Several years ago, I read a book about George Washington that was written to show that he was truly a Christian. I came away from that book believing for certain, that George Washington was at least a Deist. In other words, I didn’t agree with the author of the book. The quotes of Washington did not sound like they came from the heart of a born-again Christian. I was telling Heidi that the other day, and then came across this article by Robert Tracy McKenzie, the professor and chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College, entitled Were the Founding Fathers Christian?
In a section on ministers’ biblical exegesis, Frazer reviews published sermons to show that patriot preachers regularly interpreted passages pertaining to spiritual liberty as if they were meant to apply to political liberty. They regularly appealed to reason. They frequently stressed the Lockean construction of the state of nature. They accepted uncritically the Enlightenment understanding of popular sovereignty, despite its implication that God, not the people, is the ultimate source of political authority. Finally, they repeatedly spoke of God-given natural rights, despite the Bible’s conspicuous silence on the topic.
In an argument that will make many readers uncomfortable, Frazer maintains that “the biblical God does not specifically or exclusively favor liberal democratic thought.” As a result, pastors determined to find religious authority for the cause of independence discovered that “the Christian God—the God of the Bible—was inadequate for their political needs,” Frazer writes. “That God did not grant political freedom. He claimed to be the sole source of governmental authority, He neither granted nor recognized natural rights, and He preferred faith and obedience to moralism.”
In embracing liberal democratic theory, according to Frazer, patriotic ministers found much in the Scripture that they had to ignore or explain away. “Theology militated against democratic thought until the mid-1700s,” the author contends, “when the Enlightenment-based education of the clergy began to be exhibited in the expounding of liberal democratic and republican principles from the pulpit.” In sum, the vital role that the clergy played in promoting independence was not a sign of the vitality of American Christianity—as David Barton would have us believe, for example—but rather testimony to the degree to which Christian leaders were conforming to the world. And what of the believers in the pews? “The people,” Frazer concludes, “largely wanted to affirm the theistic rationalists’ political message.”
In other words, they were just as tempted as we are to find the principles of the United States in the bible. The problem is, that we really don’t have support for things like “freedom of the press,” “the right to bear arms,” etc. In fact, the political freedom we have is really not found in scripture. When you look at the political systems found in scripture, we seem to find systems of kings and their subject. Sort of like the relationship that Christ has with … His subjects. We owe an allegiance to the King and He is sovereign over us in His rule and power.
But the point is that it seems that the Founding Fathers were just as much influenced by the thinking and culture of their day as we are in ours. The principles found in our system of government are not expressly given in the Bible, even though many of us want to find those principles there. So to say that that Founding Fathers were Christians, as those of us who are Christians today would understand the term, may not be true. Some of them were, but others were more influenced by the enlightenment, than the word of God, just as we are today.
Certainly Christianity influenced much of the thought of their day, but that doesn’t mean that our Constitution was a summation of what scripture says concerning political entities.
McKenzie concludes that the real problem in politics and in history is our willful gullibility.
I don’t believe that many colonial pastors consciously compromised with religious orthodoxy because it was politically inconvenient, any more than I am persuaded that either side in today’s culture wars is consciously embracing a position that it doubts to be true. I think instances of that are probably pretty rare. The temptation that most of us face is not to dishonesty but to what I would call willful gullibility—the readiness to accept uncritically what we want to be true, whether we’re talking about the teaching of Scripture or the lessons of history. Frazer’s book is a sobering reminder of just how powerful that temptation can be.