Gregg Frazer (PhD, Claremont Graduate University) is professor of history and political studies at The Master’s College and the author of a new major book on The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, Revolution (The University Press of Kansas, 2012). Mark Noll writes that the thesis is “Sophisticated, well-documented, and forcefully argued. Extreme partisans who champion ‘Christian America’ or complete secularism will not like this book, but all other readers should come away much better informed about the past and also much better situated to adjudicate religious-political debates today.”

Professor Frazer was kind enough to answer a few questions about this work.

What are the key “narratives” you are seeking to overturn in this book—either about Christian America or Secular America or the Wall of Separation between the two?

My primary claim is that the key founders (those most responsible for the founding documents and putting the new government into effect) were neither Christians nor deists, but “theistic rationalists” (a term of my construction).

I argue that both the Right and the Left are wrong about the founding.

The key founders did not create—or intend to create—a Christian nation.

But they did not create—or intend to create—a strictly secular nation with a “wall of separation” between church and state, either.

They believed that morality was indispensable for a free society and that religion was the best source for morality.

Contrary to the claims of secularists, they did not want to divorce or separate religion from public life; rather, they believed that religion was a necessary support.

Contrary to the claims of Christian America advocates, they did not believe that the religion needed for this purpose must be Christianity—and they were not Christians themselves.

The key founders were theistic rationalists.

What exactly is “theistic rationalism?”

“Theistic rationalism” was a hybrid belief system mixing elements of natural religion, Christianity, and rationalism, with rationalism as the predominant element.  Adherents believed that these three elements would generally complement one another, but when conflict between them could not be resolved or ignored, reason had to play the decisive role.  Because they borrowed from natural religion and Christianity, if one selects statements conveniently and out of context, one can make them appear to be either Christians or deists.  That is why both the Christian America camp and the secular camp can find snippets to support their claims.

We hear a lot of sweeping claims about what the “founding fathers” believed. But you’re uncomfortable with that kind of language.

General claims about “the founders” or “the founding fathers” where religious or political beliefs are concerned are not legitimate (with very few exceptions).

The founding fathers were a diverse group of individuals who were not all in agreement on virtually anything.  I make claims concerning only the “key founders” (as I call them). The “key founders” are those most responsible for the Declaration of Independence (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin), those most responsible for the Constitution (James Madison, Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson) and those most influential in putting the new government into effect (George Washington, Alexander Hamilton).

One should be very skeptical about general claims that begin with: “the founding fathers believed . . . ” or “the founding fathers thought . . . . “  There were Christians among the founders and there were deists among the founders and there were theistic rationalists among the founders—no legitimate claim can lump them all together.

Apart from the extremists on the Left and the Right, I imagine there is a sizable swath of the American public that simply asks, “Who cares?” Obviously you think this question matters or you wouldn’t have written a 300-page book on it. So in your view, what difference does it make how one answers the question of the founding fathers’ faith?

The question of the religious beliefs of America’s founders is important for a number of reasons in a number of categories.

For Christians, it matters because of the dangers of the “Christian America” view:

a) designating a mixture of Christian and non-Christian influences as “Christian” or “biblical” attaches the authority of the inerrant, infallible Word of God to a non-biblical hybrid of influences;

b) identifying “religious” people as Christians makes the Gospel one of moral behavior and pronouncements rather than the saving work of Christ and personal commitment to Him;

c) Scripture teaches that God hates generic, moralizing religion—promoting “religion” as Christianity exalts what God hates;

d) many confuse their cultural heritage with biblical Christianity and lose the ability to distinguish what is truly biblical from what is merely American tradition;

e) the Bible is reduced to a mere tool in service of a political agenda—proper use/interpretation of Scripture is not important, what is important is counting how many times it is quoted (no matter how incorrectly); and

f) confidence is placed in processes and institutions rather than in the sovereign God—belief that the political system was originally Christian focuses and directs efforts of Christians toward correcting the political system and misdirects the resources of the church.

For citizens, the competing claims of the Left and of the Right are based on their views/assumptions concerning the founding.  Consequently, the false view of the secularists results in the loss of religious liberty under the false “wall of separation” notion promulgated by the courts.  Also, theistic rationalism was the basis for the development of American civil religion, which has had a profound influence on most Americans and American traditions.

For those interested in history or politics, I argue that one cannot properly understand the religious language in the Declaration of Independence without understanding the theistic rationalism of those who wrote it.  Recognition of the theistic rationalism of those who wrote the Constitution and put it into effect is also vital to a proper understanding of religious liberty under the First Amendment and its proper application.  Finally, proper understanding of the role of patriot preachers in promoting the American Revolution is impossible without an understanding of their theistic rationalism.

All of these elements are, of course, explained in detail in my book.  It is impossible to do them justice in this space.

In terms of historical methodology, why do you give priority to private correspondence over public proclamations?

The bulk of the evidence in my book centers on the private correspondence, diary entries, and personal memoranda of the key founders—rather than on public pronouncements.  My focus is on what the key founders themselves said that they believed—rather than denominational affiliations or church attendance.  My assumption is that individuals are most open and honest concerning their true beliefs when speaking privately in writings that they do not think will be seen by the public.  Public figures know how to appeal to the public and say what the public wants to hear.  But there is no need to do that in private writings; there they are free to be candid and transparent.  In a number of cases, the key founders actually asked their correspondents to return the letter to them or to destroy it in order to keep it out of the public eye. Like today, denominational affiliations in 18th-century America were for politicians essentially club memberships and tell us virtually nothing about what an individual really believed.

In his book The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, David Holmes investigates four areas to determine a founder’s faith: (1) religious activity (e.g., church attendance); (2) participation in church sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s supper); (3) comparison of religious inactivity and activity; (4) use of religious language. He concludes that they can be broadly classified as non-Christian deists, deistic Christians/unitarians; and orthodox Christians. How does your methodology and conclusion difference from this?

As the title of my book suggests, my project was to determine the religious beliefs of the key founders, so I was not very concerned with public activities—except in cases in which an activity would have been unpopular or controversial or somehow gives insight into actual belief.  Consequently, my only interest in church attendance is to show some interest in Christianity and to trace the frequency of church attendance when the public is watching compared to when it is not.

As for the sacraments, I find Washington’s steadfast refusal to take communion and Hamilton’s intense desire to do so after his conversion to Christ (but not before) to be very informative.

The significance of religious activity and inactivity entirely depends on the nature of the activity and what it reveals about sincerely held belief and not on mere frequency or public recognition.

I consider their use of religious language to be absolutely crucial. There is no other way to get at what they really believed. What language did they use in public versus private?  What terms for God did they use?  Did they use specifically Christian language or generic “religious” language?

A matter of language that is critically important is to determine what they meant by certain terms.  Too often, for example, Christian America advocates simply cite quotes in which founders refer to “Christianity” or “Christian” and leave the false impression with Christian readers/listeners that those words meant the same thing to the founders as they do to them.  But key founders such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin meant something very different by those words.  They created their own versions of “Christianity” that bore very little resemblance to its actual or common meaning.  Other words such as “bigot” had very different meanings in the 18th century than they do today and proper understanding requires recognition and explanation of that fact.

A centerpiece of my argument is my conviction that the terms “Christian” and “deist” have been so broadly applied to the founders that they’ve become virtually meaningless categories.  This is largely due to the fact that those two categories have been the only generally accepted niches, so individuals have been shoehorned into one of those identifications whether they fit or not. I carefully define both terms to provide boundaries that would have been recognized in 18th-century America in order to produce more accuracy—more truth in labeling.

Holmes’s conclusions seem to me to illustrate my point perfectly.  While we do not deal with exactly the same people, Holmes covers five of the eight persons I class as “key founders.”  In common with virtually everyone (except me), he calls Jefferson and Franklin deists.  Along with many scholars, but not necessarily a majority, he also calls Madison a deist.  But his determinations regarding George Washington and John Adams highlight the “shoehorn” activity mentioned above and particularly point to the need for my work.  He calls Washington a “Deistic Episcopalian” and Adams a “Christian Deist.”  In 18th-century terms, these descriptions are nonsensical—and they do not stand up to the evidence.

What will be some key surprises readers will find in your book?

As for surprises readers will find in my book:

a) John Adams was so opposed to the idea of the Trinity that he said that he would not believe it if God Himself told him it was true;

b) Adams said that he knew of no better theology than that of the Shastra (a Hindu text);

c) Jefferson and Franklin were not, as is universally held, deists;

d) the story of Washington praying in the snow at Valley Forge is not true;

e) a number of the patriot preachers were not, in fact, Christians—including the most influential of them;

f) the Declaration of Independence was written artfully to appeal to persons of any religious persuasion and allow each to read his own beliefs into it;

g) the key framers essentially “established” their own religious beliefs in the Constitution; and

h) far from erecting a wall of separation between church and state, key founders including Jefferson attended worship services in the House chamber of the Capitol building.

Print Friendly

Comments:


34 thoughts on “America’s Key Founders, Neither Christians nor Deists: An Interview on a Major New Book”

  1. m .b. woodside says:

    I look forward to reading this.

  2. Sounds like an incredible book! It is truly rare to see writings about the balanced middle ground, most people become trapped in their own slanting and are driven toward radical presuppositions of their worldviews.

  3. Jason Estopinal says:

    ive been waiting for something like this (didnt another masters college prof pen a book about a similar subject?)!

  4. Tom says:

    Wait until David Barton gets a hold of this…

    1. Aaron says:

      I was thinking the same thing. What will David Barton’s response be? I actually emailed him to see if he would have a response. Of course, he doesn’t believe that all of the Founders were Christians, but he lands on the side of them forming a Christian nation strongly. Definitely intriguing to see this article today.

  5. Ken Temple says:

    Between these 2 books, David Barton, the late D. James Kennedy, and atheists/skeptics/secularists who say the founding fathers were secular Deists and Free-Masons,

    how in the world do we tell who is right?

    1. Tom says:

      Ken, I’m not likely to trust Barton’s conclusions because it has been repeatedly demonstrated (e.g. by Chris Rodda) that he overstates his case by misrepresenting the historical documents, or at the very least, is very selective in his quotations with little regard to their context.

  6. Danny says:

    I had Dr. Frazer as a professor at The Master’s College, and hands down he was one of my favorites. He is a fantastic professor that provoked thought and taught extremely well. I consider myself very blessed to have had several classes with him. This book will be great!

  7. Ken Temple says:

    Thanks for that info Tom! I did not know about Chris Rodda; I googled her and now see a lot of her information and her web-site.

    Interesting.

    1. Tom says:

      Ken, I don’t endorse everything Rodda says or stands for (she has an obvious bias and comes across as having a personal vendetta against Barton), but when it comes to providing the historical context for many of Barton’s claims, she is well researched and does a good job of showing how Barton often mishandles the historical record.

  8. Adam C says:

    I’m reading Mark Noll’s America’s God right now and have been greatly interested in this area of history for quite some time. This should be a good read.

  9. Andrew says:

    Looking forward to this book, Dr. Frazer.

    To everyone else: Send your kids to The Master’s College!

    -Andrew, TMC alum 2008.

  10. Harold says:

    To the credit of these men, I respectfully submit the following:

    ———————

    Benjamin Rush
    Signer of the Declaration of Independence and Ratifier of the U.S. Constitution

    “The gospel of Jesus Christ prescribes the wisest rules for just conduct in every situation of life. Happy they who are enabled to obey them in all situations!”
    –The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush, pp. 165-166.

    ———————

    Samuel Adams
    Signer of the Declaration of Independence and Father of the American Revolution

    “And as it is our duty to extend our wishes to the happiness of the great family of man, I conceive that we cannot better express ourselves than by humbly supplicating the Supreme Ruler of the world that the rod of tyrants may be broken to pieces, and the oppressed made free again; that wars may cease in all the earth, and that the confusions that are and have been among nations may be overruled by promoting and speedily bringing on that holy and happy period when the kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ may be everywhere established, and all people everywhere willingly bow to the sceptre of Him who is Prince of Peace.”
    –As Governor of Massachusetts, Proclamation of a Day of Fast, March 20, 1797.

    ———————

    Patrick Henry
    Ratifier of the U.S. Constitution

    “It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.”
    –The Trumpet Voice of Freedom: Patrick Henry of Virginia, p. iii.

    ———————

  11. Gregg Frazer says:

    To Harold,

    First, on his Wallbuilders website, even David Barton acknowledges that the Patrick Henry quote is bogus — though he calls it “unconfirmed,” as he does all quotes that cannot be found because they do not exist.

    http://www.wallbuilders.com/libissuesarticles.asp?id=126

    Second, I would never suggest that there were no Christians among the Founders. There were. But those most responsible for the content of the founding documents were not Christians and they did not intend to create a Christian nation.

    1. Harold says:

      Dear Gregg,

      I was unaware the “quote” from Patrick Henry was unconfirmed; if I had known that “The Trumpet Voice of Freedom” was incorrect, it would not have been cited.

      Thank you for correcting me.

  12. Aaron says:

    Since I see Dr. Frazer is reading these, I have a question.

    David Barton has been someone I have respected for some time. Until now I have been unaware of some of the controversy. He seems like a genuine person. So my question would be:

    Where do you think these inconsistencies are stemming from? A lack of knowledge? A desire to pull the wool over eyes? A false belief in what he is teaching?

    This would be very helpful to myself. I ask these in all seriousness, not with doubt in what you are teaching. I really want to learn. Thanks.

    1. Tom says:

      Aaron, I don’t know if we can ascertain for certain Barton’s motives. I think it is instructive to remember that those with an agenda often only see what they want to see and can be blind to obvious shortcomings in their respective positions.

      At this point, Barton has been called out and repeatedly challenged about his reconstruction of the historical record. For the most part, he has not provided a response to these challenges and still continues to advocate his particular view of history. Until he provides an adequate rebuttal to those who have questioned his mischaracterization and misuse of the historical record, I cannot give much credence to what he writes and says.

    2. Gregg Frazer says:

      Aaron, I would really like to believe that Barton makes numerous constant errors innocently out of lack of training as a historian (he has none) or the tunnel vision that Tom suggests — and I used to assume that (wanting to believe the best as per I Cor. 13). But, many of the errors simply cannot be anything but intentional misrepresentation. In particular, his wide use of ellipses (…) to change the meanings of quotes and his practice of taking things out of context cannot be anything but intentional. I don’t like to assign motives, but I don’t see any other explanation. He and his staff are not stupid, so there must be design.

  13. Tanya says:

    I would really like to read this book! I have been researching this issue ever since I heard an interview where David Barton claimed that Glenn Beck, a Mormon, is a Christian. Everyone seems to have an agenda when it comes to the founding fathers, Christians and secularists alike. I just want to know the truth, and as a homeschooler I want to teach my children the truth. YHWH is still on the throne either way!

    1. Gregg Frazer says:

      “YHWH is still on the throne”: amen! I agree with you, Tanya, that Christians and secularists have both come to this issue with an agenda — that’s why I wrote the book. I’m a Christian (born-again, evangelical, conservative), but I try diligently to go where the evidence takes me. The evidence tells me that the key Founders were neither Christians nor deists — although some of the Founders were Christians and a couple of them were deists. I would encourage you to read my book, consider the evidence, and make up your own mind.

      By the way, as a homeschooler, I would also encourage you to read “In God We Don’t Trust” by David Bercot.

      1. Tanya says:

        Thank you for the comment and the recommendation. I’m looking forward to reading both!

  14. Gregg,

    I was wondering if your book addresses the Treaty of Tripoli which was ratified by Congress and the President in 1797?

    That’s the treaty which says “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion”.

    https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Treaty_of_Tripoli

    1. Gregg Frazer says:

      Yep, page 234 :)

  15. Carl says:

    A decision by the United States Supreme Court, the highest judicial body in America, which officially and unanimously declared in 1892 that America is legally and organically a Christian nation (Holy Trinity Church vs. United States). This alone should answer the question, but we’ll help you understand the reasons behind the Court’s declaration.
    The Court did not merely say that most people in America were Christian, or that there were no Muslims or Hindus in America. According to the author of the Court’s unanimous opinion, the Court’s claim that America “is a Christian nation” is in “the domain of official action and recognition,” not mere “individual acceptance.” The Court demonstrates that our entire system of government was created
    with a duty to acknowledge the authority of the God of the Christian Bible, and to obey His commandments
    by Christians who
    acknowledged the authority of God and were committed to obey His commandments
    intended the government they created to acknowledge and obey God.

    1. Tom says:

      Carl, what the SCOTUS may or may not have written in 1892 has little bearing on whether the primary founding fathers were Christian or their intention was to create a Christian nation.

      That’s like saying the SCOTUS decision in 1973 that legalized abortion means the founding fathers supported infanticide.

    2. Gregg Frazer says:

      The Holy Trinity Church argument always intrigues me. Why, exactly, should a Supreme Court ruling 100 years after the fact be taken as infallible — and to overrule mounds of evidence from those who actually created the nation? What makes those 9 people (who aren’t historians) infallible and unable to be challenged? Many involved in the Christian America camp were motivated by Supreme Court decisions with which they disagreed, such as Engel and Roe. Why are the only Court decisions that are valid and unable to be questioned or doubted those which present the view that we like?

    3. Jim says:

      I’m not an expert on constitutional law; I’m just a lawyer who was once a prosecuting attorney. (Maybe a constitutional law expert will chime in.) I was curious after I read your comment, Carl, so I pulled up the Holy Trinity Church case. I haven’t pulled up any cases that cite it, but it doesn’t strike me as a decision that really supports what you’re claiming it supports.

      First, the issue in the case was not whether the United States is a Christian nation. The issue in the case was whether Holy Trinity Church violated a statute, in effect at the time, when it paid for an Englishman to come to this country and serve as its pastor. So it’s not exactly correct to say that the Court “officially and unanimously declared in 1892 that America is legally and organically a Christian nation.” I think it would be more accurate to say that the Court unanimously ruled that Holy Trinity Church didn’t violate that statute.

      Second, in it’s opinion (at least as I read it) the Court ignored the plain language of the statute and reasoned to the result it wanted. The case is an example of “hard cases mak[ing] bad law.” Instead of basing its decision on the plain language of the [statute], which wasn’t ambiguous or unclear, the Court looked to the title of the statute and the legislative history. Maybe the court reached a justifiable conclusion; maybe not. It wasn’t exactly judicial activism, but it certainly wasn’t a [] model [of] conservative jurisprudence.

      Third, considering what the issue in the case actually was, I’m not sure the Court’s statement that the U.S. is a Christian nation amounts to much more than dictum, ultimately tangential or unnecessary for its decision.

      Fourth, the support the the Court gives for its statement that the U.S. is a Christian nation suggests that it isn’t using “Christian” in the sense of proclaiming the risen Christ as Savior and Lord but in the sense of recognizing that there’s a higher power and following the golden rule — that is, “religious” in an altruistic and vaguely monotheistic way. I don’t think anyone in the three major monotheistic religions or any of the aberrant forms of Christianity (or in Alcoholics Anonymous, for that matter) would chafe too much under it’s definition of “Christian.” In fact, the opinion might make even more sense if “religious” were read for most of the occurrences of “Christian.”

      Finally, Dr. Frazer makes a good point about accepting the Court’s decision in Holy Trinity. As Christians we should work to change the law if we believe it should be changed. And we may ultimately have no choice but to disobey the law at some point. But I don’t see how we can accept Holy Trinity, for example, as a legitimate decision of “the highest judicial body in America [in the United States, actually],” and turn around and reject other decisions of the Court as somehow illegitimate.

      1. Jim says:

        Made a couple of corrections to my original post, indicated with brackets.

  16. Carl says:

    Compromise has taken over the Christian community & the middle ground is what we get. The middle is a weak stance.

    1. Gregg Frazer says:

      Automatically? So, you don’t like the Constitution, which was the middle ground between the New Jersey Plan and Hamilton’s plan? You don’t like republican government, which is the middle ground between fascism on one extreme and communism on the other? The middle ground is always wrong and always weak?

      How about the doctrine of inspiration? We don’t believe that the authors of Scripture wrote of their own accord and we don’t believe that it was merely dictated to them. How about the nature of Christ? We don’t believe that He was just fully man or that He was just fully God, but that He was fully man and fully God.

      And how, exactly, is going where the evidence takes you “compromise?”

      Read the book; consider the evidence; if you don’t find it persuasive, THEN reject it — but don’t reject it out of hand without seeing the evidence. That’s what the world does.

      1. Richard says:

        Dr. Frazer,

        Thank you! As Christians, above all, we should stand for truth. When we distort the historical records, for whatever reason, we defame the name of Christ.

      2. D. C. Washington says:

        I have been looking forward to this book since hearing some of your lectures on this subject. Thank you for your efforts and your integrity to letting the evidence lead you!

Comments are closed.

Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

Justin Taylor's Books