June 9, 2009

On The Founders' Religion

After a fair amount of research for my book project touching on this subject, it has become apparent that several of the prominent Founders whose religious identification are hotly debated today -- most prominently Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, and also Benjamin Franklin and even John Adams -- took pains to obscure their personal religious beliefs. Their personal religious behaviors were erratic at best and certainly ambiguous. "I am a sect unto myself, so far as I know," Jefferson wrote of his own religiosity.

Their writings and speeches are all over the map and certainly do not conform to contemporary standards of piety. But whatever they might have been, these men went to some effort to not be categorized into any "box." They had complex motives for doing this, including a desire for personal privacy despite their public lives; a desire to keep their political profiles viable in a religiously heterogeneous nation; a lack of settling on any personal brand of faith during their lifetimes; discomfort with at least some of the loyalties, doctrines and teachings of the available organized churches; and perhaps most of all, a consciousness of the roles they would fulfill in the future as role models for the generations of Americans who would look back on them as heroes and role models.

I think we should respect their wishes. No one should get to claim them.

Our first President would roll over in his grave if he heard people today arguing "You should be a Christian because George Washington was one." He would have wanted you to have made up your own mind, for your own reasons. He didn't fight the war for independence so you could be like him. He fought that war so that you could be free to decide for yourself.

These men did not want to be called "Christians." Neither did they want to be called "atheists." Or "Deists." Or "spiritual." Or anything. We should not call them those kinds of things today.

Therefore, I will not claim these great men as having been fellow non-theists; however, they cannot be claimed by Christians, either. They did not want to be claimed in that fashion by anyone.

They did not want to be branded as anything but "Americans." It is thanks to them that we can call ourselves that as well, and it is thanks to them that we can discuss the merits of religion or irreligion at all. If wish to do these men personal honor, then let us think of them in the manner that they wanted -- which is to say, eschewing religious identification completely. To try and stuff them into boxes to advance one or another perspective on contemporary religious discussions is to do their memories a significant disrespect.

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