Deism and the Development of American Civil Religion

Introduction: American Civil Religion

In their 2005 study of the religious beliefs and spiritual practices of American teenagers, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton identified a pattern of thought among contemporary youth concerning religious matters they described as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” Smith and Denton regard this strand of religious thinking as the dominant religion among American young people. Its core postulates are those of a creator-supreme being God, a univeralist morality based on fairplay and being nice to other people, being happy and maintaining one’s self-esteem, reliance on God for the resolution of personal problems as the essence of religious faith or practice, and a reward in the hereafter for those who do all of these things. Smith and Denton observe that such religious sentiments transcend ordinary creedal or denominational affiliations. Such ideals are to be found among American youth irrespective of their racial, ethnic or cultural background. While pointing out that there are certainly contemporary youth who subscribe to more traditional or particular religious beliefs and that no institutional framework exists specifically for the purpose of promulgating “moralistic therapeutic deism,” this type of religious orientation is predominant when compared with the influence of its primary rivals and has successfully established colonies for itself in many of the major religious denominations and traditions. (1, Denton/Smith) The work of Smith and Denton deals with popular rather than civil religion in that “moralistic therapeutic deism” of the kind they describe reflects a personal religious orientation that is, in their view, widely shared by many Americans, particularly the young.  However, this popularized approach to personal religion interacts with and serves as what might be called a “private sector” parallel to the American civil religion. These two dimensions of the religious life of contemporary Americans, the “public” civil religion and “private” personal religion, are two sides of the same coin that mutually reinforce the views of Americans concerning religious matters.

It is first necessary to attempt to formulate a working definition of “American civil religion” with due consideration given to the various nuances that will inevitably arise from such an effort. The concept of “American civil religion” as commonly understood by scholars and commentators in the relevant fields is to a large degree derived from the original formulation of this notion in a classic 1967 essay by the sociologist Robert N. Bellah. Examing the writings and speeches of the American “founding fathers” and subsequent generations of American political leaders, Bellah found a number of recurrent themes concering religious matters. The civil religion is a derivative of Christianity, with very clear Christian influences, yet it is not Christianity in any orthodox or traditional sense. For instance, the role of “God” as a providential supreme being figures much more prominently in the civil religion than the role of Christ as a messiah-redeemer. Bellah noted that all of the Presidents typically mentioned God in their inaugural speeches, though not one mentioned Christ. This civic notion of God is by far more deist or unitarian in nature than the God of the various traditional Christian faiths, yet this American civic God is more actively involved in human history and affairs than the watchmaker deity of traditional deism, particularly when the welfare of the American nation is at stake. This God of the civil religion is concerned with justice, right and wrong and “law and order.” (2, Bellah, Civil)

Bellah further argued that this particular view of religion has been dominant in American political and civic life since the founding generation with very little subsequent innovation. Bellah rejected the claim that such a seemingly ecumenical theological outlook was derived from the need for social harmony between competing religious traditions, given that American society in its early phases was nearly unanimous in its Christianity and overwhelmingly Protestant. Instead, Bellah believed the “civil religion” as originally established by early American political leaders reflected their personal as well as their private views. Scholars have yet to reach a consensus on this question. Bellah’s notion of a singular “civil religion” has been challenged by others who see a wider plurality in the views of Americans concerning the relationship between religious belief and civic values. However, Bellah’s primary thesis is correct in its essential aspects. American civil religion is indeed the hybrid of deist and Christian theological views that Bellah recognized. Several undercurrents to the general narrative detected by Bellah are identifable. A more orthodox Christian-influenced brand of civil religion can be found on the right side of Bellah, and a broader universalist brand influenced by the liberal Protestant tradition that extends past concern merely for the American nation itself on the left side. Yet the Enlightenment philosophy of deism, whose influence on the “founding fathers” is widely known, has profoundly informed the character of American civil religion. The American civil religion could not be what it is without the influence of deism. Not surprisingly, this a contentious matter and one that has significant bearing on contemporary political conflict.

Theological Tenants of Deism

E. Graham Waring has observed that “the controversy over deism represents the principal development in religious thought during the Age of Enlightenment.” (3,Waring, p.v) The Enlightenment  overturned an established view of humanity and its place in the universe in a way that has rarely been experienced by any civilization. Waring attributes this intellectual and cultural revolution to a number of factors. Foremost among these was the Newtonian revolution in physics. Because of advances in science, nature began to lose much of its mystery and the increased ability to explain the natural order by mechanical means eclipsed the older habit of attributing the otherwise unexplainable to divine purpose. Further, the religious wars and sectarian clashes that had plagued the European continent during previous times, along with the habitual repression of dissent by the established religious authorities, created a disdain and distrust for the older faiths among thoughtful people. Added to this mix was the growth of a greater number of religious sects, with competing claims to theological truth, a renewed interest in the learning of pagan antiquity sparked by the Renaissance, and increased knowledge of cultures and religions outside of Europe brought about as a result of the achievements of the Age of Exploration. The existence of thriving civilizations largely untouched by Christianity was a discovery that proved difficult to reconcile with Christian claims of truth. (4,Waring, pp. vi-vii)

The Enlightenment was accompanied by revolutions in every aspect of life, not merely the scientific, religious or cultural. The intellectual revolution that followed from the growth of rationalism led ultimately to political revolution. Appeals to religious doctrine or inherited traditions no longer worked to justify political legitimacy or social ethics. “Reason” and “natural law” began to replace the dogmatic schemes of the churches and their claims of divine revelation as a source of guidance when determing right conduct for humanity in the realms of law, government and morality. The religion of deism emerged as a “natural religion” whose core ideas were the supremacy of reason over revelation as a guide to human moral and religious life, the ability to know God and God’s will through reason,  and the duty of man to pursue human happiness in obedience to the will of God. (5 Waring, p. x)  Thinkers with religious views resembling those of the deists began to appear in Italy and France during the mid sixteenth century. An early deist theological work was Herbert of Cherbury’s De Veritate, a writing that first appeared in published form in Paris in 1624. This work outlined a theistic theological view with an emphasis on virtue as the foundation of piety and rewards in an afterlife for good works.

Early Renaissance thinkers, such as the Christian Humanists, began reading the works of the classical thinkers and found their ideas on moral philosophy to be of comparable worth to those of Christianity. Particularly influential were the works of Seneca, Plutarch and Cicero. The Protestant Reformation also provided unintended assistance to Biblical criticism with its individualistic approach to scriptural interpretation. Influenced by the philosophy of John Locke, deists came to reject belief in the authority of textual revelation. A more universalist approach to theology and religion began to develop with dissident religious thinkers arguing that virtuous persons outside the Christian faith could potentially achieve salvation. Right and wrong could be determined by one’s own common sense and need not be guided by theological dogma or clerical instruction. As thinkers of the era became more familiar with the writings of the pre-Christian world, they began to notice the similarities between the miracle stories of Christianity and the likewise fantastic claims of the ancient religions and folk beliefs. (6 Herrick, pp. 12-17)

The roots of deism can be traced to the intellectual radicalism that emerged on the European continent, and enormously influential French thinkers such as Montesquieu and Voltaire held religious views similar to those of deism. However, it was in England that deism became a fully identifiable theological outlook. This was due in no small part to the greater level of tolerance that came about in that kingdom during the later part of the seventeenth century. Religious controversy had existed in England before, often with rather bloody results. Earlier thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke had prudently professed Christian orthodoxy, albeit in a diluted form that gave rise to charges of infidelity. Hobbes barely escaped prosecution and probable execution for heresy. A mild relaxation of earlier restrictions on freedoms of the press, speech and thought allowed a more vigorous but cautious debate on theological matters. It was during the half century between the 1690s and 1740s that the deist controversy was most prominent in England. Among the more prominent spokesmen for deism were Anthony Collins (1676-1729), John Toland (1670-1729) and Matthew Tindal (1656-1733). Thinkers such as these remained on the fringes of intellectual and religious life even during the height of deism, and they were subject to no small amount of criticism by the more orthodox, whether clerics, religious scholars or the laity. By the mid-eighteenth century, deism had become less prominent in England. Perhaps its greatest legacy is not so much the specific ideas of deism as much as its role as a transitional force in the development of Western intellectual culture. Peter Gay aptly describes this legacy:

It has often been noted, and it deserves to be noted again, that for most of his recorded history man has been a religious animal. After deism, and partly because of it, he was so no longer. Obviously no one, least of all the deists,would make deism alone, or even chiefly, responsible for this mutation. Deism reflected and articulated a critical transition in religious consciousness, but by reflecting and articulating it so plainly, so coarsely, it hastened the transition. The impact of the deist polemic was felt wherever men reasoned about religion. The secular Enlightenment, which was by no means dominated by deists, is the deists’ rightful heir. (7 Gay, pp. 10-11, 9, 143-144)

Indeed, perhaps the most far reaching influence of the deists to date is the secular intellectual culture that currently reigns in the West. The deist “watering down” of orthodoxy, and the subsequent integration of deist influences into the churches, the civil religion of Americans, and personal religious beliefs and practices has certainly impacted modern civilization immensely. However, the culture of the intellectual elites is even more distant from the Christian theological ancestry of the West. For example, while most Americans still claim to believe in God, only a handful of scientists, philosophers and other intellectual leaders profess even basic theism. This reflects a degree of secularization among elites that is considerably more advanced than that of the common people or established public norms. It was with the emergence of the deists that this gulf between Christianity and intellectual culture began to develop.

Deism and Christianity

The advent of deism marked a significant shift in the nature of religious polemics among European thinkers. Previously, theological discourse had been limited to those claiming Christian orthodoxy. There had been conflicts between the established Church and heretical sects since the time of the initial Christian conquest of Rome. Aquinas had attempted to reconcile Christianity with the insights of classical philosophy. The Reformation brought about bitter and frequently violent struggles between Catholics and Protestants. The Radical Reformation further escalated these conflicts with contentious groupings of Protestants, Calvinists and Anabaptists, Anglicans and Puritans, facing off against one another. However, the rise of deism expanded the conflict into the realm of those who no longer professed, or barely professed, Christianity at all. The firebrand early American Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edwards issued a polemic against the deists that was more or less representative of the reaction to the new religion by orthodox Christians:

The Deists wholly cast off the Christian religion, and are professed infidels. They are not like the Heretics, Arians, Socinians, and others, who own the Scriptures to be the word of God, and hold the Christian religion to be the true religion: they deny the whole Christian religion”. After then, he continued “they own the being of God; but deny that Christ was the son of God, and say he was a mere cheat; and so they say all the prophets and apostles were: and they deny the whole Scripture. They deny any revealed religion, or any word of God at all; and say that God has given mankind no other light to walk by but their own reason.” (8 Gay, p.11, History of the Works of Redemption, in The Works of President, 4 vols. (1857), I, 467.)

Most of the intellectual conflict between deists and Christian clerics was centered on the rationalist challenge to traditional notions of “faith” as a source of religious knowledge and the credibility of Christian claims of revelation and miracles. The deists found most of their audience in the more literate sectors of the working class who felt alienated from the hierachies of the respective churches. In retalitation, church authorities frequently sought to repress the dissemination of deist ideas under laws prohibiting heresy or blasphemy. Consequently, deists were foremost among the ranks of those who championed religious liberty and freedom of speech. The deists also remained very much in the minority among the public at large during their time. James Herrick observes that for “every Deist willing to attack revelation, there were five clerical apologists willing to vigorously defend it.” (9 Herrick, p. 212) Of course, the balance in favor of Christian orthodoxy was considerable given that it had not only the clergy but the weight of the state, the law and the majority of public opinion on its side. Yet on a higher intellectual level, the deists offered important and in the long run quite significant criticisms of the traditional Christian dogmas and their fantastic claims.

The obscurantism of the clerics was demonstrated by the persecution of religious dissidents and scientific innovators such as Galileo. However, the deists’ own naive rationalism, utopian faith in human betterment, scientific reductionism and advocacy of a vaguely defined watchmaker deity who was somehow mysterious but benevolent, detached from the mechanical workings of the universe but rewarding of virtuous behavior also lent itself to much criticism, and not merely from reactionary Christian clerics. The thinker whose work ultimately left the most devastating mark on the presumptions of the deists was not a Christian but a religious skeptic. The empiricist philosopher David Hume presented two works in the mid-eighteenth century that undermined the ultimate viability of deist illusions. These were The Natural History of Religion and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. The former work argued that human religious belief and practice was derived from efforts by ignorant and primitive people to make sense out of a natural world they had no capacity for understanding. Religious principles could not be deduced from reason, Hume argued, because religion itself was fundamentally rooted in the irrational. The latter work attacked the naive belief in the capabilities of human reason of the kind espoused by the deists. The limitations of human knowledge and the tendency of humans to subordinate reason to passion mitigated against the deists’ desire to achieve human perfectibility through application of pure critical reason. Hume also pointed out the weaknesses of religious explanations of any kind, including those of the deists, for the natural order found in the universe. Hume’s work and that of subsequent skeptics opened the door for the eventual establishment of the secular intellectual culture (as opposed to civil religion, popular religion or popular culture) that currently reigns in the West. Yet however archaic the ideas of the deists may seem in retrospect, there can be no denying the importance of their role in the transition from medieval theocracy and superstition to the ultimate victory of the scientific revolution and the consequent waning of traditional Christian orthodoxy.(10 Waring, p. xiv-xvii)

Deism in Colonial America

The Newtonian revolution in physics was influential in the American colonies early on. Even some of the theologically quite conservative, such as Cotton Mather, accepted the findings of the new science. Indeed, Mather’s acceptance of Newton’s physics and the Copernican view of the solar system proved to be offensive to some New England elites such as the Puritan “fundamentalist” Samuel Sewell. (11 Morais, p. 55) The Newtonian view of the universe as a giant mechanical system led early American deists to doubt the validity of  the miraculous claims found in revealed religion. If the creator-supreme being-first cause had established the universe as a giant clock operating according to its own principles of natural regularity, why would such a creator need to set aside his own natural laws for the sake of miracles and revelation? The philosophy of John Locke was also immensely influential on colonial thinkers. Locke’s belief in the supremacy of reason detracted from the emphasis on faith in the incredible that traditional religious thought required.

The growth of rationalism in the colonies led to increased intellectual assaults upon both the Calvinist theology of the Puritan tradition as well as the orthodoxy of the Anglican Church. From the last decade of the seventeenth century to the middle of the eighteenth century, the influence of the Puritan clergy diminished considerably though the influence of ministers less rigidly attached to the Puritan fundamentalism of their immediate predecessors remained strong. This was in no small part due to the role played by the clergy in the witch hunts at Salem in 1692. The results of that debacle included increased attacks on the authority and credibility of the clergy by theological and political liberals and a general increase in the degree of religious tolerance in the subsequent decades. The renewed interest in religious matters that characterized the so-called “Great Awakening” of the mid-eighteenth century had the unintended consequence of weakening the authority of the traditional churches. The emotionalism and emphasis on religious experience as opposed to dogma and ritual that was common to the movement led to less attachment on the part of believers to specific institutional forms. The irrationalism of the Great Awakening also provoked a backlash among more liberal clergy who called for a renewed emphasis on reason and science. Rejecting traditional Calvinist notions such as original sin, trinitarianism and predestination, the new Christian rationalism “sought to humanize faith by representing the Deity as a benevolent Being and man as a responsible agent.” (12 Morais, p. 60)

Conservative seminaries, including those at Harvard and Yale, attempted to ward off the growing influence of theological liberalism, yet these new doctrines continued to attract new adherents. A typical example was the Boston cleric Jonathan Mayhew who believed in a deity who ruled on the basis of “benevolence and wisdom” and argued the “Creator was to be obeyed not through fear but through love.” (13 Morais, p. 62) Not all of the newer theological liberals were deists. Some subscribed to “middle of the road” perspectives between the teachings of traditional Puritan or Anglican orthodoxy and those of the more radical deists who rejected the Christian view of revelation altogether. Many still believed in the validity of the doctrine of the divinity or resurrection of Christ and the Christian salvation scheme, though many increasingly came to doubt the doctrine of eternal damnation, and in some sort of divine inspiration behind the writing of the Bible. However, there were other thinkers of the time who embraced more theologically radical views.

One of these was Benjamin Franklin. Although he converted to deism a rather early age, and seems to have remained one for the rest of his life, Franklin approached his theological radicalism in a way that was markedly different from similar thinkers on the European continent. While French deists and others even more radical would adopt a confrontational, antagonistic approach to the question of religion, Franklin adopted a much more prudent and pragmatic outlook that would come to be characteristic of American deists. For one thing, Franklin continued to attend church for the rest of his life. Aspiring to live a life of social and political influence, Franklin understood that his ambitions in this regard could be easily thwarted if he became publicly known as an infidel. Indeed, he advised his adult daughter to remain faithful in her own church attendance so as not to tarnish his own reputation. Franklin also saw practical value in religion, viewing is as a source of community cohesion and instruction for the common people in moral and ethical principles. (14 Morais, pp. 63-65)

Franklin is a pivotal figure in the development of not only American deism and the larger political philosophy that laid the intellectual groundwork for the American Revolution, but also of the wider “civil religion” that emerged out of the revolutionary period and subsequently worked its way into both political and popular culture as these have since evolved in the United States. Franklin might well be classified as a kind of “conservative deist” as opposed to the militantly anti-clerical radicalism of French deists or atheists like Voltaire, Robespierre, Diderot or D’Holbach. The actual theology of Franklin’s deism was rather similar to that outlined early in the history of deism by Lord Herbert of Cherbury. Franklin believed that fundamental religious truths could be determined by reason, and in a benevolent deity who was concerned about the welfare of humanity. Although believing the soul to be immortal, Franklin expressed skepticism of the miraculous claims of Christianity, the narrow determinism of orthodox Calvinism and the supposed necessity of adhering to the rituals and dogmas of the established churches. (15 Morais, pp. 66-67)

Deism was most prevalent in the northern colonies in the decades leading up to the revolutionary period. Within elite circles, vigorous debate took place between proponents of varying degrees of orthodoxy or heterodoxy. There existed in the northern colonies a spirit of general religious toleration that was in no small way a reaction against the intolerance of the region’s Puritan past. Even in the twenty-first century, it is this region of the United States where interest in theological conservatism is arguably in the shortest supply. Despite this cautious toleration, however, there was a fear among elites, irrespective of their personal religious views, of radical theological ideas being disseminated among the masses. Religious radicalism might well lead to political and economic radicalism, they thought, and even  the more impious members of the elite sectors took pains to avoid publicly undermining religion and its influence over the population at large. As for the southern colonies, the Church of England was more well-established in these areas. Even in Virginia, a colony which produced many of the most influential proponents of the American Revolution, most of whom were not religiously orthodox, deism was somewhat unpopular and anti-clerical sentiments did not have a particularly large following. The only exceptions to this general norm in the southern colonies was North Carolina, where anti-clerical feeling was quite prevalent. (16 Morais, pp. 70-84)

Deism During the Revolutionary Era

By the time the thirteen American colonies declared their independence from England in 1776, the rivalry between Christian orthodoxy and its varying competitors, including deism, had largely reached the point of a standstill. While nothing resembling modern ideas of “separation of church and state” had yet been put into practice, by the standards of the time the overall level of religious toleration in the colonies had reached a rather high point. Though religious discrimination still existed, religious liberalism and even skepticism began to experience considerable growth. In addition to deism, the ultra-liberal Unitarian faith emerged as a powerful influence among New England elites. One of the great ironies of the time was that Salem, the location of the witchcraft prosecutions eighty years earlier, had become the de facto capitol of the Unitarian movement. Though not as extreme in its rejection of revelation and supernaturalism as deism, Unitarianism joined deism in making in-roads against orthodoxy within the ranks of the elite intellectuals residing within the larger urban centers. (17 Morais, pp. 91-92, Cohen, Holmes) However, it is also important to recognize that such thinking was largely confined to the ranks of the elite. The growing evangelical movement that emanated from the earliest stages of the Great Awakening continued to expand among the common people, including even the African slaves. (18 Butler) The largest Christian denomination at the time of the Revolution was the established Anglican Church. Its leading competitors were the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists, although the revolutionary generation was not a particularly fervent one with regards to religious matters. There was a Catholic and Jewish minority in the colonies, and there were also newer, more eccentric denominations that were not especially influential within the ranks of the colonial elites. These included the Quakers, Mennonites, Shakers, Methodists, Moravians, Amish and Hutterites.

As for the religious views of the so-called “founding fathers,” this question remains controversial even to the present. It is difficult to discern with sharp precision the actual religious beliefs of the individual founders and revolutionary leaders. The norm among educated, privileged class males of the period was to maintain formal ties with the church of one’s upbringing, even if one did not take its teachings particularly seriously, and to remain prudently reserved if not completely silent concerning whatever criticisms one might have of orthodoxy. Such was seen as necessary to maintain one’s reputation among the wider body of pious citizens and prevent disdain for institutional authority from spreading into the ranks of the lower classes. Some of the revolutionary leaders wrote very little on religious matters, if they wrote at all, and even then frequently limited their discussion of theological matters to very general questions in private correspondence with intimate associates and long-time friends. (19 Cohen, Butler, Holmes)

Herbert M. Morais examined the religious views of a little more than a third of the fifty-six delegates who signed the Declaration of Independence, a document whose reference to “nature and nature’s god” gives clear indication of deist influences. Of the religious beliefs of the signers examined by Morais, three were deists, two showed distinct deistic leanings, four entertained liberal, though not deistic, views, while the remaining eleven were definitely orthodox in their outlook. (20 Morais, p. 92) Additionally, only one signer, John Witherspoon, was a minister. Apparently, the “founding fathers” were divided roughly down the middle between proponents of orthodoxy and proponents of liberalism, skepticism or deism. The most openly deistic among the signers were Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Stephen Hopkins. John Adams and George Wythe were close to deism. The most theologically conservative was Roger Sherman of Connecticutt.  Among other prominent early Americans who did not sign the declaration, Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen, both strict deists, were the most openly anti-clerical and anti-Christian. George Washington, James Madison and George Mason were theological liberals, while Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry were theological conservatives, the former being a devout Congregationalist and the latter being a part the evangelical movement in Virginia. It should also be pointed out that even the most religiously conservative of the founders were generally proponents of toleration. Less than a century earlier, even Cotton Mather, arguably one of the most educated clergymen in the colonies, had been implicated in the excesses of the Salem witchcraft prosecutions. By the time of the Revolution, even the staunchly orthodox Samuel Adams and the arch-infidel Thomas Paine were otherwise personal friends. Roger Sherman was known to harbor a strong personal dislike for the non-religious, but supported political toleration of religious differences, serving as an illuminating example of the adage that “today’s liberalism is tommorow’s conservatism.” (21 Morais, pp. 92-97).

The Emergence of American Civil Religion

The famous skeptic Robert Ingersoll offered his own view on the relationship between religion and citizenship in American civic life during a July 4, 1876 speech commemorating the centennial anniversary of the Declaration of Independence:

There were the Puritans who hated the Episcopalians, and Episcopalians who hated the Catholics, and the Catholics who hated both, while the Quakers held them all in contempt. There they were, of every sort, and color and kind, and how was it that they came together? They had a common aspiration. They wanted to form a new nation. More than that, most of them cordially hated Great Britain; and they pledged each other to forget these religious prejudices, for a time at least, and agreed that there should be only one religion until they got through, and that was the religion of patriotism.” (22 Ingersoll in Edwords, “Religious Character…”)

In 1749, Benjamin Franklin had written of “the Necessity of a Publick Religion” and later argued that “the essentials of every religion” included “the existence of the Deity; that he made the world and govern’d it by his Providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to men; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter.” (23 Franklin, Autobiography, Edwords). In his first inaugural address as the nation’s third President, Thomas Jefferson characterized Americans as “enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter…” (24 Edwords) In another speech as President, Jefferson said that he “shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with His providence and our riper years with His wisdom and power…” (25 Edwords) In a similar vein, George Washington remarked in his 1796 farewell speech: “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” (26 Edwords)

But what was this “religious principle” that was somehow a necessity to the flourishing of American civic life? Frederick Edwords observed that “conspicuously absent from the writings of many of the nation’s founders and first presidents are indications of belief in Christ, hell, and Original Sin” and, mirroring the views of Bellah, Edwords noted “they all mentioned God–and not merely the clockwork God of deism but a god actively involved in history. Their ‘public religion’ clearly was not Christianity, though it could include Christians and others within its embrace.” (27 Edwords) Indeed, Jefferson seems to have appropriated the narrative of the Israelite exodus to the “promised land” depicted in the Hebrew Bible/Christian Old Testament and transplanted it into American national mythology. Robert Bellah has gone so far as to suggest that “the American Revolution and the American civil religion are the same thing.” (28 Bellah, “The Revolution and Civil Religion”). The phrase “civil religion” itself first appeared in the works of Jean-Jacques Rosseau, the French Enlightenment thinker whose writings the American “founding fathers” would have been familiar with. References to Rosseau occasionally appear in the writings of early American leaders, for instance, John Adams, who in 1765 referred to Rosseau merely as an “opponent of feudalism.” (29 Morais, p. 52) Foreshadowing the later views of the founders, Rosseau’s civil religion was reduced to the lowest common denominator, mostly consisting of belief in a benevolent deity who rewarded good conduct, opposition to religious intolerance, and leaving the rest to individual or denominational opinion. Rosseau’s naturalistic religion was quite similar in approach to the restrained, prudent, conservative deism of Franklin and other American opponents of orthodoxy as opposed to the inflammatory rhetoric of Voltaire or Diderot. (30 Morais, pp. 50-52)

Another question that must be examined when discussing the religious views of the American founders relates to the involvement of many of them with Freemasonry. This particular order is best known for its activities as a semi-secret society and has frequently been the subject of outlandish conspiratorial claims. Membership in fraternal lodges was a popular pastime among educated males in the eighteenth century. Memberships in such groups were granted on an exclusionary basis and participants were sworn to secrecy concerning the group’s internal rituals and beliefs. This practice led to many wild speculations by outsiders concerning what might be going on among the adherents of such brotherhoods and accusations ranging from witchcraft to pederasty to cannibalism were sometimes directed against such groups. The reality appears to have been far less exotic. These orders were essentially “gentlemen’s clubs” and were committed to philanthropy and civic virtue. The religious orientation of these groups is significant as the only religious requirements for membership were typically affirmation of belief in a supreme being and to the betterment of humanity. Freemasons included in their ranks nominal Anglicans and other Protestants, along with Jews, Unitarians, and deists. The theological orientation of Freemasonry was entirely consistent with the watered down Protestantism or theological radicalism typical of elite males in late eighteenth century America. Known Freemasons among the prominent revolutionary figures included Washington, Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Paul Revere and John Hancock. (31 Lemay, Cohen) The essential theological tenants of Freemasonary, such as belief in a implicitly unitarian god and an emphasis on civic virtue with doctrinal particulars being of marginal importance, mirror near perfectly those of the American civil religion.

Still another matter that merits consideration involves the traditional view of religion as indispensible to the orderly functioning of society that had been expressed by many of history’s greatest thinkers since ancient times. Historically, ruling elites utilized religious beliefs and institutions as a means of inculcating piety, virtue, discipline, obedience and reverence for superiors as a method of both practical social organization and the wider purpose of maintaining social control over subordinates. Conventional religious language and symbolism had traditionally been used to rally the masses towards specific political ends considered desirable by elites. This view is found in the writings of both ancients like Plato and Aristotle and early moderns like Spinoza, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke and Rosseau. Still another view of civil religion recognizes the utility of common theological assumptions as a means of societal unification and a shared dense of purpose and destiny. This view can be found in the more perceptive thinkers of ancient Rome and the medieval world, Machiavelli, early American Puritan thinkers and, later, Hegel. (32 Weed and Heyking, book proposal) It was in these intellectual traditions that the colonial elites who became the leaders of the American Revolution were trained. The ordering of society on predominately secular concerns, economic or utilitarian principles or natural ethics was a new project that had yet to come into fruition. The existence of technologically advanced, economically prosperous mass societies organized on a secular basis of the type found in modern North America, Western Europe, Russia, Japan, China and Australia, where the elites are overwhelmingly secular to the point of rejecting even basic theism, where even the most conservative religious denominations are liberal by historical standards, and where serious religious fanaticism is a fringe activity considered disreputable by even most common people was still centuries away at the time of the American Revolution. Old habits die hard.

Deism, Civil Religion and the Post-Revolutionary Era

In the period following the American Revolution, the deists became more outspoken in their opposition to Christianity, primarily as a reaction against clerical opposition to the French Revolution. A definitive deist work published during this time was Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. The purpose of this work was to discredit the authority of the clergy by demonstrating that the supposed source of their authority, the Biblical revelation itself, lacked credibility. For this reason, Paine for the most part  became something of a pariah in both elite circles and among the commoners. However, deistic beliefs, publications and formal organizations began to grow during this time. An important controversy surrounding deism emerged from the election of the deist Thomas Jefferson to the Presidency in 1800. Anti-Jeffersonians regarded this as a coup against Christianity. This was a rather extravagant and groundless claim. The supporters of Jefferson and his Republican party included those from across the spectrum of religious opinion ranging from deists to Unitarians and other theological liberals to the theologically orthodox. The same diversity was found among the rival Federalist Party. However, popular opinion at the time regarded the Republicans as the party of deism and the Federalists as the party of orthodoxy. The controversy over deism had been aggravated considerably by the occurrence of the French Revolution in 1789 and the militant anti-clerical views of the French radicals. (33 Morais, pp.120-155)

As the nineteenth century began, not only did deism continue to grow but it was accompanied by the growth of a rival evangelical movement. As colonial expansion westward past the Alleghany mountains continued to develop, evangelical religion became increasingly popular in those regions although deism took root there as well. Deism also began to find a place at major universities such as Harvard and Yale that had once been hallmarks of orthodoxy and became a major source of controversy at those institutions. Ironically, much of the counterattack against deism in higher intellectual circles came not from old style Calvinists or other proponents of orthodoxy but from theological liberals. On a more common level, the growing evangelical movement, the second “Great Awakening,” served as a check on the continued growth of deism. Evangelicals issued repeated denunciations of deism in both the pulpit and the press. The deist movement was eventually eclipsed by its two main rivals, evangelicalism and theological liberalism of the type represented by Unitarianism, though many of the deist criticisms of orthodoxy influenced the development of the German Higher Criticism movement and were later vindicated. Indeed, Unitarianism was able to achieve victory over deism on the theological left largely because of its ability to incorporate some of the insights and concepts of deism into its own theology. (34 Morais, pp.156-178)

What is the meaning of all of this for the American civil religion as it has subsequently developed? Catherine Albanese summarized what may well be the most significant impact of deism on the future development of the relationship between civil religion and American political culture:

The deistic God, who was Great Governor and Nature’s God, provided a broad arena for the actions of patriots who involved themselves in the course of human history without awaiting the arm of Jehovah. As representative Man among these men, George Washington summarized their endeavor. In his apotheosis, which would increase as the nineteeth century progressed, we discover sacred power in a world from which the Governor was content to recede. Finally, we see that, if Washington epitomized the emergent religious identity of a new nation which would ‘flatten’ transcendence without obliterating it,   he was pointing beyond himself to a new covenant among Americans. It was a covenant symbolized in the great twin sacraments of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution...” (35 Albanese, p.18)

It was the deists’ God who became the God of the American civil religion, though some of the remnant attributes of the old Judeo-Christian God (such as providence) remained. It was Washington who became the American Moses and it was the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution which came to serve as the Bible of the American civil religion. The civil religion crystallized when the Founders realized the necessity of putting aside their denominational or theological differences for the sake of establishing and governing a new nation.  The Catholic writer Avery Cardinal Dulles has described the relationship between historic deism, the American civil religion and the traditional Judeo-Christian faiths as a symbiotic one where the elementary teachings of deism provide the theological foundations of the civil religion which in turn creates an institutional and cultural framework where faiths with more specific sets of dogmas can thrive.  Says Dulles:

Deism by itself was too dry and abstract to elicit warm adherence, but the American consensus always surrounded the positive teachings of deism with the flesh and bones of specific faiths, whether Protestant, Catholic or Jewish… Jefferson would probably have insisted on the positive articles of deism as a required minimum. For him and the other Founding Fathers, the good of society requires a people who believe in one almighty God, in providence, in a divinelygiven moral code, in a future life and in divinely administered rewards and punishments…If he were alive today, Jefferson would doubtless ask himself whether the welfareof the republic can stand in the absence of the minimal consensus I have described. (36 Dulles,   “First Things”)

The views of Cardinal Dulles are not unlike those of most contemporary social, cultural or religious conservatives. In this view, the American civil religion is comprised of a framework where the “deist minimum” forms the foundation for the broader flourishing of a Judeo-Christian civilization. The deist minimum reflects a consensus of primary religious beliefs among the first generation of American leaders. The deist minimum was agreed upon because the Founders could agree on little more concerning theological matters. It was the deist minimum that became the fundamentals of the civil religion as it found its way into the writings and speeches of American leaders from the first generation onward. The Judeo-Christian traditions provide the civil religion with a wider array of what Robert Bellah calls “biblical archetypes: Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, and Sacrificial Death and Rebirth.” According to Bellah, this biblical imagery is appropriated and reworked into a newer, revised narrative that is “genuinely American and genuinely new. It has its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols. It is concerned that America be a society as perfectly in accord with the will of God as men can make it, and a light to all nations.” (37 Bellah, “Civil Religion”) Yet it is also true that there are competing versions of this civil religion. The “conservative” rendition of civil religion is one not unlike that found in the views of Cardinal Dulles. A more “liberal” version is also discernable. Robert Wuthnow characterizes this vision as one that is less overtly nationalistic, and more universalist. America has an important role to play in the world and in history not because of some special chosen status, but because of the revolutionary nature of the American founding and its impact on the world as a whole, the vast resources possessed by the United States and the tremendous international influence of America. In this version, appeals to the biblical prophets and New Testament ethics are used as a call for “social and economic justice.” (38 Wuthnow, Century).

The “deist minimum” does indeed form the foundational framework of the civil religion, but the civil religion consists of two major denominations rooted in the two religious tendencies that eventually eclipsed the deist insurgency of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The “conservative”, nationalistic view utilizes the notion of a “redeemer nation” drawn from the religious culture of evangelicalism, while the “liberal,” universalist view draws on the liberal theological tradition of Unitarianism and its predecessors. This two rivals then share space in the wider culture with other value systems like Deweyan pragmatism, consumerism, libertarian individualism, leftist egalitarianism, “secular humanism” and, as noted by Cardinal Dulles, an ever increasing religious pluralism.

Finally, it is also  interesting to examine the degree to which civil religion resembles popular religion. As noted at the beginning of this paper, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton observed in their study of the religious views of contemporary American teenagers a dominant set of beliefs they describe as “moralistic therapeutic deism.” These are precisely the set of core religious views promulgated by the classical deists and early proponents of a civil religion such as Jean-Jacques Rosseau. The classical deists may have been eclipsed in their time by both evangelicalism and theologically liberal Christian tendencies such as Unitarianism, but apparently they won the wider battle for the “hearts and minds” of modern Americans. And while some Americans continue to supplement these core ideas of both civil and personal religion with more specified sectarian beliefs, such as those of evangelicalism or Catholicism, it would appear that “moralistic therapeutic deism” forms the dominant strand of most contemporary religious belief across denominational lines. For instance, Smith and Denton found one teen-aged evangelical Protestant in their study who said of her faith: “God is like someone who is always there for you; I don’t know, it’s like God is God. He’s just like somebody that’ll always help you go through whatever you’re going through. When I became a Christian I was just praying, and it always made me feel better.” Another teenaged evangelical said: “Religion is very important, because when you have no one else to talk to about stuff, you can just get it off your chest, you just talk to God.” Indeed, the fears of Cardinal Dulles of increased religious pluralism undermining the “deist minimum” of the civil religion seem to be unwarranted. One teen-aged American Hindu said her religious practices “just really help me feel good and an American Buddhist said, “When I pray it makes me feel good afterward.” (39 Smith, Denton) It would appear that the next generation of Americans is destined to be united by a civil religion and common faith dedicated to “feeling good.”

Once an aristocratic cult influencing only dissident members of the elite, deism has, over the past two and a quarter centuries, evolved into a much more egalitarian outlook. As belief in the untenable nature of the old dogmas spread through the ranks of the cultural, intellectual and socio-economic elites, so did this increased skepticism “trickle down” into the ranks of the masses. Ironically, the American deists of the eighteenth century would have feared such a turn of events. In their eyes, the people were not trustworthy enough to be handed such knowledge. The deists were pioneer proponents of biblical criticism and skepticism concerning miracles and other fantastic religious claims. As these criticisms have found their way into the clergy, so have they subsequently found their way into the ranks of lay people. As the masses have observed and absorbed the inculcation of the “deist minimum” to be found in the American civil religion, so have the theological tenants of the civil religion become nearly synonymous with those of popular religion. Meanwhile, the intellectual and philosophical elites have moved even further away from orthodoxy and become even more secularized and dismissive of the historic Christian faith. The deists not only won the war of ideas, but achieved greater success than even they initially wished for.


1. Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

2.  Robert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, from the issue entitled, “Religion in America”, Winter 1967, Vol. 96, No. 1, pp. 1-21.

3. E. Graham Waring, editor, Deism and Natural Religion: A Source Book, (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1967), p. v.

4. Waring, Deism, pp. vi-vii.

5.  Ibid., p. x.

6. James A. Herrick, The Radical Rhetoric of the English Deists: The Discourse of Skepticism, 1680-1750, (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1997), pp. 12-17.

7. Peter Gay, editor, Deism: An Anthology, (Princeton, New Jersey: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1968), pp. 10-11, 9, 143-144.

8. Gay, Deism: An Anthology, p.11.

9. Herrick, Radical Rhetoric, p. 212.

10. Waring, Deism, pp. xiv-xvii.

11. Herbert M. Morais, Deism in Eighteenth Century America, (New York: Russell & Russell, 1960), p. 55.

12. Ibid., p. 60.

13. Ibid., pp. 63-65.

14. Ibid., pp. 66-67.

15. Ibid., pp. 71-84.

16. Ibid., pp. 91-92.

17. Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People, (London and Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1990).

18. Morais, Deism, pp. 91-92

19. Ibid., p. 91.

20. Ibid., pp. 92.

21. Ibid., pp. 91-97.

22. Frederick Edwards, “The Religious Character of American Patriotism”, The Humanist, November/December, 1987, pp. 20-24, 36.

23. Ibid., p. 20.

24. Ibid., pp. 20-21.

25. Ibid., pp. 20. 21

26. Ibid., pp. 22-24

27. Ibid., p. 36.

28. Robert N. Bellah, “The Revolution and the Civil Religion,” in Religion and the American Revolution, edited by Jerald C. Brauer, Originally published by Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1976.

29. Morais, Deism, p. 52

30. Ibid., pp. 50-52.

31. J.A. Leo Lemay, editor, Deism, Masonry and the Enlightenment: Essays Honoring Alfred Owen Aldridge, (Newark, University of Delaware Press, 1987), 123-139.

32. John von Heyking and Ronald Weed, editors. “Civil Religion Then and Now: The Philosophical Legacy of Civil Religion and Its Enduring Relevance in North America” (book proposal). Archived at Accessed October 2, 2007.

33. Morais, Deism, pp. 120-155.

34. Ibid., pp. 156-178.

35. Catherine Albanese, Sons of the Fathers: The Civil Religion of the American Revolution,  (Philadephia: Temple University Press, 1976), p. 18.

36. Avery Cardinal Dulles, “The Deist Minimum”, First Things, January, 2005.

37. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America”.pp. 1-21.

38. Robert Wuthnow, “Divided We Fall: America’s Two Civil Religions,” The Christian Century, April 20, 1988, pp. 395-399.

39. Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, pp. 162-170, 171, 258, 262.

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