Thursday, February 7, 2013

Why George Will Needs a Lesson in American Religious History

A recent speech by George Will has been getting a lot of attention of late.  Last December the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis hosted Will for a public lecture titled "Religion and Politics in the First Modern Nation."  Watch it here:

Over at Religion in American History, Jonathan Den Hartog exposes Will's flawed interpretation of religion and the founding fathers and gives Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction a nice plug in the process.  Here is a taste of Den Hartog's post:

As a religious historian, though, I specifically wanted to counter Will's treatment of the attitude of the "Big 5 Founders" he cites toward religion. Will is at pains to describe each of them as publicly respectful of religion while not being very religious themselves. 

Not only is this territory a minefield, but it's also been an area of much academic study. With better reading, Will might have gotten a more nuanced view.

For instance, he could have started with John Fea's Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Then, he might have added David Holmes's The Faiths of the Founding Fathers.

For a different take, he could have delved into Gregg Frazer's The Religious Beliefs of America's Founders.

Finally, for analysis from a political scientist, he could have looked at Vincent Philip Munoz's God and the Founders.

And those are just four titles off the top of my head. What this scholarship has argued is that there was a lot of religious diversity in the Revolutionary era. Some of those involved were very orthodox, others much less so. 

This is decidedly not to argue that the most of the founders were devout Christians. However, even those who weren't orthodox still held strong religious beliefs. They did, and they practiced them.

So, Will dismisses Franklin as a Deist--he did claim to be one as a young man--even though his actions during the Revolutionary Era belied that claim. Or, Will claims Adams's religious beliefs disappeared during his life, whereas Adams thought and wrote quite a lot about religion. Will misses that Unitarianism was a robust religious system in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that retained many Protestant forms.