It is a matter of no little contention whenever the subject of the principles on which our nation was founded comes up. Equally contentious is the issue of what faith or faiths our founding fathers (and mothers) actually embraced. Into this briar's nest comes a very readable compact guide to the latter subject in particular, which is well worth reading and comes highly recommended by Philip Jenkins and others. The title 'The Faiths (plural) of our Founding Fathers' (Oxford: 2006) hints already at the direction the author will pursue.
David Holmes is professor of religious studies at the College of William and Mary, which not incidentally or accidentally was also the college attended by many of the founding fathers, particularly the Virginians such as Jefferson (also Madison and Monroe). Holmes knows well the history of his college, including its reputation for being a center of Deism at the formative period in the 18th century when the Revolution was brewing. It was here that people like Jefferson became exposed not only to the thinking of English Deists such as Lord Herbert (sadly the brother of the olrthodox Anglican minister and poet George Herbert), Joseph Priestley and others, but also to the radical critique of Christianity by Voltaire, and the empiricism of John Locke and others.
What emerges from Holmes careful research is that George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were all strongly influenced by Deistic thought (Jefferson and Adams in particular objecting to the idea of the Trinity, and in general the concept of divine revelation, preferring instead the idea that nature and reason revealed the character of God). In addition there was the syncretistic influence of Free Masonry with its pan-religious approach (involving a bit of Judaism, a bit of Christianity, a bit of Egyptian religion and more) which seems to have had a marked impact especially on Washington.
Holmes carefully documents how these founding fathers avoided getting confirmed in the 'state' church of Virginia (which was the Episcopal Church, unlike in most of New England where Congregationalism was the state church), and did not take the Lord's Supper in these churches by design. In this way they showed their objection to 'priestcraft' and what they took to be the corruption of the originally pure faith of Jesus which was not Trinitarian and did not involve the worship of Jesus. This did not make these men either secular humanists or 'free thinkers' in the broad sense. Our country was certainly not founded by secular humanists. Not even Thomas Paine deserves that anachronistic label. It was however founded by people whose religious beliefs ranged from non-Christian Deism to more Christian Deism, to, in the case of people like Samuel Adams, John Jay and Patrick Henry, orthodox Christianity.
More tellingly, none of the first five presidents would appear to have been orthodox Christians in any modern sense of the term. Indeed most modern Evangelicals would think of them as like either contemporary nominal or very liberal episcopalians (cf. Bishop Spong), if not actual heretics (e.g. in the case of Jefferson who rejected the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus the Trinity, the inspiration and authority of the Bible as revealed religion and so on).
As Holmes points out however, better things can be said of some of the wives of the first Presidents who were much more orthodox and church attending than there husbands (e.g. Martha Washington for example). Holmes convincingly explains the reason for this difference between the Presidents and some of their First Ladies: 1) the women were not allowed to go to college, and so were not subject to the skepticism of Deistic professors; 2) the women could not join organizations like the Masons which encouraged a more pan-religious and Deistic approach to things; 3) the women were charged with educating their children with the tools at hand, the primary tool of course being the Bible. There are other reasons but these make good sense, as the spiritual nurture of the children had been left in their hands. It was the women who arranged the baptisms, weddings and the rest. The more things change, the more things stay the same.
Perhaps the most interesting though not necessarily orthodox of the first ladies was Dolly Madison, who grew up Dolly Payne in the Quaker community at Guilford College in Greensboro N.C., but left her plain ways behind when she became the hostesss with the mostess as the First Lady. Holmes has a good way of summarizing a myriad of relevant data, and sifting through the evidence for the relevant material. As he says, it is sometimes difficult to know the religious stand of some of founding fathers and mothers because they were not demonstrative on the subject, because especially in high church Episcopal circles the reaction to wearing your religious heart on your sleeve and being evangelistic was about the same as the reaction of the Anglican Church in England to warm hearted Methodist piety during the same period. It was in 'bad taste' and 'too individualistic and enthusiastic' as the common complaints went.
An especially interesting feature of this boook is that Holmes does discuss, in one of the latter chapters, orthodox Christians like Samuel Adams (yes the one whose daddy started the Boston Ale company which has a modern successor of the same name), John Jay and others. This is insightful because we are able to notice how they interacted with Washington, Adams and Jefferson and how different in their piety they were from these Presidents. This sort of comparative analysis is very helpful and makes the orthodox Christians stick out like a sore thumb.
The upshot of all this is of course that America's leadership at its inception was religiously pluralistic (in a Judeo-Christian kind of way; not like modern world religions kind of pluralism). In short there is no encouragement here either for the secular humanist theory of America's origins or for that matter for the 'our first leaders were mostly orthodox Christians' theory either. Sorry Timothy La Haye, and other Evangelical revisionist historians, but you need fact check as bad as Dan Brown did.
There is also in this book a very fine review as an Epilogue of the faith of the Presidents from Ford through W. It also is illuminating. What is most illuminating is that by any normal measuring stick, the one's most obviously pietistic and church attending were the Democrats, not the Republicans, make of that what you will. What is equally telling is that they were all Protestants of one sort or another, with George Bush senior being the most high church (Episcopalian).
One will find out some unsettling things about Washington, Adams, and Jefferson especially in this book. For example, Washington's own pastor and the chaplain of the Continental Congress, Bishop White states plainly in 1832: "I do not believe that any degree of recollection will bring to my mind any fact which would prove General Washington to have been a believer in the Christian revelation" (pp. 162-63). He ought to have known the truth about this, and Bishop White was countering here early attempts at putting a halo over the head of St. George by writing hagiographic bibliographies in the early 19th century.
Holmes' summary is helpful: "Deists and orthodox Christians alike composed the revolutionary generation. Whatever their private beliefs, most maintained formal affiliations with Christian denominations. In the spirit of the times, some questioned doctrines that they believed could not be reconciled with human reason (e.g. especially Adams and Jefferson, and of course Thomas Paine). As a result they rejected such Christian teachings as the Trinity, the virgin birth, the resurrection, and the divinity of Jesus. Yet orthodox Christians participated at every stage of building the nation, and many of the founder's wives and daughters displayed an orthodox Christian commitment." (p. 163).
Here are some questions for thought as a result of reading this book: 1) Is there anything in the Bible that suggests that democracy rather than rule by a king or a emperor, or perhaps a theocracy, is most favored by God? I don't think there is. There is of course plenty in the NT about freedom from sin and freedom to serve God, but that can transpire under various sorts of polities. There is also plenty in the Bible in general about justice, and respect of persons, loving neighbor and the like. But again all these practices can exist under varied forms of governments; 2) Is there anything in the Bible that supports modern notions about nation states, particularly about God blessing or especially favoring not ethnic groups (e.g. Jews) or religious groups (those in Christ), but certain nation states? I must admit I can't find it in there. As Paul says, Christians have and are part of a politeuma, a constituting government that is from above. This stands in contradistiction in Paul's mind to things like countries or humanly constructed empires (see Philippians). 3) Is there anything in the Bible that warrants an open rebellion against a legitimate governing authority simply because there was taxation without representation? This is just the opposite of what Romans 13 would seem to suggest. Paul tells Christians in Rome to pay taxes to the tyrant Nero! By comparison to Nero, King George of Hanover looked like good King George. And of course 'representation' in the colonial sense was very different from the plebs and the patricians in Rome during the Empire. 4) If you ask where the founding notions about freedom, democracy, pure reason, common sense, congresses, no taxation without representation, the electing of leaders come from in America, they seem to have as much or more to do with the spirit of the Enlightenment which was the Zeitgeist of that age (read John Locke who so impressed Wesley on certain points), than it has to do with the spirit or tenor or teachings of the Bible. This is of course a hard truth for patriotic, flag waving, freedom loving Americans to swallow, and I am one of them. But it does raise this question. Is it our Biblical absolutes or our cultural principles, however good, which have most shaped and continue to shape our nation and shaped its governing documents in the first place (e.g Declaration of Independence and Constitution and the Bill of Rights)? I am not sure personally how to answer that question in a full way. Think on these things.