Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Am I "Mostly Wrong" About the Religion of the Founders?

In the comments section of my most recent Patheos column entitled "The Founding Fathers Were Not Deists" (published today), noted evangelical theologian and blogger Ben Witherington writes:

Hi John. I wonder if you have read David Holmes book. I am afraid my response to this post is mostly you're wrong. There were Unitarians, including Unitarian Congregationalists among the New England Founding Fathers, and some of the letters between Jefferson and Adams make clear they wouldn't much like modern Evangelical orthodoxy. On top of that folk like Washington were more syncretistic Masons than they were Christians. And then there were the religious radicals like Thomas Paine. So, yes there were some Christian Founding Fathers, but i am afraid the one's you are referring to are not very good examples. Jefferson's infamous expurgated New Testament shows he was no 'supernaturalist'.

I have a great deal of respect for Witherington and occasionally read his popular blog.  But I wonder if he is reading the same column that I wrote.  Here is my response:

Thanks for the post, but I am afraid you have not read my article carefully. Nowhere in this op-ed do I say that these founders--at least Jefferson and Franklin--were Christians or orthodox. It is certainly possible to be a theist and not be a Christian. I don't think--based on good evidence--that Jefferson or Franklin were deists. But I certainly don't think they were Christians either.

I also recently wrote this e-mail to a pastor friend who also wondered whether Witherington misread my piece:

Yes--I don't see how Ben could have written his comment if he had read my article carefully.   And yes, one can be a theist and reject all the tenets of Christianity.  One could certainly believe in a God who intervenes and providentially orchestrates the world without believing that that God revealed himself in the form of a human who died for the sins of the world.  What I am basically doing (and I am giving a bit of my book away here) is trying to argue that the founders were neither deists or Christians, but something in-between.  Some scholars have suggested that they were "theistic rationalists."  I think this is a fair term (although I am not sure I use it in the book). 

Just wanted to set the record straight.  Maybe Witherington will read my book and blog about it.  I hope so.