Listen to the entire sermon here.
George Washington, 1795: “In politics, as in religion, my tenets are few and simple; the leading one of which, and indeed that which embraces most others, is to be honest and just ourselves, and to exact it from others; meddling as little as possible in their affairs where our own are not involved. If this maxim was generally adopted, wars would cease and our swords would soon be converted into reap-hooks and our harvests be more peaceful, abundant, and happy.”
John Adams 1812: “There is no special Providence for us. We are not a chosen people that I know of. Admire and adore the Author of the telescopic universe, love and esteem the work, do all in your power to lessen ill and increase good; but never presume to comprehend.”
Thomas Jefferson, 1819: Were I to be the founder of a new sect, I would call them Apriarians, and after the example of the bee, advise them to extract the honey of every sect.”
In this half of this sermon I’ll cite quotes indicating the religiosity of our first four presidents, (and Ben Franklin) but first I want to say something about the use of language and cultural references in any public discourse.
The main point of Protestantism was that each believer could and should read the Bible for himself or herself instead of relying on the interpretation of a priest. So the religion walked hand in hand with literacy training. I am sure that the illiteracy rate in America today is higher than it was in 1780. So while books were expensive, every home that could afford even one book owned a Bible.
Wealthier, educated people also studied and owned classic works of historians and philosophers. So if you wanted to make a point in metaphorical language to a rich person, you might cite Cicero or Thucydides, but if you wanted to speak to a broad demographic, what was the one repository of cultural reference that the entire population recognized? The Bible.
What might this be comparable to today? It seems to me to be sports and media references. How many of you have attended meetings where the speaker said something like, “Let’s get that ball down the field,” or “let’s try to get this one to first base.” Companies don’t even have employees anymore; they have teams with teammates. Similarly, we pepper conversations with phrases from ad campaigns or movies, like “Where’s the Beef” or “May the Force be with you.” The point is that people within a cultural group get that sort of short hand, which is very useful to a writer or speaker. So I’m not being dismissive when I say that I do not regard public speeches thanking God for success in battle as evidence of great piety (any more than you should envision me as a great athlete if I make some sports reference). Rather, such public pronouncements offered a dose of gravitas. So, it is useful to look at other writings by leaders to ascertain how religious they were. The writings of our first four presidents and the unelected but influential Ben Franklin, indicate that they were more religiously liberal and intellectually egalitarian than many of their contemporaries. And that, for me, is certainly something I celebrate this Presidents’ Day weekend.
George Washington’s religious behaviors set the tone for subsequent national leaders. He was hugely respected, not just as the first president, obviously, but also as the leader of the first truly national entity (in the highly regionalized colonies) – the Revolutionary Army.
Like all Virginians, he was Anglican, but not a very good one. This very tall, very famous man routinely left services (and his wife) before Communion. This is significant as Communion is the central sacramental act of the denomination. And he refused to kneel during prayers. Several of his priests in Virginia commented on this in their writings. Other ministers noticed that although he often thanked God after battles or in his presidential speeches, he only mentioned Christianity in generalities, such as for his men to conduct themselves as “good Christian soldiers.” One minister asked how he could as “a true Christian, in the full exercise of his mental faculties, die without one expression of distinctive belief or Christian hope.” Maybe it is because Washington expressed such views as these: “the bosom of America was open to receive the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions, whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges.”
As General and later as President, he never pushed his Anglicanism on others, nor was his religious leadership just by omission. Instead, he was actively pluralistic: he recruited chaplains from all regions, and hence all denominations, largely allowing his units to nominate chaplains from the communities they knew. When some chaplains tried to get him to evict others from denominations they considered illegitimate, like Quakers, Baptists, and Universalists, Washington refused, in writing, several times. His egalitarianism was personal as well as political. His second in command and perhaps his best friend was Catholic at a time when Catholics still lacked civil rights in 11 colonies.
My general impression is that like Adams and Franklin, he regarded religion as a practical good for people if it comforted them and instilled virtue, but he was probably not particularly religious or spiritual inclined himself. When it came time for the states to ratify the national Constitution, many were astonished by the secularity of it and asked the President to intervene. President Washington responded quietly but pointedly, that perhaps citizens should look to their religious leaders rather than to government for spiritual inspiration and teaching.
The second president, for one term, was John Adams. He never had an opinion he did not put in writing, and so, over his lifetime, you can find changing views on many subjects. He was, at least before his time in France, rabidly anti-Catholic.
Religiously, he started out Congregationalist and then his congregation voted to become Unitarian, so of course he found the idea of the Trinity illogical. He did not believe in Original Sin. Though he believed that the Bible was based on revelations from God, it got mixed up with “millions of fables, tales, and legends” to create “the most bloody religion that ever existed.” He absolutely rejected the idea that salvation resulted from faith in Christ rather than from good deeds because he thought the purpose and value of religion was practical – to create “good men, good magistrates and good subjects, good husbands and good wives, good parents and good children, good masters and good servants.” He was in favor of tax supported local churches as an effective way of instilling “morals and decency” because he thought that Christianity offered a more effective carrot and stick for behavior, in the form of heaven and hell, than any civil institution could offer.” In a treaty signed by President Adams with Tripoli, the language read: “The Govt of the USA is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion… it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Musselmen… the said states never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation.” In his dotage he wrote, “Ye will say I am no Christian: I say Ye are no Christians. There the Account is balanced. Yet I believe all the honest men among you are Christians in my sense of the Word
His successor was Thomas Jefferson, for two terms. Jefferson is often identified as a Unitarian, and many UU congregations and an entire regional district are named for him, but he never actually belonged to a Unitarian congregation. There were none in Virginia that I know of during his lifetime. Like all other Virginians of his era, he was raised Anglican, but like Washington, he was not much of a church goer. A New Englander seeking to demonize him as an atheist during his election campaign observed: “It is a well-established fact that Mr. Jefferson never has attended public worship during a residence of several years in NY and Phila.”
Of all the Founding Fathers, he is the most ferocious critic not only of organized religion but of the Bible itself, with the most startling quotations on the subject. Unlike Adams and Franklin, who saw practical benefits to religion, Jefferson thought organized religion, particularly if required, was not only unnecessary but utterly dangerous. It was he who wrote the phrase about “a wall of separation between Church and State.” He regarded the New England clergy as “a formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man” and throughout history “the priest has been hostile to liberty.” Like the others, he believed that, “Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven.”
In Jefferson's Bill for Religious Freedom, which became law for the state of Virginia in 1780, he wrote the following words. Listen to the extent of it, given the religious climate of the time described in the first part of this sermon:
“No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” In other words, he disallowed religious tests for any civic office in the state. Of all the things that this impressive man accomplished, he referred to only three on his epitaph, and one was this law (the others were the Declaration of Independence and the Univ of VA).
Listen to some of his stinging indictments of the Bible. Regarding the New Testament he wrote: “A short time elapsed after the death of the great reformer of the Jewish religion, before his principles were departed from by those who professed to be his special servants, and perverted into an engine for enslaving mankind and aggrandizing their oppressors in church and state. “ He castigated the authors of the Gospels as “ignorant, unlettered men” who laid “a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications.” “Of this band of dupes and imposters, Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus”. Jefferson had no faith in the Trinity: “It is mere abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus” and the “hocus-pocus phantasm of a god like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads.”
Initially, he didn’t even want theology taught at the Univ. of VA he founded.
I hope that you have a copy of the Jefferson Bible in your library. This is based on his cut and pasted revision of the Gospels. Like Franklin, who cut the virgin birth and resurrection out of the Nicene Creed, Jefferson cut whole passages out of the Gospels that sounded like fairy tales. The angels, miracles, resurrection all ended up in the trash. Naturally, he came up with a very slim book indeed, one that is remarkably similar to what the 20th and 21st c. theologians have done in the Historical Jesus Project.