Founding Father Nonsense

September 14, 1997

Summary

Founding Father Nonsense

The charge of nonsense in my sermon title has nothing to do with the highly intelligent Founding Fathers of this country, who wrote its Declaration of Independence and its Constitution and set it on its course. It refers instead to the nonsense spoken and written about them by people who could easily know better if they spent even a minimal amount of time reading early American history. A typical pulpit remark or letter to the daily newspaper goes something like this: “What we need to do in this country is get back to the simple, fundamental Christian faith of our Founding Fathers.” One could certainly sympathize with this nostalgic yearning for a Golden Age if it had any basis in truth, but it doesn’t, and those who refuse to learn the facts about the religion of men like Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison remind me of those priests back in Galileo’s time who turned down an invitation to look through his telescope for fear of what they might see. Our first four Presidents were by no means orthodox in their faith, but conservative believers who claim them for their own camp do not wish to hear how liberal the Founding Fathers realy were. They sometimes remind me of that famous lady who when first told about evolution said, “Well, let us pray to God it is not true, but if it is true, then let us pray to God nobody ever hears about it.”
The truth about the Founding Fathers is that most churches which like to claim them from a distance of more than 200 years would reject them if they applied for membership today. Far from being born-again True Believers, they were powerfully influenced by a theory about the nature of God called Deism, a philosophy which says God set the universe in motion, ordained it to operate through natural law, and does not intervene with miracles to change the path of a tornado or save a fatally disabled airplane from the laws of gravity. The deist did not believe the Bible to be an infallible book dictated by God and free from any kind of scientific or historical mistakes, but a collection of uneven literary works written by men who were inspired by their thoughts of God and their eagerness to fathom God’s will. Deists could not imagine how the same divine agency said to have guided the writing of 1 Corinthians 13 or the Sermon on the Mount could have been involved with the cruel and bloody book of Judges or the incredible dullness of Leviticus . Their elevation of reason above revelation as the test of what is true in religion would quickly brand them as heretics in the very churches which would have us think the Founding Fathers were orthodox Christians.
That they were not, but please do not misunderstand me. The men I have named were all religious in their way. I would argue, in fact, that a profound and enriching religion ran deeper in most of them than in a great many orthodox Christians, but no logic ever devised can claim them as pioneers of evangelical or fundamentalist religion. Ironically, they had little respect for the class of men and women who now quote them in support of one form of Christianity. In those years of expanding scientific knowledge our Founding Fathers felt the clergy had not kept up and that much of traditional Christian doctrine could no longer compel respect. If that sounds harsh, please hear them speak for themselves.
George Washington refused to take communion (he saw it as superstition), refused to do liturgical and responsive readings, and refused inpublic to kneel in prayer. Influenced by Deism he never professed any conventional Christian doctrine or dogma. One scholar says it might be possible to call him a Unitarian, but no more, so you can imagine how quickly he would find himself today on the outer fringes of evangelical religion. Like others of his colleagues he would keep church and state separate. Historians tell us that he recommended and agreed with American Consul Joel Barlow’s statement, written in the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, that “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”
Our second president, John Adams wrote: “This is my religion….joy and exaltation in my own existence….so go ahead and snarl….bite….howl, you Calvinistic divines and all you who say I am no Christian. I say you are not Christian.” Adams believed strongly in the laws of math and physics. In one of his letters to his friend Thomas Jefferson he expressed how the two of them felt about the doctrine of the Trinity: “Tom,” he said, “had you and I been 40 days with Moses, and beheld the great God, and even if God himself had tried to tell us that three was one….and one equals three, you and I would never have believed it. We would never fall victims to such lies.”
Thomas Jefferson, sole author of our Declaration of Independence except for a few minor word changes, was almost certainly the most brilliant man ever to hold the office of President of the United States. Here is a sample of how liberal his views were on religion and the Bible: “The authors of the gospels,” he says, “were unlettered and ignorant men and the teachings of Jesus have come to us mutilated, misstated and unintelligible.” It was typical of this remarkable scholar that he would act on that criticism, so he anticipated the Jesus Seminar by a couple of centuries and prepared his own version of the Gospels, removing all references to miracles or the supernatural, and all teachings he felt had been added to the true essence of the teachings of Jesus. He called his work “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” and it is such an interesting chapter in the history of American religion that I want to return to it in a few minutes after I have finished talking about how misleading it is for conservative Christianity to cite the Founding Fathers in support of its faith and practice.
Our fourth president, James Madison, known as “the father of the U. S. Constitution,” was a close friend and admirer of Jefferson. I think this Founding Father would not be invited to speak at one of the Biolly Graham Crusades now being run by his son Franklin — not a man who could write words like these: “During almost 15 centuries the legal establishment known as Christianity has been on trial, and what have been its fruits, more or less in all places? These are the fruits: pride, indolence, ignorance and arrogance in the clergy. Ignorance…arrogance and servility in the laity and in both clergy and laity superstition, bigotry, and persecution.”
Of these first four presidents, two of were liberal Episcopalians, one was a liberal Unitarian, and the other (Jefferson) listed Unitarian as his church preference but never joined any church at all. At this point we should perhaps listen again to the nostalgic plea one hears so often in sermons and crusades: “What we need to do in this country is get back to the simple, fundamental Christian faith of our Founding Fathers.” Wrong as can be! The faith of those men was not not simple, but complex. It was not fundamentalist, but liberal and progressive.
Among them also is Benjamin Franklin, the only man to sign all four key documents in American history (the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Alliance with France, the Treaty of Peace with Great Britain, and the Constitution), a man who certainly stood in the front ranks of those who shaped this country. When I spoke early in this sermon of how unselfishly these men served their country, Franklin was high on my list. He established the world’s first subscription library, he reformed the city police in Philadelphia, he started a drive to pave, clean and light city streets. Sick and insane people in his day were neglected, so he raised money to establish a city hospital for them. He literally led all others of his time in his concern for the happiness, well-being and dignity of mankind. But whatever private regard he may have had for the life of Jesus, he had little use for the organized religion of his time. “I have found Christian dogma unintelligible,” he writes. “Early in life I absented myself from Christian assemblies.” One more Founding Father we have to leave out when we go looking for evangelical Christian faith. What I hope is obvious is that all these men insisted on an intelligent religion that welcomed the discoveries of science and the free exercise of reason in reading the Bible.
I will mention one other man who came along later and became the most revered President in our history. Abraham Lincoln said, “I have never united myself to any church because I could not give assent to the long complicated statements of Christian doctrine and dogma which characterize their articles of belief and confession of faith. When any church will require only the Great Commandment for belief, then I will join that church.” He was referring, of course, to these words: The Lord our God is one….Thou shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. Lincoln would not make any profession of Christian faith, nor affiliate with any church or denomination. His own wife said, “My husband is not a Christian but is a religious man, I think.” I have said these things to remind you that the men I have named were far from having the kind of simplistic faith fundamentalist Christians often claim for them. Theirs was a liberal, highly intellectual faith that would almost certainly keep them from being elected if they ran for office in today’s religious climate.
I promised to speak of Jefferson’s Bible. Brought up Episcopalian, this man we call the “Father of the Constitution” drifted away from his childhood faith in favor of the more rational approach to religion found in Deism, popular among his fellow intellectuals. Jefferson became convinced that the New Testament shows evidence of many biases written into it during those formative years when the authors were trying to make everything mesh with the doctrines of the early church. Fascinated by the life of Christ, he spent nearly 20 years trying to separate what he understood to be the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith created by early Christians.
His first step was simple enough. Some time in 1803, shortly after becoming the third President of the United States, he began cutting Christ’s own words out of the Bible and pasting them on blank pages that came to number 46 in all. He called his little book Philosophy of Jesus and at night when finished with affairs of state he would sit alone in his bedroom and try to grasp the essence of what Jesus had taught. He was a strong proponent of the separation of church and state. In his view, a wall had to stand between government and religion — a wall meant to protect each person’s right to worship as he or she chose.
Convinced that the events of Jesus’ life, like his words, were concealed under layers of interpretation and commentary, Jefferson set out to pinpoint and remove everything he felt had been added after the fact. He realized quickly that even with his abilities this would be a daunting task, and he was reluctant to take responsibility for it. He tried repeatedly to pass it off to close friends, including Joseph Priestly, the famous minister and scientist, but none were willing to take on such a huge task. Priestly might eventually have done it, but his death put the project back into Jefferson’s lap. Once he realized he would have to do it himself, Jefferson went to work with his usual thoroughness. Using some of the techniques of the modernday Jesus Seminar which both Gary and I have talked about, he felt he would end up with the original teachings of Jesus. In that core of truth and wisdom, he said, “There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man[kind].”
To get started, he ordered Bibles in English, French, Latin and Greek — languages he read well. Since he cut and pasted, he needed two Bibles in each language. He rejected passages he thought had been added by early followers long after Jesus died. When he finished nearly 20 years of work he had what is now known as the Jefferson Bible: four parallel columns in four different languages, that embodied one man’s understanding of the moral philosophy Jesus Christ gave to the world. He was proud of the result, but he never published it. His religious views had been so misunderstood and so harshly criticized that in the end he knew better than to release a heavily edited version of the New Testament under his own name. He kept the volume to himself and told only his most trusted friends about it.
Later historians knew the book had existed because they found references to it in his correspondence, and they hoped to locate it. It finally reappeared near the end of the 19th century and began to get into the hands of the kind of people for whom Jefferson had composed it. The U. S. government bought the book in 1895, believing it belonged to our history, and in 1904 Congress published it under the title The Morals of Jesus and gave copies to its members. Commercial printings appeared in 1923, 1940 and as late as1989 and the book Jefferson once kept hidden was finally available for anyone to see.
It was Jefferson’s view that his book was “a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus” — not of the early church, he is careful to say, but of Jesus himself. Orthodox Christianity is appalled, of course, at Jefferson’s attempt to offer fresh insights into the teachings of Christ. Others feel Jefferson was on the right track, even though he lacked the sophisticated tools modern scholars have at their disposal. Jefferson, who hoped to make people think about how accurately the Jesus of history is presented in the documents the early church wrote about him, would enjoy the controversy. Whatever you may think about his effort, Jefferson’s mind has not been matched — in my opinion — by any President we have had since. If these comments have piqued your interest in him at all, you might enjoy a quick look at the portrait of Jefferson which I placed on the coffee table in Fellowship Hall.
And please remember, as you leave, what the intent of this sermon was: that it is totally misleading to simplify the religious faith of our Founding Fathers, who believed as passionately as this church does in the freedom of individual conscience before God. that is a heritage we should honor — and defend!
Keep us forever eager to learn, gracious God, and grant us wisdom
to make good use of knowledge, we ask in the name of Christ our Lord.

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