Years ago, Newt Gingrich was addressing a group—the Heritage Foundation, I think—and he spoke scornfully about claims that the Founding Fathers were Deists. Around the top of the Jefferson Memorial, he said, is a quotation that gives the answer to any question of Jefferson’s religious beliefs: “I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” As it happens, this quote comes from a letter to one of Jefferson’s closest friends, Dr. Benjamin Rush, and was written on September 21, 1800. Jefferson was complaining to Rush about the pressure he felt from religious groups that attacked him as a champion of the separation of church and state. The “tyranny over the minds of men” that has him worked up is that of the church! (Gingrich was either ignorant or dishonest in using this quote the way he did, and it took me only 15 minutes to find it in Jefferson’s letters. Tsk, tsk.)
Jefferson was a Deist, as were all of the Founding Fathers whose names come immediately to mind—Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, and others. The New Columbia Encyclopedia gives this definition:
“Deists . . . term commonly applied to those thinkers in the 17th and 18th cent. who held that the course of nature sufficiently demonstrates the existence of God. For them formal religion was superfluous, and they scorned as spurious claims of supernatural revelation. Their tenets stemmed from the rationalism of the period, and though the term is not now generally used, the tenor of their belief persists. The term freethinkers is almost synonymous.”
Deism was the shared belief of many of the educated men who were responsible for the creation of our country, and this is the major reason that we enjoy the free, open society that we do. If Jefferson’s opponents had had their way, this would be a Christian country, and perhaps one of a particular stripe. The Episcopalians—now so mild-mannered as to seem quite innocuous—were a particular thorn in Jefferson’s side. After all, they were the transported branch of the Established Church of England (now the Anglican Church) and would have liked to enjoy the same power here that they enjoyed in the Old Country. That power might mean that only Episcopalians could go to the universities or have high positions in the government! Obviously, if we were a Catholic country, or a Southern Baptist country, or a Mormon country, there would be a great deal of unhappiness given any of those possibilities.
Deists did believe in a “God” that we sometimes call the “Watchmaker God,” but He was not the Christian God. The underlying idea was that if you found a watch on the beach you would know that someone had made it. The world, itself, was in their eyes such a “watch,” and anything of that complexity must also have had a creator of some kind. If they had had the advantage of knowing the discoveries in geology and biology of the nineteenth century (which was, ironically, a much more conventionally religious period), they might have dispensed with any God at all.
Jefferson is a particularly interesting case because he constructed his own Bible, by editing out all of the supernatural references. He was willing to go to church as a social gesture, but the part of Christianity he admired was the part that is least followed: the moral code that enjoined Christians to be generous, kind, and loving. When Peter Carr, a young friend, wrote to him for advice on what to study (August 22, 1787), Jefferson put the Bible on his list but told him to use his reason as he read it just as he would while reading the works of the Roman historians Livy or Tacitus. “[God] if there be one . . . must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.” (This is surely the Watchmaker God and not Jehovah!)
What follows is cunningly seditious. Jefferson points out that in Joshua we are told that the sun was made to stand still in the sky for several hours—which means that the Earth must have suddenly stopped rotating. (The ancient Jews, of course, didn’t know that the Earth rotated at all, let alone at a speed of about 1000 miles per hour at the equator. They didn’t even know that the Earth was roughly spherical.) Jefferson asks what the effects would be on the animals, trees, and buildings if this happened. Disaster! We know that this cannot have happened, he says, but what do we actually know about the writer who, in his “pretensions” to inspiration from God, tells us that the sun stood still in the sky? Jefferson asks which is most within the realm of probability, that the sun stopped or that it continued to move. Then he proceeds to the New Testament. He tells Carr to compare the belief that Jesus “was begotten by god, born of a virgin, suspended & reversed the laws of nature at will, & ascended bodily into heaven” with the view that he was “a man of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, enthusiastic mind, who set out without pretensions to divinity, ended by believing them, & and was punished capitally for sedition . . . .”
Some Christians claim that this is a Christian country, but that simply shows their ignorance. In the myth they create, we have been falling away from our Christian heritage, but the simple truth is that Christianity has been encroaching more and more into our lives. “In God We Trust” did not appear on our coins until the end of the 19th century. “Under God” did not appear in the pledge of allegiance until the middle of the 20th century. When I was a child (long, long ago) there was never any question of prayer in school, at least in my home-town. People came to this country for many reasons, but one of the most important was so that they could believe what they wanted without interference. This was true of the Puritans and the Quakers, but it has also been true for Hindus and Jews. The Deists preserved that possibility for all of us.
Note Jefferson’s Bible has been published and is readily available, usually under that name. Just look for it on the web.