinced that their new republic could succeed only if its citizens were virtuous. .... [more]