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Remember which Christian roots?

History must be explored in all its variety, complexity and contradiction.

As professional historians who have taught the first half of the U.S. history survey to hundreds of University undergraduates, we appreciate Bryan Freeman’s endorsement of the importance of history (“Remember our Christian roots” opinion, Nov. 29). We agree “history is a powerful tool,” essential to understanding ourselves, our nation and our world. That’s why it’s important to do it right: to explore the past in all its variety, complexity and contradiction; to examine carefully all available evidence and assess change and continuity over time.

Unfortunately, Freeman’s discussion of Christianity in U.S. history is both inaccurate and deeply ahistorical;. Freeman depicts a single Christian heritage in the United States. In fact, the 17th century Puritan ideal of a state-supported church that did not tolerate religious freedom, differed markedly from the theologies of the Revolutionary generation. In contrast to Freeman’s claims, many of the revolutionary-era leaders known as the “Founding Fathers” – most notably Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, much more ambivalently Benjamin Franklin – were indeed deists.

Deists believed a Divine Architect created an orderly universe and gave humans the gift of reason with which to observe their world. Many deists doubted or denied outright the Bible’s miracles, and instead saw the powers of God in the workings of nature. But Deists had no single creed – a point they made in opposing religious orthodoxy – and held various beliefs regarding Jesus.

Freeman confuses the issue when he describes 18th century deism as “fundamentally un-Christian.” Some deists (George Washington and John Adams come to mind) were clearly Christian, others emphatically not. And what do we make of Jefferson? Jefferson called Jesus “the first of the human Sages” but said the Gospels were written by “the most unlettered, and ignorant of men” who so badly bungled the job that the wisdom of Jesus came down “mutilated, misstated, and often unintelligible.” Jefferson made a Bible he could live with by taking scissors to all the supernatural occurrences in the New Testament, leaving intact the teachings of Jesus. The true sayings, Jefferson said, were “as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.”

The point is that revolutionary-era Americans engaged in a wide spectrum of belief, from evangelicalism to atheism and everything in between. The “Founding Fathers” were not of one mind on religion, and did not seek to be. Jefferson and Madison were especially explicit in their efforts to protect freedom of religion and to avoid governmental interference in matters of belief. They were not anti-Christian; they were deists.

We teach students about deism because it shaped Jefferson’s language about “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence. His 1776 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and Madison’s 1785 “Memorial and Remonstrance” against religious coercion were radical innovations influenced by deist ideas. Those who framed the U.S. Constitution and authored the First Amendment – many of whom were deists and none of whom were “anti-Christian” – codified the separation of church and state and ensured religious tolerance.

These were deliberate decisions; they could have chosen otherwise. (In lone contrast, the South Carolina state constitution of 1778 declared “the Christian Protestant religion” the “established religion of this State.”) Franklin did propose each session of the Constitutional Convention begin with prayer, but what is more historically meaningful is that the majority of delegates voted Franklin’s proposal down.

We teach many aspects of religious history, including the religious differences between Catholics and Protestants that fueled the hostile competition between Spanish, French and English colonizers of North America and shaped Europeans’ interactions with American Indians; the distinctive Calvinist theology of the English Puritans; the evangelical outpourings of the First and Second Great Awakenings; Enlightenment thought and deism – because all these developments had specific and profound effects on the development of the United States.

Contemporary foes of revolutionary-era deists routinely and falsely accused them of atheism and anti-Christian thought. Freeman’s recent column replicates this 200-year-old error. Simplified and homogenized versions of religious history only perpetuate misunderstandings of both the past and the present.

Professors Kirsten Fischer and Lisa Norling teach undergraduate and graduate courses on the early United States in the department of history. Please send comments to [email protected].

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