The no man's land between today's extreme secularists and the Christian Right is dangerous territory. Wandering into it carrying the religious banner of America's founders, one is equally liable to be sniped at from Left and Right. Alf Mapp recognizes the conflict, but characterizes it as "a contest" with both sides "wanting to claim the most outstanding players for their team." Therein lies the fundamental flawor the charmin Mapp's work: it does not treat the subject of the religion of the founders with the deadly seriousness demanded by most of those really interested in the subject.
Mapp's primary thesis is found on the first page: "There was no monolithic national faith acknowledged by all Founding Fathers. Their religious attitudes were as varied as their political opinions." He makes it clear from the beginning, then, that he disagrees with both of the dominant schools of thought: a) that almost all the founders were evangelical Christians and b) that virtually all of them were deists. Mapp's stated purpose is to demonstrate that there was great "variety" of religious belief among the Founders.
Toward that end, Mapp devotes individual chapters to eleven "political leaders" he considers "prominent in the founding of the United States." Of course, one may always quibble with such lists of key founders, but his appears to have been carefully constructed to reflect diversity. I can think of no other reason to include Charles Carroll (Roman Catholic) and Haym Salomon (Jew), for example, while excluding Gouverneur Morris and James Wilson.
The character sketches begin with Thomas Jefferson. Mapp assumes, without demonstrating, the truth of the conventional view that Jefferson was a deist: Jefferson "doubtless considered himself a Deist." (Emphasis mine) The reader is left to wonder why Mapp came to that conclusion, since Jefferson did not make such a claim and, in fact, claimed something very different. Mapp further argues that Jefferson's religious "ideas" were very different at various stages of his life, the "one point of consistency" being his "adherence to Christian ethics." That is also a curious characteristic for a deist. Mapp runs over the familiar ground of Jefferson's disdain for priests and the apostle Paul, his ambiguous view of the Bible, and his efforts in favor of religious freedom. The most useful and instructive observations concerning Jefferson are that he did not consider religion and enlightenment to be "irreconcilable enemies" and that his position as vestryman was irrelevant to his religious beliefs, because the position was more social and political than religious. Mapp concludes the chapter in curious fashion by labeling Jefferson's religion in his final years an "unorthodox Christianity." Was he a deist or a Christian? Are the two not mutually exclusive? Mapp does not say.
Mapp's chapter on Benjamin Franklin illustrates the popular nature of his work (it is not aimed at a scholarly audience). He begins with an extensive discussion of an interesting but obscure belief in multiple gods that Franklin expressed while in his twenties. His discussion of the religion of the mature Franklin (who, after all, lived well into his eighties) is grounded on the fact that historians "usually have surmised" and "generally concluded" that Franklin was a deist. Mapp proceeds under the assumption that this analysis is correct and, therefore, fails to discover (or at least to mention) that Franklin specifically rejected deism and proclaimed his own attempts to live virtuously a failure.
Scholars studying the religious beliefs of the founders have often found James Madison to be something of an enigma. It is, therefore, not surprising that Mapp's treatment generates more questions than it answers. Mapp makes curiously definitive statements about Madison's religious beliefs without offering a shred of evidence to support them. He says, for example, that Madison yielded to "a growing acceptance of Deism," but he offers neither evidential support nor argument; he simply moves on to a discussion of Madison's well-documented interest in religious freedom. Mapp claims that Madison maintained "an intense interest in religion" through "all of his adult life"; that he approached theology in a more "systematic way" than did Jefferson and Franklin; that he had a "firm faith"; and that he "held fast to the idea that nothing in life was more important than religion." He finally admits, however, that "(t)here is no detailed record of his beliefs." Since he does not provide any evidence, one is forced to wonder about the source of Mapp's insights into Madison's religious beliefs.
The chapter on John Adams is filled with contradictions. The lynchpin is Mapp's assumption, in concert with most commentators, that the most profound religious influence on Adams was the Calvinism in which he was raised. This is a common error based on the fact that his church was Congregationalist in denominational affiliation. Mapp is not aware, or does not mention, that Adams's church became Unitarian in 1750. That fact explains why Mapp must spend the entire chapter trying to account for Adams's deviations from orthodox Calvinist teaching. Adams was virulently anti-Calvinist, as one of the quotes included by Mapp indicates; but Mapp employs the quote simply to illustrate Adams's opposition to witch hunts in Massachusetts. In fact, Adams and Jefferson were fond of wishing each other good health until each became a Calvinist, as that would, they said, make them immortal. Despite his attempts to make Adams's beliefs consistent with his Calvinist upbringing, Mapp does an effective job of showing Adams's unorthodox views of revelation and eternal damnation.
Mapp's treatment of George Washington is also confusing. At the start, Mapp identifies with the view that Washington was a "warm Deist." This is a rather curious term meaning one who is somehow a deist while disbelieving the fundamental tenet of deism; namely, that God does not intervene in human affairs. Having suggested that Washington was a deist, Mapp spends the rest of the chapter apparently attempting to "Christianize" Washington. He asserts, without supporting evidence, that Christianity was "obviously" more important to Washington than was Freemasonry. Describing Washington's supposed preference for things Christian over things philosophical, Mapp must resort to weakening qualifiers: "presumably," "perhaps," "seemed." Mapp refers to Christianity as "the faith that he professed" despite the fact that there is no record of Washington professing it. The strongest parts of the chapter concern Washington's belief in an intervening God and his refusal to take communion. The weakest part is prolonged speculation about whether Washington might ever have engaged in prayer, since Washington's own testimony about his prayer habits is not admitted as evidence.
After the chapter on Washington, Mapp largely abandons his stated purpose and, for the remaining six founders, sticks mainly to general biographical sketches with little discussion of religious belief. The sketches are informative; but they take the reader on a frustrating detour that fails to fulfill expectations. Religious references are relegated to such mundane and meaningless remarks as that one Founder exhibited "Christian ethics," another habitually repeated a one-sentence generic prayer at meals, a third somehow declared his Catholic faith by quoting Homer's Odyssey, and the one Jew in the group was, well, Jewish. Mapp regularly refers to "Christian ethics," "morals orthodoxly Christian," an "attitude" that was "essentially Christian," and to "Christianity" itself, but the usage is so broad and ambiguous that one has no idea what he means.
For the attentive reader looking for a scholarly treatment of its subject, Mapp's book is not at all satisfactory. In addition to the shortcomings and inaccuracies mentioned above, there are no footnotes. A number of the quotations are taken out of context, but one could not discover that if not intimately familiar with the appropriate writings. Another glaring deficiency is the absence of any reference to the beliefs of Joseph Priestley. Priestley was the dominant influence on the religious beliefs of Jefferson and Adams, and had significant influence on Madison, Franklin, and Washington as well. Mapp mentions the influence of Bolingbroke on Jefferson, presumably because he wants to paint the Virginian as a deist; but he ignores Priestley, whom Jefferson identified as the source of his religious views.
The book's third deficiency is its apparent lack of original or primary research. For the most part, Mapp admittedly presents the conclusions of others as his analysis of the religion of the various founders. Since historians have generally sought to categorize the founders in terms of existing niches, their analysis usually ends with a simple determination of whether an individual belonged to a particular broad religious tradition or denomination. If someone does not fit into the accepted categories, oxymoronic terms such as "warm deist" are invented. As a result, some are listed as deists, others as Congregationalists or Presbyterians, Anglicans or Episcopalians, and others as Catholics without regard to what they actually believed. Such superficial categorization allows Mapp easily to make his case that there was religious diversity among the founders. But was there actually significant variation in what they believed? Mapp never really tells us, despite his subtitle: What America's Founders Really Believed.
Although affiliated with various denominations, the major founders did not typically hold to the beliefs officially espoused by their denominations. Similarly, while Franklin and Jefferson are regularly listed as deists, they did not believe in the fundamental tenets of deism. The key founders shared a common belief which might be called theistic rationalism. Theistic rationalism was a hybrid, mixing elements of natural religion, Christianity, and rationalism, with rationalism as the predominant element. Accordingly, the founders believed in a benevolent, active, and unitary God who intervenes in human affairs. Consequently, they believed that prayers are heard and effectual. They believed that the key factor in serving God is living a good and moral life, that promotion of morality is central to the value of religion, and that the morality engendered by religion is indispensable to society. Because virtually all religions promote morality, they believed that most religious traditions are valid and lead to the same God.
Though theistic rationalists did not believe that Jesus was God, they considered him a great moral teacher and held a higher view of him than did deists. They believed in a personal after-life in which the wicked will be temporarily punished and the good experience happiness forever. Although they believed that God primarily revealed himself through nature, they believed that some written revelation was legitimate. Finally, while they believed that reason and revelation generally agree with each other, theistic rationalists believed that revelation was designed to complement reason (not vice versa). Reason was the ultimate standard for learning and evaluating truth and for determining legitimate revelation from God.
While many of these ideas are common threads running through Mapp's account of the founders' beliefs, he does not "connect the dots" and call attention to commonalities which would upset his thesis. One part, at least, of his argument is correct: both the secular Left and Christian Right are wrong to claim most of the founders for their respective "teams." But he is far from proving that the other part of his thesis is correct: that their religious attitudes were as varied as their political opinions. As to their political opinions, it may be well to recall Jefferson's reflection, some fifty years after the fact, on the essential ideas animating the American Revolution: "[T]here was but one opinion on this side of the water. All American Whigs thought alike on these subjects."