Friday, March 16, 2007

The Faiths of the Founding Fathers   posted by Razib @ 3/16/2007 12:07:00 AM

Just read The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. Summary:

George Washington - Deistic Episcopalian, rejected orthodox beliefs & sacramental practices

John Adams - Unitarian Christian or Deist, a anti-Trinitarian, but a strong believer in the supernatural

Thomas Jefferson - Deistic Episcopalian, leaned toward a more materialist Deism, firmly anti-Orthodox

James Madison - Deistic Episcopalian, leaned toward a more impersonal Deism, firmly anti-Orthodox

James Monroe - Deistic Episcopalian, extremely silent in regards to religion publicly or privately (though averse to evangelicalism)

These are the first five presidents of the United States, John Quincy Adams, the sixth, was the son of John Adams, and like him a Unitarian of Christian inclination. Though the modern Unitarian-Universalist Association has a non-Christian majority, and a large non-theist "Humanist" minority, in the late 18th and early 19th century Unitarianism was a form of Christianity which rejected the Athanasian Creed in regards to the Trinity. It emerged out of the "Left-wing" of the Congregationalist Church in New England. Some of them were explicit in claiming to be latter day Arians, a heretical sect which was popular in the 4th century, and persisted amongst Germanic peoples into the 6th century (the Lombards of Italy were Arians as late as the 7th century). Though there is firm evidence for Thomas Jefferson's rejection of orthodox Christianity in his private letters, he, like the other presidents besides Adams, were often affiliated with Episcopal churches. The behavior of Washington and Monroe though did not indicate a deep faith in the cardinal points of this church, while Madison was clearly more Unitarian in the beliefs he held then conventionally Protestant. Nevertheless all of these men would have counted themselves as Christians, while a large majority of contemporary Americans might reject that label for them. Over the past generation most American presidents (Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush II) have expressed an evangelical faith, and yet the first five presidents were very different, and highly anti-mystical Christians who abhorred "enthusiasm."

What happened? Though there is evidence that John Quincy Adams was more conventionally Christian than his father (that is, his Unitarianism was less thorough or deep), the first Christian in a sense that many Americans would find intelligible would be Andrew Jackson. Jackson was a conventionally orthodox Presbyterian, if not necessarily fundamentalist (there is private correspondence where praises all Christian religions, and includes Catholicism). After this period to our knowledge most of the presidents did not approach the heterodoxy of someone like Thomas Jefferson, though as late as the first decade of the 20th century William Howard Taft was a confirmed Unitarian who rejected the divinity of Jesus Christ. And yet today we have a scenario where Mitt Romney's peculiar religion makes nomination as candidate for president more difficult than it would otherwise be. What's going on here? Are Americans fundamentally more religious and orthodox?

I doubt it. I believe what is happening is that the broad populism of American politics has percolated upward the necessary values which a tribune of the people must possess to represent that people. During the first half of the 19th century most states abolished their property qualifications, and so the pool of voters became far broader than that which would elected a George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. These voters would come from a lower social station, and perhaps be less open to a Deism whose roots lay in the Freemason clubs and university campuses of the early nation. But universal white male sufferage was not the end of the story, as I note above religious orthodoxy was not a necessary prerequisite into the 20th century. The rise of mass culture and communication, the invasiveness of modern media into the lives of public figures, all these have likely pushed politicans to flatten the distinctions which might separate them from their constituents. Some have characterized the United Statse as a country where the elite are as secular as Swedens and masses as religious as Indians, but the reality is that at the founding the political elite was far more out of step with popular religious opinion, and what we are seeing now is more of a convergence.

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