To date, all U.S. presidents have labeled themselves Christians of some sort, and it is speculative and uncharitable to question their claims or sincerity.
Nevertheless, a number of presidents have provided abundant evidence in their writings or behavior that their faith was heterodox, at best. At worst, we may have serious reason to doubt whether they confessed anything at all like the historic Christian faith.
Take, for example, the first three presidents: George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Gregg L. Frazer, author of The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders, argues that though all three believed in an outwardly Christian God, their orthodoxy and practice were seriously deficient. He characterizes their views as “theistic rationalism,” a religious view midway between deism and orthodoxy.
Soon after his death, Washington was lionized as a great Christian leader — and still is today — leading to an abundance of dubious stories which should at best be characterized as mythological. These stories create a veneer of Christian faith which continues to give the impression of Christian piety ungrounded in fact.
For instance, the famous painting of Washington on his knees at Valley Forge, praying in the darkest hour of the American Revolution, is almost certainly false. The story originated from Parson Weems’ Life of Washington, and was based on the eyewitness claims of the owner of the farm where it purportedly took place, Isaac Potts. Unfortunately, Potts didn’t live on this farm until after the Revolutionary War, and he was nowhere near Valley Forge in 1777.
Washington was clearly a theist, and had a certain kind of piety which viewed God as actively intervening in history as moral governor, provider and protector for the good of man. But he never claimed to be a Christian. In looking at his own words, we find that Washington never spoke of a personal, saving faith in Jesus Christ. In over 20,000 pages of his life’s writings, the name of Jesus Christ is found only once — and that in a public proclamation not written in his own hand.
Washington’s religious practice is even more revealing. It is often noted that he sat on the vestry of his local Episcopal church. While this is true, it is important to note that this was a primarily civic role that was expected of leading citizens of his community. While Washington attended services on average once a month, it was his unvarying practice to leave early on those Sundays when communion was served, exiting prior to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. When he was publicly rebuked for this practice during a sermon, he agreed the reproof was just and responded by henceforth avoiding services entirely when he knew communion would be served. As far as we know, Washington never once communed at the Lord’s Supper.
Our second president, John Adams, is reputed to be one of the more orthodox founders, largely because he grew up in a Congregationalist home where Calvinist roots ran deep. In fact, however, Adams explicitly rejected the faith of his fathers. He denied the deity of Jesus Christ and his atoning death, viewing him instead as a great moral teacher, not a savior from sin. He said “placing all religion in grace, and its offspring, faith” was “Antichristianity.”
Like many others of the founding generation, Adams believed that the forgiveness of sins actually undermined the moral force of the Christian religion. Ironically this faith retained many Christian trappings, including belief in the resurrection, which was retained to preserve the fear of eternal punishment and the hope of rewards for “Christian morality.”
Thomas Jefferson is widely known as the least orthodox of our founding generation, yet this hasn’t stopped many apologists in our day from claiming him as a Christian hero. David Barton, well known in conservative Christian circles for his “Wallbuilders” ministry, defended Jefferson’s faith in his recent book, The Jefferson Lies. Unfortunately, Barton’s conclusions have been roundly condemned by historians as deeply flawed, and the book has been withdrawn by its publisher, Thomas Nelson. Criticism of Barton’s book has come from all quarters, including Christian scholars Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter, who wrote a response, Getting Jefferson Right.
A most outspoken critic of orthodoxy, Jefferson was attacked as an atheist by his political opponents, and had to maintain a semblance of Christianity. Yet this didn’t stop him from recording his dissent, particularly in his private letters, which he strove to keep from the public. In these private letters he explicitly rejected the divinity of Christ and the Trinity. This was reflected in practice: in 1788 Jefferson refused to be a godfather for a friend’s child, because he would have to affirm his belief in the Trinity. Speaking of this doctrine, he wrote “ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions.”
Speaking about the divinity and virgin birth of Jesus, Jefferson had this to say:
The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors.
For Jefferson, Jesus was a mere man, a great moral teacher and reformer of corrupt Judaism along the lines of reason. But Jefferson believed Jesus’ moral teachings had been corrupted by the “dupes and impostors” who followed him — chief of whom was Paul — who clouded his message by the addition of mythological teachings, including his divinity and miracles.
There is perhaps no greater evidence for Jefferson’s heterodoxy than his rejection of the Bible as God’s word. Jefferson famously produced his own version of the New Testament, literally cutting and pasting the text in order to rescue Jesus’ original moral truths from the miraculous and supernatural additions of his followers. Jefferson likened this process of selecting moral truths from the supernatural acts of Jesus as rescuing “diamonds from dunghills.”
Jefferson, like Adams, believed in a bodily resurrection for its moral value; eternal reward and punishments were to be earned by good behavior. Regarding salvation, Jefferson couldn’t be more clear: “My fundamental principle would be the reverse of Calvin’s, that we are to be saved by our good works which are within our power, and not by our faith which is not within our power.”
Only God knows whether Washington, Adams or Jefferson had saving faith in Christ, but their writings give us abundant reason to doubt that they did. At the core of our nation’s founding is the principle of religious freedom. The state is not a respecter of all faiths, but of none — there is no religious test for higher office. Christians can rest in knowing that God uses men and women of all faiths — or no faith — to accomplish his purposes in history.
Does the faith of our presidents matter?
Surely, Christian faith, and all that it entails — confessing the truth of God’s Law, one’s own sin and the saving work of Christ — informs one’s view of the civil magistrate and the just execution of its highest office. But in God’s providence, the men who shaped our nation’s founding and served as its heads of state for the first 20 years of its existence managed to accomplish great things, despite their apparent rejection of God’s saving work in Christ. What does this tell us?
The work of statecraft is not the work of salvation.
An early version of this article appeared in “Christian Renewal” magazine.
Dr. Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington, D.C. He formerly worked as a communications director both on Capitol Hill and at the National Endowment for the Humanities.