Protestant Roots in the Founding of America

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).


Protestant Roots in the Founding of America
By Jesse Bowman

The Common Foundation of Our Nation

What kind of nation are we? This question could go in many different directions, with many different focus points. Think about the “America experiment”: We are a blend of numerous cultures, a home to many peoples, and a face to diversity. So the question at hand, then, is how America is classified as a nation. What qualities exist within this country that distinguish it?

Although there are a vast array of cultures and beliefs that have influenced America over the years, it is clear that certain values and beliefs are embedded into this nation’s heritage. Americans proudly claim to be “we, the people”, endowed with “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. There is no doubt that ideas such as these will never leave the U.S. culture. The founding of this country has roots that still hold strong today.

But where do such ideas arise? This question is still heavily debated today in scholarly circles. For some, these ideas are embedded in the Protestant religion. The Bible contains references to life, freedom, and joy that could certainly be connected to such ideas. However, others believe these ideas are connected with the Enlightenment and thinkers such as John Locke. Far from religious, the Enlightenment produced thoughts and theories that provoked such foundational doctrine.

Protestantism’s Role in Our Roots

The first answer to this question gives rise to another question of how much of a role religion (especially Protestantism) played in the “roots” of the United States. At the time of the nation’s independence from Great Britain, Protestantism dominated in the religious culture by far. This sheer fact already made the job of the founding fathers much more difficult: In terms of the construction of government and foundational documents, how could they find agreement without compromising a (religiously) free country?

Throughout this class, we have looked at the effects of Protestantism on American history and how it has shaped the society as a whole. When we look back even further in history, we find that Protestantism arose as a result of those religious groups breaking off from the Catholic Church. Protestantism has been in America even longer than the nation of the United States, and it was easily the most popular religious practice by the time the United States had arisen.

I wish to take a look at the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson, specifically. Both of these are important when considering how we got to where we are today, and I want to dive into exactly what Jefferson was thinking as he wrote this Declaration. Did he intend for the nation to be entirely theistic or Protestant with his inclusion of “Creator”, or did he merely try to satiate the vast majority of Americans who identified with Protestant beliefs and values? Regardless, the impact of this document and this person are nothing short of vital in the creation of the country we have today. And it is important to remember that these questions are not detached from the interests of the authors: We will have to sift through much opinion and interpretation.

The Declaration: Religious or Secular?

One argument present in my readings is that the Declaration of Independence is neither wholly Protestant (nor wholly Judeo-Christian). Rick Fairbanks, the author of “The Law of Nature and Nature’s God”, tells us that “except in the weak sense of psychological independence, Jefferson’s Declaration is not based on Judeo-Christian principles” (pg. 552). He claims that Thomas Jefferson did not write this document to strictly align with the popular views of religion at the time; therefore, it should not be read as if it were.

Yet at the same time, Fairbanks holds that the Declaration did not intend an entirely secular document either: “However, the Declaration is not a wholly secular document; it contains a deep tension between naturalistic and theological commitments” (pg. 552). He realizes that if he claims this document not to be religious, neither can he claim it to be secular. Rather, he analyzes what he calls the “deep tension” of two very different commitments. Thomas Jefferson was not a Protestant, and in writing the document he wanted to instill beliefs and ideas into the nation that were not solely of this religion. But he knew that he had to get the document to pass in the light of a Protestant majority.

Voluntarism vs. Intellectualism

Fairbanks then dives deeper into these two “commitments” to explain what he means. He refers to what is known as the Euthyphro dilemma: Is an idea good because God (or the gods) command/support it, or does God (do the gods) command/support an idea because it is good? It is important to consider this in the light of this document because this lets us know more about Thomas Jefferson’s intentions. There are two takes on this dilemma: One is “Voluntarism in natural law”, and the other is “Intellectualism”.

If we claim Thomas Jefferson to be a “voluntarist”, then we view the inclusion of such ideas as life and liberty in the light that he believes these ideas to be good because they are God’s. In this sense, Fairbanks argues, the Declaration would be much more theistically inclined, because Thomas Jefferson would see God as vital for the moral survival of the country. However, if Thomas Jefferson were to be seen as an “intellectualist”, then these ideas take on a much more secular identity. Rather than being connected to religious ideals, Jefferson would have been more influenced by the Enlightenment and cultural influences of that nature.

In his work, Rick Fairbanks argues that Jefferson is indeed an intellectualist. He sees the tension between voluntarism and intellectualism as a parallel reflection between the tension of naturalism and supernaturalism. And Thomas Jefferson is well-known for the famous “Thomas Jefferson Bible”, in which he removes all pages that claim Jesus did supernatural things. Rather, he focused on Jesus as a great moral teacher whose teachings were essential for a society to flourish. Such ideas as life and liberty, then, would not be based on a spiritual and supernatural sense of eternal life or freedom, but on concepts of freedom that relate more to intellectualist concepts. Clearly, Fairbanks would say, Jefferson holds that such moral criterion is superior to more abstract, supernatural beliefs about these concepts.

Misreading the Declaration?

Another argument I came across in my research deals with the idea that the Declaration of Independence has been misread as a pro-Protestant document. In his article “Reading/Misreading the Declaration”, writer Barry Bell presents us with his beliefs that the “the language of the Deistic, enlightened, ‘common sensical’ Jefferson” is being interpreted “as though he were a modern Isaiah and the Declaration as an evangelical sermon” (pg. 73). Bell holds that it is a misinterpretation of the Declaration of Independence to think that it is a Protestant document (or wholly Protestant, similar to Fairbanks’ argument).

He goes on to support his claim by describing a sermon by a preacher named Peter Whitney titled American Independence Vindicated given in 1776. In this sermon, Whitney claims the Declaration to be written in alignment with the freedom of the Bible, and he would say that Jefferson wrote this document with reverence for Protestantism. Bell, as expected, refutes this argument by arguing that Jefferson’s inspiration came not from any mode of Protestantism, but from the Enlightenment and thoughts of similar thinkers. He completely abhors the use of the Declaration as a religious support, because that was not its intention.

Jefferson’s Intentions

Many, many more arguments and interpretations of Jefferson’s intent and agenda in the Declaration of Independence exist. As I searched through various sources and arguments, I formulated my own opinion concerning Jefferson and the Declaration. From what I have researched, it seems apparent to me that Jefferson did a balancing act. He was a Deist, and although that means he believed in God, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he would support Protestantism specifically. Yet he included “Creator” for a reason; aside from personal conviction, he knew he had to appease

In agreement with Fairbanks, I also found Thomas Jefferson to be an intellectualist. He saw the Bible as a central guidance of morality and lawfulness in a successful society. In his personal Bible, Jefferson cuts out all the miraculous works of Jesus (literally) and focuses specifically on his moral teachings. Hence, I believe his agenda not to be particularly religious, because he might see such a document as the Declaration as more important than any personal religious motive.

I also found much evidence about the influence of Enlightenment ideas on Thomas Jefferson’s thought process. One of the most significant influences came from the popular thinker John Locke, who even preceded Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” with his own similar unalienable rights. This, too, could reveal a more “common-sensical” root to Jefferson’s intentions.

Implications

Although I have formulated my own opinions, I invite and challenge you to do the same. This isn’t merely a debate over an irrelevant historical occurrence; this document continues to affect the way we live today. If our nation views Jefferson as more enlightened, then that will impact the way in which we view religious separation and the cultural heritage of the nation in general. If it is more theistic, then perhaps the nation should take into account what that would mean for the country as a whole.

The Declaration, to this day, remains open to interpretation. Thomas Jefferson and the other influential founding fathers clearly had certain agendas (whether intentional or not), and as a result, there is a vague sense of what constitutes as public expression of religion. How would a different interpretation of such documents as the Declaration of Independence affect the nation we live in today?

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