In the next few weeks or months, I plan to review the book The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, and Revolution, chapter-by-chapter. It is written by Gregg Frazer, a Master’s College professor of history and political science. The book has caused a stir among those who have an interest in the United States being a “Christian nation” and those on the other side who claim that it is a “secular nation.” His central thesis is that most of the Founders were religious yet unorthodox. The dominant view among the Founders was what he calls “theistic rationalism.”
In the introduction, he provides a brief discussion on the current state of the debate. The secular view is dominant in major universities while the “Christian nation” view is largely found in sectarian colleges (such as Patrick Henry College). Some have taken a more “balanced” view, notably Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Michael Zuckert. Frazer states that a detailed and adequate analysis of the religious orthodoxy of the Founders has not been done.
Frazer next briefly discusses the anti-puritanism of the Founders. He writes,
Most obvious was the revolt against Calvinism, which was abandoned by many at the time of the Revolution because it was viewed as inconsistent with the Revolutionary emphasis on liberty. Each of the so-called five points of Calvinism offended liberal democratic sensibilities. Eventually, many deemed the tenets of Calvinism to be irrational, making those who had rejected them feel further justified. (6)
Frazer then quotes Cushing Strout: “Tocqueville’s emphasis on the Puritan roots of the Revolution does less than justice to the rationalist anti-Calvinists who led it” (6).
Indeed, it was Arminianism that was most identified with “toleration, free inquiry, the use of reason, [and] democratic methods in church and state.” In my own study, I’ve noticed that the shift from Calvin’s more conservative understanding of social and political inequality, gave way in England to an emphasis on equality and social contract, leading ultimately to John Locke and Algernon Sidney. The shift, to my mind, concerns the relationship of reason and revelation. Calvin, in his Institutes, argues that revelation, far from being opposed to reason, is a further accommodation to man’s fallenness. In other words, revelation is, in a sense, right reason. Revelation serves as spectacles to show what ought to have been in the world through reason alone. In this sense, revelation is not to be privatized in a secularized state. It is not to be relegated to personal, individual opinion. Revelation gives us principles for a pubic (or political) theology. When Locke relegates revelation to the private sphere, he separates reason and revelation in ways that Arminians could celebrate. And since Locke profoundly influenced the Founders, they adopted a more Arminian approach to reason and revelation. In the next few weeks, I will (Lord willing) post a series on Calvin and Winthrop in an attempt to show how Calvin and early Calvinism was politically conservative by medieval standards, not radical or the foundation for modern politics.
Frazer argues that the conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries set the stage for the 18th century conversation wherein, quoting, Basil Willey, “a desire arose…to formulate a creed which should be acceptable to all good and reasonable men” (8). The result was theistic rationalism, and it was, according to Conrad Wright, “so widely accepted, across denominational lines, that one might justly call it the great ecumenical theology of its age.” It was “all-pervasive” and the “orthodox theology of the Age of Reason.” It was not deism, as is often argued. The result was a middle ground between revealed religion and reason alone. What these men wanted was something more reasonable that lacked the questionable (and often foundational) elements of traditional Protestantism. They sought to make religion rational “while preserving a set of core convictions grounded on reason rather than on revelation or Scripture.” He quotes Robert Kraynak, who writes,
What all of these movements have in common is the belief that religion can be preserved in the modern age of Enlightenment only by rationalizing and simplifying it to include the belief in a rational morality of universal benevolence that requires religious toleration, human freedom, and scientific progress. Nearly all other doctrines of traditional Judaism and Christianity…were to be discarded as irrational relics of a less enlightened age which modern people, especially educated people have outgrown.
Frazer quotes Sydney Ahlstrom who called this “a distinct form of Enlightenment theology.” This “natural religion” flourished among the intellectuals in the 18th century against the traditional “revealed religion.” The Founders, then, were neither truly Protestant (let alone Puritan), nor truly deistic. Their thought was a combination of their Puritan heritage, middle-class democracy, and various Enlightenment influences. When combined, basic orthodoxy was abandoned.
There have been various names given to this view: “theological rationalism,” “Christian rationalism,” enlightened Christianity,” supernatural rationalism,” and others. Frazer, as stated above, prefers the terms “theistic rationalism.” He considers it improper to label this view “Christian” because the belief system is, well, not Christian in any orthodox sense. His reasoning will not convince many outside of orthodox Christianity, for his rejection of this label requires, for instance, that all unorthodox “Christian” theologians be labeled “theistic” theologians . Theologian Paul Tillich or maybe even Walter Brueggemann comes to mind here. I’m not particularly interested in the label debate and likely will not question it throughout my reviews.
Frazer next begins discussing his understanding of the theistic rationalism. Theistic rationalism is a hybrid of rationalism and natural religion, the “essence” of which is rationalism. To my mind, this emphasis on pure reason and “natural” religion already violates certain Calvinist positions on natural theology and reason apart from revelation. It is more Arminian or, perhaps better identified as, Unitarian than Calvinist. Reason was the dominant feature of theistic rationalism and the “adherents were willing to define God in whatever way their reason indicated and to jettison Christian beliefs that did not conform to reason” (14). Only the elites, according to Frazer, held these views, so it was uncommon at the time of the Founding.
Though the theistic rationalist employment of reason seems to return to medieval Thomism, there is a fundamental difference. Thomas did not employ reason to destroy revelation but to support it. As Aquinas said, reason is to “reconcile experience with revealed truth.” Reason that contradicted revelation was faulty reason. Not so for the theistic rationalists.
Frazer proceeds with a discussion on deism. Deism rejects the “fundamentals of Christianity…the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, original sin, miracles, the atonement, the Resurrection, eternal damnation, and the Christian notion of faith.” Still, most deists continued to believe that this God should be worshiped and that he (it?) will dispense rewards and punishments in the end (16-17). Frazer argues that theistic rationalism was a “mean” between (orthodox) Christianity and deism. Its adherents denied the deity of Christ and held that God primarily revealed himself through nature. Thus, while they thought that reason and revelation generally agreed, revelation was reason’s supplement, not the other way around.
Concerning the divide between the elites and the masses, Frazer writes,
Theistic rationalism was a belief system for the educated elite. It held little appeal for the average American congregant but was a natural system for an individual raised in Protestantism and educated in Enlightenment rationalism. That was particularly true for ministers who, as will be demonstrated in this study, were trained in Enlightenment thought under the auspices of the seminary. (20)
He also noted that George Whitefield, one of the most popular and effective preachers of the Great Awakening, was hated by the elites of New England. Benjamin Franklin, who befriended him and appreciated his oratory skill, noted that Whitefield was “especially disliked by the educated and refined.” Whitefield appealed, in the words a contemporary Jonathan Mayhew, to the “illiterate sort.”
Frazer concludes with the following:
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 is 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 to revolution, republicanism, and rights. If America can be both religion and republican today, it is partly because the Founders, in their day, were theistic rationalists.
This last statement is quite controversial. The development of republicanism and early liberalism has contributors such as Theodore Beza (resistance theory), John Knox (natural reason), Johannes Althusius (consociation), Samuel Rutherford (Lex Rex), and Philippe de Mornay (Vindiciae, Contra Tryannos). It is not obvious that orthodox Christianity and republicanism are incompatible. Hobbes, Locke and, perhaps, Sidney might have been unorthodox, but Rutherford and Mornay certainly were orthodox.
Glenn Moots recently wrote,
It is cases such as Rutherford and Mornay that should force scholars to reexamine their assertions about a discontinuity between political theology and political philosophies calling on nature, natural law, or rights derived from an original position. Prominent Reformed political theologians were not only prepared to call both arguments from nature and secular sources. They may have had some hand in informing the “Enlightenment” tradition that supposedly grew up entirely ex nihilo in the very countries where Reformed political theology dominated political thinking.
Besides this criticism, I look forward to my reading and reviewing of this book by Dr. Gregg Frazer.
 Gregg Frazer The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, and Revolution Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2012.
 Glenn Moot Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology Columbia: University of Missouri Press 2010, 129.