Gregg Frazer, Author, The Religious Beliefs of America's Founders: Reason, Revelation and Revolution
Thinking in Public
September 10, 2012
Mohler: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
The question of the religious convictions and the theological ideas of America’s founding generation continue to reverberate in very contemporary controversy. And no one’s better able to help us to interpret that controversy than my guest today, Professor Gregg Frazer, who is a professor of history at The Master’s College in California. Professor Frazer holds a Ph.D. degree from Claremont Graduate University.
Professor Frazer, welcome to Thinking in Public.
Frazer: Thank you; glad to be here.
Mohler: Your new book, entitled The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation and Revolution, published by the University of Kansas Press, seems to be a particularly well-timed book, given so many of the controversies that have emerged in evangelical circles even in just the last several weeks. But a project like this goes way back, in terms of your planning and interest. How did you come to write this book?
Frazer: Well, I’ve been interested in the subject of the religious beliefs of the founders for over 30 years. As I actually explain in the preface to the book, some 35 years ago, I was sitting in an audience listening to Peter Marshall and David Manuel talk about the light and the glory and trying to make a case for United States being established as a Christian nation, and, as an historian, I just didn’t think it sounded right. I thought that there were significant problems, and that launched me into 30 years really of studying this. And then when it came time to do a doctoral dissertation, that’s what I ended up doing as my doctoral dissertation, and that launched into, eventually, the book.
Mohler: In your introductory chapter, you write, “The founders of the United States believed that ideas have consequences. Some of the most important and powerful ideas held by men and women concern religion or religious belief. Because they are so important and powerful, religious ideas inevitably influence political thought and practice.” Now that would be one of those statements we would assume just about everyone would agree to be true, but when it comes to the founding fathers, we’re in uniquely controversial territory. In your book you lay out two different parties of historical interest who have varying and, you would thus argue, both erroneous understandings of the religious convictions of our founders. Can you lay that out for us?
Frazer: Yeah. Obviously one side are the Christian America advocates who argue that the founders were largely Christians and that they intended to create a Christian nation, and that the founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, were constructed on the basis of biblical principles, and that they wanted to establish a Christian nation. And then that obviously has important consequences for today. On the other side are the secularists, the ACLU-types and so forth, who argue for a strict separation, wall of separation, between church and state. They argued that the founders were rank secularists or deists, and that they intended to separate religion from public life, and they have constructed this sort of wall of separation notion, which, by the way, I would argue, is not what the founders believe. And I would argue that both of those sides are wrong; that, in fact, the trust is somewhere in the middle.
Mohler: Somewhere in the middle or perhaps something that’s just completely different, in terms of the intellectual and theological layout. Professor Frazer, I’m interested in this primarily as a theologian. As a theologian, I have deep historical interest, and as an historical theologian, that’s a part of my academic terrain. But, quite honestly, as important as the historical questions are and as definitive as I think your conclusion to these matters is, my greater concern, as we’ll see in this conversation, is that the theological issues have to be clarified. I mean, one of the problems is that when we talk about what these convictions are, the fact is people on both sides seem to have an inadequate understanding of what Christianity is. So let’s look at the two parties. Let’s take the party, first of all, of the secularists. The academic historians and you rightly indicate that most of the academic historians basically hold to a rather secularist understanding of the founders, one most deeply suspicious of any authentic Christian content to their beliefs, and you would concede that you can read the founders that way if you are selective in what you read.
Frazer: Right. I think the reason that both sides are able to have followers, other than those who are just blindly following, is that, what I believe is their real—that is the key founders—what their real theology was, was a mixture of Christianity and natural religion, or deism, and rationalism. And they combined those three elements together into what I call “theistic rationalism,” and that’s the term that I coin for their religious belief system. They took elements of Christianity and elements of natural religion and then, using rationalism, they kept what they thought was reasonable, was rational, and rejected what they considered to be irrational, and so if one wants to just look for—if one comes in with an agenda and one wants to demonstrate or prove that they were secularists, then one can find snippets in which they found that way if one chooses things conveniently. One can find places in which they sound like rank secularists.
On the other side, if one comes in with an agenda to show or to try and prove that they were Christians, one can find snippets in which they agree with Christian doctrine and Christian ideas, and sound Christian. But when one takes the totality of what they said and doesn’t use a lot of ellipsis (you know, the three little dots) to change the meanings of things, one finds that, in fact, they aren’t really in either one of those camps. They’re in the middle in what I call “theistic rationalism.”
Mohler: You provide also another overlay that I think is essential to the narrative that you’re setting out for us here in the interpretive grid, and that is the fact that those who were in the enlightened intellectual class of the founders of the United States of America, they held to certain ideas that they shared only with each other, and that there was a distinction in worldview between those who were in the intellectual elites and those who were in the masses. And the masses that were just deeply saturated in terms of Christian conviction and a Christian worldview, they heard the language used by the elites and assumed they meant the same thing, when actually that was not the case.
Frazer. Right; exactly so. The key founders that I write about were raised in this generally or nominally Christian culture and so they knew Christianity, they knew the language, they knew the terminology, and then they were educated in Enlightenment thought and rationalism. And then they were politicians, like politicians today, who know how to speak to an audience, they know how to speak publicly to appeal to their audience, just as politicians today do. And so they were able to couch things in terminology that would keep them popular with the people, but when they talk to one another—and this is the focus of my research is on their private writings, on their personal correspondence with one another, their letters, and their diary entries, and personal memoranda, and I believe that’s when you really get at what someone believes is what they say in private that they don’t think others are going to see. And there we can see what they really believed as opposed to the public pronouncements or just, for example, denominational affiliations that some people focus on.
Mohler: Well, I think anyone with any kind of historical interest, and certainly knowledge, would understand that those denominators simply aren’t adequate, and, for instance, just say someone’s a Baptist as over against a Methodist might say something, but to say that someone’s a Baptist or an Anglican or an Episcopalian, could mean nothing more than the fact that one was born into a home where there had been some historic reference to that kind of denominational identification. But, at the same time, in the era of America’s founding, they couldn’t exactly identify themselves as infidels, so, in other words, there was a certain expectation of at least some allegiance to Christian identity; otherwise, they probably would not have had the public influence that was necessary
Frazer: Right; and for the most part they’re able to achieve that simply by attending church, which they did in a very public way, and particularly when they are in the public eye. George Washington, for example, his church attendance when he was back home in Mount Vernon was much more spotty than his church attendance when he was president because he thought it was important to set an example. And they also held other beliefs that ran congruent with those of the general public, most prominent of which, most significant of which, is that they believed in a present, active God, which is one of the things that separates them from the deists. And they also believed in some written revelation, although they determined what revelation was valid or wasn’t according to their own reason, but at least they could then cite Scripture on occasion to give an illustration or to give an example. They could use a biblical illustration, which made, obviously, the public feel comfortable.
Mohler: One of the greatest achievements, I think, of your contribution here is the definitional contribution you make. And, as a Christian theologian, I’m always frustrated when I see the denominator Christian; Christian used as an adjective, without any substantial definition. And you’re very clear in your book that when you talk about Christianity, you’re talking about orthodox, biblical Christianity. You’re talking about doctrines as you articulate, including the Trinity; the fact that God is active in human affairs; an affirmation of the deity of Christ; of original sin; the virgin birth of Christ; the atoning work of Christ; the substitutionary, satisfactionary form of understanding the atonement; resurrection; eternal punishment for sin; justification by faith; and the inspiration and authority of the Scripture. But then when it comes to deism, you also provide a definition that, quite honestly, is far more honest, I think, and objective than that that is often used in conversation about the founding fathers where the word deism is thrown around in a way that isn’t actually accurate, so define deism for us as you do in your book.
Frazer: My centerpiece of my argument is my conviction that the terms Christian and deist have been so broadly applied to the founders that they’ve become virtually meaningless categories. And this is largely due, I think, to the fact that these are the only two categories that have been generally accepted, and so people have been shoehorned into one of those identifications, whether they fit or not. And then to make them fit, the categories get broadened, but, as you say, the definition of Christianity that I use here, what I actually did, because this is a work of history and scholarship, is I went back and I looked at the creeds and confessions of the 18th century American churches and put together a list of ten fundamental doctrines that they all agreed upon were central to Christianity. It just so happens that you and I agree with that said. It just so happens that they had a very, what we would say, orthodox view of Christianity in 18th century American. But where deism is concerned, there are really two fundamental, critical issues and then a third that’s also important. The core issues for deism were the effective absence of God; that God created and then went on a hike, went on vacation. God left; He’s no longer present and active in the world. Or if He’s out there, He is just viewing as a spectator; He’s not involved. And the other is that there’s no written revelation from God; that there’s no revelation other than natural revelation. The deists believe that all we can know about God is what we can see in nature. And so those are really the two fundamental core elements of deism and then a third one that’s sort of a tangent is a criticism or a critical attitude toward Christianity, toward Jesus and toward Christianity in general. And what I argue is that these are the fundamental core elements of deism just as the ten doctrines that you rattled off are the core doctrines, the fundamental doctrines, of Christianity. Whereas some Christians might add some things to the list of ten and some deists might add some things to the two or three elements of deism, everybody would agree who was a deist that if you don’t believe those fundamental things, you’re not a deist. And everybody would agree in the Christian community that if you don’t believe those fundamental things, you’re not a Christian. So really the definitions were constructed to say more who’s not a Christian or not a deist than who is a Christian or who is a deist.
Mohler: I’m intentionally refraining from moving to the question of the actual beliefs of the founding fathers and mothers of our country, in particular the founding generation, until we set the stage just a bit further. And, by the way, a good deal of my academic research has been in European deism in the 17th century. The only thing I would add to your definition is the fact—and it’s implicit in your definition—is the fact that God has not only withdrawn Himself, but that He isn’t a personality, what we would call a personal God, and is more a moral force of energy. And so you put that altogether and you realize you’re talking about two completely incompatible worldviews, and that’s what makes the current confusion so perplexing. You have on the one hand, we know what a Christian is, and you did exactly the right thing, going to the creeds and confessions of the church that unanimously, in terms of the churches you mention, affirm these great Christian doctrines. They’re the essential content of the Christian faith. And then you define deism, and then you wonder how in the world could it be that someone in the 21st century looking back to the 18th and the early 19th century could be looking at very specific individuals saying, “Are they deists or are they Christians?” How in the world could there actually be a debate about that given the incompatibility of those two worldviews?
Frazer: Again, I think the problem is that those two categories have become so amorphous and undefined that people just slide people into which ever category they prefer without really doing the work, without doing the scholarship. And when the terms are so murky and ambiguous as they have been made then—I read a number of works, biographies of these individuals and so forth, and some of them say, you know, that—say James Wilson, for example—some say that he’s a Christian and others say that he’s a deist. Some say James Madison is a Christian; others say he’s a deist. Some say George Washington is a Christian; others say he’s a deist. And it’s just because these categories have been broadened and made so ambiguous and unclear that one could just stick people where one wants them, and this is part of my project is to try and brighten the lines a little and give a third option that I think is more reliable and more accurate.
Mohler: So let’s talk about the third option. We’ll do that when we come back with Professor Gregg Frazer.
Setting the story straight requires also setting the stage. That is, understanding the intellectual conditions and intellectual influences that explain the eventual thought of so many of the founders in America’s founding generation. Professor Gregg Frazer has helped us to understand this and that sets the stage for turning to the question of exactly what this theistic rationalism is and how so many of the founding fathers came to believe it.
Professor Gregg Frazer’s new book, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation and Revolution, centers in the settlement of an argument that is old and extremely contemporary, and that has to do with what exactly the founding generation of America believed, and, specifically, what they believed in terms of the theological beliefs or, as he says in his book, religious beliefs. Professor Frazer suggests that there is no way we can reduce what they believe to the two options of Christianity and deism, and in his book he suggests a third option: theistic rationalism.
Professor Frazer, define theistic rationalism for us.
Frazer: Theistic rationalism was a hybrid belief system, as I call it, mixing elements of natural religion, or deism, Christianity, and rationalism, with rationalism as the predominant element. And rationalism here I define as the idea that fundamental truth can be gained through reason basically. And so, the adherents of theistic rationalism believed that these three elements of Christianity, natural religion and rationalism would generally complement one another, would generally take you to the same place, but, on occasion, when there’s conflict between them and you can’t ignore or resolve the conflict, then reason was to play the decisive role. So rationalism then is the noun and theistic is the describer, the descriptor.
Mohler: So what is theistic about theistic rationalism?
Frazer: Well, theism, if you go back to—what I did was try to go back to 18th century terms and terminology, which is another problem people have in this arena is they use terms before evangelicals or 21st century Americans that mean something today and meant something different back then when someone used them and they don’t explain the difference, but theism in the 18th century, if you go back to the 18th century dictionaries, was a term that was important because it was distinguished from deism. Theism is a belief in an active God, a present God. So that’s basically the jist of it: is a belief in an active and present God. And so one can obviously fill in whatever one wants with that and we have, obviously, our beliefs concerning theism and the theistic God that we believe in, but one could basically have whatever view one wanted, but the key to the definition is that it separates it from deism. It’s a present, active God as opposed to the deist god.
Mohler: So let’s try to summarize this, and you do so in several points in your book. Theistic rationalism refers to a worldview that is not orthodox, in terms of its Christian identity, and it’s not deism because it can’t be reduced to the denial of a God who has any affairs with human kind and with His creation, and it doesn’t deny entirely any possibility of divine revelation, but it’s some kind of new thing, a new middle ground, and the theologian, the historical theologian in me, wants to point back to German rationalism and even German pietism as setting the ground for some of this, in terms of continental thought. But here in the United States, you made very clear that this means that their primary worldview was rationalism. They really believed that human reason was the vehicle by which truth could be known and determined, and that was modified by their theism, by their belief that there was a God, that He was in some way involved with human affairs, especially, I would argue, morally, and that there was at least a revealed ethic to which human beings were to be submitted.
Frazer: Absolutely, and for them the critical element in religion was morality. And this is part of where the left is wrong with their wall of separation notion and the idea that the founders wanted to keep religion out of public life. Quite the contrary, what they had to struggle with was the fact that they were creating society; they were creating a republic, a free society, without the iron fist of the government controlling people. And so the question they then had to deal with was, “How do you control such people? How do you get them to behave?” And their answer was that you get them to behave, you control them, through morality. And where do you get morality? You get it through religion. So they did not want to divorce or separate religion from public life; rather, they believe that religion was a necessary support of public life, as Washington and Adams and others said quite frequently, by the way. So they believed that morality was indispensible for a free society and that religion was the best source for morality, and so this wall of separation idea that the left has come up with is simply not the view of the founders. And so, back to their view of God, they again, borrowing notions of Christianity, they then threw out what they thought was irrational of the notions of God and their real focus concerning the attributes of God was on benevolence. That was the fundamental attribute that they believed of God. That’s what their reason told them that if there is a God and He created people, His primary motivation, His primary attribute would be benevolence—to be kind and good to those people. And, therefore, they jettisoned whatever beliefs they found to be irrational in light of the benevolence of God; things such as, for example, eternal hell. They didn’t believe in eternal hell because they thought that was irrational that God—as many people struggle with today—that God would create man only to confine him to hell. And so they believed in a temporary punishment after death, but that eventually everyone would end in heaven.
Mohler: Professor Frazer, I was going to get to this later, but you brought us here right now. When I teach the history of theology, in particular the history of movements like theological liberalism, students are often shocked to know that the first doctrine in the United States—in terms of historical theology, situated in what became the United States—the first doctrine to be isolated as that which was simply offensive to reason was the doctrine of hell. So all the way back into the 18th century, relatively early in the 18th century, very early in the founding of an institution as central to America’s political class as Harvard College, you had people openly denying hell, trying to hold to everything else they thought was essential to orthodox Christianity, but, just as you defined, saying that hell simply has to go.
Frazer: Right. That was a fundamental thing they just couldn’t get passed. And it’s again, just like many people today, it appears irrational if you don’t understand the theme of Scripture and what God is doing in history, and they then simply rejected that. They rejected any parts of the Scripture that taught that, for example, they were very skeptical about and rejected, for the most part, the Old Testament, because they saw the Old Testament God as a wrathful God, and that didn’t fit with their notion of benevolence.
Mohler: They also saw Him as a theocratic God, and they did not want a theocracy.
Frazer: Right; and that’s why Calvinism had to go as well because the major points of Calvinism were not at all democratic and were not friendly to the power of individuals. They put God in charge and God in control and God sovereign, which doesn’t fit well with democratic theory.
Mohler: I know that many of our listeners are eager to hear your interpretation and presentation of the religious beliefs of particular founders that had such an important and central influence, but, before we get there, I have to tell you that the one part of your book that surprised me the most, in a way that I wasn’t prepared to be surprised, was the extent to which you document the fact that this worldview of theistic rationalism was basically facilitated by many who wore clerical robes. They were some of the most influential clergy in 18th century and later 19th century America. And the one presentation, the one man you treated, of whom I was most shocked, was John Witherspoon. And the reason is—and you document this exactly—as a theologian, I had read John Witherspoon’s theological works, but that’s only half the story. Tell us about Witherspoon and his generation.
Frazer: Okay; I want to make it clear that I don’t say as many on the left do that there were no Christians among the founders. I believe there were Christians among the founders, some prominent Christians. I can also identify one or two deists, but only one or two among the founders. There were more Christians than there were deists. And I think one of the Christians was clearly John Witherspoon. I believe that he was a Christian, but he’s an interesting case and a curious case because when Witherspoon was in Scotland, he led the fight against the rationalists, led the struggle against the influence of rationalism in Scotland. Then when he was hired to come to America to be president at Princeton, some type of change occurred. And there was a number of biographers who talk about this as well, they find it curious, because he then taught, as was typical of the time, the presidents of colleges—I don’t know what you do, Dr. Mohler—it was typical at the time for presidents of colleges to teach one course that all the students would take, and he taught the course in moral philosophy. And in doing so—it’s very curious—in doing so he began with the presupposition that we are going to look at this not from the standpoint of revelation—we’re going to look at moral philosophy not from the standpoint of revelation—but from the standpoint of reason. And, in fact, the textbooks that he assigned were written by some of the guys that he had been fighting over in Scotland, and so it was really strange, as you read through his lectures on moral philosophy, which we have today, you see that it’s all based on rational argument, on reason. Now, on occasion, he’ll say that in order for these things to be valid they must agree with Scripture, but then he doesn’t go on to back that up. He doesn’t look at Scripture. He doesn’t base it on Scripture. He just says that these things are in tune with Scripture, but he doesn’t explain how. And so it’s a really curious situation.
Mohler: Well, it helped me to understand, as I read your treatment of Witherspoon, how it was that many of these founders could actually think themselves to be more, to use a word, mainstream, perhaps even more orthodox than they actually were because they were facilitated, in terms of some of these very important transitions in their thought, by some who were themselves ministers, Witherspoon in particular.
Frazer: Yes, and, as you said, if you read his theological works, then they are really good and really sound, and those people who want to—for example, there was a school that wants to say that James Madison was a firm Calvinist and they want to find evidence for that in the federalist papers, which isn’t there, but when they make the argument of Witherspoon’s influence on Madison and so forth, then they always quote Witherspoon’s theological works, but not his political works, which is interesting. And the reason for that is because in his political works, we just don’t see Calvinism. We don’t see Christianity for the most part; we see rationalism.
Mohler: You know you make a very interesting point, and just to look forward into the 19th century, what many Americans miss, both secularists and Christians looking, is that, you’re exactly right, the presidents of colleges and universities traditionally taught a class and the class they taught, traditionally, was moral philosophy, and so many people look at that say, “Look, these institutions were not secular. They had clergymen as presidents and they taught the class on moral philosophy.” But if you actually look at what they taught, and this includes not only Witherspoon, but someone in the 19th like Francis Wayland at Brown University, well they did teach moral philosophy and they were clergymen, but there was no essential Christian content to what they were teaching.
Frazer: It’s very curious. I can’t figure it out myself. I don’t understand if they were trying to be—I suppose my explanation would be the way that a lot of Christian colleges sort of go down the tubes today by wanting to be considered, be accepted in the academic community and be accepted as academic in their orientation. I don’t know if that was what their goal was, to say what everybody else was saying so that they would be accepted in the academic community, or what. It’s just a curious situation to me.
Mohler: Well, that’s a topic for a great conversation that would be a different conversation, but, I’ll just say, I think the other thing that’s going on there is that they felt the incredible weight of the intellectual imperative to create a universal ethic without a universal theology, and I would just argue that fails. As much as I believe, as Paul made clear in Romans chapter one, that God has revealed the moral law, the fact is we also have Genesis three that explains why, without Scripture, we’re simply not going to be able to have an adequate worldview or a universal moral understanding. But, in your book, you actually get to what many people would want to begin with and, that is, okay, we know these names, we know these people; they’re on our stamps, they’re on our coins, they’re on our dollar bills. We know their names as essential to the narrative of how America came to be. What did they actually believe? So, let me just ask you, following kind of a series here, tell us about John Adams.
Frazer: Yeah; and, by the way, let me just say, one of the things that’s critical to note here as well is that I don’t make any claims concerning the founding fathers in general. I don’t think you can make any claims about what the founding fathers believed or the religion of the founding fathers in general because they were, just like people today, they were individuals who disagreed in a lot of ways. They didn’t share all the same beliefs; they held a diverse set of beliefs in various areas, so what I focus on is eight key individuals who I refer to as the key founders. That is, those who are most responsible for the two founding documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And John Adams is, of course, a key figure here because he was one of the three most responsible for the Declaration of Independence and, obviously, the second president of the United States, and also in other positions: vice president, ambassador to Europe and so forth. John Adams, I argue, is sort of the quintessential theistic rationalist. That is, he wrote the most about theology of any of the key founders and studied the most. He read any and all theology that he could find around the world and he wrote the most about it and revealed his own views the most, and it’s really quite shocking what he came up with. He fundamentally denied basically all the fundamental tenants of the faith. He was raised in a Calvinist community; although, and again this is where denominational affiliations can get you in trouble, his church was listed as Congregationalist and they kept that name, but the church turned Unitarian when he was a young man, and so just the label Congregationalist can get you sort of off-track. But he denied the deity of Christ; he denied the Trinity; he denied the atonement. He actually said what I think is the most striking statement of all the things that I’ve found in all of my study, which was in his explaining his opposition to the Trinity, he actually said that if he were standing on Mount Sinai with Moses, where God gives revelation, and God Himself told him that the Trinity was true, he said he wouldn’t believe it.
Mohler: You look at a statement like that and you think Thomas Payne; you don’t think John Adams.
Frazer: Right. He referred to the deity of Christ and the atonement as absurdities, talked about the fabrication of the Christian Trinity. He talked about the incarnation and said it has been the source of almost all the corruptions of Christianity—the belief in an eternal self-existent, omnipresent, omniscient Author of this stupendous universe suffering on a cross—says that that’s the source of most of the problems in Christianity. Speaking of the Bible, he said that philosophy is the original revelation of the Creator to His creature, and no subsequent revelation supported by prophecies or miracles can supersede it, so philosophy trumps the Bible.
Mohler: So all that being true and more, as you could document, why would people think that John Adams might be a Christian?
Frazer: Because of a couple of things. First of all, the denominational: a lot of people never get beyond denominational affiliation. One of the things that the Christian America advocates regular trumpet is the statement that 50 or 52 of the 55 framers were orthodox, evangelical Christians. Now if you look at their support for that, all it is is a table of contents in a book, A Worthy Company, by M.E. Bradford, where he lists the denominational affiliation of each of the members of the Constitutional Convention. And they look at the denominational affiliation and they say, “Oh that’s an evangelical denomination so that counts.” So there’s this very surface notion there, but if you want to try and find some actual evidence, again, because these guys borrowed from Christianity in their theistic rationalism, if you find snippets and take them out of context, then you can find statements. John Adams claimed to be a Christian; he talked about Christianity and the principles of Christianity in glowing terms, but he meant something entirely different by Christianity when you get into what he’s talking about. And so, if you go to an evangelical audience today and you read a quote from John Adams saying something good about Christianity or the general principles of Christianity, then what you’re doing is not looking at what he means at the time by the term Christianity, and this is a standard thing.
Mohler: Well, and in your book, you demonstrate we actually can know what they mean because they tell us what they mean in their own words, in their hand, as they wrote letters and diaries and memoranda, and, frankly, as they exchanged ideas with each other in that very elite intellectual core of those whom you identify as the key founders.
Professor Frazer, I want to move on, just for the sake of time, and ask you about several others. If we could just kind of summarize what you would want to say. If their portrait’s hanging on the wall and someone asked you, “What were his religious beliefs?” Just in summary, what about Thomas Jefferson, perhaps, the most controversial of all?
Frazer: Yeah; I argue in my book, again, that the left is wrong on Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The academic community universally identifies both of them as deists, and I argue that they are not deists; that they believed in an active and present God. They also believed in some revelation. Jefferson, believe it or not, actually went through John One in the Greek and did his own analysis of it, substituting in place for logos, instead of referring to the word, he used reason in that place, and so he was very interested in the Bible. Many people know, and it’s become a hot issue recently with what’s happened with David Barton’s latest book, that Jefferson actually took a pair of scissors to the gospel and cut it up and pasted it back together; cut-out all the supernatural, miraculous elements of the gospels and pasted it back together into what he referred to as “The Doctrines of Jesus,” and he called himself a Christian. He believed he was a Christian because, for each of them, when they talked about Christianity, what they meant was the moral teachings of Jesus. It’s all about moral teachings, rather than fundamental doctrines.
Mohler: And you put Jefferson and Franklin, I think appropriately, more or less together in that category. What about our first president, George Washington?
Frazer: You know, it’s really interesting to me, the people who want to Christianize Washington if you pointed out politicians today, they would be very, very skeptical and they would have a very tight window and they would demand lots of evidence to demonstrate that that person is a Christian, and, yet, for Washington, it seems to be sort of the default setting that he’s a Christian and you have to kind of prove that he wasn’t, which I find rather strange. But, fundamentally, a few things about Washington; first of all, he never claimed to be a Christian. We have 20,000 pages of his writings, and he never claimed to be a Christian. He never even referred to Jesus or Christ or Jesus Christ. There was one instance in which there was a speech that he made that referred to Jesus Christ, but it’s not in his handwriting. He had an aide, who was a Christian, who wrote many of his speeches, and most of the time when the aide said anything about anything specific about Christ or Jesus, then Washington would change it. For example, in his speech to some Indian leaders, the aide referred to Jesus, and Washington crossed it out and replaced it with “The Great Spirit Above” because the theistic rationalists believed that all roads lead to God; that God basically just has different names, but it’s all the same. And so, he never referred to Jesus or Christ. He never claimed to be a Christian. He never took Communion, which is very important. He even got scolded from the pulpit by his minister for his bad example, and in response he wrote a letter to the minister saying, “I agree with you; that is a bad example. I won’t do it again.” And after that, he just never attended on Communion Sunday.
And there are a number of other problems as far as Washington is concerned. There was a group of ministers who tried to trick him. They came up with a scheme to try and trick him into affirming belief in Christianity and he refused. And they said afterwards, “The old fox was too cunning for us.” And so there’re all sorts of issues with Washington; the main one being that he never claimed to be a Christian and never gave any notion of belief in Christ. In fact, the two ministers that were most involved with him after his death said, “How is it possible for a true Christian to die without one expression of Christian belief?” and so his own ministers didn’t believe he was a Christian. And, obviously, they had no motive for sullying his reputation, so to speak.
Mohler: As I was reading the earlier chapters of your book, I was thinking about something that you actually get to in the concluding chapter of your book, and that is how all this comes together as foundational to what we appropriately call “America’s Civil Religion.” And so, even now when we think about religion and patriotism and America and Christianity, it all comes together in a kind of, well, fascinating mix. The bottom line of which is where the founding generation, as represented by the figures you’ve treated, actually ended up, and, that is, it’s more moralistic than it is theological.
Frazer: Right; and this is, I think, one of the critical problems with the Christian America movement; one of the reasons why I think it’s really dangerous. I have actually a list of 13 reasons why I think the Christian America view is dangerous, but one of them is that they confused their cultural heritage with biblical Christianity. They lose the ability to distinguish what is truly biblical from what’s merely American tradition, and so people end up in many cases, I believe, worshiping sort of a tribal God of America, rather than the transcendent God of the Bible. Theistic rationalism, I argue, fed into a sort of civil religion combining certain elements of Christianity and other elements of religion in with Americanism so that many people today just can’t separate the two. I’ve had people challenge my Christianity because I don’t believe the founders were Christians, so, to them, the gospel is intertwined with this whole idea of Americanism and that the founders were Christians and so forth, and this is, I think, a serious problem in the church and why it’s important to address these issues today. People place their confident in political processes and institutions rather than the sovereign God.
Mohler: Professor Frazer, I appreciate so much the time you spent with us today. You spent 30 years or so in the research that eventuated in your new book, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation and Revolution. What’s your current project and where are you headed in your research?
Frazer: The next place I’m going, I think, is I want to look more at the sermons of the Loyalists during the American Revolution and compare them with the sermons of the patriotic preachers. As you know, in the third chapter of my book, I go into the sermons of the patriotic preachers, those who promoted the Revolution, and I argue that they were influenced by predominantly John Locke, but liberal democratic theory in making their case. And that got me interested in what did the Loyalist ministers say? What did those say who remain loyal to the king? Were they more biblical or were they motivated by politics, as I believe the patriot ministers were? And so that’s kind of the direction I’m going next, I think.
Mohler: I have only one suggestion to you and, that is, that if you read your book and you get to the end, in terms of the founding era, it seems to me that your model of what you call theistic rationalism should lead to a wonderful historical investigation of America’s, well perhaps, most famous president after George Washington, and that’s Abraham Lincoln, who I think also almost perfectly fits your designation of a theistic rationalist.
Frazer: Well I think so too, and, actually, in the last chapter I mention that and that’s one—I have so many projects in my head—that’s one of the projects that I’d like to do sometime is to really do an analysis of Lincoln’s religious thought because I agree with you that I think that he seems to be a theistic rationalist in later years and I hope to get to that sometime.
Mohler: Well, forgive me for writing your book for you, and let me just suggest that the distinction between someone like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln is that George Washington was a very hopeful theistic rationalist; whereas Abraham Lincoln was an anguished theistic rationalist. And the difference between those two, I think, would be very, very interesting.
Professor Frazer, thank you so much for spending time with us today on Thinking in Public.
Frazer: Thank you.
Mohler: Getting the story straight is a first responsibility; asking ourselves what these things mean, that’s our next responsibility. What does this mean not only for America’s founding generation, but what does it mean for American Christians thinking about these things today?
Current controversies and matters of interest when it comes to the theological understanding of the founding fathers, well these things can become the subjects of rather intense controversy and heated arguments. As a theologian, my concern for Christian and for Christianity in this country is that in trying to make over-generous claims about the Christianity of some of the key founding fathers, we’re not only doing injury to history, we’re doing injury to Christianity. We are defining the gospel down in order to meet what we think is an argument necessary to counter the secularist’s claims, and that is fatal to Christianity. It’s one thing to lose an historical argument; it’s another thing to lose a theological argument and it is tragic to lose sight of the gospel. Orthodox Christianity is premised upon certain revealed truths that are central and essential to Christianity. Without which there could be no Christianity, such that things as the deity and full humanity of Christ; the reality of the Trinity; of God’s providential care for His creation; of His judgment over all human beings; of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His atonement; of the necessity of the personal confession of faith in Christ; of the understanding that there is a heaven and that there is a hell and that God’s judgment is not something that will result in a universal salvation, but, as Scripture makes very clear, of a dual destiny, of those who are in Christ in heaven, and of those who are not in Christ in hell. Those things are essential to biblical Christianity. Throughout the history of the Christian church, long before we get to the question of the religious beliefs of the founders of America, and, as Professor Frazer makes clear, some of them were believing Christians, but we know that because what they believed in was Christianity and what they practiced was Christianity, and what they affirmed were the doctrines of Christianity. Reading this book, I think many Christians would be absolutely scandalized to see some of the statements made quite freely, openly, and repeatedly by figures such as John Adams—the denial of the Trinity, the denial of the deity of Christ, the denial of the possibility of Scriptural revelation. You start looking at these things and you realize that you’re talking about things that leave us with no Christianity, except with the Christianity of the public life of the Enlightenment, which was a Christianity that was reduced to morality. And Professor Frazer is exactly right: the founders of this country were concerned, especially on the other side of a great revolution, on behalf of a democratic experiment, how do you retain morality amongst a people who’ve been liberated from what they believed to be the divine right of kings and a form of theocracy? It has to be by some form of a universal morality, they believed, and, of course, that would be based on Christian morality, and, as even Thomas Jefferson argued, upon the personal example of Jesus Christ. We have to confront the arguments of the secularists. We have to make clear the absolute dishonesty behind many of their claims, especially the claims of some kind of artificial separation between the theological and the political. We are human beings made up of composite worldviews; we can’t separate one part from another as if they do not mutually influence one another. And certainly when it came to the founders, they were not secularists, not by and large, certainly not those figures who were on our coins and whose names we revere as most central to the American experiment. But in arguing against secularist claims we have to be very, very, very careful that we do not turn ourselves into theological liberals by taking on such an accommodated definition of Christianity that we would basically call something as Christian that doesn’t fit any doctrinal or biblical definition whatsoever that is Christianity.
My concern is centrally and preeminently theological. And I must resist, and call the church to resist, any definition of Christianity that is reduced to some vague system of morals based upon nothing more than what we know from the historical record about the historical life of Jesus. That is the very ground of theological liberalism. Something that modern historians, whether on the right or the left, often miss, but Christians can’t afford to miss it. What’s at stake there is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I think there is something else going on here that we ought to address. I think many Christians are rather awkward and uncomfortable in acknowledging non-Christian heroes and heroines, but when we look through human history, we find many explicitly non-Christian individuals who play decisive role, who demonstrated great virtue, whose thoughts are very fundamental to the world that we now know. And we ought to be very honest to understand that in the sovereignty of God many who were not Christians have contributed decisively to world history and have often lived lives that demonstrated virtues that we also want to emulate. Anyone who comes into my personal library knows that at a very young age I came to an incredible appreciation of Winston Churchill, and, without going into his story here, I’ll simply say that his was one of the most decisive lives of human history. And he demonstrated, in his own character and his personality and in his public life, virtues that are absolutely indispensible to a free people and courage that is indispensible to liberty, but I do not believe that Winston Churchill was an orthodox Christian. I think he very clearly made statements that identified with Christian morality and even with the Church of England, but not with Christian belief and Christian doctrine.
Coming into my study you’ll also find portraits of men like George Washington, and I am not taking that portrait down from the wall. But I’m not going to do so at the price of accommodating Christianity to George Washington’s representation of it. To greater and lesser extents, Americans rightly look to these key founding fathers as heroes and influential figures, not only in our own history, but in international history and the affairs of the world as well. But Christians have to keep a laser focus on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and in contemporary debates, let’s enter the fray in terms of history, but let’s never lose sight of what’s more important, and that’s theology.
Thanks to my guest, Gregg Frazer, for thinking with me today. I wanted to let you know about the first annual Expositor’s Summit, an important conference taking place on the campus of Southern Seminary, October 30-31 of this year. The theme of this year’s conference is “Preaching in a Post-Everything World.” Please join John MacArthur, Alistair Begg, and me for this annual conference that will gather preachers and others to participate in a Christ-exalting, gospel-saturated, and Word-driven event. For more information, visit sbts.edu.
Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.