Was Equality Self-Evident to Our Founding Fathers?

When I was a sophomore in high school, I wrote a short piece for an essay contest called The Voice of Democracy.  The contest was run through our school’s English department, and sponsored by the local VFW.  As a Christian student in the public school system, I thought I would use the opportunity to voice my concern that the future of our nation depended upon a return to the “’biblical’ values of our Founding Fathers.”  Apparently I did sufficient work in the opinion of my readers because I won a $250 savings bond for my efforts, and my essay was broadcast over the local radio station as I read it from the pulpit of the local Evangelical Lutheran Church during one of their Sunday services.   It really is no surprise that the subject of the essay was so well received.  The same sentiment and sermon are often shared from many a pulpit around Memorial Day, the 4th of July, Veterans’ Day, and 9/11 in countless conservative Evangelical churches.

In the years that followed, as I actually studied the history of our nation’s inception and the beliefs of its founders more deeply, I would discover that a good majority of my notions, stated in that essay, were grossly incorrect.  Though many pastors continue to rally the cry to return to the religious values and convictions of our Founding Fathers, we may be wise to consider what, in fact, they actually valued and believed.

Ian J. Shaw, in his recent book, Churches, Revolutions, and Empires: 1789-1914 (Christian Focus, 2012), briefly and helpfully expounds on “the religious view at the time of the Founding Fathers”:

The birth certificate of the new nation, the 1776 Declaration of Independence, announced in ringing tones that: ‘all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’. The full implications of the declaration seem to have eluded the Founding Fathers. For many decades those who were black, female, or Roman Catholic, would have genuine cause to doubt just how seriously such profound assertions were to be taken. Exactly what some of the Declaration’s authors, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, intended by using the word ‘Creator’ remains a topic of much debate. Both stressed virtue and morality as being essential for the well-being of society, and in the promotion of morality the role of the churches was seen as important, but Jefferson believed that common moral philosophy rooted in human reason rather than a God-centred life, could provide the foundation for public morality. George Washington, first President of the United States, similarly emphasised the duty of life and disinterested service, and preferred to speak of God using names derived from Nature rather than the Bible—such as Supreme Being, Grand Architect, Great Ruler of Events, and Great Creator. The influence of Deism on the Founding Fathers and early political leaders of the nation cannot be ignored. Of these, Thomas Jefferson was the pre-eminent representative. To him religion was more about having a moral code than believing in divine revelation, and he argued that much of the Bible was unclear, in which case he preferred ignorance to error. Nonetheless, the teaching of Jesus remained important to him, although he couched it within the framework of Deism. He argued that true religion was the ‘sublime doctrines of philosophy and deism, taught by Jesus Christ’. Without this, life would ‘indeed be a hell’.[1]

The quote above only scratches the surface in terms of demonstrating the full extent to which many of the Founding Fathers truly did not consider everyone essentially equal.  Additionally, many of them did not hold to orthodox Christian doctrine, but would more accurately be identified as deists.  Thus, as pastors and Christians, it would be wise to discern the extent to which we sometimes call people back to the religious convictions and values of our Founding Fathers.

Check back on Friday for my full review of Shaw’s volume as a part of the Churches, Revolutions, and Empires blog tour, sponsored by Christian Focus Publishers and Cross Focused Reviews.


[1] Ian J. Shaw (2012-04-12T13:51:14+00:00). Churches, Revolutions, & Empires: 1789-1914 (Kindle Locations 260-275). Christian Focus. Kindle Edition.

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