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Got Religion?

By: Daniel L. Dreisbach
June 4, 2007

A review of Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers, by Brooke Allen.

Even before they were dead and buried the Founding Fathers aroused extraordinary curiosity about their faith commitments, or lack thereof. Their every action, from church attendance to public addresses, was studied for clues about their relation to Christianity. The public's fascination with this topic has waned little over two centuries. Brooke Allen's Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers is only the latest volume to join the literature on this subject. Allen is the theater critic for the New Criterion and an essayist, and this book expands her 2005 essay "Our Godless Constitution" that appeared in the Nation. The reader is informed on the first page that the book was written to correct the "demonstrably untrue" assertions of President George W. Bush and Christian apologists that America was "founded on Christian principles." Rather the "United States of America was a purely secular project" crafted by "skeptical men of the Enlightenment." America was founded, according to Allen, as one nation under John Locke, not Jesus Christ.

Allen offers "short religious histories of the six men"—Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton—that she considers the "principal Founding Fathers," along with a survey of their political agenda and the intellectual milieu that produced this "skeptical" generation. This is "history" with an agenda. The first indication that Allen has stacked the deck is her list of profiled founders. Conspicuously absent are men like Samuel Adams, John Dickinson, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Charles Pinckney, Benjamin Rush, Roger Sherman, James Wilson, and John Witherspoon. These were men of consequence to the founding, and their political perspectives were more obviously informed by traditional Christianity than those Allen chooses to profile.

One need not believe that all the "principal" Founding Fathers were evangelical Christians to recognize her sketches' distortions, especially in her descriptions of their church-state policies. Statements and actions are taken out of context, contrary evidence is ignored, words and deeds that contradict her thesis are dismissed as "opportunistic" or "hypocrisy." Key terms such as "deist," which at one point is said to be "someone who believes in the existence of a higher being but in little else," are defined so loosely as to render them almost meaningless.

Allen seizes on evidence of dubious authenticity that seems to support her brief and, at the same time, dismisses evidence that complicates her thesis. Nowhere do we meet the George Washington who, in the celebrated Farewell Address, questioned the patriotism of those who labor to subvert the public role of religion and morality. Nor does the reader meet the Washington who singled out as the crucial sustainer of American society "the pure and benign light of Revelation," which has a "meliorating influence on mankind" greater than an understanding of "the rights of mankind," the "researches of the human mind," knowledge of the science of politics, the "extension of Commerce," or "liberality of sentiment."

Omitted from Allen's report are the Jefferson and Madison who respectively framed and sponsored legislation in Virginia requiring "every minister of the gospel," on pain of severe fines, to hold "divine services" in his church on days appointed for "public fasting and humiliation, or thanksgiving." Nor is there notice of the 1779 religious proclamation issued by Jefferson while governor of Virginia, his role in founding the "Calvinistical Reformed church" in Charlottesville, or his Indian treaty, signed while president, that appropriated federal funds to compensate a Christian missionary and erect a church. Hamilton alone is depicted as a man who took faith seriously—though only as a tool to manipulate partisan politics. Allen concedes that he eventually "‘got' religion," but by this time, she says, he was no longer an influential player in national politics.

Allen makes much of the fact that, by the time of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, there was little popular sentiment that favored the establishment of a national church, but it does not follow that, as she suggests, the framers sought to establish a polity on strictly secular principles. The U.S. Constitution's lack of an explicit Christian designation had little to do with a radical secular agenda. Instead, it is silent on the subject of God and religion because there was a consensus that religion was a matter best left to individual citizens and their state governments. State and local governments, as the most vital political units of the founding era, were seen as the most fitting arenas for citizens to express their religious preferences and affiliations. Indeed, most states in the founding era retained some form of religious establishment. The First Amendment, by explicitly prohibiting the establishment of a national church, implicitly affirmed state jurisdiction in matters of church-state relations. The Constitution is "godless" or secular only insofar as it defers to states on matters of religion and devotion to God.

Despite their differing personal religious beliefs, the founders generally agreed that religion—for either genuinely spiritual or strictly utilitarian reasons—was essential for civic virtue, social order, and political prosperity. They saw religion as the provider of an internal moral compass that would promote virtue and enable citizens to govern themselves. Alas, much that has been written on the Founding Fathers' religious beliefs is unreliable. This, by the way, is true on both sides of the spectrum: portraying the founders as paragons of Christian orthodoxy is as distorting as depicting them as enlightened free-thinkers. This literature, in the end, reveals more about the biographers than their subjects. Such is the case with Brooke Allen's Moral Minority.