Category Archives: Faith and the American Founding

DID CORPORATE AMERICA REALLY INVENT CHRISTIAN AMERICA?

Forgive me for being away for so long. I don’t know how academics who blog daily (or more frequently!) find enough hours in the day. At any rate, I’ve been up to my eyeballs with work recently. This week has been particularly full, but late this afternoon I was able to slip away to my favorite hideout (the super-cool loft in a café near campus), I’ve just taken my time with a cup of Darjeeling and a slice of chocolate banana bread, and now I get to tell you about one of the last books I read under my tree before duty called me back to the office at the end of the summer.

One Nation Under GodThe book is One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, by Princeton University professor Kevin M. Kruse. The book came out earlier this year, and I added it to my reading list because I had just finished reading Steven Green’s Inventing Christian America and I had heard just enough about Kruse’s book to believe that it would offer an interesting contrast. Both books are concerned with how Americans came to view the United States as a Christian country, and both books agree that this belief didn’t emerge until long after American independence. Here the similarities end. Green argues that the early decades of the 1800s marked a key turning point, while Kruse concentrates on the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower more than a century later. Both can’t be correct. Both may be wrong. (You can read my review of Green’s book here.)

Boiled down, Kruse’s thesis is that the contention that America is a “Christian nation” is hasn’t been around nearly as long as we think. It began to be promoted by businessmen, of all people, during the Great Depression, for reasons that had little to do with either religious conviction or historical belief. Alarmed by the purportedly anti-business activism of the New Deal, business magnates like E. F. Hutton, J. C. Penney, and Conrad Hilton, among others, began linking capitalism and Christianity, with the not so subtle insinuation that restrictions on free enterprise are un-Christian. By insisting that the United States is a Christian nation, they strengthened their indictment of FDR and his minions, making the New Deal not only un-Christian but also un-American.

In years to come, politicians from both the Left and Right would embrace this rhetoric during the Cold War as a way of differentiating the United States from atheistic communism. During the 1950s, among other symbolic acts, Congress passed bipartisan measures adding “under God” to the pledge of allegiance and “In God We Trust” to the nation’s currency. In doing so, however—and this is a point that the author repeatedly underscores—they were building on an argument crafted for them by the nation’s wealthiest businessmen.

So here are my first impressions, keeping in mind that I am far from an expert on the 1950s: First, I really enjoyed reading the book. It will never be made into a movie, but Kruse writes clearly and without pretentious jargon, and I found myself getting into the story. (And Kruse is telling a story; this is good old fashioned narrative history that follows a clear chronological trajectory). He’s also obviously spent a lot of time in the archives. The research is extensive and meticulous, and I learned a great deal thanks to his labors. If you’re interested in the role that Christian rhetoric and imagery can play in politics, you’ll likely find this book fascinating.

But really liking a book is not the same as being wholly persuaded by it, and I am not persuaded by One Nation Under God. Let me say at the outset that Kruse makes a much more nuanced argument than the subtitle would suggest. The subtitle will help to sell books—and the marketing gurus at Basic Books may be more to blame than the author—but the simplistic assertion that “corporate America invented Christian America” struck me as calculated sensationalism.

Let’s begin with the role played by “corporate America.” Kruse makes a compelling case that by the 1930s a lot of big businessmen were actively defending free enterprise by linking it to Christianity. With regard adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance” and “In God We Trust” to the nation’s currency, he convinces me that corporate leaders had been suggesting such measures for a couple of decades, and that their motives had a lot to do with restoring the reputation of business during the Depression and making a case against New Deal activism. At the same time, Kruse notes that Dwight Eisenhower—the only president to be baptized while in office—emphasized America’s religious roots out of genuine conviction and firmly believed that religious faith was vital to the nation’s flourishing. The same apparently held true for at least a significant proportion of the congressmen who followed his lead.

I’m more troubled by how Kruse defines the concept of “Christian America.” Kruse’s focus is on officially designated symbols; he places enormous emphasis on the Congressional recognition of the phrases “under God” and “in God we trust.” But the concept of “Christian America,” as used in both academic and popular writing, is usually understood more broadly. Steven Green, for example, dates the “invention” of Christian America to the second generation after the American Revolution. He bases his conclusion not on official Congressional acts but on the claims of religious and political leaders and the opinions of common Americans. For Green, in other words, the concept of “Christian America” was born when a critical mass of Americans began to think of the U. S. in this light. For Kruse, the concept didn’t exist until Congress enacted it.

This approach strikes me as far too rigid. No one can deny that “under God” was only added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, but was this change substantive or symbolic? Did adding “In God We Trust” to currency in 1955 really redefine the nation, or did it institutionalize an already widespread cultural perception? Because Kruse skips over the first century and a half after independence, we can’t really assess how significant these congressional acts were.

I have my doubts. For example, Kruse makes much of the Congressional mandate requiring “In God We Trust” on all money, but the government had begun stamping the phrase on certain coins as early as the Civil War, and had been doing so on all denominations of coins by 1907. Would we really say that the addition of the phrase to paper money—and not just to pennies, dimes, nickels, and quarters, etc.—was necessary before we could say that “Christian America” existed? More broadly, there were numerous public practices long before the 1950s that linked the government at least symbolically with a generic Judeo-Christian religion.  The authorization of chaplains for the armed forces, presidential thanksgiving proclamations, and invocations of God in inaugural addresses all long predate the period of Kruse’s focus. In sum, while Kruse may be right, I think he needs to do more to persuade us that the changes of the 1950s were as substantive as he claims.

These misgivings aside, I do believe that there is a message in One Nation Under God that American Christians need to hear. Although I’m far from convinced that “corporate America invented Christian America,” Kruse offers compelling proof that during the mid-twentieth century the insistence that the United States had always been a Christian nation became inextricably intertwined with a host of political and ideological commitments that had little to do with the Gospel. In this respect the entire book is a cautionary tale, and well worth the reading.

EXPOSING THE MYTH OF CHRISTIAN AMERICA . . . SORT OF

I’m sorry to have been away for so long. The beginning of a new academic year is always hectic, and this year seems more frenzied than most. I’ll try to check in at least once a week, although I’ve fallen short of that goal recently. I thank you in advance for sticking with me.

Last time I promised to report on a couple of books that I read this summer on faith and the American founding. In this post and the next I’ll make good on that pledge. The question of whether the United States was founded as a Christian country is a historical perennial—it keeps coming back. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that it never goes away. When I interact with Christians who are interested in history, nine times out of ten this is the first topic they want to talk about.

I was reminded of this last weekend when I began a month-long series of lectures at an evangelical church on what it means to think Christianly about our nation’s past. My goal in the opening talk was simply to persuade the audience that Christians need to pay attention to history—indeed, that we have an obligation to do so—and I said almost nothing about American history specifically. (You can see the gist of my argument here.)  Even so, one of the first questions after I was done concerned the beliefs of America’s founders. Wasn’t the United States founded by Christian men guided by Biblical principles?

It’s a good question but not an easy one. History is complicated, and we live in a culture that requires answers in 140 characters or less. Compounding the challenge, the question has become hopelessly politicized. It’s intertwined with a host of controversial contemporary issues having to do with religious freedom in our increasingly secular society. This raises the stakes. And precisely because more is at stake, the question becomes both more important and harder to handle. Without realizing it, we’re tempted to make history into a weapon instead of a source of wisdom. Unfortunately, we rarely learn from the past when our goal is to prove points with it.

This is why I’m always on the outlook for good books that can help American evangelicals think Christianly about our nation’s past, and why I immediately put Steven Green’s latest book on my reading list when it came out earlier this year. The title was enough to hook me: Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding. I also respect the press that published it. Oxford University Press (which published my book Lincolnites and Rebels) is not a Christian publishing house, but its editorial board takes religion seriously and the press has published a lot of fine work in the area of religious history.

I’ll be reviewing the book for academic scholars in Fides et Historia, a journal affiliated with a national organization of Christian historians called the Conference on Faith and History. Here are my thoughts concerning what Inventing a Christian America has to offer interested Christian readers outside the Academy.

Green-Inventing a Christian America

The author, whom I do not know personally, is a professor of law and director of the Center for Religion, Law, and Democracy at Willamette University. Green explains in the opening pages that his goal is to “unravel the myth of America’s religious foundings,” to help us understand “how the idea of America’s Christian origins became a central part of the nation’s founding narrative.” He promises not to become embroiled in the “irresolvable” debates over whether the Founders “were devout Christians or atheistical deists, of whether the people of the founding generation believed chiefly in divine providence and the role of religion in public life, or in separation of church and state.” Rather than focus primarily on the founding and the Founders, in other words, Green wants to explain why the belief that America was founded as a Christian nation became so important to later Americans’ sense of national identity. Where did the myth come from, and why did it become so deeply entrenched?

Green’s answer is that the myth evolved over several generations, but that “the most significant period of myth-making occurred in the early years of the nineteenth century as the second generation of Americans sought to redefine and reconcile the founding to match their religious and patriotic aspirations for the nation.” This was a period when the Second Great Awakening was transforming the American religious landscape and evangelical denominations—Methodist and Baptists, most notably—were exploding in size and cultural influence. As Christianity flourished in America during the early 1800s, American Christians retroactively baptized the 1600s and 1700s as well, inventing—or at least exaggerating—the nation’s religious roots. In sum, they practiced “revisionist” history.

Let me put my cards on the table here. I think that Green is partially correct. The evidence is overwhelming that the proportion of Americans belonging to Christian churches mushroomed dramatically during the first half of the nineteenth century. It’s also clear that there was a lot of creative rewriting of the nation’s founding during these years. The revolutionary generation had passed from the scene by the height of the Awakening, and newly zealous evangelicals were quick to swallow sentimental commemorations that recreated the past in their own image. They were neither the first nor the last members of the human race to engage in this near universal practice.

Beyond this, Green offers some specific insights that American evangelicals interested in our history need to hear. Repeatedly, he makes the good point that we should be just as cautious in reading histories of the founding written in the nineteenth century as we are of histories written in the twenty-first century. When David Barton insists, for example, that accounts written before 1900 are intrinsically more trustworthy than more recent works, he’s just revealing his ignorance of the context in which the former were written.

Green is also correct to remind us of the danger of proof-texting sources from the past. Most Christians are alert to the danger of plucking isolated verses from the Bible without paying sufficient attention to the totality of Scripture, but we frequently abandon that caution when it comes to the writings of the Founders. We’re rarely willing to do the hard work of immersing ourselves in the historical era that interests us when a few scattered quotes are sufficient to confirm our preconceived notions.

Despite these strengths, I really can’t recommend this book. Here are three reasons why. First, Green fails to follow the roadmap for the book that he sets out in the introduction. Rather than shunning the “irresolvable” debates over the actual religious beliefs of the Founders, Green devotes four fifths of the book to “debunking” specific claims about the founding. The result is that he spends a great deal of time going over territory that has already been plowed again and again: the influence of Christian belief on the establishment of the American colonies, the connection between Christian convictions and the American Revolution, the specific religious beliefs of the leading Founders, and the role of religious principles in the nation’s founding documents, among other topics. In contrast, very little of the book actually focuses on the historical memory of Americans during the early nineteenth century, the period when the belief in America’s Christian founding was supposedly taking root.

Second, because of the approach that Green takes, his treatment of the founding is almost unavoidably superficial. He tries to cover way too much in a book of just over two hundred pages: the establishment of the colonies; the religious beliefs of individual Founders; the influence of Christian conviction and Scriptural principle on views of religious freedom, on political liberty, on resistance to authority, on the Declaration and Constitution, among other things. When he finally gets to the early 1800s—the period that was supposed to be the focus of his book—he seems to have lost steam. He devotes barely forty pages to suggesting how the belief in America’s religious founding grew after the passing of the Revolutionary generation, and his account is superficial and anecdotal, shifting from Parson Weems to Lyman Beecher to Alexis de Tocqueville in rapid succession.

Finally, my sense is that Green has stacked the deck against the Christian America argument. Repeatedly, he defines the argument for America’s religious founding in a way that is easy to discredit. For example, with regard to the original establishment of Britain’s American colonies, he insists that the Christian Nation myth posits not only that the colonies were settled by religiously motivated Christians who believed that government was ordained by God and derived its authority from the Creator, but also that the original settlers were religious dissidents wholly committed to modern understandings of religious freedom. The latter is child’s play to topple. Seventeenth-century Protestants almost never understood religious liberty as we would today. As Green frames his argument, however, their religiously motivated opposition to modern standards of religious toleration becomes evidence for the myth of Christian America. I call that strange.

In the end, this is a book that could have been much better, much more valuable to Christian readers than it is.

WERE THE FOUNDING FATHERS CHRISTIAN?

For Christians interested in American history, probably no question looms larger than this one: Were the men who brought our nation into existence authentically Christian?

This is not inevitable. There are a host of other questions that we could imagine rising to the top: Have America’s wars always been just? Was the defense of the Union scripturally justifiable? What should we think of American territorial expansion? Have we shown mercy to the strangers among us? How has America been influenced by the marketplace? What has been our record in dealing with the widow and the orphan? How should we rate our influence on the world?

All of these should demand our attention if we’re really interested in thinking Christianly about our national heritage. None of them captivates us like the question of the religion of the Founders. It isn’t hard to see why. Over time we’ve come to impute enormous political significance to the question. The question of whether the Founding Fathers were Christian frames the story that we tell about our beginning as a nation. It becomes central to how we define our identity, not only with regard to our past—who were we?—but also with regard to our present and our future—who are we supposed to be? And so the debate over the religious convictions of a handful of eighteenth-century statesmen is now inextricably intertwined with contemporary debates over the place of religion in the public square. The past becomes proxy for the present.

Predictably, the political stakes make the question almost impossible to approach objectively. Polemics abound. Historians—not to mention armies of politicians, pundits, and preachers—have spilled oceans of ink in addressing the question. But despite some notable exceptions, the debate on the whole has generated way more heat and hyperbole than light and nuance. As is so often the case, the extremes command the most attention. Want to attract a large following? Be dogmatic and simplistic. Nearly two centuries ago Alexis de Tocqueville laid out the winning formula in Democracy in America: “A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex,” Tocqueville observed. He was dead on.

The result is a stark dichotomy:  One side insists that the Founders were born-again believers, men of Christian faith guided by Christian principles to establish a Christian nation. The other side contends that they were apostles of the Enlightenment, radical skeptics determined to purge public life of every whiff of religious superstition and “bigotry.” You can take your pick, in other words, between the Founding Fathers as forerunners of the Moral Majority or as ancestors of the ACLU.

Given the explosiveness of the topic, the safest course is simply to steer clear of it. Barring that, the next smoothest path is to preach to the choir—pick a side and beat the drum for it. Those on the other side will mostly ignore you, while those who agree with you will welcome the affirmation. Few of us relish having our prejudices challenged; not many of us mind having our prejudices confirmed.

Historian Gregg Frazer has not chosen the broad and gentle path. Instead, he has written a book that will offend almost everyone invested in the debate, save a handful of scholars. I recently read his 2012 book, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, and Revolution. The author, professor of History and Political Studies at the Master’s College in Santa Clarita, California, wants nothing to do with either extreme. On the book’s very first page he throws down the gauntlet: “I want to force extremists on the Left and on the Right to make the case for their vision of what America should be on its own merits,” Fraser writes, “without hijacking the fame of the Founders and without holding their reputations hostage to causes of which they would not approve.” It’s a courageous objective, and he’s written a worthwhile book. I commend it to any thinking Christian interested in the American past.

Frazer

In a sense, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders is really two books for the price of one. First, Fraser scrupulously scrutinizes the religious beliefs of eight key founders: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, and James Wilson. (The latter two often don’t make the cut for these kinds of studies, but Frazer includes them because of the significant, if often forgotten roles that they played at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention.) Second, in an investigation that anticipates James Byrd’s book Sacred Scripture, Sacred War, he offers a careful assessment of the revolutionary era pulpit and the arguments that colonial ministers made in support of independence. (For my review of Byrd’s fine book, click here.)

Frazer arrives at two key conclusions. First, concerning the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers: Frazer determines that the leading Founders were not Christian in any orthodox sense, as the Christian America propagandists would have us believe, but neither were they liberal Deists, as secular academics so often insist. Indeed, no existing category satisfactorily captures the constellation of convictions that Fraser discovered, so he created a new one: theistic rationalism.

There’s a symmetry to the combination of these terms that reflects the two-front war that Frazer is fighting. The noun rationalism underscores that the leading Founders weren’t Christian, as David Barton and others so strenuously insist. (To read my review of Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies, click here.) But the adjective theistic emphasizes that they also weren’t functionally atheist, as Matthew Stewart has dogmatically argued, for example. (Click here to read my review of his book Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic.)

According to Frazer, “Theistic rationalism was a hybrid belief system mixing elements of natural religion, Christianity, and rationalism, with rationalism as the predominant element.” [Rationalism is a philosophy of knowledge that makes human reason the ultimate arbiter of all truth claims.] If we were to imagine a continuum of religious belief, theistic rationalism would fall somewhere between orthodox Christianity (defined by historic confessions such as the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds) and Deism.

The latter is a slippery concept. Deism in the late-eighteenth century was not embodied in a formal denomination. It had no official creed or confession, and I’ve come across a range of definitions of it in my reading. I can’t say that Frazer’s understanding of Deism is the right one, but I do applaud him for offering a precise definition up front. Deism, as Frazer defines it, has two distinguishing characteristics: The first is the belief in an absent God, a Deity who takes no active role in his creation. There is no logical reason to pray to such a God or to expect this watchmaker Creator to intervene in human affairs. The second distinguishing feature, which follows logically from the first, is the rejection of the very possibility of what theologians call “special” (as opposed to “general”) revelation. The God of Deism does not speak to humankind except through the order inherent in the natural world.

The key Founders that Frazer studied rejected both premises. Their correspondence suggests that they believed that parts of the Bible are inspired. They prayed for God’s assistance, they praised God for His deliverance, and they believed in (or hoped for) an afterlife. Whenever scripture and reason conflicted, however, reason trumped revelation. The Founders’ rationalism led them to deny original sin, hell, the virgin birth, the Trinity, the resurrection, and miracles in general.

So what does this mean for contemporary cultural debates over the Founders’ religious beliefs? To a degree that would make the ACLU shudder, the Founders agreed that “the morality engendered by religion was indispensable to society.” But they simultaneously believed that “many—perhaps all—religious traditions or systems were valid and led to the same God.” They were NOT Christian—Frazer emphasizes this repeatedly—and it is a libel on Christianity when David Barton and others insist that they were.

Frazer stresses that theistic rationalism was primarily limited to intellectual elites and “never became the property of the masses” during the era of the American Revolution. It did find considerable voice among colonial pastors, however, and was widely trumpeted from the Revolutionary pulpit. While “Christian America” proponents exult in the degree to which American ministers backed the cause of independence, Frazer finds in that pattern distressing evidence of the Church’s conformity to the world.

In a section on ministers’ biblical exegesis, Frazer reviews published sermons to show that patriot preachers regularly interpreted passages pertaining to spiritual liberty as if they were meant to apply to political liberty. They regularly appealed to reason. They frequently stressed the Lockean construction of the state of nature. They accepted uncritically the Enlightenment understanding of popular sovereignty, despite its implication that God, not the people, is the ultimate source of political authority. Finally, they repeatedly spoke of God-given natural rights, despite the Bible’s conspicuous silence on the topic.

In an argument that will make many readers uncomfortable, Frazer maintains that “the biblical God does not specifically or exclusively favor liberal democratic thought.” As a result, pastors determined to find religious authority for the cause of independence discovered that “the Christian God—the God of the Bible—was inadequate for their political needs,” Frazer writes. “That God did not grant political freedom. He claimed to be the sole source of governmental authority, He neither granted nor recognized natural rights, and He preferred faith and obedience to moralism.”

In embracing liberal democratic theory, according to Frazer, patriotic ministers found much in the Scripture that they had to ignore or explain away. “Theology militated against democratic thought until the mid-1700s,” the author contends, “when the Enlightenment-based education of the clergy began to be exhibited in the expounding of liberal democratic and republican principles from the pulpit.” In sum, the vital role that the clergy played in promoting independence was not a sign of the vitality of American Christianity—as David Barton would have us believe, for example—but rather testimony to the degree to which Christian leaders were conforming to the world. And what of the believers in the pews? “The people,” Frazer concludes, “largely wanted to affirm the theistic rationalists’ political message.”

Frazer is not as careful as I would wish in making these contentions. You can read his book and almost come away with a view of colonial pastors and parishioners as coldly calculating, consciously sorting through the Scripture for politically useful proof texts and ignoring the rest. I would add that he is equally critical of twenty-first-century proponents of either extreme in the current cultural debate. The author contends that the secular interpretation of America’s founding is widely accepted in part “because members of its intended audiences want to believe that it is true.” In like manner, he maintains that “the Christian America view has found a huge and trusting audience among those . . . who want to believe that the view is accurate.”

I would qualify these claims a bit more carefully. I don’t believe that many colonial pastors consciously compromised with religious orthodoxy because it was politically inconvenient, any more than I am persuaded that either side in today’s culture wars is consciously embracing a position that it doubts to be true. I think instances of that are probably pretty rare. The temptation that most of us face is not to dishonesty but to what I would call willful gullibility—the readiness to accept uncritically what we want to be true, whether we’re talking about the teaching of Scripture or the lessons of history. Frazer’s book is a sobering reminder of just how powerful that temptation can be.

JEFFERSON’S FAITH

(Readers: I will be on the road June 18-28 attending a workshop for college teachers at Yale and visiting a variety of East Coast historical sites. While I am away–and with July 4th looming on the horizon, I will be reposting a series of past essays on Faith and the American Founding.  I did not write the essay below specifically to respond to David Barton’s portrayal of Thomas Jefferson in his work The Jefferson Lies, but anyone familiar with his argument in that book will recognize that I disagree with it strongly.)

Were our Founding Fathers devout Christians determined to create a Christian commonwealth grounded on biblical principles?  Or were they secular sons of the Enlightenment who hoped to banish orthodox Christianity from the public square?  This Fourth of July, combatants on both sides of the culture wars will gravitate to one or the other of these extremes as they remember our nation’s birth.  It’s a horrible dichotomy that demands that we choose between two equally untenable positions.

A more defensible position rejects both of these all-or-nothing claims.  As Matthew L. Harris and Thomas S. Kidd observe in their anthology The Founding Fathers and the Debate Over Religion in America, “None of the Founders were atheists . . . but none of the most famous Founders were ‘evangelical’ Christians of the sort produced by the Great Awakening, either.”  Many of the Founders were significantly influenced by the Enlightenment, most notably in their frequent willingness to let reason trump revelation when they seemed to be in conflict.  On the other hand, as Harris and Kidd note, “hardly anyone during the revolutionary era doubted that religion, and especially moral virtue, was important to the life of the new American republic.”   Citing such complexity, they conclude that any broad generalization of the Founders as either “secular” or “Christian” is problematic at best.

Founding Fathers and the Debate over Religion

Thomas Jefferson was not necessarily a representative Founder in his religious views, but he did embody the complexity that Harris and Kidd point out.  Since we’ll shortly be celebrating the anniversary of his handiwork–the Declaration of Independence–it makes sense to revisit a few samples of his thinking.

First, Jefferson was no atheist.  In fact, he regularly made an argument for God that today we would call an appeal to “intelligent design.”  Here is how Jefferson put it in an 1823 letter to John Adams:

“When we take a view of the Universe, in its parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition. . . . So irresistible are these evidences of an intelligent and powerful Agent that, of the infinite numbers of men who have existed thro’ all time, they have believed, in the proportion of a million at least to Unit, in the hypothesis of an eternal pre-existence of a creator, rather than in that of a self-existent Universe.”

Jefferson also welcomed the contribution that religious belief might make in promoting virtue among the American people.  Jefferson, like almost all of the Founders, took for granted that a free society could not survive without virtue, and that virtue was unlikely to thrive in the absence of religious conviction.  Or as Jefferson expressed the point in his book Notes on the State of Virginia:

“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?”

Jefferson sat for this portrait by Charles Willson Peale in 1791

Jefferson sat for this portrait by Charles Willson Peale in 1791

Jefferson praised the civic utility of religion publicly in his first inaugural address in 1801.  In a lengthy paragraph listing the country’s peculiar “blessings,” the new president described the American people as

“enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man.”

He want on to observe that his fellow countrymen “acknowledge and adore an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.”

And yet there was another side to Jefferson’s perspective on religion.  While he admired a “rational” religion that promoted good works and civic virtue, he was contemptuous of much of orthodox Christianity as just so much superstition.  In private correspondence, he referred to evangelical religion with a sneer, as in this 1822 letter to Thomas Cooper, a Unitarian professor that Jefferson was trying to lure to the newly-founded University of Virginia:

“In our Richmond there is much fanaticism, but chiefly among the women: they have their night meetings, and praying-parties, where attended by their priests, and sometimes a hen-pecked husband, they pour forth the effusions of their love to Jesus in terms as amatory and carnal as their modesty would permit them to use to a more earthly lover.”

Jefferson’s skepticism of the Bible is also well established, notwithstanding David Barton’s tortured efforts to prove otherwise.  In The Jefferson Lies, Barton insisted that Jefferson wholly accepted the gospels while suspecting the reliability of Paul’s epistles, but in reality Jefferson believed that a great deal of the gospels were invention.  As he summarized in an 1820 letter to William Short,

“We find in the writings of his [Jesus’] biographers matter of two distinct descriptions. first a ground work of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms, & fabrications. intermixed with these again are sublime ideas of the supreme being, aphorisms and precepts of the purest morality & benevolence, sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence, and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of worldly ambition & honors, with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed.”

Jefferson could easily distinguish between these two categories by subjecting them to the test of reason.  “Your reason is the only oracle given you by heaven” for discerning truth, Jefferson famously counseled his teenaged nephew in 1787.  A great deal of the gospels were unreasonable (the virgin birth, miracles, and the resurrection, for example), so these had to be discarded.  Perhaps the greatest irrationality of all, however, was the concept of the Trinity.  As he wrote to James Smith:

“[The] paradox that one is three, and three but one is so incomprehensible to the human mind that no candid man can say he has any idea of it, and how can he believe what presents no idea? He who thinks he does, deceives himself. He proves also that man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder is the sport of every wind. With such persons gullibility, which they call faith, takes the helm from the hand of reason and the mind becomes a wreck.”

In sum, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence was no atheist, nor was he committed to a wholly secular public sphere, but neither did he believe that Jesus was the Christ.   So where does this leave us?  Somewhere, I think, between comfortable but false extremes.

THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION AND THE CHURCH

(Readers: I will be on the road June 18-28 attending a workshop for college teachers at Yale and visiting a variety of East Coast historical sites. While I am away–and with July 4th looming on the horizon, I will be reposting a series of past essays on Faith and the American Founding.)

Independence Day is only a week away, so I thought I would share a few more thoughts about what it might look like to think Christianly about the American founding.  The degree to which Christian beliefs influenced the creation of the United States is a question that many American Christians find intrinsically important.  I certainly share that view.

As I observed in a previous post, however, we should ask ourselves why it is important to us before we begin to explore the question.  Academic historians will tell you that one key to thinking historically about the past is to learn to practice metacognition–a fancy term for thinking about how we are thinking as we are thinking, i.e., learning to become self-aware of the thought processes that we employ in arriving at conclusions.  This is necessary because, as a marvelous book by Sam Wineburg demonstrates, historical thinking is an “unnatural act.”

As finite human beings, we live in time and space.  We encounter the world, necessarily, from our own limited perspectives.  This means, as Wineburg explains, that we naturally make sense of new things by analogy.  Without even having to think about it, when we come across something new to us (like an unfamiliar behavior or belief from an earlier time or a different place) we reflexively search for an analogue that we are already familiar with, rummaging through the file drawers of our minds in search of the image or object or concept that most closely resembles it.  When we find what looks like a decent match, we say that the new thing we have encountered is “like” something else.

The construction of this analogy is natural, and potentially it’s a valuable first step toward understanding, but it comes with risk.  Once we recognize  something ostensibly familiar in people from the past, we will be tempted simply to label them and move on, to let that first step toward comprehension serve as our final judgment.  When we do that, however, we exaggerate the familiar at the expense of the strange, and we misrepresent the people we are trying to understand.

But when we study the past, our hearts are always involved as well as our brains.  And so I am convinced that one of the keys to thinking Christianly about the past is to practice greater self-awareness of our hearts as we study and explore.  This means, above all, examining our motives: Why are we interested in the topic in the first place?  What do we hope to gain by our efforts?  Are we open to being challenged, even to changing our minds?  Are we seeking to learn from the historical figures we encounter, or is our real intention (whether we’re aware of it or not) to use them to accomplish our own purposes?

As a Christian, I believe that our sin nature leaves its mark on everything we do, even our study of history.  Consciously or unconsciously, we tend to view the past in self-serving, self-justifying ways.  This means that thinking Christianly about the past–guided by love and humility–is every bit as unnatural as thinking historically.  The latter reflects our finiteness; the former results from our fallenness.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that academic historians are immune from this tendency.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  But my primary burden is not for academic historians.  As I shared when I started this blog, my heart’s desire is to be in conversation with the church about the relationship between loving God and learning from history.  And so I have a warning to share: be careful of what you read.  When it comes to thinking about the relationship between faith and the American founding, the work by Christian amateurs caught up in the culture wars has been just as biased and, in my opinion, just as damaging as anything that the secular academy has produced.

Why would I say such a thing? I have previously written about how individuals such as Peter Marshall Jr., David Manuel, Francis Schaeffer, Doug Wilson and Steve Wilkins erred by grounding essentially religious arguments about the present in historical assertions about the past.  These writers inadvertently backed themselves into a corner that it made it impossible for them to admit historical errors.  Any mistakes in their interpretations of the American past would seem to weaken their religious interpretations of the American present.  What is worse, in varying degrees these writers conflated the authority of scripture with the force of their own fallible interpretations of American history.

They also modeled what I have labeled the “history-as-ammunition” approach to the past.  Whether their goal was primarily to motivate the faithful or to do battle with unbelievers, they implicitly thought of history primarily as a source of examples to buttress arguments they were already determined to make.  For all his genuine zeal and good intentions, this is precisely true of David Barton as well.  The problem with the history-as-ammunition approach is that its goal is not really understanding.  It typically emerges from a context of cultural debate, and the goal of debate, as we all know, is to win.

When it comes to the topic of faith and the American founding, then, amateur Christian historians have too often focused on a simplistic, yes-or-no question: did religious belief play an important role or didn’t it?  And so, like David Barton, they count references to God and allusions to Scripture and answer the question with a triumphal “yes!”  They then wield this two-dimensional “Christian heritage” as a lever for motivating believers and putting secularists in their place.  In the process, however, they actually discourage  the kind of encounter with the past that can penetrate our hearts in life-changing ways.

What would a different approach look like?  The best way I know to answer this question is with a concrete example.  As I mentioned in my last post, an encouraging development in recent years has been the increasing willingness among Christian historians to breach the walls of the academy in order to communicate with the church.  Younger scholars who are doing so include (among many) John Fea of Messiah College, Thomas Kidd at Baylor, and James Byrd of Vanderbilt University (my alma mater).

The example I want to share now, however, is from an older book by Mark Noll, formerly of Wheaton College, now at the University of Notre Dame.  Noll is a brilliant scholar, a prolific historian, and a kind and gracious Christian gentleman.  In the context of the bicentennial of American independence, Noll determined to investigate “the way in which religious convictions and Revolutionary thought interacted in the minds and hearts of American Christians.”  The purpose of the resulting book, Christians in the American Revolution, was less to prove that the United States had a Christian heritage than to discover the response of Christians to the revolution and learn from it.

Christians in the American Revolution

Undertaking an exhaustive reading of colonial sermons, pamphlets, and other primary sources, Noll concluded that the Christian response to the momentous political events of the period had been complex.  In their responses, colonial Christians fell into four broad categories.  Some supported the revolution enthusiastically, convinced that the patriot cause was unequivocally righteous and perfectly consonant with every Christian virtue.  Some supported independence more circumspectly, troubled by perceived hypocrisy or inconsistency in the patriot position.  Others saw loyalty to the Crown as the only truly Christian response, while a final group, believing that Scripture condemns violence, embraced pacifism and supported neither side.

Noll then proceeded to ask two overarching, open-ended questions of the evidence.  The first involved the nature of Christian influence on the struggle for independence, i.e., what did the Church do to and for the Revolution?  Among several influences, Noll found that countless colonial ministers openly espoused the cause of independence from the pulpit.  They defined freedom as the divine ideal, equated oppression with the Antichrist, assured their flocks that God was on the side of the patriots, and effectively presented the Revolution as a holy crusade, a spiritual struggle between good and evil.

Had Noll only been interested in establishing that the American Revolution had a Christian dimension, he could have stopped right there.  Readers interested only in proving that the United States was founded as a Christian nation would have found a treasure trove of useful quotes indicating that American colonists routinely thought of the conflict with Britain in religious terms.  And yet Noll didn’t stop there.  Instead, he asked a second, probing, uncomfortable question that Christian culture warriors have too often passed over, i.e., what did the Revolution do to and for the Church?

Again, the answer is multifaceted, but much of what Noll found was troubling.  To begin with, looking broadly at the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it appears that the Revolutionary era was a period of declining Christian influence on the culture.  In broader historical context, Christians’ widespread support for the Revolution was actually an example of the increasing degree to which “the thought and activity of the American churches tended to follow the thought and activity of the American nation,” rather than the other way round.  Even more troubling, Noll found evidence to suggest that revolutionary fervor had sometimes undermined Christian integrity, as Christians too commonly forgot that our ultimate loyalty belongs to God alone.  Noll’s summary thoughts on this point bear repeating in detail, so I will leave you with the final extended quote as food for thought:

In addressing the question of what the Revolution did to the church, it is necessary to consider whether Christian integrity was not swamped in the tide of Revolutionary feeling.  From a twentieth-century perspective it appears as if all sense of proportion was lost, particularly where no doubts were countenanced about the righteousness of the Patriot cause.  Where presbyteries could exclude ministers from fellowship because of failure to evince ardent Patriotism, where the “cause of America” could be described repeatedly and with limitless variation as “the cause of Christ,” and where the colonists so blithely saw themselves standing in the place of Israel as God’s chosen people, the question must arise whether the Revolution did not occasion a momentary moral collapse in the churches.  Those ministers and lay believers who allowed the supposed justice of the Patriot cause and displays of Patriotic devotion to replace standards of divine justice and the fruit of the Spirit as the controlling determinants of thought and behavior betrayed basic principles of the Christian faith–that absolute loyalty belongs only to God, and that unwarranted self-righteousness is as evil as open and scandalous sin.

COMMON PEOPLE IN THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

(Readers: I will be on the road June 18-28 attending a workshop for college teachers at Yale and visiting a variety of East Coast historical sites. While I am away–and with July 4th looming on the horizon, I will be reposting a series of past essays on Faith and the American Founding.  The books that I recommend below were all ones that I included in my course on the American Revolution this past semester.  They are wonderfully accessible for anyone interested in the American founding.)

In his wonderful book Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, Steven Garber observes that  “history is mostly . . . very ordinary people in very ordinary places.” Garber’s reminder prompts me to share some books with you that offer insight into the way that common Americans responded to and were changed by the American Revolution. The Fourth of July will soon be upon us, and the anniversary of American independence will prompt many of us to reflect on the origins of the United States. We will zero in on the values of the first “Greatest Generation,” and we’ll debate the nature of the beliefs that propelled them and the vision that sustained them. I think that’s a good thing. But we’ll undoubtedly focus our attention primarily on the same small cast of characters, the extraordinary leaders who would eventually get their pictures on our folding money. And they were extraordinary men—brilliant, visionary, and courageous.

Yet understanding what the American Revolution meant in the lives of everyday people is important as well. When we focus exclusively on the leading statesmen—Adams, Jefferson, Franklin & Co.—the Revolution has a way of becoming a debate among philosophers over abstract propositions. I am not denigrating for a moment the power of their ideas or the importance of the questions that drove them. We need to return regularly to both and enter into the conversation of which these remarkable thinkers were a part.

But I am suggesting that we lose something by not broadening our focus. Most obviously, by concentrating so exclusively on the leading Founders, we close our eyes to 99 percent of those who contributed to the cause of American independence. How can we claim to know what the Revolution stood for, if we have no idea what the vast majority of Americans thought it was about? If we don’t know why they supported it (if they did)? If we’re unsure how they contributed to its outcome? If we have no clue how it changed their lives?

I think we miss something else as well. Readers of this blog will know that I think one of the most important reasons to study the past is to gain wisdom. At its best, the study of history can be a marvelous vehicle for moral reflection. For those who have eyes to see, the past has much to reveal to us about the present and much to teach us about how to meet the future. In this regard, focusing on the lives of extraordinary leaders is a two-edged sword. We may marvel at their extraordinary character or accomplishments, but precisely because they are so extraordinary, we may find it hard to relate to them. My suspicion is that we are more likely to admire them than to be challenged or convicted by them. This, then, is another reason why it is so important to recapture the perspective of common folk. Few of us will ever be called to lead armies or frame new governments, but we may be able to relate to—and learn from—the many mundane moral decisions that our anonymous ancestors have faced before us.

So here are three books that I have long appreciated for their ability to take us into the world of everyday Americans during the era of the American Revolution. They’re each fairly short, readily available, and relatively inexpensive. They’re also each very different. They rest on different kinds of sources, offer different understandings, and model different ways that historians try to glean insight into the world of common people in ages past.

The first is The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, by Alfred Young. In the first half of the book, Young painstakingly recreates the life of a poor Boston shoemaker named George Robert Twelves Hewes. (Some name, huh?) Hewes was born in Massachusetts in 1742 and lived his life in obscurity until the 1830s, when through an unusual chain of events it was discovered that he was one of the last living participants in the Boston Tea Party. Young describes Hewes as “a nobody who briefly became a somebody in the Revolution and, for a moment near the end of his life, a hero.” Two lesser known contemporary writers quickly penned biographies of the aged patriot, who was invited to Boston in 1835 and treated as a celebrity. Young draws from both accounts—supplemented by as much corroborating evidence as he can find from other historical sources—to ask three primary questions: What was Hewes’ role in the Revolution? What did he think about it? How did it affect his life?

shoemaker and the tea partyRobert Hewes was among the poorest of the poor. Born the youngest of nine children, his father died when he was seven and his mother passed away when he was fourteen. That same year he was apprenticed to a shoemaker (an occupation very low in status and income) because no one in his family could come up with the fee necessary to indenture him to a more lucrative trade. He later married the illiterate daughter of a church sexton and fathered fifteen children, none of whom had the means to care for him after his wife of seventy years passed away.

Hewes lacked the necessary property to be eligible to vote as the Revolution approached, but the arrival of British troops in Boston in 1768 made him keenly interested in politics nonetheless. Hewes told neither of his biographers much about his reasons for supporting the patriot cause, but his involvement in the Tea Party in December 1773 hints at the way that the transatlantic struggle with the Mother Country could draw common Americans from the periphery to the center of local politics. For Hewes, the coming of the American Revolution meant, first and foremost, the opportunity to assert his worth as an equal member of the town. As Young concludes, “Between 1768 and 1773, the shoemaker became a citizen.”

Hewes’ large family and minimal means shaped the contours of his service in the Revolutionary cause after the rupture with Britain. Unable to be away from his family for extended periods, he served numerous short stints as both a private in the militia and as a crew member on an American privateer. All told, he was in military service for a little over a year and a half of the eight-year long war. “In all this activity he claimed no moment of glory,” Young summarizes. There was a lot of marching, a lot of drudgery, and very little pay. Hewes was as poor when the war concluded as when it began.

Hewes’ numerous short stints in the militia were fairly typical of military service during the Revolution. Military historians have estimated that as many as four hundred thousand colonists served at one time or other, but the vast majority of these served in the militia for brief periods of a few weeks or months. In contrast, by 1777 the soldiers in George Washington’s Continental Army were enlisted for the duration of the war. Washington’s force never exceeded twenty thousand men, however, and was greatly smaller than that for much of the war.

The world of the Continental soldier is the focus of A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier: Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of Joseph Plumb Martin. While The Shoemaker and the Tea Party represents the efforts of a modern-day historian to recreate the life of an obscure colonist, the Narrative conveys the life of a common Continental soldier in his own words. In contrast to Hewes’ numerous short stints in military service, Joseph Martin served as a private under General George Washington for nearly eight years. The Connecticut farm boy volunteered at the ripe age of fifteen and was still scarcely an adult when he was discharged at the war’s conclusion. Martin composed his memoir nearly a half century later, right about the time Robert Hewes was being celebrated in Boston.

Joseph Plumb Martin“War is hell,” Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman is supposed to have said. Martin would have countered that war is boredom, drudgery, and starvation. He described his experience in battle and alluded briefly to comrades who were killed or wounded, but on the whole his description of combat is brief and vague. He was much more detailed in reviewing when and where and how far he marched and the specific kinds of duty to which he was assigned. But by far his most frequent observations have to do with how hungry he was. He noted repeatedly (literally dozens of times) that he was chronically hungry. His three “constant companions,” as he put it, were “Fatigue, Hunger, and Cold.”

Like Robert Hewes, the aged Joseph Martin had little to say about his reasons for supporting the patriot cause. He hints at a teenage boy’s hankering for excitement and the torture of staying on the farm when adventure was within his grasp. A half-century removed from such innocence, he wrote in retrospect with a tinge of resentment, even bitterness. The members of the Continental Army had been shabbily treated, in his opinion. By his reckoning, the government had not honored its promises to the soldiers for pay during the war or for land bounties afterward. “When the country had drained the last drop of service it could screw out of the poor soldiers, they were turned adrift like worn out horses, and nothing said about land to pasture them upon.” In Martin’s mind, his relationship to the new country he had helped to bring into being was “much like that of a loyal and faithful husband, and a light heeled wanton of a wife.” He had been faithful, while those for whom he had sacrificed had been forgetful. “But I forgive her,” Martin concluded, “and hope she will do better in the future.”

My third and final recommendation is of a very different kind of book.  While the first two focus on single individuals, in The Minutemen and Their World, historian Robert Gross tries to resurrect a community.  The place of choice is Concord, Massachusetts, the New England village west of Boston where  “Minutemen” squared off against British regulars in April 1775 in the first real battle of the American Revolution.  While the Minutemen are a celebrated part of American lore, Gross recognized that they were faceless as well as famous.  His goal was to learn everything he could about the community that they were defending when they fired the “shot heard round the world.”

Minutemen and their WorldAt the heart of the book is the truth that key historical events emerge out of a context.  The men who took their stand at Concord bridge were fathers, sons, brothers and friends.  They did not take up their muskets as autonomous individuals, but as members of a community.  Their lives were enmeshed in numerous relationships defined by kinship, geography, economy and religion.  As we read about Concord on the eve of the Revolution, Gross uses the community as a window into the colonial world.  You learn about eighteenth-century agriculture, the status of women, slavery and race relations, attitudes toward the poor, differences over revivalism, and relations between parents and their adult children.  In the process, the town’s Minutemen cease to be cardboard cutouts and take on flesh and blood.

One of the great strengths of the book is how Gross connects the small stories of these “ordinary people in an ordinary place” to the grand narrative of the Revolution that is much better known.  The people of Concord would briefly be agitated in response to offensive British policies like the Stamp Act or the Tea Act, but the furor would die down quickly and their attention would return to local affairs.  Indeed, until the spring of 1774, the most important topics in the town meeting were local: roads, schools, support for the poor.  As Gross puts it, “a large part of local government was devoted to keeping one man’s livestock out of another man’s fields.”

This changed with the arrival of news concerning a new series of acts passed by the British Parliament in response to the Boston Tea Party.  Colonists quickly labeled the new laws the “Intolerable Acts.”  While the measures focused primarily on punishing Boston specifically, one of the acts limited all towns in Massachusetts to one town meeting a year.  As Gross explains, the people of Concord saw this as a direct assault on their freedom to manage their own community, and the response was a far greater support for resistance than had existed before then.

For the people of Concord, then, the struggle with Britain truly ignited only when British policies interfered, in a way that they had not previously, with the traditional way of life in their village.  From that point forward, the people of Concord unified in support of resistance, but not so much because they desired formal independence from Britain.   Their primary goal, Gross explains, “was to defend their traditional community life.”  What they really wanted was to keep things the way they were.  And yet one of the clear lessons of history is that the trajectory of great historical developments, once begun, is rarely predictable.  Things don’t turn out the way we plan.  The eight-year-long war unleashed unimagined changes.  The people of Concord were looking backward more than forward in 1775.  In this village, at least, “the greatest rebellion of all was undertaken in the name of tradition.”

 

THE FOUNDING FATHERS AND WARREN G. HARDING

(Readers: I will be on the road June 18-28 attending a workshop for college teachers at Yale and visiting a variety of East Coast historical sites. While I am away–and with July 4th looming on the horizon, I will be reposting a series of past essays on Faith and the American Founding.  I had never given much thought to Warren G. Harding–who has?–before a book by historian R. B. Bernstein alerted me to Harding’s little-known role in our popular memory of the “Founding Fathers.”)

So this is an unusual title for a blog post, don’t you think? If you know anything about Warren G. Harding (don’t be embarrassed if you don’t; he was eminently forgettable), you’ve got to be shaking your head and wondering.  What in the world does Warren G. Harding have to do with the leading lights of the revolutionary generation?

The group that we normally refer to as “the Founding Fathers”—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, and Madison, to name the most prominent—were individuals of remarkable character, courage, intellect, and vision.  No one, not even his closest friends, ever accused Warren Harding of any of these traits.

In the public realm, Harding’s administration became synonymous with scandal and corruption. His attorney general (a close friend and political adviser whom he rewarded with a cabinet post) was twice indicted for fraud. The director of the Veteran’s Bureau (forerunner of today’s Veteran’s Administration) went to jail for diverting medicines from hospitals to narcotics dealers. The Secretary of the Interior served time for accepting bribes from oil companies in a scheme now remembered as the Teapot Dome scandal.

Behind the scenes, Harding’s private life was decadent, if not depraved. As president he drank heavily. (And illegally I might add. It was the middle of Prohibition, after all.) He also held twice-weekly poker games in the White House, and he liked to keep “late hours,” a 1920s euphemism for enjoying the company of women other than his long-suffering wife. Harding engaged in at least two prolonged adulterous affairs during his political career. The first, with the wife of a good friend, culminated around the time of his election to the presidency, a termination facilitated by hush money paid from the coffers of the Republican National Committee. The second, involving a bright-eyed blonde thirty years his junior, continued until his death of a heart attack in 1923, and included liaisons in the Oval Office.

Not surprisingly, this one-two combination of public and private dishonesty has won for Harding a consistently poor reputation among historians. In 2009, for example, C-Span surveyed sixty-five prominent presidential historians and asked them to rank the forty-two men who had served as chief executive between 1789 and 2008. The survey asked respondents to give each president individual scores for ten separate leadership categories, including public persuasion, administrative skills, international relations, and “moral authority.” Harding ranked thirty-eighth overall and thirty-ninth in moral authority. The only presidents deemed less effective as moral leaders were Andrew Johnson, who was impeached; Richard Nixon, who resigned to avoid being impeached; and James Buchanan, who did little more than wring his hands while the nation careened toward civil war. This is not auspicious company.

Warren G. Harding (1865-1923), 29th President of the United States

Warren G. Harding (1865-1923), 29th President of the United States

So I’ll ask again. What possible connection links the Founding Fathers to this disgraced twentieth-century president? It’s simply this: according to the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service, it was Harding who actually coined the term “Founding Fathers.” He first introduced it when, as U. S. Senator from Ohio, he delivered the keynote address to the Republican National Convention of 1916. He repeated the phrase two years later in a speech on Washington’s Birthday, employed it twice when he accepted the Republican nomination for president in 1920, and returned to it a final time in his 1921 inaugural address on the steps of the U. S. capitol. Here is an excerpt from the address:

Standing in this presence, mindful of the solemnity of this occasion, feeling the emotions which no one may know until he senses the great weight of responsibility for himself, I must utter my belief in the divine inspiration of the founding fathers. Surely there must have been God’s intent in the making of this new-world Republic.

As is so often the case, the new phrase passed quickly into common use, and pretty soon no one could remember where the term came from. Not recalling a time when the term wasn’t popular, most folks probably assumed that it was a lot older than it really was.

So how is this piece of historical trivia significant—if it’s significant at all? Does it somehow reflect on the Founding Fathers that they owe their honorific title to a hard-drinking philanderer who exploited them in a partisan speech nearly a century after they had passed from the scene?

It shouldn’t. Washington and Adams and company can’t be held accountable for how subsequent generations manipulate their memory. Being hijacked from the grave for any number of causes is an occupational hazard of political prominence. (Although Winston Churchill, at least, claimed that he would be immune. “History will be kind to me,” the statesmen/historian predicted, “because I intend to write it.”)

But if this story shouldn’t affect what we think about the Founding Fathers, it should inform how we think about them. To begin with, it reminds us that what we call “history” is not the past itself but rather the remembered past. History is a form of memory that exists not in the past but in the present.  Historical memory, like memory generally, is always influenced to some degree by our current vantage point.  In the self-satisfied 1920s, praise of the Founders was simply good politics, but it has not always been that way.

While the Founders were still living, Americans regularly denounced one or more of them (while the Founders themselves were regularly denouncing each other). Republican newspapers condemned Washington as “the scourge and misfortune” of the country while they mocked and ridiculed “the blind, bald, toothless Adams.” Federalists fired back in kind, condemning Jefferson for his infidelity, hypocrisy, and radicalism. They repeatedly predicted (and perhaps hoped for?) the “just vengeance of heaven” should he be elected president.

By the 1820s the Founders’ stock had begun to rise, however. The country was approaching its fiftieth birthday, and the generation that had led the way to independence was passing from the scene. Like a youngster now old enough to have memories, Americans became more interested in their collective past. (They were also more willing to ascribe sainthood to the dead than to the living.) More or less continuously since then, Americans have imputed great significance to the Founders, although they have defined the Founders’ legacy in numerous and often contradictory ways.

This leads to a second insight imbedded in the story of President Harding’s christening of the “Founding Fathers.” Harding’s veneration of the Framers may have been sincere—it’s hard to know—but what is certain is that he was remembering them in a particular context and for a particular purpose. In this particular instance, Harding wanted his audience to understand that the “divinely inspired” Founding Fathers would have been opposed to American entry into the League of Nations, which was coincidentally the position that he held as well.

In doing so, Harding was far from unique. The British historian Catherine Wedgwood once observed that what most people want from history “is not the truth about the past—which only interests a very small minority—but ideas and directives for conduct in the present.”

I don’t entirely agree with Wedgwood. I think a lot of people view history purely as a form of entertainment. (That’s certainly how the so-called “History Channel” portrays it.) But I agree with her in this respect: among the minority who believe that history is truly important (or pretend to believe so at any rate), it’s the rare bird who thinks of history as truly important for its own sake. Academic historians will debate the past endlessly for all kinds of esoteric reasons, but when normal people debate the past, more often than not it is because they believe something important is at stake in the present.

This is why popular historical debates are almost always debates about contemporary policy in disguise. This is all the more true when the disputed question is something like the vision or values of the Founding Fathers. Few questions about our nation’s past are more morally charged. A minority of Americans are willing simply to dismiss the Founders as a bunch of irrelevant dead elitists, but most of us would rather have them on our side when we do battle in the public square.

As a historian, I would say that there is both good news and bad in this mindset. The good news is that it spurs us to pay more attention to history than we might otherwise. The bad news is that it predisposes us to discover in the past whatever our present agendas make it convenient to see.

POSTSCRIPT: The surprising history of the phrase “Founding Fathers” comes from The Founding Fathers Reconsidered, by R. B. Bernstein (Oxford University Press, 2009). Bernstein, a Professor of Law at New York Law School, has written a brief and accessible introduction to the Founding Fathers—“who they were, what they did and failed to do, and why we care.” It’s far from the last word on these questions, but not a bad place to start if these are questions that interest you.