Whatever Happened to Deism?
One often hears these days the claim that the USA was founded as a Christian nation. And it was, the founding fathers would not have objected to being called Christians. Case closed according to contemporary Evangelicals and certain politicians. Um, er, no, not quite. The founding fathers were Deists. This means they believed in God, or the “Great Designer” as they styled him. They believed God had created the Universe and set it in motion, with us as the ultimate result. Good enough so far, sounds like Creation Science or Intelligent Design, nu?
And there the similarities end. By the late 1700s, scientists had determined that the Earth was at the very least millions of years old, and there was no evidence of a global flood. There was no denying it by anyone who could use their brain for something other than keeping their heads from caving in, the evidence was persuasive that the Genesis Story in the Bible could not literally have been true. And understand that this discovery was not made by atheist scientists, it was made by devoutly Christian scientists who fully expected that the emerging scientific understanding of the world would confirm the events of Genesis and the old testament.
Did the great thinkers of the day conclude that science was wrong? No, they concluded that the evidence showed that God had set the Universe in motion, and hadn’t intervened since. A Universe vastly more magnificent than the one imagined in Genesis by the way. The gentle reader is encouraged to try and get their head around that. Imagine growing up and being taught that God created Earth 7,000 years ago. And having every reason to believe it, it was a comfortable and secure belief about Earth and our place in it. And then proof comes along that the Earth is millions of years old, and wildly more complex than the events in Genesis. It must have been mind blowing.
And thus Deism was born. The founding fathers believed in God. They believed God created and set the Universe in motion, and hadn’t intervened since. And they believed that reason and science would allow humanity to understand God’s creation in all its glory, and should be embraced. Without the supernatural trappings, Jefferson even created a Bible where he edited out the supernatural stuff. And lastly, they believed that preachers and organized religions who disputed science and touted the supernatural were corrupt charlatans who should be excluded in every way from secular government and education. Modern day Evangelicals tend to overlook the last part.
So what the hell happened? The founding fathers had adopted a form of Christianity that embraced science and reason, and fully expected that combined with secular government the US would lead the world into a golden age of reason. Instead, tens of millions of Americans still firmly believe that the events of the old testament are literally true, while at the same time rejecting the scientific understanding of the Universe in its entirety. It’s like a bad science fiction novel. Except it’s real of course.
With 9/11 Truthers, there is evidence that could persuade me. A 6,000 year old Earth or a global flood, no, two plus centuries of examination by people far smarter than 99% of the readers on this page including me, have shown that it just aint so. This isn’t really debatable. OK, it’s not debatable at all. Deistic Christianity, where God and science complemented each other and worked together to glorify both God and humanity, lost out to the preachers they feared and loathed? Preachers who this very day mischaracterize the founding fathers to promote their version of organized state sponsored science denying Christianity? How did we come to this?
I have some theories, but they’re pretty ugly. I’m hoping my gentle readers have some insight?
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. I got it from this page, it’s God as the Prime Mover. Yes, I know, I’m painting with broad strokes above. Certain contemporary Evangelists are lying with broad strokes, so I’m fighting fire with fire so to speak.)