The founding of the United States is a controversial period in which the founders are the subject of nearly all the controversy. Allen Guelzo has written an article addressing the interminable issue of whether or not the United States was ever a Christian nation. If you are unfamiliar with Guelzo, he is one of the most insightful American historians currently going. His many books include Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, and Robert E. Lee: A Life. Whether you agree or disagree with his arguments, you must contend with his historical interpretations, always ensconced in intellectual etiquette. Guelzo writes without the hostility toward Christianity of many of the center-left historians and that’s part of what makes his recent piece so interesting.
Guelzo’s article is an attempt to disabuse Christians of the notion that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, or that Judeo-Christian beliefs played an explicit or implicit role in the early years, or that the Christian religion deserves special status in the creation of American law and culture, or that there has been an American civil religion flavored with Christianity. He addresses the common vignettes used by Christian-America advocates, such as Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge and the language of “Nature and Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence.
Guelzo points out the influence of Enlightenment infidelity in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and how this changed American political priorities. The republican idea replaced not just monarchical hierarchy but its implications, including established religion. With no political role for religion, the republic was based on the longings, morals, and will of the people rather than of God. What is Guelzo’s proof? What is his argument?
First, he points to the religious beliefs of some of the founders. Guelzo reviews the specific beliefs of Washington (“never mentioned the name of Jesus Christ once in all his voluminous correspondence”) and Adams (“snarled at the Christian doctrine of the Trinity”). Second, he points to how the federal constitution does not recognize God. The constitution banned religious tests for national office (article 6) and references neither God nor Creator. When asked why the omission, Hamilton said, “we forgot.” Benjamin Franklin’s request that the Constitutional Convention opens in prayer was refused. Third, he points to the disestablishment of state religions. Jefferson and Madison worked to cut religious funding from the state of Virginia. Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association that there should be a “wall of separation between church and state.” What does Guelzo say about the fact that nine of the thirteen original states had established religion when the constitution was ratified? This is evidence of latent Christianity, but not a deep faith. Religious indifference was the norm since people openly profaned the Lord’s Day. The First Great Awakening was needed precisely because of widespread unbelief. But the Awakening lasted only a few years and had a minimal permanent effect. The Revolution was an expression of Enlightenment ideas more than Christian ones and the war “took a severe toll on church life.” Fourth, he points to the rise of Deism. Thomas Paine’s 1794 book The Age of Reason was a deistic (and crude) attack on Christianity. Unitarianism and Free Masonry were at the same time on the rise.
Guelzo then pivots and says “religion co-opted and absorbed the energies of republicanism between 1780 and 1860.” He documents the growth of denominations from the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. How could this be? Especially given Guelzo’s four above reasons. Guelzo’s first explanation is “the resiliency of revivals,” by which he means the Second Great Awakening. His second explanation is the need for virtue in the republic that can only be supplied by Christianity. The result is that in the nineteenth century, the United States established a cultural, but not a political Christianity. But then he says that “the achievement of a Christian America” was not “the gift of the American Founders, or a part of the design of the American republic.”
Three elements of Guelzo’s article need further clarification to ameliorate the emphasis.
First, the individual beliefs of the founding fathers
As it relates to Washington or Adam’s religious beliefs, we need to color more of the picture. Consider Washington. Perhaps more troubling than the dearth of references to Jesus Christ in his writings is that he never took Communion. Washington was even scolded from the pulpit for not taking Communion.
Yet, George Washington envisioned a great national church in the nation’s capital and that it should be part of the city planning. Why? Because a great government needs a great church to venerate its most important occasions. Washington never saw the National Cathedral, which wasn’t authorized by congress until 1893. The official name of the cathedral is the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington. This refers to the Episcopal Diocese. So, we have the constitutionally strange situation in which congress in 1893 gave the charter to build a cathedral that is under the jurisdiction of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Washington, D.C. While the first amendment blushes, we have to remember the seed of this idea was George Washington.
Furthermore, during the war, Washington authorized chaplains for the new army. Writing on July 9, 1776, to Major General Artemas Ward, Washington said, “The Colonels or commanding officers of each regiment are directed to procure Chaplains accordingly; persons of good characters and exemplary lives—To see that all inferior officers and soldiers pay them a suitable respect and attend carefully upon religious exercises. The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary but especially so in times of public distress and danger—The General hopes and trusts, that every officer and man, will endeavor so to live, and act, as becomes a Christian Soldier defending the dearest Rights and Liberties of his country.”
Because the picture of Washington is colored in different ways, it’s hard to make dogmatic claims about his faith. Washington was an intensely private man. While his Anglican faith was publicly moderate, including irregular church attendance, his private devotion is outside the realm of human judgment. Here is a man whose sense of manliness is tied to restraint. He was reserved in expressing his beliefs because he thought it inappropriate to make a public performance out of faith. While Jesus would certainly disapprove of privatizing religion to this extent, it isn’t proof that Washington was without private devotion. Indeed, Washington’s outward life appeared to be driven by a commitment to Christianity. Washington thought morality was so central to Christianity’s message that “no man who is profligate in his morals or a bad member of the civil community can possibly be a true Christian.”
As it relates to the bigger question at hand, there is a difference between the particular religious beliefs of the individual founding fathers and the question of whether or not the founding of the United States was influenced by Christianity.
Second, the federal constitution does not recognize God, but ….
This combines with Guelzo’s other point that the republic was based on the Enlightenment rather than the Bible. Guelzo’s argument brushes dangerously close to the false dichotomy of saying it is one or the other. Daniel L. Dreisbach, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C, and author of the book Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, argues that the Founders viewed the Bible as a “republican book.” For example, John Dickinson said, “The Bible is the most republican Book that ever was written.” Such opinions were common in the political discourse of the age. Dreisbach argues that although they held differing views about Christian theology, the founding generation looked to the Bible for insights into human nature, virtue, civic and social order, and political authority. Many searched the Scriptures for political and legal inspiration and found republican ideas such as the separation of powers and due process of law. They looked to the Hebrew ‘republic’ as a model of and divine precedent for a republican government.”
Setting aside the accuracy of the founder’s republican interpretation of the Bible, this reveals that in setting up a constitutional republic, they saw themselves as acting consistent with a biblical framework. Even if the majority of people in the late eighteenth century didn’t have a Whitefield-approved conversion experience, they were, on the whole, people who had a Christian frame of reference. Even when John Adams openly rejected the council of Nicea, he was still operating in a Christian moral frame, within a general theistic window. This is the nominal Christian experience in America at the time of the founding.
Historian James H. Hutson describes the essential connections among religion, virtue, and republican self-government as “the founding generation’s syllogism”: “virtue and morality are necessary for free, republican government; religion is necessary for virtue and morality; religion is, therefore, necessary for republican government.”
Third, the disestablishment of state religion
Guelzo argues that Jefferson and Madison wanted to push religion out of the public square, first on the state level and then on a national level.
But the founding fathers were not agreed that the state churches needed to be disestablished. Patrick Henry, for example, favored the state support of churches because he was convinced that if Christian morality was going to be widespread it required an established church. Henry is not alone in this belief. Washington and Adams thought states should continue to support churches. Their thinking is that if virtue is indispensable to a free republic and if religion is indispensable to virtue, then the state governments should support Christianity. And we should remember that virtue, for them, also meant public programs such as education and poor relief. There was no government welfare in the eighteenth century. The churches provided these services.
Madison and Jefferson wanted to disestablish the church. But why? Their thinking was that if the government supports one denomination, then that restricts the spread of other Christian denominations. So, disestablishment makes Christianity stronger. This proved true in the case of the Methodists and Baptists. Disestablishment was indispensable to their growth. During the War for Independence, they were small denominations. By the time of the Civil War, they had grown to be the largest denominations.
Alexis de Tocqueville agreed with Jefferson and Madison, saying of established religion, “I have always held, that if they be sometimes of momentary service to the interests of political power, they always, sooner or later, become fatal to the Church.” It’s difficult to say that Madison’s reasons for disestablishment are motivated by a desire to limit Christianity’s influence. Madison’s 1785 tract Memorial and Remonstrance against church-state alliances says, “Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the Universe.” For the founders, citizens have a fundamental and prior obligation to the Creator. The separation of church and state encouraged people to obey God and this is the purpose of disestablishment.
During the election season in the fall of 1800, Benjamin Rush wrote a revealing letter to Jefferson on the matter.
“I agree with you in your wishes to keep religion and government independent of each Other. Were it possible for St. Paul to rise from his grave at the present juncture, he would say to the Clergy who are now so active in settling the political Affairs of the World. ‘Cease from your political labors, your kingdom is not of this World. Read my Epistles. In no part of them will you perceive me aiming to depose a pagan Emperor, or to place a Christian upon a throne. Christianity disdains to receive Support from human Governments. From this, it derives its preeminence over all the religions that ever have, or ever Shall exist in the World. Human Governments may receive Support from Christianity but it must be only from the love of justice, and peace which it is calculated to produce in the minds of men. By promoting these, and all the Other Christian Virtues by your precepts, and example, you will much sooner overthrow errors of all kind, and establish our pure and holy religion in the World, than by aiming to produce by your preaching, or pamphlets any change in the political state of mankind.’”Benjamin Rush
So, Henry, Washington, and Adams say the best way to produce virtue is through the state support of churches. Madison and Jefferson say the best way to produce virtue is through the disestablishment of churches. They quite agree that Christianity is essential to the United States of America. The history of the secularists can get a bit sloppy when they high horse their wall of separation argument. When the Constitution was ratified, nine of the thirteen states had formal relationships with particular churches. The last one did not disappear until the 1830s. From where did Jefferson get the “wall of separation” language? From the 1644 book The Bloody Tenant, where Roger Williams calls for a wall of separation between the wilderness of the world and the garden of the church. So, why is the wall needed? What needs to be protected from what? Every backyard gardener knows that the weeds in the yard don’t need protection from the garden. The garden needs protection from the weeds. The garden of the church needs protection from the wilderness of the world.
Right thinking on this issue requires liberation from a binary, two-proposition dichotomy. If the two options are: Were the founders Christians or deists, then both sides lose the argument. If the two options are: Was America founded as a Christian nation or a secular one, then, again, both sides lose the argument. The problem is assuming the binary. Could it be that there is a third option? This option isn’t somewhere in the middle, but just something different altogether. If we were to generalize, we might say, as does historian Gregg Frazer, that the founder’s religion took elements of Christianity and natural religion and then, using rationalism, kept what they thought was rational and rejected what they considered to be irrational.
Matt David Hall’s book, Did America Have a Christian Founding? Separating Modern Myth from Historical Truth scrupulously works through five options of what it would mean to say the United States had a Christian founding. He reasonably argues that America was influenced by Christian ideas. This doesn’t mean the United States was created as a theocracy with Christian creedal affirmations or constitutional demands to worship Christ. He avoids the mistake of claiming all or most of the founders were orthodox Christians while also saying that historians tend to inflate the number of deists among the founders. Hall doesn’t claim that Christianity is the only influence of the founders. Instead, he argues that Christianity influenced the founders and that this influence is often neglected.
The biggest problem of the debate is when it devolves into false dichotomies either from the secularist ACLU types or from the David Barton religionists. Each is nestled in their position by the thought that the alternative is abhorrent. Such a dichotomy misses those parts of the discussion that are too messy for limited binaries. We need to distinguish between the framework of the founder’s generation and the content. The framework has a strong Christian component, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the content of the individual beliefs of the founders is orthodox Christianity.
However the history is parsed, Guelzo’s conclusion is worth considering, “That Christianity in America arrived at a place of commanding influence in American life in the years before the Civil War was the product of ceaseless cultural energy by Christians themselves in the decades after 1800. Never again, wrote the literary critic Alfred Kazin, ‘would there be so much honest, deeply felt invocation of God’s purpose.’ If that influence has seemed to wane, then perhaps the solution will lie in the renewal of that energy, that invocation, that culture, rather than in a myth.”
Historical study of this subject is that noble and needed work. American Christians are interested in these issues not because of a roaring and irrational fascination with the past, but because we know God’s plan for the United States is to pass beyond the voices to that time when there will be gospel peace—or in other words, to the commission of Jesus, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19). When you apply Jesus’ use of the word “all” to the notion of diversity, it means that most of the views must be wrong. Jesus goes on to say, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you,” which means that some teaching must come in first. In sum, Christians care about our nation’s past because we want a Christian future. That there are many beliefs about the founding does not destroy the fact that one day there will be one well-founded belief that Jesus is Lord (Phil. 2:9-11). This understanding of the future, more than the details of the past, is the church’s most solemn conviction.
 Ron Chernow, George Washington: A Life, (New York: Penguin Press, 2010), 133, 294, 360, 470.
 Daniel Dreisbach, Reading the Bble with the Founding Fathers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).
 John Adams church was Congregationalist in name only. When Adams was a young man, his church turned Unitarian in their theology but retained the Congregationalist label. Adams was a Unitarian. He denied the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and the the atonement. In opposition to the Trinity, Adams said that if he were standing on Mount Sinai with Moses and received a direct revelation from God and God Himself told him that the Trinity was true he still wouldn’t believe it. He referred to the deity of Christ and the atonement as absurdities. He said the doctrine of the Trinity was fabricated and that the incarnation was the source of almost all the corruptions of Christianity.
 James H. Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (Washington: Library of Congress, 1998), 81.
 Thomas Kidd, Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 167-173.
 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Translated by Henry Reeve. (New York: Bantam, 2004), 670.
 Gregg, Frazer, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, and Revolution (Lawrence, KA: University Press of Kansas, 2014).