The Founders Were ‘Theistic Rationalists,’ not Orthodox Christians or Deists


I’ve just finished reading the first chapter of Gregg L. Frazer’s The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, and Revolution. Here’s his concluding (and summary) paragraph on “theistic rationalism”:

Theistic rationalism was an elite understanding of the eighteenth century, shared by the key Founders and by many preachers. A gentle, hopeful, and nondenominational belief system that borrowed from Christianity and from deism, it never became the property of the masses. But it equipped elites to describe the projects of the Revolution and the Founding in terms that did not offend popular religion. If it never conquered the evangelical spirit of popular Christianity nor wholly displaced orthodox and traditional religion, it nevertheless was enormously influential in reshaping religious understandings in a way that made them welcoming of revolution, republicanism, and rights. If American can be both religious and republican today, it is partly because the Founders, in their day, were theistic rationalists.

I know David Barton would not approve of Frazer’s characterization of the Founders, but I wonder what John Fea would think?

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2 thoughts on “The Founders Were ‘Theistic Rationalists,’ not Orthodox Christians or Deists

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  1. I am looking forward to reading Frazer’s book. I read his dissertation and liked it. I believe I cited it in *Was America Founded as a Christian Nation*. I have a copy of the book on my desk and I hope to get to it soon. Thanks for asking, George. I hope you are doing well.

    1. I am doing well, John! Regarding Frazer, I hope to read it over vacation next week and post an amateur review here. My initial take is that (1) he is correct to give us a third choice about the religion of the Founders, beyond the binary of Christian or Deist. But (2) I wonder if he’s not trying to cram too much variety into “theistic rationalism.” I haven’t finished the book, obviously, but I’m already wondering whether we need a fourth and a fifth option, not just a third one. Are George Washington’s, John Adams’, and Benjamin Franklin’s so similar that they can be lumped together? I’m willing to be convinced, but it’s going to take some argumentation on his part. (3) I wonder if the choice between “theistic rationalism” and “Christian rationalism” is really correct. I get the feeling that Adams’ faith was a real, deeply felt and practiced Christian Unitarianism. It’s heretical, of course, but it’s heretical in a specifically Christian rather than a vaguely theistic way. But again, I can be convinced otherwise. I’m only going on what little I have read on the topic so far.

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