restricted access American Deism, Christianity, and the Age of Reason
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American Deism, Christianity, and the Age of Reason1

Where religion is concerned, the best and most lasting contribution of America's founders was arguably more political than theological. They brought to fruition the idea of religious freedom. To be sure, this concept had already been articulated and underwent important developments prior to the eighteenth century.2 The Americans, however, began to make it a reality in the sphere of public life. This is nowhere more evident than in the Constitution of the United States and in the first article of the Bill of Rights. Nevertheless, some of the founders had a great deal to say on theological topics, and it is this aspect of their thinking on which I focus in this paper. Some of the founders were orthodox Christians, but where religious liberty was concerned, it was deistic philosophy more than Christianity per se that informed their ideas about the laws that would regulate the new nation.3 I examine the views of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), Thomas Paine (1737-1809), and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) as representative of the American version of what David L. Holmes calls "the Deist spectrum."4 Although two of these founders were nominally Christian, all of them sought to deprive Christianity of a privileged status in political life through their criticisms of specifically Christian articles of faith. More than this, they viewed deism as the theology most consonant with reason. Jefferson went further and hoped that religious liberty would lead to the triumph of deistic and Unitarian ideas. I conclude the paper with some [End Page 83] critical and not entirely unappreciative reflections on the thoughts of these great eighteenth-century American deists.

I. Enlightenment and the Deist Spectrum

Immanuel Kant famously characterized enlightenment as "man's release from his self-incurred tutelage"—tutelage, that is to say, to the strictures of authority and tradition. According to Kant, the motto of enlightenment is "Have courage to use your own reason."5 The enthusiasm for reason as the crowning glory of human beings is why Enlightenment thinkers viewed themselves as living in the Age of Reason, in contrast to previous ages, especially the medieval, which was characterized, and caricatured, as "The Dark Ages." Thus, Voltaire spoke of "those times of darkness and ignorance, which we distinguish by the name of the Middle Ages . . ."6 For Enlightenment thinkers, the unfettered use of reason included the promise of solving personal, intellectual, social, political, and spiritual problems. Applied to the political sphere it implied the end of tyranny and the birth of freedom. Voltaire's twin injunctions, "Osez penser par vous-même" (Dare to think for yourself) and "Écrasez l'infâme" (Crush infamy) encapsulate both the appeal to the individual's power of reason and the political implications of enlightenment thinking.7

When it came to the subject of religion, there was no single Enlightenment view, but the claims of revelation were increasingly subject to scrutiny, skepticism, and denial. Some of those in France like the priest Jean Meslier and the philosophes Denis Diderot, Jean D'Alembert, and Baron d'Holbach were atheists. Most thinking people, however, remained broadly theistic and they continued to attach importance to Jesus if only as a moral sage. If theism survived the scrutiny of reason, the Bible did not. Increasingly, philosophers accepted Spinoza's judgment in A Theologico-Political Treatise that the Bible is to be treated no differently than any other book. Its authors were human, and so can be judged as other human authors; its claims are hypotheses, to be tested against the best available evidence. This approach to Scripture is clearly evident in Émilie du Châtelet's Examen de la Genèse, a merciless attack on the idea that the Bible [End Page 84] is divinely inspired, pointing to its inconsistencies and going beyond Spinoza to question the moral wisdom of its heroes.8 One finds similar ideas iterated throughout Voltaire's Dictionnaire Philosophique, where nearly half of his one hundred and seventeen entries address religious, theological, and biblical topics. Whereas Voltaire continually questioned revelation, he remained deferential to Jesus and the morality that he believed Jesus taught. Thus, Enlightenment...