Faith of the Founders: Presidents and religion in America

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 Feb. 7, 2013 was an 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?

Another 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.

Background

  • 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.

News articles

Additional resources

National sources

  • Brooke Allen

    Brooke Allen, a cultural and literary critic, is the author of Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers. Allen joined the faculty at Vermont’s Bennington College in 2011.

    Contact: BAllen@bennington.edu.
  • David Barton

    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.

    Contact: 817-441-6044.
  • Michael Beschloss

    Michael Beschloss is frequently quoted in the media about presidential history. He is NBC News’ presidential historian.

  • Newt Gingrich

    Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich wrote Rediscovering God in America: Reflections on the Role of Faith in Our Nation’s History and Future (Integrity, 2006). Gingrich has a doctorate in history.

  • Michelle Goldberg

    Michelle Goldberg is an author and senior writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast. She is a former New York-based senior writer at Salon.com and author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (W.W. Norton, 2006), which discusses “dominion theology,” which links Christianity and political governance.

  • David L. Holmes

    David L. Holmes, who lived for some years in the home of James Monroe, teaches religious studies at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

  • James H. Hutson

    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 (Princeton University Press, 2005). 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

    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.

  • Peter A. Lillback

    Peter A. Lillback is president of Westminster Seminary in Glenside, Pa., and author of George Washington’s Sacred Fire (Providence Forum Press, July 2006). 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

    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. He has also written about the faith of other leaders, including Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln.

  • Jon Meacham

    Jon Meacham is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and is executive editor and executive vice president at Random House. His books include American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation. Contact Barbara Fillon at Random House.

  • Vincent Phillip Muñoz

    Vincent Phillip Muñoz teaches religion and and public life at the University of Notre Dame. He focuses on the founders and religious freedom.

  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak, philosopher, theologian and public policy commentator at The American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, is the author of Questions about Liberation Theology (Paulist Press, 1991). He argued that by the late 1980s, liberation theology was in danger “of slipping into a backwater” because it had done very little to help the poor. He is also author of The Joy of Sports: End Zones, Bases, Baskets, Balls and the Consecration of the American Spirit. Many consider his book on sports and religion the first and best on the topic.

  • Warren Throckmorton

    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).

  • Allen Weinstein

    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 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

    Gordon S. Wood is a professor of history at Brown University in Providence, R.I., specializing in the American Revolutionary era. He wrote Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (Penguin Press, 2006). In it he argues that the founders had a clear vision of the life of a nation as a matter of moral progress.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Carol Berkin

    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 (Knopf, 2005).

  • Jon Butler

    Jon Butler is emeritus professor of American studies, history and religious studies at Yale University. He co-edited Religion in American Life, a 17-book Oxford University series that treats religion as an academic subject for children and young adults.

  • Daniel Dreisbach

    Daniel Dreisbach is a nonpracticing lawyer and the author of Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State (New York University Press, 2003). He is also a professor in the school of public affairs at American University in Washington, D.C. He considers himself a “free speech and free exercise libertarian” in that he sides with maximizing free speech and exercise rights.

  • John Fea

    John Fea is an American history professor at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. Fea writes often about the role of religious leaders in the Trump administration and is the author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

  • David D. Hall

    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.

  • Isaac Kramnick

    Isaac Kramnick teaches government at Cornell University and co-authored The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State (W.W. Norton, 2005). His 1996 American Prospect essay “Is God a Republican?” reflects on religious entanglement in partisan politics. Book co-author R. Laurence Moore teaches American studies at Cornell.

  • Albert J. Raboteau

    Albert J. Raboteau specializes in African-American religious history at Princeton University.

  • Jonathan D. Sarna

    Jonathan D. 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 and author of American Judaism: A History, which won the Jewish Book Council’s Jewish Book of the Year Award in 2004.

  • Steven Waldman

    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.

In the South

  • David R. Bains

    David R. Bains teaches the history of American Christianity at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.

  • John Eidsmoe

    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 eidsmoe@juno.com.

  • Thomas S. Kidd

    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 and co-editor of The Founding Fathers and the Debate Over Religion in Revolutionary America.

  • Stephen McDowell

    Stephen McDowell is president and co-founder of the Providence Foundation in Charlottesville, Va. It 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.

  • Mark W. Whitten

    Mark Weldon Whitten is the author of The Myth of Christian America: What You Need to Know About the Separation of Church and State (Smyth & Helwys, 1999). He teaches religion and philosophy at Lone Star College – Montgomery. 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.

  • John Witte Jr.

    John Witte Jr. directs the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University, where he also teaches law. He is an expert on legal issues related to marriage, family, Christianity and religious freedom. His books include Church, State and Family: Reconciling Traditional Teachings and Modern Liberties and Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment.

In the Midwest

  • Bruce Braden

    Bruce Braden edited ‘Ye Will Say I Am No Christian’: The Thomas Jefferson/John Adams Correspondence on Religion, Morals, and Values (Prometheus, 2005), source documents that trace the views of Jefferson and Adams over time.

  • Catherine A. Brekus

    Catherine A. Brekus is an American religious historian at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is especially interested in early America and co-wrote a book titled American Christianities: A History of Dominance and Diversity.

  • Frank Lambert

    Frank Lambert is a history professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and author of The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America (Princeton University Press, 2003).

  • Mark Noll

    Mark Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame and one of the most cited authorities today on evangelicalism in America. He co-founded the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College, where he taught for many years. Noll’s many books include America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln.

  • Garry Wills

    Garry Wills teaches cultural history at Northwestern University in Illinois and is a prolific author of books about American history, government and religion.

In the West

  • Catherine Albanese

    Catherine Albanese is Professor Emerita in Comparative Religions & Research at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of Nature Religion in America: From the Algonkian Indians to New Age (University of Chicago Press, 1991) and America: Religions and Religion, 5th. ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2012).

  • Thomas E. Buckley

    Thomas E. Buckley is a Jesuit who teaches American religious history at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif. He wrote Church and State in Revolutionary Virginia, 1776-1787 and is working on a study of Jefferson and religious freedom.

  • Matthew L. Harris

    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.

  • Darrin Grinder

    Darrin Grinder is a professor at Northwest Nazarene University in Boise, Idaho. He co-authored The Presidents and Their Faith: From George Washington to Barack Obama (2012), which examines the religious beliefs of America’s presidents.

  • Mark David Hall

    Mark David Hall is a professor of political science at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore. Publications include The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life (2009); and The Sacred Rights of Conscience: Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American Founding (2009).