Was America Intended to Be Christian?

What would the Founding Fathers do?

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In this week's New York Times Magazine, Russell Shorto examines a hotly debated question: "How Christian were the Founders?" Christian activists want the United States proclaimed a "Christian nation" in textbooks and curricula to convey "the country's roots and the intent of the founders." Intent is a tricky matter, though, and proclaiming the U.S. "Christian" isn't just about textbooks, but also how we interpret the Constitution.

  • How Christian? Not Christian Enough for Abstinence  "Just off the top of my mind," comments The Detroit News' George Bullard, "I can say that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were first-class womanizers. Franklin wrote an infamous letter advising a friend on choosing a mistress. Go for older women, he suggested."
  • Christian, but Cautious  In his dive into the matter in The New York Times Magazine, Russell Shorto is careful. He says it's clear "how thoroughly the colonies were shot through with religion and how basic religion was to the cause of the revolutionaries." That said, while "the founders were rooted in Christianity--they were inheritors of the entire European Christian tradition ... at the same time they were steeped in an Enlightenment rationalism that was, if not opposed to religion, determined to establish separate spheres for faith and reason." In short, he seems to find convincing the argument of Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard: "'[One activist] says the phrase "separation of church and state" is not in the Constitution. He's right about that. But to make that argument work you would have to argue that the phrase is not an accurate summation of the First Amendment. And Thomas Jefferson, who penned it, thought it was.'"
  • So Were They Relying on the Religiosity of Others?  Is it possible the Founding Fathers, though, were "free-riders"? New York lawyer and blogger Rosita thinks so: "The Founding Fathers were relying on the premise of a Christian society as their framework in which to think free." Western civilization depends on Christianity, she argues: "I think they were kind of counting on others being more devout than themselves."
  • A Debate in Indiana, Too  At Fort Wayne's The News-Sentinel, two concerned citizens, Donna Volmerding and B. J. Paschal, are having their own debate on the matter. Paschal maintains that the Founding Fathers sought to "separate Caesar and God" partly based on the theories of John Locke. Volmerding counters that, in a study at the University of  Houston of Founding Fathers' writings, political science professors found "thirty-four percent of the quotes came directly from the Bible," while the French philosopher Charles de Montesquieu was also quoted more frequently than Locke.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.