America’s Founding Fathers serve as patriarchs of the nation’s civil religion, but also as flashpoints in debates about faith in U.S. society. The Presidents Day holiday spotlights this enduring focus on religion and the nation’s leaders – then and now – a theme running through recent books and movies, and in ongoing arguments about church and state.
President Barack Obama’s address at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, Feb. 7, was the latest example of the spiritual role the chief executive is expected to play. Obama’s second inaugural address two weeks earlier, with its references to God-given freedoms and the American creed, was another.
The roots of this tradition go back to the earliest days of the United States, and the dispute over the religiosity of the Founding Fathers and the early presidents, from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln.
Were they Christians – and hence is America to be considered a “Christian nation”? Or were they deists? Or men of no faith at all?
The latest chapter in this long-running debate is the controversy stemming from a 2012 book on Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Lies, by David Barton, a conservative activist and prominent evangelical apologist. Barton sought to refute evidence of Jefferson’s unorthodox views on religion and his promotion of a “wall” between church and state.
Historians largely dismissed the book, and another Christian writer, Warren Throckmorton, sharply criticized Barton’s writings and produced his own book-length response, Getting Jefferson Right.
More signposts pointing toward the ongoing fascination with this topic: The prolific writer on American faith and history Jon Meacham published a best-selling study of Jefferson in 2012, and the Oscar-nominated Spielberg movie Lincoln was a national phenomenon.
Projects related to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War have raised issues – albeit at a different register – about the faith, or lack thereof, of the 16th president. For example, author Stephen Mansfield’s November 2012 book, “Lincoln’s Battle with God,” explores this terrain.
Those questions extend up to contemporary debates about today’s presidents, from George W. Bush to Obama. What do the presidents believe, and does it matter? Should it matter?
This edition of ReligionLink provides resources for reporters exploring this issue of historical and contemporary importance.
Why it matters
Biographers, historians and constitutional lawyers have been busy for more than 200 years trying to determine exactly what America’s founders said, did and meant. Because the founders – and all presidents – are an essential part of America’s identity, what they had in mind in crafting our foundational documents, and how we are to interpret them now, are relevant questions for many of today’s most contentious issues.
What did they mean by religion? What faiths did they believe and practice? Scholars have tried to understand the founders in the context of the late 18th century, a time of political change and intellectual vigor. Meanwhile, some modern Christians are eager to claim that the founders were orthodox Christians who intended the new nation to reflect that faith.
Nobody disputes that America’s founders often invoked God and Providence in their eloquent writings, but those words have given rise to changing interpretations over time. Some call for America to fulfill its mission as a Christian nation. Others argue that America was uniquely conceived to have no single established religion but to make room for all.
- Sixty-seven percent of Americans say the First Amendment “requires a clear separation of church and state,” according to a 2011 national survey by the First Amendment Center. In 2007, though, 65 percent of those surveyed for the center’s State of the First Amendment survey said the nation’s founders intended the U.S. to be a Christian nation, and 55 percent said the Constitution establishes a Christian nation.
- The National Archives contains the wording and information about important historical government documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
- Read the text of Thomas Jefferson’s famous 1802 letter referring to “a wall of separation between church and state”; this phrase is often cited in discussions of church-state relations.
- Read about Jefferson’s religious beliefs, summarized by research staff at Monticello, Jefferson’s home.
- Adherents.com lists the religious affiliations of signers of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution.
- Deism is a European-American religious philosophy of the 17th and 18th centuries that emphasizes the use of reason, rather than revelation, in religion. Deists believe God created the world but does not intervene in it.
- The nonpartisan First Amendment Center provides an overview and history of the issue of religious liberty.
- Read a transcript of Obama’s address at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 7, 2013.
- Read a Feb. 7, 2013, column from the journal Sightings on presidents’ use of religious references in their inaugural addresses.
- Read a Feb. 7, 2013, CNN story, “Religion, readability and the presidency: a historic combination,” on the presidential tradition, from Washington to Obama, of invoking faith and the national purpose.
- Read a Feb. 1, 2013, column at the Patheos website about the tension between Christian dominance and religious freedom in America.
- Read a Jan. 29, 2013, Huffington Post essay, “So We Are a Christian Nation?”
- Read a Nov. 20, 2012, Religion News Service analysis about how the movie Lincoln has revived questions about that president’s faith.
- Brooke Allen, a cultural and literary critic, is the author of Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers, in which she argues that most of the founders were not terribly devout and were deeply shaped by the humanist Enlightenment rather than by Christianity. The book is based on her essay “Our Godless Constitution” in the Feb. 21, 2005, edition of The Nation. She is on the faculty at Bennington College in Vermont. Contact email@example.com or through publisher Ivan R. Dee, 312-787-6262, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- David Barton is an author and founder of WallBuilders, which emphasizes an orthodox Christian biblical interpretation of America’s foundation. The Fort Worth, Texas, area organization uses original source documents for its research. Barton’s books include The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson (2012) and Separation of Church & State: What the Founders Meant. Contact 817-441-6044.
- Michael Beschloss is frequently quoted in the media about presidential history. He is NBC News’ presidential historian. Contact him through the Washington Speakers Bureau, 703-684-0555.
- Richard Brookhiser is a journalist and author of several works about America’s founders, including What Would the Founders Do? Our Questions, Their Answers. The historical founders are not gods, and yet Americans’ feelings about them today seem more religious than historical, he says. Contact Brookhiser through Basic’s publicity manager, Tim Brazier, 212-340-8162.
- Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s many books include Rediscovering God in America: Reflections on the Role of Faith in Our Nation’s History and Future. Gingrich has a doctorate in history. Contact him through Washington-based spokesman Rick Tyler, 540-338-1250, email@example.com.
- Michelle Goldberg is a New York-based senior writer at Salon.com and author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, which discusses “dominion theology,” which links Christianity and political governance. Contact her through publisher W.W. Norton, 212-354-5500.
- David L. Holmes, who lived for some years in the home of James Monroe, taught religious studies at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. His critically praised book, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, argues that the founders of the nation were pious men but that relatively few were orthodox Christians and that many were deists. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
- James H. Hutson is chief of the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress and author of The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations and Church and State in America: The First Two Centuries. Manuscript Division holdings include a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson’s own handwriting. Hutson has taught history at the College of William and Mary and Yale University. Contact 202-707-5383.
- Tim LaHaye, co-author of Left Behind, the apocalyptic novel series, also wrote Faith of Our Founding Fathers: A Comprehensive Study of America’s Christian Foundations. Contact him through publicist Beverly Rykerd, 719-481-0537, email@example.com.
- Peter A. Lillback is professor of historical theology and president of Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pa., and author of George Washington’s Sacred Fire. He says Washington was a Christian, not a deist, helping set a precedent for Christian involvement in public life today. Contact 1-800-373-0119.
- Stephen Mansfield is the author of numerous books on religion and the presidency, including “The Faith of Barack Obama” and “The Faith of George W. Bush.” His most recent book is “Lincoln’s Battle with God.” Contact 615-394-5555, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Jon Meacham is executive editor at Random House and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. His books include Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (2012) and American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation. Meacham says the founders struggled to give religion its proper place in society. He uses Benjamin Franklin’s term public religion to describe belief in God as the source of morality, individual rights and dignity, and a charitable spirit, all things which make for a stable and well-governed society. Contact Meacham through Barbara Fillon at Random House, email@example.com.
- Vincent Phillip Muñoz is Tocqueville Associate Professor of Religion and Public Life at the University of Notre Dame and author of the award-winning book God and the Founders: Madison, Washington and Jefferson. Contact 574-631-0489, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Michael Novak is a philosopher, theologian and public policy commentator and co-author (with daughter Jana Novak) of Washington’s God: Religion, Liberty and the Father of Our Country. The Novaks say that according to the primary and secondary research they did, the evidence is clear that George Washington was no deist. Through careful consideration of his character and his actions and writings as general and then president, a clearer picture of the importance of faith to our nation’s first president emerges, they say. Michael Novak is also the author of On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding. Contact through Ave Maria University in Florida, where he is a visiting professor, 239-280-2500.
- Warren Throckmorton is associate professor of psychology at Grove City College, a Christian liberal arts school in Pennsylvania, and co-author of Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President (2012). Contact 724-458-3787, email@example.com.
- Allen Weinstein was named the ninth archivist of the United States in 2005. He oversees the National Archives, whose mission includes enabling people to inspect government documents for themselves. The National Archives’ home page posts links to regional archives, research centers and presidential libraries, which local reporters may find helpful for reporting stories on the founders. Contact 866-272-6272.
- Gordon S. Wood is professor emeritus of history at Brown University in Providence, R.I., specializing in the American Revolutionary era. He is the author of Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different. In it, he argues that the founders had a clear vision of the life of a nation as a matter of moral progress. Contact 401-863-2820, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Jon Butler is professor emeritus of American studies, history and religious studies at Yale University. He has written extensively on the role of faith in American history. Contact 203-432-1186, email@example.com.
- David D. Hall specializes in 17th- and 18th-century American religious history at Harvard Divinity School and can talk about popular religion during the time of the founders. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or through assistant Robin Lee, 617-496-8508, email@example.com.
- Jonathan Sarna is professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. He is co-author of Religion and State in the American Jewish Experience. Contact 781-736-2977, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Carol Berkin teaches early American and women’s history at Baruch College in New York. She wrote Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence. Contact 646-312-4335, email@example.com.
- Daniel Dreisbach, a nonpracticing lawyer and the author of Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State, teaches in the department of justice, law and society at American University in Washington, D.C. He has written and spoken extensively on the origins of American church-state relations. Contact 202-885-2380, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- John Fea is associate professor of American history and chair of the history department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa. Fea is the author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction (2011). Contact 717-766-2511 ext. 2253, email@example.com.
- Isaac Kramnick teaches government at Cornell University and co-authored The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State. His 1996 American Prospect essay “Is God a Republican?” reflected on religious entanglement in partisan politics. Book co-author R. Laurence Moore is professor emeritus of American studies at Cornell. Contact Kramnick, 607-255-9175, firstname.lastname@example.org; contact Moore, email@example.com.
- Albert J. Raboteau specializes in African-American religious history at Princeton University. Contact 609-258-2761 or 609-258-4482 (department), firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Steven Waldman co-founded and served as editor-in-chief of Beliefnet before becoming senior adviser to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. He is the author of Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty. Contact 202-418-0729.
- Stephen McDowell is president of the Providence Foundation’s Biblical Worldview University in Charlottesville, Va. The foundation says its mission is spreading liberty and justice among nations, and it uses the example of America’s founding to illustrate the relationship between theology and civil government. Contact 434-978-4535.
- John Witte Jr. directs the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University law school in Atlanta. He specializes in religious liberty and legal history. Contact 404-727-6980, email@example.com.
- David R. Bains teaches the history of American Christianity at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. Contact 205-726-2879, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- John Eidsmoe is an Alabama constitutional lawyer, retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and author of Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of Our Founding Fathers. He has advised former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore. Contact 334-270-1789, email@example.com.
- Bruce Braden edited ‘Ye Will Say I Am No Christian’: The Thomas Jefferson/John Adams Correspondence on Religion, Morals, and Values, source documents that trace the views of Jefferson and Adams over time. Contact the Indianapolis man, an amateur historian, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Lynn Pasquale at Prometheus, 800-853-7545.
- Catherine A. Brekus is an American religious historian at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is especially interested in early America and is writing a book about popular religion in that period. Contact 773-702-4272, email@example.com.
- Frank Lambert, who teaches history at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., wrote The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America. He argues that Revolutionary-era America was religiously pluralistic and that the Constitution recognizes and tolerates that. Contact 765-494-4132, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Mark Noll is one of the most cited authorities today on evangelicalism in America. He is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at Notre Dame University, and his many books include America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. Contact 574-631-7574, email@example.com.
- Garry Wills teaches cultural history at Northwestern University in Illinois and is a prolific author of books about American history, government and religion. Contact 847-491-5278, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Matthew L. Harris is associate professor of history and director of the graduate program in history at Colorado State University-Pueblo. He co-edited The Founding Fathers and the Debate Over Religion in Revolutionary America (2011). Contact 719-549-2177, email@example.com.
- Thomas S. Kidd is professor of history at Baylor University and senior fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (2010) and co-editor of The Founding Fathers and the Debate Over Religion in Revolutionary America (2011). Contact 254-710-6304, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Mark Weldon Whitten is the author of The Myth of Christian America: What You Need to Know About the Separation of Church and State. He teaches religion and philosophy at Lone Star College-Montgomery in Conroe, Texas. He says new research has shown that the founders had mixed opinions on the role of religion in the state and that the First Amendment provisions about religion – to neither establish religion nor prohibit its exercise – are in tension, with neither having priority over the other. Contact 936-273-7492, email@example.com.
- Catherine Albanese is J.F. Rowny Professor Emerita in Comparative Religions and Research Professor at the University of California Santa Barbara. She has written about religion and the American Revolution. Contact 805-893-3564, Albanese@religion.ucsb.edu.
- The Rev. Thomas E. Buckley is a Jesuit who taught American religious history at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif. He is the author of Church and State in Revolutionary Virginia, 1776-1787. Buckley is now assistant to the executive director of alumni relations at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Contact 310-338-4273, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Darrin Grinder and Steve Shaw are professors at Northwest Nazarene University in Boise, Idaho. They co-authored The Presidents and Their Faith: From George Washington to Barack Obama (2012), which examines the religious beliefs of America’s presidents. Contact Grinder at 208-467-8454, email@example.com; contact Shaw at 208-467-8878, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Mark David Hall teaches political science at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore. He has written or co-edited several books about faith and the Founding Fathers, including The Founders on God and Government, and is at work now as co-editor of Faith and the Founders of the American Republic (forthcoming). Hall is also co-authoring a book tentatively titled America’s “Godless” Constitution, Deist Founders and Other Myths About Religion and the American Founding. Contact 503-554-2674, email@example.com.