In recent years, many evangelicals have lauded the American Founders. It has become customary for them to heap effusive praise on the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Even those who were openly contemptuous of Christian orthodoxy such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine often get a free pass. Ronald Reagan (an evangelical favorite, if not himself an evangelical) was fond of quoting Paine, especially his teaching about the importance of individual rights and the dangers of an intrusive state. By contrast, one of Reagan’s Republican predecessors, Theodore Roosevelt famously dismissed Paine as a “filthy little atheist.”
As Roosevelt’s sharp words suggest, American evangelicals’ love affair with the Founders represents a more recent development. In earlier eras, orthodox Protestants were openly critical of several Founders. Among their favorite targets during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was Jefferson whose unorthodox views on the Bible and the divinity of Christ were well known. During the heated presidential contest of 1800, conservative Congregationalist and Presbyterian clergy denounced the freethinking Virginian with fiery rhetoric. For instance, the Rev. Timothy Dwight, then president of Yale College, painted an alarming portrait of what Jefferson’s election could bring: “[T]he Bible would be cast into a bonfire, our holy worship changed in a dance of Jacobin frenzy, our wives and daughters dishonored, [and]… “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced.” A New York pastor warned similarly that ” the open and warm preference of a manifest enemy to the religion of Christianity, in a Christian nation, would be an awful symptom of the degeneracy of that nation, and a rebellion against God.”
American evangelicals’ love affair with the Founders represents a more recent development.
During the antebellum era, evangelicals often had unflattering things to say about Jefferson. They attacked what they viewed as his political radicalism and questioned his Lockean understanding of the origins of civil society. During the Virginia state constitutional convention of 1829-1830, John Randolph of Roanoke (a convert to evangelicalism) reviled Jefferson as a Francophile dreamer whose utopian schemes were impractical at best and dangerously destructive at worst. Meanwhile, the Rev. Flavel S. Mines characterized Jefferson’s “axiom of ‘equal rights’ [as] infidel, not Christian.” It “strikes at all that is beautiful in civil, or sacred in divine institutions.” Mines argued that Locke’s focus on individual rights was based on his repudiation of divine revelation as the ultimate source of authority. These Protestants viewed Locke’s social contract as ahistorical and unscriptural. Further, his negative, night watchman notion of the state conflicted with the older Puritan understanding of government as an active moral agent ordained by God.
During the Civil War, long simmering anxieties about the secular character of the Constitution came to a boil. Some evangelicals in both the North and South considered the absence of any explicit reference to God or Jesus Christ in the Constitution a dangerous flaw. Reformed Presbyterians who especially stressed Christ’s political kingship proposed a solution: a Christian amendment to clarify the divine basis of authority and explicitly state to whom citizens owed their allegiance. The amendment never garnered sufficient political support to win congressional approval but it highlighted evangelical uneasiness regarding some of the handiwork of the Founders.
As political conservatism became more secular and more wedded to classical liberal principles at the close of the nineteenth century, evangelicals left behind some of these theological scruples and lent their voices to laudatory hymns to the Founders. Their approach to the Founders became less nuanced and indistinguishable from the generic civil religion espoused by political conservatives by the mid-twentieth century.
This historical backdrop helps illuminate the bizarre spectacle of best-selling evangelical author David Barton recently maintaining that Jefferson was a bona fide evangelical. In short, two developments (among other factors) help explain the evangelical change of heart regarding Founders like Jefferson and Paine. First, evangelicals came to embrace uncritically the minimalist, laissez-faire model of the state championed by many Founders. Second, theological commitments became less important to conservative Protestants as pragmatic concerns about securing and protecting their political influence prevailed.
Uncritical nationalism and partisanship have long been temptations for Christians of every sort. Still, reflecting on their past critical engagement with the Founders can bring greater clarity to how evangelicals envisage their role in the public square today and their distinctive contribution to the larger American experiment.