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Prager U: Were the Founders Religious?

Prager U: Were the Founders Religious?

The debate over our founding fathers’ religious beliefs is centuries old. Though we are a nation intentionally founded on Judeo-Christian principles, the anti-religion crowd loves to paint the men that created our great nation as beings of The Enlightenment, forgetting (intentionally or ignorantly) their deeply-rooted religious beliefs.

Prayer University sets the record straight.

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The quotes cite religion as a generic concept, or as specifically Christian. Not a lot of “Judeo-” in there, although Our Narrator says “Judeo-Christian” at least twice, as if he considers “Judeo-Christian” to be one word.

Adams’s statement about the Bible and libraries may have been a dig at Jefferson, who had a notable library which he had built up by haunting the bookshops of Paris while he was Minister to France. It later became the core of the new Library of Congress.

America’s founding documents are notably free of Scriptural jargon. This was unusual in Colonial America, when even in the Anglophone colonies a Congregationalist or a Puritan seemed to be lurking around every corner. When Jefferson postulated that all men are endowed by their Creator with life, liberty, etc., his statement was consistent with belief in any Creator or creation mythology; even, say, that heathen Prometheus, who sculpted, and then animated, men and animals of clay for his own amusement, and then protected them from that upstart Zeus.

The point is that by not seeking justification or a foundation in any one specific religion for the new state, Jefferson had deliberately rejected the divine rights of kings as a basis for authority, thus making a clean philosophical—as well as practical—break with all the great powers of Europe. He had in mind something very different, a new and explicitly secular state, and not another religious one.

This was an enormous conceptual jump for that era, and was not universally popular here in the Colonies. But it had practical consequences. For one thing, the new United States of America was able to sidestep the perpetual crises following Britain’s schism with Rome, reducing that to a non-issue (well, almost) for American politics.

    What do you mean that our founding documents were “notably free of Scriptural jargon”? You seem to be assigning to Jefferson ideas that we know from the historical record he did not hold. Jefferson’s diaries, letters, and public statements all reflect his sense of himself as a Christian; he famously stated that he was a disciple of Jesus’ doctrine. He was, also famously, skeptical about the human influence on the Bible, and to address his concerns, he isolated the words of Jesus in a text that has become known as “the Jefferson Bible.” He never called it that, though.

    Jefferson was not neutral or multicultural, “endowed by our Creator” was not some kind of dog whistle “code” for all religions and gods.

    I’m not really a fan of the rather recent tendency to ascribe to Founders ideas or thoughts they never held. It was quite common to refer to God as the “Creator” at this time, and it didn’t mean the mealy-mouthed, wishy-washy, politically-correct agnosticism or skepticism that it does today. Heck, Milton’s Paradise Lost does so numerous times as he refers to the “Creator” of Adam and Eve and of Lucifer, Angel of Light, and of the world itself. “Creator” did not mean “any old deity any random person happens to worship.”

    The references to the “Creator” in the founding documents is not an example of multiculturalism, and it makes no sense at all to read it as such from our own socio-cultural historical moment. Our founders signed their letters with “in the year of the Lord,” and that, too, meant God, not Mohammed or Buddha or Zeus.

    As for Jefferson’s (and other founders’) questioning of the divine right of kings, that, too, has a long and turbulent history in western cultures, and it has nothing at all to do with belief in God or being a Christian. Ask Henry VIII about that one, as he purged Britain of any and all Catholics as well as many Protestants who did not recognize his “divinity.” It merely questions, as did Martin Luther for example, the divinity of humans (for the founders it was the distant king in England, for Luther, the Catholic church). Again, this doesn’t mean that Jefferson was not a Christian (he said he was many times).

    The founders very clearly stated their belief that the governance by and for the people, the republic they established, was dependent on a moral people, a godly people. It would not, they said, withstand the absence of God in the lives of its citizens.

    They chose a republic for specific reasons (read the federalist and anti-federalist papers), and the model they borrowed substantially from was Plato’s Republic (another great read). The ancient Greeks were not, of course, Christians, but the founders were interested in the republic as a model.

    I’m not attacking you; this is just a pet peeve of mine. Similarly, I can’t stand it when people (i.e. Obama and Keith Ellison) hold up “Jefferson’s Koran” as evidence of his embrace of Islam. Jefferson had the Koran published in English so that the people would understand why he was opposed, as president, to continuing paying jizya to ensure the safety of American trade ships. The ships were being attacked by Islamists prior to the ransom agreement to pay the Sharia-mandated jizya (often referred to at the time as a “tribute”). Jefferson learned of Islam’s aim for a caliphate and its attendant enslavement of non-Muslims and wanted the American people to know upon what it was based. It was “know thy enemy,” not “gee, let’s be all compassionate and tolerant of these evil barbarians slaughtering and enslaving our people, seizing our ships, and making off with our cargo.” The First Barbary War took place under Jefferson’s watch, and he was most certainly not a fan of Islamists or of their imposition of a “tariff.” It was under Jefferson’s watch that America engaged, as an independent nation, in our first war.