Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Nature's God and the Founders' Faith

In my previous post, I have claimed that the American Founding Fathers were predominantly Deists, and thus not orthodox Christians. The historical evidence for that claim is laid out clearly in a recent book--David Holmes' The Faiths of the Founding Fathers.

He shows that some of the leaders in the founding generation--such as Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, and John Jay--were probably orthodox Christians. But he also shows that Benjamin Franklin and the first five presidents of the United States--Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe--were Deists.

The Deists believed in God, but this was--in the phrase of the Declaration of Independence--"Nature's God." In other words, they believed that God as First Cause was most clearly manifested in the lawful order of nature. Therefore, the best way to study God was through a rational and scientific study of nature as God's work.

Darwin suggested a similar thought in the epigram from Francis Bacon that begins The Origin of Species. "Let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God's word, or in the book of God's works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficiency in both." Consequently, the scientific study of nature could be seen as the study of God's works, or of what Darwin called "the laws impressed on matter by the Creator."

Nature's God could work through the natural laws of evolution. And so there should be no conflict between believing in God as the First Cause of nature and the scientific study of natural evolution.


Martin Clarke said...

Mr. Arnhart,

In your previous post you said "this ignores the obvious fact that the American Founders were not orthodox Christians but Deists." You did not say that they were "predominantly Deists."

Washington was a vestryman of the Anglican Church, although his views are uncertain. His belief in prayer and providence probably put him outside what is commonly considered Deism. And during part of his life Adams considered becoming a Congregationalist minister. You concede that Franklin asked for prayer at the convention.

Larry Arnhart said...

Mr. Clarke,

I concede that this is a complicated issue. The complication comes from the fact that the American Founders were generally prudent statesman who thought it unwise to subvert the established religious practices.

You are right to say that Washington's "views are uncertain." Although an Anglican, he would leave church early on commununion Sundays so that he did not have to take Holy Communion.

Although Adams was a Congregationist, he was a member of a Unitarian Congregationist church that denied the divinity of Jesus.

Franklin is an enigma, but it would be hard for orthodox Christians to present him as a model of Christian thought and conduct.

Martin Clarke said...

It strikes me that the most important thing about the founders is that they believed religion was a matter for state and local government.

So they would not have supported federal court intervention in the teaching of ID, prayer in school, or whatever.

Larry Arnhart said...

Mr. Clarke,

I agree.

To have the national government regulating religious belief and education violates the Constitution. Federalism and decentralization of power is one expression of the principle of limited government, which is crucial for Darwinain conservatism.

Unfortunately, some American conservatives have lost sight of this principle in their eagerness to have the national government enforce moral and religious practices.

Craig Lesher said...

Mr. Arnhart, Mr. Clarke's school prayer issue/ID is complicated. The founding fathers left religion to the states -- true. On the other hand, Amendment XIV allowed the Supreme Court to apply the Bill of Rights across the nation overriding the state's role in religion. But Amendment I says congress shall make no law establishing/prohibiting free exercise. Congress has done neither but SCOTUS has several rulings on whether school districts are infringing on Amendment I rights. Article VI regarding oaths prohibits religious tests for those in the public trust, ie public school employees and students. Requiring students to say a prayer or recite a pledge which includes "under God" constitutes a religious test, but since the pledge most certainly would be considered to be in agreement with founding documents, then "under God" refers to Nature's God. Requiring students to pledge to one nation under Nature's God might be acceptable to an Atheist if he knows (or believes) that Nature has no God, the US is still one nation whether there is God or not. The under God phrase doesn't seem like it should be a big deal. On the other hand, requiring prayer in Jesus name or more generic forms does seem to violate the religious test prohibited in Article VI. ID seems to discourage intellectual curiousity because one might settle for "God did it" when a process is hard to decipher. Schools should not discourage curiosity but for those that are interested as with many subjects, they may look into ID outside the public school.

Anonymous said...

"God" simply means a supreme being. Someone's "God" can be nature and science itself. As a pantheist, that is what my god is. I want "God" to stay in the pledge of allegiance. I want the phrase "in God we trust". It seems like many people forget that the term God DOESN'T mean a supernatural entity. If someone doesn't believe in the supernatural, then the default God would be what is real i.e. science and nature itself.