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The Religious Beliefs of America's Founders: Reason, Revelation, and Revolution by Gregg L. Frazer (review)
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The Religious Beliefs of America's Founders: Reason, Revelation, and Revolution. By Gregg L. Frazer (Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 2012) 299 pp. $34.95

Frazer identifies three camps in the politically charged debates about the religious disposition of the founding fathers. The "secularists"—a majority of historians and political scientists, together with the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State—view the founders as either indifferent or antagonistic toward religion. The "Christian America" group—consisting of Barton and those who teach at sectarian schools like Patrick Henry College— view the founders as something akin to evangelicals.1 The third category—those who recognize "a significant degree of impact on the Founders from both secular and Christians influences"—consists of such diverse voices as Heimert and Marsden (4).2

Frazer wants to situate himself in the third camp. To do so, he ascribes to the founders the term theistic rationalism, "a hybrid belief system [End Page 636] mixing elements of natural religion, Christianity, and rationalism, with rationalism as the predominant element" (14). The author demonstrates his command of intellectual history by recounting the philosophical influences of such figures as Joseph Priestley, Conyers Middleton, Samuel Clarke, Jonathan Mayhew, Charles Chauncy, and Anthony Ashley Cooper (the Earl of Shaftesbury) on the founding generation. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Enlightenment rationalism had infected the colleges as well, especially Harvard and Yale. Patriotic ministers then preached the "fusion of liberal democratic theory with theistic rationalism" (81).

Frazer examines the writings and speeches of the founders, principally John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Gouverneur Morris, Alexander Hamilton, and James Wilson. Frazer insists that Jefferson never claimed to be a deist; that Franklin, although he had little regard for St. Paul, believed in the power of prayer; and that (despite Barton's spurious claims) Adams was emphatically not a Trinitarian. Morris and Madison countenanced the possibility of miracles, but Wilson did not.

What united all of these "theistic rationalists," according to Frazer, was their conviction that "the various roads to God were paved with good deeds and acts of public morality, not adherence to certain beliefs" (174). Frazer maintains that Washington is the real prize in the contestations over the religion of the founders, concluding that the first president was a theistic rationalist. He candidly opens the final chapter with, "So what?" (214). The theistic rationalism evinced by the founders, he concludes, was played out in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

The range of Frazer's knowledge is impressive, as is his prodigious research. Although he purports to take on both the secularists and the Christian America crowd, his conclusions strike a bit harder at the latter. "The fact that the Constitution makes no mention of God, much less the Bible," he writes, "is in itself a telling refutation of the Christian America claim that the document was based on biblical principles and was meant to establish a Christian nation" (218). [End Page 637]

Randall Balmer
Dartmouth College

Footnotes

1. See, for example, David Barton, Separation of Church & State: What the Founders Meant (Aledo, Tex., 2007).

2. See, for example, Alan Heimert, Religion and the American Mind: From the Great Awakening to the Revolution (Eugene, Ore., 2006); George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York, 2006; orig. pub. 1980).

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