During the last two presidential elections one key element, sometimes blatant but frequently unstated, was whether the candidates were Christians. By my thinking, Mitt Romney isn’t a Christian based on my understanding of Mormon theology related to the Trinity while there is no doubt that Barack Obama is. But is it important to have a Christian president? As the importance of organized religion of all flavors continues to decline, I surmise that fewer Americans would consider this a priority. Those that are most likely to consider it important tend to rely on a myth, that the Republic was formed by Christians with an expectation that the population would also consist of Christians.
While I’m a great believer in myth and the cultural importance of wide acquaintance with the tales of Homer, the creation accounts in Genesis, and the wild carryings-on at Valhalla, it’s frustrating when errors of detail in any myth are elevated to significance. Witness the witless appropriation of the metaphorical six days of creation into a denial of evolution, never mind the idea that the current range of plants and animals on earth could be the result of Noah’s keeping them all alive in the ark! So let’s look at the truth behind the myth of America as a Christian nation.
Of the first ten presidents, only three were clearly Christians: Andrew Jackson (Presbyterian), Martin Van Buren (Dutch Reformed), and William Henry Harrison (Episcopalian). Three more can be identified as both Episcopalian and Deist in various proportions, generally moving to Deism over time: George Washington, James Monroe, and John Tyler. Washington was born into the Church of England, becoming an Episcopalian with the revolution, but seldom attended church as an adult and left before the Eucharist.
Two were flatly Deists: Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Two more were Unitarians: John Adams (originally a Congregationalist) and his son, John Quincy Adams. Christians are, by creed, trinitarians, a concept rejected by all the small-U unitarians, which means Unitarians, Jews, Moslems, and probably Mormons. To varying degrees these faiths recognize Jesus as a historical figure of merit, possibly a prophet, but deny his deity.
Among the other Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin was definitely a Deist, Thomas Paine seemed to move between atheism and Deism, and Alexander Hamilton strayed toward theism (Deists who allow the possibility of divine intervention in human affairs) by the revolutionary period.
There were Christians among the Founding Fathers, probably most of them. But among the most prominent were quite a few who chose reason over revelation. If I Were King, my religion wouldn’t be a factor in any election, but I would admit that I was raised a Lutheran, joined the Society of Friends (Quakers) for some years, returned to the Lutheran Church, and gradually have become much closer to a Deist with near-infinite tolerance of other faiths. But I would not be tolerant of the idea that my realm was Christian. A realm is political, not religious, even if it depends on behavior norms that stem in part from myths heard in a million Sunday Schools.