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God and the Founders


Rich Lowry on Friday posted two emails to him, both of which made a lot of sense, were temperate, and raise questions worth pursuing.

There was one sentence in Rick Brookhiser’s short bio on GW that helped me to conclude that a whole book on Washington’s religion was worth doing. He wrote something like “a seriously neglected subject of research.” A challenge.

When we speak of “founders” we should think of all those top one hundred or so who signed either the Declaration or the Constitution, or both, and a score or so others who played an unusually significant role in the founding debates (George Mason, Abigail Adams, Tom Paine, etc.). The sense of religion internalized by each of these individuals, their sense of both the public religion of the polity, and the personal religion of the individual conscience of each of them, is a field almost wholly unexplored. Even biographers who go into lengthy detail on many other matters often skip over the experience of religion, touching on it as if it means little to the biographer, and as if their own knowledge of religion is fairly primitive.

I would happily join those who think that Tom Paine, Monroe, Jefferson, Franklin, and possibly John Adams and Madison (in descending order) were on the extreme end of the non-Christian tail. These form the secularist canon, naturally. Yet even these five believed in a God, Judge, and, if not exactly Creator, at least governing intelligence of nature and human affairs, to an extent far beyond the vast majority of philosophers and historians at American universities today.

Furthermore, a certain latitude must be allowed to minds seeking to zig-zag up the mountain of Jewish or Christian understanding. If even the most devout and learned Christian, of that time or of ours, tries to iron out the conceptual links in an account of how Jesus Christ can be, precisely, God and man, perplexities of philosophy, skepticism, doubt, and never quite satisfied inquiry are bound to possess him. To have serious questions about how to understand such things, and to zig back and forth, is normal. In the curves of their inquiry about this question, most minds are likely to veer too much toward a kind of deism, at one time, or too much in the direction of a merely “human” and sentimentally conceived Christ, at another. Not by accident have these two errant and opposing tendencies always pulled at the Christian mind.

Franklin, as Brookhiser reminds us, was in his old age still unable to commit himself to confessing Jesus Christ as his savior; and yet in his empirical turn of mind he expressed certainty that he would soon see the factual ground of that proposition face-to-face. I find the spirit of Franklin expressed in this letter enchanting, candid, open-minded, and willing to go where the evidence leads. I find this hard to fault, from the viewpoint of Christian theology. Given the staggering implications of the finding that Jesus Christ is God — one with the Creator and Judge — one might wish Franklin had been able to plumb the matter further, inquired into it more, and applied a bit more of his accustomed tenacity and sagacity. Yet experience teaches that the consciences of individuals are infinitely diverse, and it is difficult to read into them with much confidence in one’s own fairness. We are all on a turning, twisting journey, and in the end obliged to let God do the reading of hearts and the searching of minds, and allow Him to grasp, as well, exactly where each of us stands in His Presence.

There are some great books to be written about the nuances and depths of the religion of Benjamin Rush, James Wilson, Samuel Huntington, John Hancock, Sam Adams, Charles Carroll, John Dickinson, Patrick Henry and others in the top one hundred founders. I am glad Richard Brookhiser is on the trail. He is responsible, after all, for persuading me and my daughter that there was much left to explore in George Washington’s attention to God.


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