Monday, March 28, 2011

American Religion?

Historians have spent thousands of hours, and gallons of ink, analyzing the religious beliefs of the men who founded the United States of America: from Thomas Jefferson's youthful embrace, and later rejection of, deism to Washington's spiritually-motivated decision to free his slaves; from the traditional Christianity of beer-brewer Samuel Adams to the nontraditional theism of Thomas Paine; from Ben Franklin's abandoning deism to author his own prayer book to the religion of John Adams which sometimes placed more emphasis on the moral than the spiritual.

Although the Founding Fathers disagreed with each other, and historians disagree about what the Founding Fathers meant and believed, one thing is clear: spirituality was central to them as individuals, and to their process as a group in forming the nation via the texts of the last few decades of the 1700's. As Wayne Baker writes:

The one belief that unites our founders is the conviction that religion was the moral backbone of the new republic. Only religion - whatever that religion might be - could get people to rise above their self-interest and become citizens who cared about others.

One the one hand, we might be tempted to express disappointment that the Founding Fathers were often inclined to reduce spirituality to morality: to see religion merely as the path to civil justice. On the other hand, we can be thankful that they saw this clearly - and created the possibility for both liberty and honor.