The Religious Beliefs of the Founders Don’t Always Fit in Present-Day Categories

I agree with most of Professor Kidd’s observations. As I suggested in my essay, we should resist forcing twenty-first century categorizations about belief onto those leaders of the founding generation who were, by all accounts, complex individuals. The presence of Christianity (Protestantism) in the founding culture was ubiquitous, so commentators should resist attempts to segregate its religious aspects from its secular ones. All of the founders were religiously literate—something that stands in stark contrast to many political leaders today—and were comfortable discussing religious ideas. But they were also synthesizers of Enlightenment rationalism and Whig political theories. Professor Kidd and I agree that “deism” was a broad and ill-defined perspective, at least its American variant. That’s why I prefer—like Professor Kidd—to consider figures like Washington and Jefferson theistic rationalists. But they were not conventional Christians.

Where Professor Kidd and I may disagree (slightly) is over the proposition that, as he writes, “faith played a powerful shaping role in the American founding.” That statement can mean several things. Certainly, as I wrote, religion shaped people’s attitudes (as much as I might try, I will never be able to shake off my evangelical upbringing), but it doesn’t necessarily mean it shaped the outcomes they sought in creating the new republican state and federal governments. As students of history, they understood the divisive role that religion had played in the political realm. Their rationalist leanings led them to ground the authority for government in Enlightenment notions of natural rights and the consent of the governed, not in some higher authority.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

Response Essays

  • Brooke Allen argues that while the American founders thought virtue was essential to good government, there were other ideals of virtue besides those of religion. She suggests that the idea of civic virtue did much of the work, in the founders’ minds, that was supposed to preserve the republic. She adds that while a large majority of Americans were Calvinists at the time of the founding, the founders owed more of their political thought to Montesquieu than they ever did to Calvin.

  • Faith played a strong role in the American founding, says Prof. Thomas Kidd. But it may not be the role we expect. “Deism” meant several different things at the time, and it’s not always clear what the founders meant when they used the term to describe themselves. And even religious freethinkers in the 18th century would be thoroughly versed in the Bible; this was a mark of education, but not necessarily of orthodoxy.

  • Prof. Steven Green argues that the founders were trying to create a government based on consent, and not on any theory of divine right. The document was not “godless,” because the founders were not godless men themselves. They were concerned, however, that consent remain at the forefront, and so they avoided the language—common at the time—that would have asserted a divine institution.