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America's Key Founders, Neither Christians nor Deists: An Interview on a Major New Book

America's Key Founders, Neither Christians nor Deists: An Interview on a Major New Book

Gregg Frazer (PhD, Claremont Graduate University) is professor of history and political studies at The Master's College and the author of a new major book on The Religious Beliefs of America's Founders: Reason, Revelation, Revolution (The University Press of Kansas, 2012). Mark Noll writes that the thesis is "Sophisticated, well-documented, and forcefully argued. Extreme partisans who champion 'Christian America' or complete secularism will not like this book, but all other readers should come away much better informed about the past and also much better situated to adjudicate religious-political debates today."

Professor Frazer was kind enough to answer a few questions about this work.

What are the key "narratives" you are seeking to overturn in this book-either about Christian America or Secular America or the Wall of Separation between the two?

My primary claim is that the key founders (those most responsible for the founding documents and putting the new government into effect) were neither Christians nor deists, but "theistic rationalists" (a term of my construction).

I argue that both the Right and the Left are wrong about the founding.

The key founders did not create-or intend to create-a Christian nation.

But they did not create-or intend to create-a strictly secular nation with a "wall of separation" between church and state, either.

They believed that morality was indispensable for a free society and that religion was the best source for morality.

Contrary to the claims of secularists, they did not want to divorce or separate religion from public life; rather, they believed that religion was a necessary support.

Contrary to the claims of Christian America advocates, they did not believe that the religion needed for this purpose must be Christianity-and they were not Christians themselves.

The key founders were theistic rationalists.

What exactly is "theistic rationalism?"

"Theistic rationalism" was a hybrid belief system mixing elements of natural religion, Christianity, and rationalism, with rationalism as the predominant element. Adherents believed that these three elements would generally complement one another, but when conflict between them could not be resolved or ignored, reason had to play the decisive role. Because they borrowed from natural religion and Christianity, if one selects statements conveniently and out of context, one can make them appear to be either Christians or deists. That is why both the Christian America camp and the secular camp can find snippets to support their claims.

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