America's Founding Fathers often kept their religious beliefs close to the vest, historians say, but that just won't cut it anymore.
That's because, 230 years after the first Independence Day, Americans of varied political and religious stripes are determined to prove that the Founders' beliefs are similar to their own. Helped by a spate of new books this year, skeptics and believers alike have fresh intellectual gunpowder this July 4 for claiming the framers as members of their respective camps.
For a nation torn over what role religion should have in the public square, the stakes are high. Both religionists and secularists say they're under attack in the public domain and want America's first patriots on their side to maintain legitimacy.
Each side has its favorites. Patrick Henry's frequent references to Jesus Christ help make him a darling of Christian conservatives, some of whom opened a Virginia college named after him in 2000. Secularists prefer to invoke Thomas Paine, whose "Age of Reason" treatise mocking Christianity earned him a badge of scorn in his day.
"People who are fighting battles now, against the Christian right or the secular left, feel their case will be stronger if they have history on their side," says Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.
At least nine new books this year – such as "Washington's God," "Moral Minority," and "American Gospel" – delve into the Founders' spiritual and ethical beliefs.
Some authors are raising questions about Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. Were they Christians who found salvation in a personal God? Or were they deists, that is, devotees of reason who saw God as a benevolent yet distant creator? Perhaps most controversial is the first president, George Washington, whose peculiar habit of refusing communion during worship is typical of disputed evidence about his true beliefs and doubts.
Washington's refusal was temporary and probably reflected his defiance of the King of England, who also led the Anglican Church at the time. That's the view of the Rev. Peter Lillback, president of Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pa., who wrote the 1,208-page "George Washington's Sacred Fire."
But the Rev. Forrest Church, author of the forthcoming "So Help Me God: Presidential Faith and Religious Politics in the Early Republic" and senior minister at the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City, disagrees. He says Washington would awkwardly exit worship before communion for the same reason he seldom mentioned Jesus Christ in correspondence and didn't request a clergyman at his deathbed: "He didn't believe in it."
Such debates are hardly trivial for a nation navigating where religion belongs in public. Washington's support for religious expression, including Catholics and Jews, reflected his Christian commitment to tolerance toward other faiths, according to Bob Morrison, vice president for academic affairs at the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian advocacy group in Washington. He says even the well-known doubter Thomas Jefferson approved of holding worship inside the House of Representatives and invited ministries to the campus of the University of Virginia.
Public spaces were "very open, very welcoming" to religion in the early republic, Mr. Morrison says. "Now there's a militant hostility to every public expression of faith. I don't see any support among the Founders for that."
Others see the Founders as guardians against an encroaching religious establishment, both in their time and today. "These are essentially secular people who founded our country," says Jo Ann Miller, editor of Richard Brookhiser's "What Would the Founders Do?" Some on the political left say the Founders' devotion to reason first and foremost is crucial to remember in a time when religiously inspired activists try to require critiques of evolution in public schools or to restrict public funding for scientific research, as in the case of embryonic stem cells.
"It's important for Americans to be in touch with that spirit of toleration, of respect for science and free inquiry, that most of the Founding Fathers believed in," says Roger Hickey, codirector of the Campaign for America's Future, a liberal advocacy group in Washington.
What strikes Professor Wolfe as remarkable is the degree to which academic historians have entered the fray in an attempt to referee this ideological tug-of-war. Among them is Gordon Wood, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at Brown University and author of "Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different." He says their public square was far more saturated with expressions of faith than is today's.
"They didn't anticipate religion retreating as much from the public square as we've done in the 20th and 21st centuries," Wood says. "The modern notion that we're being overtaken by a theocracy and that evangelical Christians are running amok – I think that's just kind of a madness that comes from people who have no historical perspective."
Still, attempts to cast the Founders as evangelical Christians are as misguided as those to make them seem entirely unreligious, says David Holmes, a church historian at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., and author of "The Faiths of the Founding Fathers." He says the most prominent Founders were deists of varied strains, which means nobody gets to claim their exclusive religious legacy.
"I hope the evangelicals [who claim Founders as their own kind] and the people who say the Founders were atheists or agnostics," Professor Holmes says, "will do more reading."