I was trying to do some research on the claims that the founding fathers of the United States either believed in God and or were Christians. I understand that the founding fathers were guided by secular ideas, and self, class, or state interests. Do most scholars believe that the fathers were deists, while other scholars believe that the key men who were the signers of the Declaration of Independence and also the Framers of the Constitution- who took part in framing or drafting the proposed Constitution of the United States were heavily influenced by their belief in God and not just belief, but they adhered to the Bible. Were they followers of Jesus?
We should bear in mind that these were different times. People thought differently on many levels. What would seem to us an inconsistent religious stand, to them would have seemed a perfectly reasonable position.
The evidence is that Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams can best be described as deists and that Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and others are a bit harder to pigeonhole as they were mostly quiet about their beliefs. Adams was a Unitarian, who attended church but rejected the trinity and the deity of Christ. Franklin and Jefferson did not attend church regularly. They did not ascribe to any particular denominational doctrine. Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Adams and Washington appear to have believed in God, but to be skeptical about miracles and, most importantly, about the deity of Jesus Christ. They were highly influenced by the enlightenment and its reason, logic and skepticism. Having said that, all of these men spoke very highly of the Bible and probably knew their Bibles better than nearly all Christians today. They quoted the Bible freely as a source of moral and ethical truth. All of them would have considered Jesus of Nazareth the greatest or one of the greatest possible human examples. All would have rejected atheism as untrue and dangerous.
To us, the rejection of the basic premises of Christianity and even of the deity of Christ, while accepting the broad moral authority of the Bible may seem a clear contradiction, but apparently this not seem to be so obvious to intellectuals in the late eighteenth century. I am painting this group of men with a fairly broad brush, but this does seem to be a reasonable generalization of our “Founding Fathers” from all the research I have done.
Those on both sides of the cultural and religious divide in America have abused the facts about the religious thoughts of our Founding Fathers for their own ends. Those of a more liberal or skeptical perspective have exaggerated the level of skepticism of the Founding Fathers. With Washington and Hamilton, their lack of speaking on religious topics has been taken as proof of their liberal views. The fact is that Washington was a regular church-attender through most of his life and he was well known as a Bible reader and as a man of prayer. His prayers for divine intervention tells me that he was not a deist or, at best, had mixed leanings. Hamilton was a devoted Christian in his youth and never renounced his beliefs, although he said little about religion in his later life. The beliefs of Franklin and Jefferson, although they did tend toward deism, were also complicated. Adams would bristle if he were described as a non-believer.
Arguably, Christians have been even more guilty of falsely representing the religious views of the Founding Fathers. When they call the US a “Christian nation” and imply that the Founding Fathers were all ardent believers, this is not supported by the evidence. It would be wise to have a more nuanced understanding of the beliefs of the early American leaders and to not use the individual beliefs of these men to win arguments about what would be the best direction for the United States, or any other country for that matter, to take in the future.