The Founding Doubters

Chatterbox concluded a recent item (click here to read it) with the wish that a presidential candidate could forthrightly admit he doesn’t believe in God. This brought in a massive pile of unfriendly mail, and a tiny pile of friendly mail. Amid the unfriendly letters were many reminding Chatterbox that the Founding Fathers’ aim in writing the Constitution’s establishment clause was to keep government out of religion–not to keep religion out of government. Since Chatterbox wasn’t really arguing the ACLU line on church-state separation–indeed, was merely arguing for a bit more tolerance on both sides of the believer/unbeliever divide–he doesn’t see the relevance of this point, which he does not dispute. Meanwhile, amid the tiny pile of friendly letters were a couple urging Chatterbox to note that several of these same Founding Fathers (Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin) had a pretty casual relationship with their Creator. They may not have been atheists, but their assertions about organized religion in general, and Christianity in particular, were clearly beyond the pale of contemporary political discourse. (An atheist tract from 1906 called Six Historic Americans, written by one John E. Remsburg, also casts doubt on the Christian faith of George Washington and Abe Lincoln, though the evidence there is sketchier. To read it, click here. And no discussion of prominent secularists in American political life is complete with mentioning Robert G. Ingersoll, 1833-1899, who gave the nominating speech for Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine in 1876. Ingersoll was known as “the great agnostic,” and wrote endless tracts on that subject. To read them, click here .)

Of all the Founding Fathers, Chatterbox’s favorite, Benjamin Franklin, would be least likely to survive media scrutiny today. Franklin, in addition to being a skirt chaser, was an adherent of Deism, which was sort of the Unitarian Universalism of its day, only a bit more risqué. Deists believed in God, but the basis of that belief was reason rather than faith. They did not believe in organized religion at all. Franklin “certainly wasn’t Christian in terms of believing the precepts of any Christian faith,” says Walter Isaacson, managing editor of Time , who is writing a biography of Franklin. About five weeks before he died, Franklin wrote to Ezra Stiles, the theologian and president of Yale College:

As to Jesus Christ, I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to His divinity, though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and it is needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.

In light of contemporary politics, two things about Franklin’s comment are interesting. One is that the days are long past when politicians engaged in casual first-principles debates with theologians. The other is that no prominent U.S. leader today who was raised in the Christian faith would dare say what Franklin said–even on his deathbed. Perhaps if Americans engaged in a bit more discussion of religion in the public sphere, there might also be a bit more tolerance of unbelief.