June 2020

What were the religious beliefs of the American founding generation? What can these beliefs tell us about the relationship that the founders intended between Church and State? And between each of them and the citizen?

A few simple, overstated arguments are probably quite familiar: On one side, It’s argued that the founders were influenced by the Enlightenment, with its skepticism about revealed religion and its reliance on human reason apart from revelation. But certainly not all of the American founders thought this way; many of them were quite orthodox in their religious beliefs and did not intend in any sense to create a secular or nonreligious republic. 

Our lead essayist this month is Professor Mark David Hall of George Fox University. He argues that while it’s tempting to apply the label “deist” to the American founders, it at best applied only to a few of them; many were, insofar as we can tell, entirely orthodox in their Christianity. Joining him to discuss will be Professor Steven Green of Willamette University, Professor Thomas Kidd of Baylor University, and noted author Brooke Allen of Bennington College. Comments will remain open for one month, and readers are invited to discuss and ask questions.

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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.

Coming Up

Conversation through the end of the month.