February 20, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
The Debate over Deism
THERE IS A weary dispute over the Founding Fathers which rashes out every now and then. It arises inevitably like this: some Protestant minister or Republican politician or other will attempt to claim that the Founders were all Christians, that the United States is essentially a Christian nation from its origins, that any distancing of the United States, either in society or in government, from Christian principles therefore amounts to a betrayal of the original American spirit; and he will cite original quotations from the Founders to support his point. Then some new atheist or old libertarian will retort that the Founders, far from being Christians, were in fact deists, which—this enterprising soul will insist—means proto- or even crypto-atheists, who regarded Christian morality as pernicious and who wished to establish a nation which one day could flourish as the first unambiguously secular nation of all the world; and he will cite contradictions in the Founders’ own speeches and writings to support his point.
In the first place, it is worth reminding that the Founding Fathers, or at least the greatest of them, were men of high intelligence, profound and constant study, and extensive witness of socially turbulent times. They were men who had gleaned their opinions from decades and decades of personal experience and inveterate independent contemplation. That is to say, they were men who had each arrived at radically different conclusions about the world and good governance, and who universally agreed on just about no single point whatsoever, if not that the United States should be an independent nation. It is indisputable that there were Christians amongst them; just as it is improbable that none of them doubted certain revered and hoary old dogmas. This constant bickering over their general beliefs, this incessant attempt to claim them as a group for one’s own camp, is not only doomed to constant frustration: it is also in bad taste.
Nonetheless, lay this aside. I would like to provide a third alternative.
As stated, the new atheists and their allies like to claim that the deism of the Founders was simply the final form assumed by a dying faith, and that intelligent men of their day were drawn to it either because they themselves tended toward atheism and had not the courage to take the final step, or, more likely, because they lived in times which would have persecuted them for impiety, and consequently had to don the last rags of the religion that they themselves had unraveled. By this understanding, these deists would have preferred to express their disbelief openly, and they would have had no qualms about seeing it spread throughout all ranks of their society; but because their contemporaries were on the whole a pack of deluded and militant Puritans, they were forced to dissimulate.
Such a position is correct at least this far: there are intriguing contradictions in the lives and in the speeches of the Founders which are in want of interpretation. To furnish such, our new atheists make one of their frequent assays toward profundity. But alas, they are not fashioned for the deep places: they simply thrash about too much, so that, despite their best attempts, they remain but ever shallow, once again shallow.
Then the little deeper layer: Deism is precisely the public philosophy that a wise man of the Founders’ day would adopt, who wished at once to secure the blessings of religious faith for society, and simultaneously to dampen that destabilizing zeal and fierce intolerance which Christianity has periodically incited. Deism would be precisely that ideology which a man would promulgate to his society, who perceived that virtue with insufficient belief in God is sure in any society to degenerate, while virtue with excessive belief in God it is equally certain to mutate into hard and violent factionalism. Deism in the epoch of the Founders was nothing but responsible statecraft.
And thus this question as to whether the Founders, in their public capacity, were more atheists or more Christians, to my mind altogether betrays the point: the Founders first and foremost were Deists.