CONSERVATISM UNCOMPROMISED

CHRISTIANITY: ORIGINAL INTENT?

The election of 2000 saw President George W. Bush ride a wave of Southern Evangelical Christian support all the way to the Whitehouse.  With the feat narrowly accomplished again in 2004, the campaigns of President Bush firmly solidified the relationship between the Republican Party and Southern Evangelicals.  Since that time, the liberal Left and the DNC have used these victories and this relationship to drive a wedge between the Republican Party and American voters.  They have attempted to marginalize and regionalize the Republican Party as a party the Old South that caters only to the wishes of the Southern Evangelical community.  Through his rhetoric and at times through his actions, President Bush helped to legitimize these allegations throughout the course of his time in office.

While Southern Evangelicals are certainly a core constituency for the Republican Party, their prominence at least in perception has begun to diminish the Party’s national appeal.  At times during the Bush administration, it appeared that the Southern Evangelical message was that of the Party as a whole.  Conservatism and traditional Republican policy had been replaced by Southern Evangelical values leaving the Party with a bit of an identity crisis.  While this dilemma may have arisen only as a result of President Bush’s absolute departure from the fiscal side of conservatism rather than any real attempts to embrace the Evangelical ideology or policies, it is clear that the Republican Party has headed for troubled waters.

While it is not inherently detrimental to be associated with a constituency that aims to protect moral and social values in society, it is somewhat troubling when doing so alienates substantial portions of the Republican base.  While 76% of Americans characterize themselves as Christian, this does not mean that all Americans or even all Republicans want Christian values or more specifically Southern Evangelical Christian values driving their party’s political agenda.[1] In so closely aligning himself and his administration with this portion of the Republican base, President Bush appeared to be catering to a regional and deeply religious cross-section rather than the nation as a whole.  While the Party has made every effort to separate itself from the Bush presidency in every way imaginable, this perception may unfortunately still remain.

As the Republican Party continues to restructure and reformulate its policies in the years to come, it may be beneficial for the Party to move this process in a direction that lessens the role of the Evangelicals in policy determination.  Even if it only makes efforts to improve the perception of this influence, the benefits will be tremendous in revamping the Party’s image in future elections.

While conservatives are generally united in the cause of forming and maintaining a government that is guided by moral or principled values, the insertion of Evangelical Christian beliefs is not entirely consistent with a true conservative philosophy.  While the Founders gave great weight to the role of moral virtue and the importance of individual principles, they were highly skeptical of government becoming so closely affiliated with any specific religious group or dogma.

That being said, to advocate for a complete break from the Evangelical Christian segment of the Republican Party would be both counterproductive and counterintuitive.  This portion of the Republican Party represents precisely the group of Americans that the Party needs and should embrace with open arms; however, their place at the table should merely be as an equal to all other principled conservatives rather than at the head.  The center of the Party must be conservatism and a commitment to the original intentions of our Founding Fathers, not religious based policy that threatens to undermine conservatism all together.

The Founders created this nation with the ambition that it would be a place where all citizens would be free to practice religion according to their own beliefs, and they wanted to create a society that was accepting of those who wish to abstain from organized religion altogether.  The idea of religious freedom was not intended to only serve those who wished to practice according to one belief structure.  It is counter to the tenets of true conservatism to advocate for Christianity of any brand or denomination to be at the core of American government.  If the Founding Fathers had intended for anything to the contrary, we would find it in the text of the Constitution.  Conservatism aims to reflect the truest intentions of those who created this great nation and to assume that their intentions were to forge a nation in a Southern Evangelical light is simply counter to conservatism as well as common sense; and the Republican Party should distance itself accordingly with great haste and certainty.

AMERICA AS A CHRISTIAN NATION?

It has been widely espoused that The United States of America is a Christian nation.  Certainly, many of our enemies worldwide would also subscribe to this characterization.  However, it may be more accurate and even more desirable to simply describe The United States as a nation of Christians.  With nearly eight out of ten Americans identifying themselves as such, it would not be a stretch.  However, it is important to note that there is a vast difference between being a Christian nation and simply a nation of Christians.  The first assumes that Christianity is expected rather than preferred.  This is a highly dangerous notion and may reflect poorly upon a nation that endeavors to promote religious freedom around the world.

Those who may object to this distinction should turn their attention to the text of the Constitution if they aspire to draw upon the mistaken belief that this is in fact a Christian nation rather than simply a nation of Christians.  They will undoubtedly find this a difficult objective.  The truth of the matter is that the Constitution makes no reference to Christianity or even Jesus Christ for that matter.  Put frankly, those who believe that we are a Christian nation, do so blindly and solely on the assumption that our “Founding Fathers” were Christians themselves.  They give great emphasis to this idea and rely upon it to justify and to influence specific policy debates in contemporary American politics as if they have a fundamental connection to our Founders’ intentions in doing so.  This belief is simply not accurate.

During the course of the eight years of the Bush administration, the Republican Party allowed itself to become anchored to this sort of ideological and historical naivety, and in doing so it alienated a great deal of Americans who simply believe that this nation was founded upon religious freedom rather than a preferred religious choice.  The Republican Party has become the party of the “Evangelicals” rather than the party of conservatives.  With this affiliation, the Republican Party has supplanted conservative values with Christian values; and while some may characterize these as one and the same, it is not likely that our Founding Fathers would have agreed with such a notion.

With this strong affiliation between Republicans and Southern Evangelical Christians, where does the Party find its core belief structure?  Is it in the founding documents or does it rely upon the notion that we are in fact a nation founded on Christian principles?  If the answer is more accurately the latter, then does this also mean that our Founders were Christians and that they intended for Christianity and its teachings to be the guiding light for our nation?  The answers to these questions will determine the legitimacy and the relevance of the Republican Party in the years to come.  As it continues to restructure and recalibrate its message, it should be cautious of continuing along the Bush administration’s course.  In the interest of preserving the Republican Party and in upholding true conservative beliefs, it would be wise not to build our house upon the sandy soil that is the notion that our founding fathers were Christians, or that they intended for Christianity to have more than a sentimental role in government.

Advocating for a break from Southern Evangelical leadership should not in any way be perceived as a suggestion that the Party move away from religiously motivated principle or even policy.  It is simply a matter of consistency in message that the Party must address.  It cannot contend to be the Party of the Constitution if it simply picks and chooses when it will closely or strictly adhere to its text and when it will not.  This consistency should be of fundamental importance to all conservatives even those who are deeply religious.

At the core of conservative philosophy is adherence to the notion of Original Intent.  Put simply, this is the belief that interpretation of the Constitution should begin with an examination of the text of the document and a determination of the intentions of those who wrote the document rather than a determination of what it would mean in a contemporary setting.  Justice Antonin Scalia is a firm believer in this approach and has been widely accepted as the prominent voice in advocating its use.  He adamantly opposes the belief that the Constitution is a “living document.”  He is of the belief that it is a legal document and should be viewed accordingly.  He strongly disagrees with any argument that would allow nine justices of the Supreme Court to interject their own beliefs or opinions into constitutional interpretation.  At a speech in 2007 he stated,

“If you want to be governed by an aristocracy, there are better aristocracies than nine lawyers.”[2] He believes firmly in the idea that the Constitution is to be interpreted strictly and solely upon the intentions of those who drafted it.  Any deviation from this philosophy would be counter to the original intent of our Founders.

So how does the philosophy of original intent play into the discussion of the role of Christianity in a political context or more specifically the Republican Party?  It comes into play because the Republican Party views itself as the party of conservatives, and conservatives believe in principles – not policies or political agendas.  Yes, many of these principles arise from religious origins and undertones, but at the core of conservatism is a commitment to our Constitution not to religion.  Religion is a specific choice made by conservatives to assist them in forming a framework of values and virtues which they hold dear.  It is in essence, their own principled construct.  They can pick and choose from religion those values which they hold closest to their heart or they can ignore them altogether.  However, conservatism as a philosophy only calls upon religion on an individualized level.  The only universal tie uniting religious individuals to conservatism is a strict belief in adhering to the principles of the Constitution.

It should be noted that such a view of conservatism should not characterize religion as taking a lesser role in conservatives’ individual lives.  It should simply be recognized that its importance is individual in nature rather than universal to all conservatives.  An atheist could very easily be a conservative as long as he is able to develop a principled framework that allowed him to strictly adhere to the intentions of our Founders.

Fundamental to the conservative philosophy is the notion and belief that the Constitution is to be interpreted based upon the original intentions of those who drafted it.  If applied to the context of religion, or more specifically Christianity and its role in American government, it is clear that such a correlation simply does not exist.  There is little to support a belief that our Founders intended this to be a Christian nation; and to advocate for such a position only aims to discredit conservative philosophies in other aspects of constitutional interpretation.  The same standard of review must simply be applied to every context – not just those which are advantageous to our political agendas or religious beliefs.  To examine our Founders true intentions for the role of religion in government, it is essential that we look closely at the men that drafted our Constitution and the motivations that guided them to do so.

Seeking freedom from religious persecution; those who laid the foundation for this great nation braved the seas to come to this new land to establish a place where they could practice their religious beliefs openly and fully above government reproach.  In the years between the Jamestown settlement and the Post-Revolutionary days which forged this new nation, religion became a major part of what was to become American life.  Communities and governments were formed around it and in many cases based largely upon it.  As the American Revolution drew near, this was still very much the order of the day.  Religion was an iatrical part of government on the local and colonial level and many of those who led our colonial nation to independence were very much religious men.  However, this does not mean that these religious men were exclusively Christian or that they intended our new nation to be one based upon religious dogma of any particular faith.

As a mere matter of common sense, would it really be prudent to believe that a nation of colonial immigrants, who traveled hundreds of miles across treacherous seas; to arrive at a land of vast wilderness and few familiar resources; to avoid religious persecution; and to eventually fight a war against their sovereign; would establish another nation that was intertwined with religious dogma?  Such a motivation simply didn’t exist in the era of our Forefathers.  In fact, their motivations may have produced a decidedly different result if that were their only guide.  This doesn’t devalue the importance of religion, or even Christianity, in the lives of those who founded this nation, it simply illustrates how they may have been skeptical of forming a new nation that could someday encroach upon their freedoms in the same manner the old one did.  They were merely interested in maintaining the freedoms which they came here to obtain and the Constitution is entirely reflective of this objective.

Other than obvious fear of religion becoming too intertwined in governmental affairs, what were the true religious beliefs of the Founders and how did they influence their efforts to create a new nation?  It is clear that many of the Founders believed that religion was a useful tool in the formulation of any government.  Historically, religion had served as a control mechanism.  Many nations’ laws and punishments were created as parallels to religious beliefs.  The Founders were fully aware of the unique ability of religion to serve in this capacity.  Additionally, they saw Christianity as an especially effective tool as its fundamental teachings promote compassion and morality.  They also recognized that Christian societies have a strengthened sense of community and commitment to the common good.  Both of these were deemed necessary to the creation of a cohesive union.

Our first president, George Washington expressed this sentiment in his first farewell address:  “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”[3] This belief that a moral community was necessary to sustainability of our new nation was shared widely by many of our Founders.  Benjamin Franklin echoed previous sentiments of James Madison in stating “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom… To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.” [4] Other than the positive effects of a morally righteous and virtuous society, the Founders also saw great usefulness in religious incorporation for a variety of other reasons.

The obvious aim of incorporating religion into government is to act as a supplemental control agent to manmade laws.  Fear of the retribution of man is real but the fear of eternal damnation may leave a more lasting impression.  James Madison embraced this idea stating that “The belief in a ‘God All Powerful’ wise and good is essential to the moral order of the world.”[5] In addition to creating a moral society, the founders also believed that a religious or a Christian society would have a binding and a unifying effect.  This would be extremely beneficial to the effort of creating a federal government in the Americas because of the extreme size of the new nation.  They saw religion as precisely the source for achieving success in this unification.  Such an objective may have been particularly wise and effective as well.  The Latin root of religion is religio, meaning “to bind.”  While religion provides many benefits to a new government, none may be more significant than its importance in focusing its citizens’ attention on common goals of community, self-sacrifice, respect for authority, and a care for the common good.  Additionally and perhaps fundamentally, it unites citizens in a common bond to God and to one another respectively on a level that reaches far beyond citizenship.[6]

If the founders were so readily aware of the importance of religion and Christianity, then why would it be so inaccurate to assume that they intended to create a Christian nation rather than a nation of Christians?  The answer may simply rest upon the belief that while the Founders appreciated the power of religion, they also respected it enough to leave it out of government knowing that it had the strength to offer its benefits if left untangled from government control.  It may also be derived from the understanding that many of our Founders were not themselves Christians at all.    While the founders believed in the importance of religion, their support for its role in government was only exceeded by their fear of its encroachment.  They wanted to protect it and to help it flourish in the new nation but they certainly wanted to protect government from it as well.  They had seen the dangers of government and religion becoming chamber mates and they were committed to preventing this new nation from making the same mistakes as its predecessors in Europe.  Historic American figure Thomas Paine once stated, “Of all the tyrannies that affect mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst.”  James Madison reiterated this notion in his A Memorial and Remonstrance (1785):

“What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society?  In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; on many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people.  Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries.  A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not.”[7]

Madison and many of our Founders were of the belief that a government which derives its power from God will inevitably supplant the rights of man for the wishes of organized religion.  They believed strongly that the government must protect religion in all capacities.  However, they were even more committed to protecting government from religion.  Viewed in a contemporary context this may be hard to comprehend or even imagine.  We are so removed from religious oppression in American culture that it is difficult to conceive of a government infringing upon our religious practices.  We scoff at oppressive regimes and fundamentalist governments of other nations.  However, our Founders were not far removed in history from the control of the Catholic Church and the oppressive practices of the Church of England.  Now more than 200 years since the creation of this nation, perhaps the greatest accomplishment of those who drafted the Constitution is the fact that as Americans we can’t even begin to imagine things any other way.

In an oft-quoted letter to the Danbury Baptists (Danbury Baptist Association, CT), which both sides of the ideological debate for a separation of church and state use “religiously”, Jefferson stated that,

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship,  that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.” [8]

Echoing back to the notion that the Founders believed that religion was important rather than fundamental to society, and Jefferson was simply stating the importance of protecting religion from the state and the state from religion.  Jefferson believed that with this cooperation and mutually assured protection, both could equally benefit.  The objective of the Founders was to create a nation which allowed all religions to flourish.  They believed strongly in the importance of this religious culture in the nation they were creating.  They simply wanted to draw upon the positive effects of religion without embracing the establishment of any religious dogma or institutions.  In a letter to his father, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “I think vital religion has always suffered when orthodoxy is more regarded than virtue.  The scriptures assure me that at the last day we shall not be examined on what we thought but what we did.” [9]

Drawing upon this belief, Franklin and his fellow statesmen attempted to create a government that would not only protect both church and state but also individuals in their own right to practice religion in the manner which they found most appropriate – even if that was not at all.   They believed in the importance of individual liberty in religious practice and they were conscious of the idea that protecting one citizen’s freedom to worship should not impose an undue burden upon those who chose not to.  Thomas Jefferson stated that “the legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injuries to others.  But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”   Benjamin Franklin was also committed to this idea,

It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others; or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own. It behooves him, too, in his own case, to give no example of concession, betraying the common right of independent opinion, by answering questions of faith, which the laws have left between God and himself.” [10]

This view was shared by many of the Founders.  Liberty was only free if it was left to the people – out of the hands of those who could aim to use religion to influence their free will.  Thomas Jefferson echoed this sentiment and a fear of the manifestations of organized religions:

“In every country and every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty.  He is always in alliance with the despot … they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man into mystery and jargon, unintelligible to all mankind, and therefore the safer engine for their purpose.”[11]

Jefferson also spoke of the need for a variety of religions, and a culture in which they could flourish.  He believed that unifying a government under one religious point of view – even Christianity – was dangerous to liberty.

“Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion.  The several sects perform the office of a common censor over each other.  Is uniformity attainable?  Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced an inch towards uniformity.  What has been the effect of coercion?  To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites.  To support roguery and error all over the earth.”[12]

It is abundantly clear that Jefferson did not intend for any specific set of religious beliefs to proliferate in his vision of this new nation.  He aimed to protect all religion and to promote the proliferation of religious freedom exercised in any form or no form at all.  Competing religious denominations essentially ensure that no religion becomes too powerful or influential as to affect the freedoms and viewpoints of all a nation’s citizens.  This belief was shared by many of our Founding Fathers and it was reflected in the document which they created.

A CONSTITUTIONAL PERSPECTIVE

Looking to the text of the Constitution and treating it purely as a legal document, as conservatives purport to never stray, glaring in omission, is the fact that there is no mention of the words “Jesus Christ, Christianity, Bible, or God.  While the intentions of the Founders may in some other fashion lead us to believe that this is in fact a Christian nation, such a conclusion cannot be drawn from the text of the document alone.  From a purely textual perspective, religion could only be characterized as excluded from the document altogether with the exception of the 1st Amendment.  With no mention of Christianity specifically within the text of the document or even in the 1st Amendment, such a characterization may be difficult to formulate from a purely conservative standpoint.  Thomas Jefferson would have agreed with such a conclusion as he once stated in a private letter that, “Christianity neither is, nor ever was, a part of the Common Law.”[13] While his private writings are certainly not conclusive as to his intentions, they are certainly at least some evidence of his position on the matter.

The only reference specific to religion comes in the First Amendment included in the Bill of Rights.  The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The portion referencing the establishment of religion is said to form the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.  Put simply, it prohibits the government from establishing a national religion; promoting one religion over another; promoting no religion over religion; or religion over no religion.   Originally intended to apply only to the federal government, it has been extended to state governments as well through the “Incorporation Doctrine.”[14]

The Free Exercise Clause emerged from the portion of the 1st Amendment that reads, “or prohibiting the free-exercise thereof.” The Supreme Court reaffirmed this protection in Sherbert v. Verner (1963), where the Warren Court applied the strict scrutiny standard of review to this clause, holding that a state must show a compelling interest in restricting religion-related activities.[15] In a subsequent case, Employment Division v. Smith (1990), the Court took a narrower view, permitting governmental actions that were religion-neutral.[16] In response to this ruling, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was enacted by Congress in 1993.[17] This Act aimed to return the standard to that which was set in the Sherbert case calling for a law to be deemed unconstitutional if it “substantially burdened free-exercise of religion.”  However, the Act was limited slightly in its scope to include only federal action by the case of City of Boerne v. Flores, in which the Court ruled that Congress could not regulate state and local government actions in this area under powers granted to it by the 14th Amendment.[18]

The end result of these Court rulings is that the federal government cannot promote or inhibit religious exercise at any level.  Additionally it cannot take religion-neutral action at the federal level.  While constitutional interpretation at the Supreme Court level often takes a less than conservative position, it is important to see that the precedent has been set time and time again that the government has no role in religion either in the “establishment thereof” or in “the free exercise of” context.  That being said, reading the 1st Amendment alone appears to be the only evidence needed to establish a case against the United States being a “Christian Nation.”  Such a proclamation would be flatly counter to the language and intent of the Establishment Clause.

This is where many who believe in the Christian government idea will turn to supplemental arguments to bolster this position.  Many times this leads them in the direction of the Declaration of Independence.  Put simply, this connection typically arises purely from the mention of “God” within its text.  However, simply mentioning “God” does not make the necessary jump from “Creator” to Christianity.  In fact, the Declaration of Independence may actually offer evidence that the Founders intended this to be a nation completely free of any religious affiliation altogether.  It may also provide the most important insight into the motivations of those who signed it.  The Declaration was a statement to the world and the governments of Europe that this was to be a nation of individuals and a nation of people – not laws.  This was a new idea in a world of tyrants and monarchs.  The nations that preceded it had all been governed by rulers who drew their power from some divine right to rule based on a lineal royal birth or an anointment from God.  This was to be a nation that drew its power from the people – not royal birth or religion.  The Declaration of Independence should be viewed as a document declaring that men possess rights which no government or religious institution could create or take away.  Essentially the Declaration was proclaiming individual freedom from both.

Now it is not to say that “God” was absent from this historic document.  Religious undertones were present throughout and were the centerpiece of the most famous line of the document, “All men are created equal…They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”  While it is not a direct reference to any specific religion, there is a clear recognition of some God-like “creator.”  This however could have been characteristic of many faiths.  Perhaps even more accurately, it could have merely been reflective of the Declaration’s author’s beliefs on religion as most have drawn the conclusion that Jefferson was a Deist and certainly not a Christian.

SO IF THE FOUNDERS WEREN’T CHRISTIAN, WHAT WERE THEY?

While many of the Founders were in fact Christians, the most important figures in American history most likely were not.  While widely debated in contemporary discussions, the idea that our most important political figures were not Christians was largely a non-issue to Americans in the early years of our nation’s history.  In a sermon in October of 1831, Episcopal Minister, Bird Wilson of Albany, New York stated that “Among all our presidents from Washington downward, not one was a professor of religion, at least not more than Unitarianism.”[19] While some may have been concerned about the absence of religion in the lives of our nation’s leaders, there was certainly no outcry for Christianity as the central force in the Post-Revolutionary era.  It was merely absent from the American conscience in relation to government and definitely not a defacto requirement for public office like it is today.

So, what can be said of the religious views of our Founders?  If they were not Christians, then what were they?  While it has been speculated that some were Atheists it is far more likely that those characterized as such were actually Deists.  Deism is a “religious and philosophical belief that a supreme natural God exists and created the physical universe, and that religious truths can be arrived at by application of reason and observation of the natural world.”[20] Usually Deists do not refer to themselves in terms of belonging to any associative order or religion.  This is in fact the very notion of Deism.  Generally speaking, Deists share a combined set of beliefs and disbeliefs in what are usually recognized as the tenets of traditional organized religion.  These beliefs usually arise in two forms: rejection of revealed religion and belief in reason rather than faith as the guidance to religious truths.  It is more or less an argument of either destructing traditional dogma or constructing individualized dogma that more accurately reflects the Deist’s true beliefs.

The term Deism is thought to have been first used in Pierre Viret’s Instruction Chrétienne en la doctrine de la foi et de l’Évangeline (Christian teaching on the doctrine of faith and the Gospel) (1564).  Viret, who was an Italian Calvinist referred to Deism as a form of heresy.  His animosity towards the belief structure illustrates the principles of the Deist philosophy.

There are many who confess that while they believe like the Turks and the Jews that there is some sort of God and some sort of deity, yet with regard to Jesus Christ and to all that to which the doctrine of the Evangelists and the Apostles testify, they take all that to be fables and dreams…. I have heard that there are of this band those who call themselves Deists, an entirely new word, which they want to oppose to Atheist. For in that atheist signifies a person who is without God, they want to make it understood that they are not at all without God, since they certainly believe there is some sort of God, whom they even recognize as creator of heaven and earth, as do the Turks; but as for Jesus Christ, they only know that he is and hold nothing concerning him nor his doctrine.”[21]

Part of why Deism and the religion of our Founders is so widely misunderstood is because many of those who followed this line of reason practiced or at least placated conventional religion in their daily lives and activities.  Deism doesn’t require any formal actions as it is purely a theoretical construct put into practice individually and lacks any real universal dogma.  Typically, there are said to be two sides to Deist philosophy – destructive and constructive.  The critical, or destructive side of Deism, included some of the following: Rejection of all religions based on books that claim to contain the revealed word of God; Rejection of reports of miracles, prophecies, and religious “mysteries”; Rejection of the Genesis account of creation and the doctrine of original sin, along with all similar beliefs; and/or Rejection of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other religious beliefs.  Deists simply pick and choose which of these principles appeal to their Reason.  Similarly, the same approach is taken in the constructive side of Deist belief.  Some of these include: God gave men reason; God exists, created and governs the universe, God wants human beings to behave morally; human beings have souls that survive death; and the belief in an afterlife.

While Deism is largely a “cafeteria” thoeretical or philosophical notion, reason is the ever-present factor that guides those who openly or secrety live Deist lives.  One reoccurring theme among Deistic belief is the rejection of portions of organized religion while still appreciating the overall message at religion’s core.  This is how many early American Deists were able to live lives as Christians, all the while rejecting notions they considered to be superstitions such as miracles, prophecies, and the doctrine of the Trinity.  The focus was on individualized beliefs, virtues, and principles.  Religion was but a means of developing each of these.  Diesm was essentially the perfect philosphical construct for creating a virtuous government that was free of religious affiliation but still respected it.  It is easy to see how it must have been enticing to our Founding Fathers as a point of origin.

THOMAS JEFFERSON

Jefferson was highly critical of all things related to organized religion.  Though he was the author of the Declaration of Independence which champions universal rights bestowed upon individuals by their Creator, he was not a believer in organized religion.  While he did recognize the existence of “Jesus of Nazareth” and held him in high regard,   he did not accept the New Testament of the Christian Bible.  In fact, he actually took this belief a step further and attempted to collaborate with others to write a new more acceptable version.

“I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition (Christianity) one redeeming feature.  They are all alike founded on fables and mythology.”

After realizing how daunting this challenge would be he decided to write an abridged version entitled, The Life and Morels of Jesus of Nazareth.  In short, Jefferson extracted the doctrine of Jesus by stripping out all “supernatural” portions of the New Testament and perceived misrepresentations he believed to be added by the “Four Evangelists” (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).  He was highly skeptical of the depictions of Jesus Christ and his relation to God as referenced in the New Testament.

“It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticisms that three are one, and one is three; and yet that the one is not three, and the three are not one.  But this constitutes the craft, the power and the profit of the priests.” [22]

He did; however, give great deference to the teachings of “Jesus of Nazareth.”  Stating in a letter to John Adams that once the unwanted portions were stripped out of the text, “There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.  I have performed this operation for my own use…and arranging the matter which is evidently his and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.” [23] In narrowing the scope of the text, he removed any references to miracles, the trinity, the resurrection, or the divinity of Jesus.

“The truth is, that the greatest enemies of the doctrine of Jesus are those, calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them to the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words.  And the day will come, when the mystical generation [birth] of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation [birth] of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” [24]

While today many would regard Jefferson’s actions to be a desecration of a sacred text, he was simply endeavoring to draw upon Christianity and the teachings of “Jesus of Nazareth” to formulate his own moral or principled belief structure.  It was this sort of individualized connection with God and virtue that Jefferson held in the highest regard.

GEORGE WASHINGTON

Hardly an able politician before he was forced to become one, our First President George Washington, was a very private man who commanded a great deal without uttering a word.  For that reason, much of what we know about President Washington comes from third party accounts.  It is known that he was a Freemason, but that is largely the beginning and the end of any real insight into his religious beliefs.  He was thought to be a Deist and his actions certainly wouldn’t dispel this notion.  He attended church services occasionally with his wife Martha, but often waited outside.  He rarely accepted church sacraments and never took communion.

While serving as commander of Revolutionary forces a petition was brought before Washington for the removal of John Murray, an appointee for the position of chaplain, who was said to be a non-believer in the notion of Hell.  Washington denied this petition and led many to speculate that he too was a non-believer in the idea of hell.  Additionally, upon his death he uttered no prayer, asked for no ritual, or for the company of a church representative.[25] Lastly, upon examination of his detailed correspondences to friends and family, by historian Paul F. Boller in his anthology on Washington, he found not a single reference to Jesus Christ.[26]

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

Raised in a deeply religious Puritan family, Franklin was quickly viewed as an outcast and a rebel early in his adolescence.  Upon the revelation that Franklin had authored the “Silence Dogood Letters,” he was scorned for his negative comments about his faith.  In Silence Dogood Letter #9, he wrote, “Tis not inconsistent with Charity to distrust a Religious Man in Power, tho’ he may be a good Man; he has many Temptations ‘To promote publick Destruction for Personal Advantages and Security.’”  Even at an early age, Franklin was skeptical of organized religion and its place in the affairs of government.  His open criticisms and the reactions they received helped to further his beliefs regarding the potential abuses of religious pressure.  In his autobiography, Franklin, he stated, “My indiscreet Disputations about Religion began to make me pointed at with Horror by good People, as an Infidel or Atheist.”[27] It may have been this scorn from his community that ultimately led him to Deism.  It certainly paved the way for him to become a pivotal figure in creating a nation that was open to any and all religious beliefs.

“. . . Some books against Deism fell into my hands. . . It happened that they wrought an effect on my quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist.”

Credited with some of the most poignant expressions and “one-liners” in American literary history, he was noted for statements like “Lighthouses are more helpful than churches;” and “The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.”[28] One of the most notable statements he ever made regarding religion and Christianity came in a letter to Ezra Stiles.  In the letter he stated:

“You desire to know something of my Religion. It is the first time I have been questioned upon it: But I do not take your Curiosity amiss, and shall endeavour in a few Words to gratify it. Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them. As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho’ it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble. I see no harm however in its being believed, if that Belief has the good Consequence as probably it has, of making his Doctrines more respected and better observed, especially as I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the Believers, in his Government of the World, with any particular Marks of his Displeasure. I shall only add respecting myself, that having experienced the Goodness of that Being, in conducting me prosperously thro’ a long Life, I have no doubt of its Continuance in the next, tho’ without the smallest Conceit of meriting such Goodness. My Sentiments in this Head you will see in the Copy of an old Letter enclosed, which I wrote in answer to one from a zealous Religionist whom I had relieved in a paralitic Case by Electricity, and who being afraid I should grow proud upon it, sent me his serious, tho’ rather impertinent, Cautions. I send you also the Copy of another Letter, which will shew something of my Disposition relating to Religion. With great and sincere Esteem and Affection, I am, Dear Sir, Your obliged old Friend and most obedient humble Servant” [29]

Having such a well thought out and detailed belief structure may seem unusual to many in a contemporary context and it may seem even blasphemous to many Christians who strictly adhere to the teachings of the Bible.  However, this is what Deism is all about.  It is picking and choosing from religious points of view to find a belief structure that more closely resembled one’s own personal beliefs.  In his autobiography, Franklin, he characterized himself as a “thorough deist.”  Such a statement in an autobiography would make it difficult to assert that he would have intended to create a Christian Nation when he only loosely characterized his own views as such.

A LESSON LEARNED FROM THE FOUNDING FATHERS

Does it matter that the Founders may not have been Christians?  Is it of any importance that many of them may have been Deists?  The answer to both questions is a resounding no.  Their religious affiliations or lack thereof have no real bearing on the fact that they established a government, based upon a core document that protects the state from religion and religion from the state.  They recognized the need for principle and virtue.  They just didn’t care which form it came in – individualized or organized.  That is the only matter of importance.  At the end of the day, we as Americans are free to practice religion as we may so choose, or to not practice or even recognize it at all – without explanation.

The Republican Party could stand to learn a great deal from this notion.  Emphasizing religion and religiously motivated policies over sound conservative principles is surely misguided and will ultimately lead to the Party continuing to be viewed in an unfavorable light.  Republicans should be proud of their faith.  Our Constitution affords them that protection, but they should be cautious that their faith doesn’t allow them to lose sight of the principles of that document which gives them such freedoms.  Masking every policy argument in religious undertones does little to influence new supporters.  It merely pushes away those who look to reason or to science as their guiding authorities.  It is not a call to fold to the wishes of “academics” or scientists who espouse that religious “right-wingers” are uneducated or naïve.  It is simply a call to return to conservative values.  From a purely practical standpoint, consistency in Constitutional interpretation regarding the 1st Amendment will allow conservatives to slowly break free from many of the problems that have traditionally plagued them.  How many Republicans have been mortified at the level of coverage that an elected GOP official receives when he/she falls from the public’s good graces; and by how Democrats aren’t held to the same standard of scrutiny?  This is merely a byproduct of governing from a falsely perceived high moral ground.  Republicans are no more or less religious than Democrats on the aggregate, but they supplant religious values into the political process when they don’t have to.  They falsely intertwine personal religious beliefs with political policy.  So when they do fall from grace, they deserve to be held to a higher standard and ridiculed accordingly.  Realizing that individual personal religious beliefs can be distinct from political action will free these individuals from these chains.

The values that guide conservatives arise from the Constitution – not from religion.  Great deference should be paid to principle and virtue.  It should simply be articulated in an individualized capacity as our Founders intended.  Placing Christian values or more specifically Southern Evangelical Christian values ahead of individualized principles is precisely the direction that the Republican Party has moved toward in recent years.  Abandoning this course of action and returning the Party to an ideological framework more accepting and more reflective of the intentions of our Founders should be among the highest priorities of the Republican Party moving forward.  Failure to do so will simply continue to divide the Party within its ranks and will lead to a contradictory message on the issue of constitutional interpretation.  This is not a Christian nation.  It is a nation of citizens.  Among those citizens, 76% consider themselves to be Christian.

Our Founders were able to cast aside the conventional wisdom of the day and dared to have original ideas.  They ventured further in that pursuit than any individuals in the history of the world and created a new nation unprecedented and unequaled in history.  So too can men of the 21st century.  It was their courage and their commitment to their convictions that paved the way for the great nation that we live in today.  So much can be learned from the strength of their convictions.  They didn’t let their personal differences and their religious affiliations, or lack thereof, stand in the way of the greater cause – creating a new nation ripe with freedom and opportunity.  All Americans can stand to learn a great deal from their efforts and from the legacy they have left behind.  It flies in the face of everything they stood for to quibble over religious differences and to let church dogma stand in the way of true progress.  They believed in community, compassion, forgiveness, and acceptance.  All of these things are the bedrock of true liberty.  This is what conservatives need to hang their hat upon; not the compromising dogma of organized religion.  Republicans must hold true to the most coveted principles ascribed within the text of our Constitution.  Republicans can be wrong or unjustified when they rely upon outdated and subjective impressions of our Founding Fathers, or when they rely upon the mischaracterization of them as Christian; but they can never be closer to the true intentions of those early Americans than when they embrace the language of the Constitution as it was written.

The fundamental framework of conservatism relies heavily upon an individualized principled reasoning.  While this principle often stems from a commitment to Christian beliefs, such a union is not necessary to conservatism.  In fact, the belief that such a bond is necessary is contradictory to true American conservatism on the most fundamental of levels.  While our Founding Fathers were firm believers in morally driven and principled leadership, they were equally committed to the task of ensuring that no religious institution was seen as the driving force.

This distinction should not be confused with any attempt to question the virtue or importance of the Christian faith in American culture.  It has been essential in shaping much of what we as Americans hold dear.  The positive effects of Christianity are reflected in all aspects of American culture.  This nation is far greater with its influence than it could ever be in its absence.  That being said, its importance should not be mischaracterized as having been institutionalized in American government or in conservative principles.  Its importance on an individualized level for both is equally valuable, but its requirement is simply a step too far.  Conservatism is purely about principled leadership and decision making in the application and preservation of our founding documents.  While the Christian who is also a conservative may be among the best sorts of religious politicians, no requirement should be insinuated or interpreted from our founding documents or those who created them.  Any attempt to make such a connection would be counter to conservatism as a philosophy and would be detrimental to its cause.  The hypocrisy of assuming an attachment to any religious order would make irrelevant all which conservatism aims to protect.


[1] Kosmin, Barry and Ariela Keysar.  “American Religious Identification Survey 2008.”  ARIS.  2008.  Bb27.cc.trincoll.edu    Retrieved April 23, 2009.

[2] Tisch, Chris.  “Scalia at Stetson praises original intent view of Constitution.”  St Petersburg Times.  April 5, 2007.  Sptimes.com. Retrieved April 28, 2009.

[3] Washington, George.  “Farewell Address.”  September 19, 1796, as quoted in The Founders’ Almanac, p. 207.  see also Messmore, Ryan.  “A Moral Case Against Big Government:  How Government Shapes the Character, Vision, and Virtue of Citizens.  First Principles #9. February 27, 2007. Heritage Foundation.

[4] Madison, James. “Speech to the Virginia Ratifying Convention June 20, 1788.” as quoted in The Founders’ Almanac, ed. Matthew Spalding (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 2002), p. 208. see also Messmore, Ryan.  “A Moral Case Against Big Government:  How Government Shapes the Character, Vision, and Virtue of Citizens.  First Principles #9. February 27, 2007. Heritage Foundation.

[5] Messmore, Ryan.

[6] Messmore, Ryan.

[7] Madison, James.  “A Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, 1785.”  Religious Freedom Page.  religiousfreedom.lib.virginia.edu. Retrieved March 18, 2009.

[8] Jefferson, Thomas. “Letter to Danbury Baptist Association, CT.”  see; “The Complete Jefferson.” Saul K. Padover, Signet.  1949, pp 518-519

[9] Franklin, Benjamin. “Letter to his father.”  1738.  Library.thinkquest.org.  Retrieved April 24, 2009.

[10] “Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush.” Thomas Jefferson Digital Archive:  Thomas Jefferson on Politics and Government.  Civil Rights 48.  University of Virginia Library Online.  Etext.virginia.edu. Retrieved May 10, 2009.

[11] “Thomas Jefferson to Horatio Spafford, March 17, 1814.” Thomas Jefferson Digital Archive:  Thomas Jefferson on Politics and Government.  Civil Rights 48.  University of Virginia Library Online.  Etext.virginia.edu. Retrieved May 10, 2009.

[12] Jefferson, Thomas.  “Notes on Virginia.” Thomas Jefferson Digital Archive:  Thomas Jefferson on Politics and Government.  Civil Rights 48.  University of Virginia Library Online.  Etext.virginia.edu. Retrieved May 10, 2009.

[13] Jefferson, Thomas.  “Letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, 1814.”  Thomas Jefferson Digital Archive:  Thomas Jefferson on Politics and Government.  Civil Rights 48.  University of Virginia Library Online.  Etext.virginia.edu. Retrieved May 10, 2009.

[14] See Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947). Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940).    see also; Gideon v. Wainwright 372US 335 (1963).

[15] Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398. (1963)

[16] Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990).

[17] Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) – passed the House unanimously and the Senate 97-3.

[18] City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1997).

[19] Till, Ferrell.  “Christian Nation Myth.”  Infadels.org. Retrieved April 27, 2009.

[20]“Deism.” Wikipedia; see also; Merium-Webster’s Dictionary.

[21]Viret, Pierre.  Instruction Chrétienne en la doctrine de la foi et de l’Évangile (Christian teaching on the doctrine of faith and the Gospel). 1564.

[22] Jefferson, Thomas.  “Letter to John Adams, 1803.”  Thomas Jefferson Digital Archive:  Thomas Jefferson on Politics and Government.  Civil Rights 48.  University of Virginia Library Online.  Etext.virginia.edu. Retrieved May 10, 2009.

[23] Jefferson, Thomas.  “Letter to John Adams October 13, 1813.”  Thomas Jefferson Digital Archive:  Thomas Jefferson on Politics and Government.  Civil Rights 48.  University of Virginia Library Online.  Etext.virginia.edu. Retrieved May 10, 2009.

[24] Jefferson, Thomas.   “Letter to John Adams, Apr. 11, 1823.”  Thomas Jefferson Digital Archive:  Thomas Jefferson on Politics and Government.  Civil Rights 48.  University of Virginia Library Online.  Etext.virginia.edu. Retrieved May 10, 2009.

[25] Schwartz, Barry.  George Washington: The Making of an American Symbol. New York Press. 1982, pp174-5.

[26] Boller, Paul F. Washington.  Southern Methodist University Press, 1963, pp 14-15.

[27] Franklin, Benjamin.  Franklin.  H. Holt and Company. 1912, 71.

[28] Franklin, Benjamin.  Poor Richard’s Almanac. Century Company. 1898 ed.

[29] Franklin, Benjamin. “Letter to Ezra Stiles, 1790.” Benjamin Franklin House.  Bejaminfranklinhouse.org. Retrieved. May 09, 2009.

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