What do you think of when you hear the word “empire”? Maybe Great Britain? The Soviet Union? The Mongols? Sure. But what if I told you that the United States is also an empire. And always has been.
Our guest this episode is Daniel Immerwahr, author of the book “How to Hide an Empire” and an associate history professor at Northwestern University. In his book, he argues that the United States has been an empire since it’s inception. We claimed lands owned by native peoples, and then expanded into places like the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Alaska, and more. This is the story of war, greed, resources, and tragedy.
We’ve been asking a lot of big
questions lately. Like, what is the difference between communism and
socialism? And how do they impact the Christian church? How did the
United States react to communism? This week we’re taking a short
break from Russia to explore this elemental question… what IS the
(people playing a game)
Like, physically. What is the US? I was
recently at the Spark Christian Podcast conference, where I made a
bunch of new friends. So, as you do, when you make new friends, I
decided to do an art project.
(people playing a game)
Is it just the fifty states and the
district of Columbia? Or is it also Guam, American Samoa, Puerto
Rico… What about the land under out embassies in foreign countries?
Our military bases?
(people playing a game)
CS: Today on the show we try to explore
that question… what IS the United States? If we are a Christian
nation, as some people say that we are (and as a lot of people say we
aren’t) we should probably know what the US is. Get out your pencil
and crayons… we’re redrawing the map.
You’re listening to the show that uses
journalistic tools to look inside the Christian church. We press
pause on the culture wars in order to explore how we got here and how
we can do better. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.
I hope you’re as excited as I am. I
have been able to speak to some great authors this year and for the
next few episodes you get to hear one of my favorites.
DI: My name is Daniel Immerwahr. I’m an
associate professor of history at Northwestern University outside of
Chicago. And my book is called How to Hide an Empire: a History of
the Greater United States.
CS: It’s a great read. My copy is just
filled with highlights. In the book, if you can’t tell by the title,
he argues that we have this vision of the United States as being one
tidy clear cut thing. Fifty states, the district of Columbia not much
else. But that’s not accurate. The United States, is like a whole
list of countries in their heyday. Great Britain, France, Spain,
Austria, Russia… the United States is actually an empire.
DI: And that just has to do with not
what the quality of it’s foreign policy is… not really who it is in
the sense of character, but rather where it is on the map.
CS: You can explore this to yourself
and wow your friends at parties just by looking at a map.
DI: Because most people when they call
to mind a map of the United States when they imagine what it looks
like they imagine that familiar shape.
CS: Oh, the shape. The US is basically
a rectangle with a strip of land going up in New England, another one
going down on the south east for Florida, and Texas is just kind of
hanging out there on the bottom. How else do you describe the shape?
Oh, and we have to include those other two states.
DI: Yes, Hawaii and Alaska too…
CS: Hawaii and Alaska too, maybe in
little boxes off to the side…
DI: But that’s mainly the center of it.
And the thing is that’s not actually a very good map of the United
States. It’s not a very good map now because it doesn’t include
places like Puerto Rico and Guam.
CS: Yes! Puerto Rico and Guam. We
always forget about Puerto Rico and Guam.
DI: It certainly wasn’t a very good map
earlier in US history because it didn’t include really large places
like the Philippines. So what I tried to do in my book was to re-tell
US history in a re-mapped way to actually show it to… from a
different perspective and show you all of the places that are a part
of the United States and tell Us history that way.
CS: Not only is our understanding of
the United States as it is today just not accurate, but it also does
not reflect the past. The United States has been on an aggressive
expansion campaign basically since it’s inception.
DI: The first day when the United
States had its independence from Great Britain ratified, when the
treaties had gone through and signed by both sides, etc… the name
of the country was the United States of America and that suggests
that it is a union of states. But by that day the United States was
no longer a union of states. It was… it wasn’t really a union
because union suggests voluntarily entering into… it was an
amalgam. It was an amalgam of states and territories.
CS: Territories. That is the keyword, the concept that makes this whole thing really sticky. Sure the founding fathers got together and knocked out the Declaration of Independence then the Constitution and that group of men created a whole new country. They split from Britain and took with them not just people who wanted the new country, but also British loyalists. Including a whole bunch of Christian pastors who preached that we should stay in the Union. Also dragged into this country… the native people who were here long before Europeans. And of course, enslaved peoples who had no say at all.
The US was not just a bunch of states
who agreed to this thing. You know this part, right? This is the
stuff we cover in middle school. How we slowly took over native
American lands. It took a long time for us get to our weird rectangle
with a side bubble off to the side.
DI: That’s the map in 1854 after the
United States, you know, through a series of annexations and
conquests and dispossessions of indigenous people sort of filled out
that familiar shape on the North American continent. And 1854 was the
year when the final treaty was ratified and that’s what the United
States looked like.
CS: Not all of it was violently acquired. We bought the Louisiana Purchase (a bunch of the center and the southern end of the country) from our old friend Napoleon Bonaparte.
NAPOLEON: Zu ta lore! My wars they are
so expensive! How am I going to pay for this?
AID: I’m afraid our bake sale didn’t go
so well, sir.
NAPOLEON: Zu ta lore! Have we pillaged?
AID: We have pillaged, sir.
NAPOLEON: Have we plundered?
NAPOLEON: What else can there be? I
will have to sell my pointy hats.
AID: Or, if I may be so bold. We could
do a real estate deal.
NAPOLEON: I am, how you say, listening.
AID: Sell our holdings in the New World. That would make us a lot of Benjamins.
NAPOLEON: Mon Due!
CS: That’s not how it happened, but
wouldn’t it be great if it was?
The Louisiana Purchase may not have
been that silly, but at least it was peaceful. The country had
expanded quite a lot. But there was a long way to go. Do you know how
we got much of the southwest? In the 1840s we fought a war with
Mexico to get Texas, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. What
we call the southwest is about 1/3 of what used to be Mexico.
A bunch of the states most embroiled in the immigration debate… used to belong to Mexico. Which we purchased or wrestled away from them through war. We could have taken more too. People estimated at the time that we could have conquered all of Mexico. Instead, we took the sparsely populated parts. According to Daniel, we took the parts where there weren’t many brown-skinned people.
John C Calhoun, a Senator who, no
surprise, really dug slavery, said:
CALHOUN: “We have never dreamt of
incorporating into the Union any but the Caucasian race – the free
CS: Mind you, this was not whispered in
some parlor. This was on the Senate floor.
CALHOUN: “Are we to associate with ourselves, as equals, companions, and fellow citizens, the Indians and mixed races of Mexico?”
CS: Yeesh. You know, they’re making a
third Bill and Ted’s movie. I hope they travel back in time just to
slap that guy. (slap sound) No… that’s not the godly thing to say.
Okay… maybe Bill and Ted pair him with W.E.B. DuBois and some
hijinks ensure, leading, no doubt, to an enduring bromance.
I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
John C. Calhoun was not alone. Not by a
long shot. We invented a lot of shenanigans to keep people of color
out of our country. Either consciously or unconsciously people in
territories as opposed to states… are largely non-white.
You and I have covered a lot of ground
already! Mexico, the Louisiana Purchase. A lot of work to make that
nice map we all remember from our elementary school classrooms.
DI: Here’s the thing, though. That map
was only accurate for three years.
Only three years of that familiar shape. Everything in that rectangle thing except for the District of Columbia would eventually become a state. Wyoming, California, Arizona, Texas, on and on. To form what we think of as the lower 48, the core of the country. That map that so many of us can draw with some degree of accuracy. Lasted for three years.
We’ve been talking for a long time about how communism impacted Russia. In a few weeks, we’ll start talking about the US response to that movement. How, since the USSR was communist and atheist, the US tied Christianity to capitalism. That may seem trivial, but our ties to capitalism have a huge impact. You can attend churches that preach the benefits of capitalism. That encourage their congregants to bring in so much money, have side businesses, or where the preacher will straight up push a product from the pulpit. Big oil gets tied to our faith. Arts and craft supplies. Even chicken sandwiches. I’m not here to tell you that’s good or bad, but we are going to explore how, at least in the least 150 years it came to be that capitalism, the US, and Jesus got tied together.
we get there, I feel like we need to talk about what the US is. What
it really is.
me start with a story.
year I was at the Podcast Movement conference in August. My friend
Eric and I were just two of a few Christians in a sea of podcasters.
Because this show is about the church, I ended up having
conversations with many people about the church. About Christianity.
But something somewhat unexpected happened: almost everyone who
talked with me about God also brought up the United States in one
form or another. Politics, the president, a Christian company, some
moment in history.
I was in this giant hotel, talking about the most important thing in
my life, my faith, and… in order to share Jesus with my new friends
I had to also give compelling arguments for US policies on foreign
affairs, domestic laws, and apologize for the darker parts of our
history. There were all of these hurdles in the way of me sharing the
gospel. And that isn’t a new thing. It has happened my whole adult
tied to the US isn’t all bad. We’ve got some great things like the
national parks system, access to public education, equal voting
rights, freedom of speech, religion, and assembly. The trouble is
that Christianity is also tied to US history. Murdering native
people. Slavery. Gerrymandering.
purpose of this series is to expand our idea of what the United
States is. It’s all of those things, good and bad. In my personal
ministry that connection often slows down or inhibits my ability to
share the gospel. It might be different for you.
more thing before we go. People throughout the Bible are confronted
with idol worship, putting anything else ahead of God. Money, statues
made of stone and metal. Patriotism itself is not bad. Loyalty to a
group is part of the human experience. But when that patriotism
trumps our worship of God… we’re in danger of worshipping an idea
over the creator.
purpose of this series is not to make us feel bad. But to add some
depth. It’s not just people within the US who are impacted. Our
actions to the rest of the world reflect back on God. For better or
for worse. Because our aggressive expansion didn’t stop with manifest
some point, after conquering from the Atlantic to the Pacific, all
the stuff we learn in middle school… we looked out across the waves
and said… huh… I wonder what’s over there.
continue that story in the next episode.
Special thanks to Daniel Immerwahr. His book is “How to Hide an Empire”. We’ll be hearing from him in the next few episodes. Truce is listener supported. If you want to continue to stretch what’s possible in Christian media, partner with me by donating even a little bit each month. If you do it on Patreon you’ll even get access to bonus materials not heard anywhere else. Like updates on the shows progress from me or extra audio I couldn’t use in the show. Learn more at trucepodcast.com. Follow us on social media at @trucepodcast.com. My challenge to you this week: sign up for our email list! You’ll get notifications about new episodes, links to our guests, access to our media fast curriculum, and so much more. Sign up on the website.
Special thanks to our vocal volunteers.
They include Holland Webb from The Afterword Podcast, Angel McCoy
from Angel reads the Bible, Colleen and Danny from Fitness and
Houston’s First, Savannah, and Erin . You can see some of their
drawings of the US on the website and our social media feeds.
Thanks for listening. I’m Chris Staron.
This is Truce.
There are lots of people who argue that the United States is a Christian nation. But our nation is founded on revolution. The Bible is clear that we are to obey our leaders. How do we reconcile the fact the Revolution was not a Christian act with the assumption of a Christian nation?
CS: I was recently at the Spark
Christian Podcast Conference where Truce won both Best Produced
Podcast and Best Male Podcast Host. Which is so flattering. But,
before all that, I pulled two cool ladies aside…
TS: Tina Smith
AA: Alecia Aviant
CS: …to do what seemed at first like
a trivial exercise.
CS: I’m just gonna grab something here
out of my bag. What is that?
TS: Trail mix?
CS: Trail mix. Can we open that up real
quick? Can you open that up? So we’re just going to kind of pour it
out here a little bit. So what do we have there?
TS: We have peanuts, ooh… yogurt
covered raisins. What are these?
AA: Those are regular raisins.
TS: These are walnuts.
CS: Lots of good stuff, right? Now,
what do you think are your favorite pieces in this batch?
TS: The yogurt covered raisins and
probably the walnuts.
AA: I would say raisins, not the yogurt
but the regular raisins.
AA: Yes. Those were my favorite growing
up and I called them “puffies”.
CS: (laughs) I’m going to just pull out
all the yogurt raisins. Everyone says they love them, so we’ll just
pull them out and put them aside. We’ve still got a pile in the
middle. I just want to ask you: is that still trail mix?
TS: Yeah. Still trail mix.
AA: I would say so.
CS: Okay, what if I pull out the other
raisins. I know you like the raisins. So we have no yogurt raisins,
we have no regular raisins. Is that still trail mix?
TS: It’s not very aesthetically
pleasing at this point.
AA: It’s becoming less and less trail
mix as we go.
CS: Okay. So, what we’ve got now is
peanuts, walnuts, and pineapple. And it… you’re right, it’s all
yellow and brown. It does not look good. We’ll pull out the pineapple
bits as best I can. And… is that still trail mix?
TS: No, now it’s mixed nuts.
AA: You’re right! Mixed nuts.
TS: It’s mixed nuts.
CS: When did it cross that line? What
is the burier?
TS: When you took all the good stuff
out. When you got rid of all of the fruit! We have no more fruit!
CS: When does this trail mix stop being
It feels like a silly exercise, but
this is how a lot of us approach Christianity. We pick out the stuff
we’re not cool with and throw it away. There are a lot of
ingredients, though. We can toss aside concepts, ideas, theology…
and it still kinda looks like Christianity.
But is it?
I’ll let you in on a little secret: the founding fathers of the United States did the same thing. That fact is at the heart of a debate that is really popular in the Christian world. Some of us, not all of us, believe that the United States is a Christian nation. In the next few episodes, we’re going to be looking into whether or not that’s actually true. Is the US a Christian nation, what do we hope to gain by calling it one, and just how much of historic, orthodox Christianity can we ditch before it’s not really Christianity anymore?
You’re listening to the show that uses
journalistic tools to look inside the Christian church. We press
pause on the culture wars in order to explore how we got here and how
we can do better. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.
I want to introduce you to our guide
for the next few weeks.
GF: My name is Dr. Gregg Frazer. I
teach history and political studies at the Master’s University in
CS: He’s the author of two books, “The
Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders” and “God Against the
Revolution: The Loyalist Clergy’s Case Against the Revolution”.
We’re going to start… with a story.
About a man named Joseph Priestley who lived in the 1700’s.
GF: Priestley was a… an interesting character. He was kind of a… on one hand a scientist, in fact, he’s generally recognized as getting credit for discovering oxygen.
CS: As well as seven other gasses. He
also wrote about how to carbonate water. Think about him the next
time you drink a seltzer1.
This was around the time of the American Revolution, which, a few
years later, helped to spark the French Revolution. Priestley
supported both. He lived in England, which was not exactly thrilled
with the idea of revolution. Obviously… because it was an empire
spanning several continents. The notion that a people could rise up
against their god-appointed leader… that was obviously not cool
Priestley saw the French Revolution as a sign of the end times from the Bible. His views were not shared by his fellow Englishmen who, in 1791… burned his house and lab.
The guy had some unpopular ideas for
his time. Not just concerning politics… but also religion.
GF: He was a… a preacher. He didn’t
have a church of his own because he was too radical. But.. he wrote a
multi-volume series of books on what he called the corruptions, the
history of the corruptions of Christianity.
CS: Which Thomas Jefferson liked so much that he referred to as “the basis of my own faith”. So, you know, an important book.
GF: Like a said a multi-volume work in which he takes on basically most of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity and argues that they are corruptions, that they are not true Christianity.
CS: This was the era of the Enlightenment, the 1700’s. That period in history class we all kind of forgot about. You can guess what it was about based on one of its other names: the Age of Reason. The idea was that the problems of humanity could be solved by using our gifts of reason. If something did not fit with human reason… it simply wasn’t true.
Priestley was one of the preachers who
applied ideas from guys like John Locke, Emmanuel Kant, Voltaire, to
theology. He could read through the Bible… If a story or teaching
from the Bible didn’t fit… he figured he could just throw it out.
And keep whatever he thought was
rational. In his mind, what was left was the heart of Christianity,
the true stuff.
GF: For him, true Christianity was the
moral teachings of Jesus.
CS: Love your neighbor as yourself. Do unto others as you’d have done to you. A lot of the sermon on the mount. Basic morality. He believed that nature could teach us about God’s… nature. Bird and trees, rain and thunder… and he determined in his own reason, that God was, essentially, benevolent. He was good to his people. If something didn’t fit his idea of God’s benevolence… he didn’t keep it.
God’s wrath? Hardly benevolent. So he
put that in the shredder. Enlightenment theology left a lot of stuff
on the cutting room floor. Maybe the biggest idea, one of the first
to be cut out, was the concept of Jesus’ divinity.
Priestly took out ye olde chainsaw and…
…cut that part out.
GF: So he denied the deity of Christ,
he denied original sin, he denied the atonement, the atoning work of
Christ. He denied just about every fundamental doctrine of
CS: He kept the morals. Ideas of peace,
and turning the other cheek. The greeting card stuff. The stuff that
people post on Instagram. Without Jesus’ divinity holding him back,
he could pretty much create his own religion… that still looked a
little like traditional Christianity. When, in truth, he was
essentially a Unitarian.
This may appear kinda benign. Priestley
was just some guy who isolated oxygen and wrote books. Not a big
deal, right? But the thing about ideas is that they have a way of
spreading. Some of the people influenced by Priestley? Thomas
Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and John Adams.
GF: Benjamin Franklin led the effort to
build a church in Philadelphia that was non-denominational so that
anybody… basically, the way he put it… so that anybody who wanted
to could preach there but he primarily built it to give a place for
Joseph Priestley to periodically preach. Because he was so, sort of,
outrageous that he wasn’t welcomed in most churches.
CS: Franklin was going to build a
church for this guy in the United States. Someone who taught
Christianity minus Jesus’ divinity.
Priestly figures heavily in the shaping
of these men, along with other preachers who denied Jesus partially
or fully. Guys like Samuel Clarke, Charles Chauncey, Jonathan
Mayhew… These guys tried to pull apart the central tenants of
biblically orthodox Christianity. In time, influencing the men who
then shaped America. Using the values of the Enlightenment to pick
out the metaphorical raisins and keeping the cashews.
His ideas, and those of people like
him, went on to shape not just the theological fabric of their day…
but the United States itself.
We’ll be right back after this message.
If you’ve studied the founding fathers,
you’ve probably heard the argument that they were deists. Or that
they were Christians. But, Doctor Frazer argues… that binary
categorization is not good enough.
GF: Yeah, my… what actually spurred me to write that book is frustration at the sort of two-sides of the argument. You have these secularists who argued that all the founding fathers were deists or if not deists rank secularists who just wanted to separate all religion from public life. And then on the other side of the argument, you had the Christian American camp that argued that the American founders were virtually all Christians who wanted to, intended to create a Christian nation based on biblical principles and I was frustrated because I didn’t think either of those was right.
CS: So, instead… he researched their
beliefs and came up with a third option. But in order to understand
that third option… We should probably define the two big
ingredients that were mixed together to make it: Deism and
up: Deism. Oooh.. big scary word. Essentially, it’s the idea
that God created the world.
(sounds of explosions and magic)
He got the whole thing in motion.
Making men and women. Cows and ducks. Building mountains. Filling the
oceans. He got the whole thing going, got it up and running… and
(sounds die down)
Left it to run itself. There is a God,
He created the world, but He is not actively participating in the
world. Thus, Jesus was not God because God walking among us is the
ultimate example of God getting involved. They didn’t think that
That is deism in a nutshell.
Christianity, on the other hand,
features a God who is really involved in the world. He created it.
Cows and ducks. Men and women. Rain and thunder. Sending His Son
Jesus to die, to take on Himself the wrath of God that we deserved
because of our sin. If we believe in His sacrifice, we are forgiven
of our sin and heaven is open to us.
Apart from that basic truth,
Christianity can mean a lot of different things. Calvinism,
Pentecostalism, and Catholicism, for example, are really different
from each other. But they all still have the same basic guts.
For his first book, Gregg went back and
determined not just what Christianity means today… but also what it
meant back in the 1700s. Using the creeds and confessions of that
GF: To see what those denominations,
what those churches said that they believed and what constituted
CS: There is a remarkable similarity in
what the various denominations believed at the time. He’s got a
helpful chart in the book that lays this out. Comparing
Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, Anglicans, Episcopalians, and
Catholics and what they believed.
GF: There were ten fundamental
doctrines that all of them ascribed to.
CS: Catholic or Protestant. Ten big things in common.
GF: I used that then as the definition
of Christianity for the purposes of the book and it just so happens
that I think all ten of them are, in fact, fundamental doctrines of
Christianity so it made it easy to… to adopt that.
CS: This is going to be a lot, so… let’s take a minute. Gather ourselves. Deep breath…
Get ready for a theology sprint. A
literal sprint. I’m going to relay all of this… while sprinting.
CS: All right. So, who am I here with?
JP: Josh Phillips.
CS: Ready, set, go.
GF: One is the trinity.
CS: Okay, so the first topic is the Trinity. It’s basically the idea that there is God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit.
JP: One being, three separate, distinct
CS: Nice! Okay! That one was easy.
GF: Therefore, that leads to the second
one. That is the deity of Jesus Christ.
CS: So the deity. That Jesus is God.
JP: I would say he actually refers to
Himself as the Son of Man, which we reference that back to Daniel 7.
That’s where we see that He is God.
CS: Hoo! I’m starting to feel it. Are
GF: The third is that there is a God…
that God is active in human affairs.
JP: I think one of the best examples of
it is His suffering. That’s something that we can relate to. Anything
that we’re going through, you know, He did it. He suffered on this
world just like we do.
CS: Oh, there’s a leaf blower up ahead
so we probably should turn around and go that way. All right.
GF: Fourth, original sin.
CS: Basically, the idea that there was
an actual, physical Adam and Even and their sin started the course of
events across the whole of humanity that we are all now sinners who
are fallen away from God. And there is this separation between us and
JP: I agree with that.
JP: That’s well put.
GF: Fifth is the virgin birth.
CS: It’s just like what it sounds like. Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in her. And Jesus’ father is God.
JP: That’s right. Immaculate conception, I believe, is what it’s referred to.
GF: Sixth is the atoning work of
JP: Death had to occur for our sin. It
was the only payment that could be made for our transgressions.
CS: Now there’s a lawnmower. It is February! Who is moving their lawn? This is a bad neighborhood.
GF: The next one is the resurrection.
CS: Jesus actually died, He was
crucified on a cross and then rose from the dead. And that is a key
belief in Christianity.
JP: It’s a huge claim. It separates us
from a lot of other beliefs
GF: And then eight is eternal
punishment for sin.
CS: This is one we don’t like to talk
about, but it’s fundamental and it’s pretty clear biblically that
there is an actual hell. And those who don’t accept the free gift of
Jesus’ death on the cross for them… well, it’s not going to look
good. The good news, of course, is if we trust in Jesus we’re saved
by the grace of God, not based on works. So we’ve got two leaf
blowers, an airplane, and a highway.
JP: The oxygen level is lowering.
GF: Ninth is justification by faith.
JP: The Bible says we’re saved by grace
through faith. Works alone can’t do it. It’s the one thing that sets
us apart from other religions is that we can’t earn our way.
CS: This is the one asterisk for
Catholics. Some Catholics would argue that we are saved by faith,
yes, but also by works as well. I’m making sure we’re still
JP: Oh, gosh, I hope so.
CS: We are. Yes. (laughing)
JP: I’m going to die.
GF: And then tenth is the inspiration
and the authority of scripture, of the Bible.
CS: In the 1700’s all of those
denominations believed that the Bible was the Word of God. That it is
wholly inspired, that it is true.
JP: I could elaborate more in a less
CS: Well, the purpose of this was to
keep it short, so I think we’ve succeeded.
JP: Yes, you have.
CS: We’re crossing the finish line. And
that is our theological sprint. I want you to plug your podcast
because you’ve earned it.
JP: Let me catch my breath. We’re the
Switching Lenses podcast where we evaluate culture, society, and
politics, break it down from an apologetics level.
CS: Praise God. Thank you so much!
JP: Thank you, Chris.
All of this stuff was agreed upon by the churches in the pre-revolutionary United States.
In his book, Doctor Frazer makes the
case that the founding Fathers, he picks eight, were neither deists
or Christian. They, like the Enlightenment preachers, believed that
they could pick and choose whatever they liked. Whatever fit their
ideas of what was within reason. Whatever was rational.
GF: Those who believe they were deists or rank secularists look for evidence in their writings that they weren’t Christians. And you can find that evidence and so they said, okay, aha, they must have been deists or secularists. And then on the other side, the Christian America people do the same thing but the other way around. They look for evidence to show that they weren’t deists and then they find that and they say, “aha. They weren’t deists therefore they must be Christians”. Well, that’s only true if there is this dichotomy. And so the evidence, the bulk of the evidence in my book comes from private correspondence, diary entries, personal memoranda, of the key founders rather than public pronouncements because public pronouncements are made for the benefit of the public and so it doesn’t necessarily tell you what they actually believed. One of the famous Thanksgiving Day proclamations, for example, was put out by John Adams includes a number of things that he absolutely, vehemently opposed belief in. But they’re there because that’s what the public wants to see in public documents. And so much of the Christian America argument is made off of public documents that are written for the public for public approval. In fact, in a number of cases… I ran across a number of cases and letters in which people like Thomas Jefferson, for example, would tell the person at the end of the letter, “after you read this letter, destroy it so that no one sees it.” Jefferson actually went after the widow of one of the guys he wrote to get back a letter that he had written to him so that it wouldn’t become public. And so, it’s in these private writings that they tell us what they really believe. Not what they’re saying for the public’s benefit. Whereas sometimes they sounded like they were deists or secularists and sometimes they sounded like they were Christian is because they weren’t really either. They were something in the middle that borrowed from both of those and so I invented the term “theistic rationalism.”
CS: Theistic rationalism mixes ideas of
rationalism (that you can pick and choose whatever you want), natural
religion (the idea that God is evident in nature), and orthodox
GF: They retained as much of Christianity as they could but rejected whatever they thought was irrational in Christianity. Likewise, with deism, they retained as much of that as they could but rejected what they thought was irrational and as a result, they ended up rejecting both of the critical elements of deism and most of the nine, at least, of the ten fundamental doctrines of Christianity. At least as the 18th-century church identified it.
So which stuff from our theology
marathon would they have liked? For starters, that God is active in
human affairs. That’s… it. They didn’t agree with any of the other
parts. No trinity, no atonement, no scripture… they could take it
or leave it. Critically, and I know I’ve said this a few times
already but we need to drive this home… they believed that Jesus
was not God. A good man, but not God. Something, honestly, you hear a
lot when you share your faith with others. So, their approach to
scripture was like going to a buffet: take as much as you want, but
leave behind anything you don’t like.
GF: Thomas Jefferson famously took scissors or a straight edge, as one of my critics says, I don’t know how he knows that… but anyway he took something to cut with and he cut out all the supernatural, miraculous elements in the four gospels and then pasted what was literally, pasted what was left back together… and you can still buy it today. It’s still in print. It’s called the Jefferson Bible. That isn’t what he called it. But there he was cutting out the parts of the Bible that, to him, were irrational and didn’t match with his reason. That is the supernatural stuff. And then pieced it back together to have the moral teachings of Jesus, which is what he considered to be valid.
CS: Jefferson is often disregarded in these discussions as an outlier. He and Franklin were the bad boys of the Declaration and Constitution. Jefferson flat out disagreed with the central tenants of Christianity. In the footnote of a letter to William Short from October 31, 1819, he stated it clearly. By the way, next time you write a letter to a friend, add footnotes. Why don’t we do that anymore?
He wrote that the teachings of Jesus should be “rescued” from ideas like:
JEFFERSON: “…the immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection & visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity, original sin, atonement, regeneration, election orders of Hierarchy etc”
EN: Did Thomas Jefferson believe
CS: (to the reader of the quote) He
didn’t believe any of that.
EN: All right, okay.
CS: Playing the role of Thomas
Jefferson is Eric Nevins of the Halfway There podcast.
CS: See? Jefferson was not a fan of
Jesus being God. Yet, Christian Americans point to his writing in the
Declaration, which mentions God, as proof he was a Christian. Nope.
He looked like one, but did not believe the fundamental tenants of
How about another example?
John Adams, second President of the United States, called the idea of Jesus’ divinity absurd. He did this in a diary entry on February 13, 1756. I’ll have a link to that on the website if you want to read it.
George Washington – the first President of the United States, serves as an interesting case study too. He believed in the power of prayer, attended church regularly, and said that the morals of Christianity were good for society. But scholars have noted that in more than 20,000 pages of writing, he only referred to Jesus by name one time. And even that is called into question because it’s not in his handwriting. He often had aides writing letters for him, which he would sign, perhaps without reading them.
Washington also never claimed to be a Christian. Jefferson wrote that Washington was not one. And the clergymen at Washington’s church in Philadelphia also denied that George was a believer. He refused to take communion and was a leader in the Freemasons, a social group that explicitly taught a supreme being but denied salvation through Christ.
The fact is, these guys looked
Christian but did not believe the central tenants. They believed it
was good for teaching morality, even though Franklin, Jefferson, and
Gouverneur Morris were known womanizers.
GF: I don’t claim that everyone in the
founders was a theistic rationalist. I studied eight key founders and
concluded that those eight were all theistic rationalists.
CS: FYI, for all of the Alexander
Hamilton fans out there… he became a Christian near the end of his
life. And the end of the musical for those paying attention.
GF: Um, I know there were Christians
among the founders. Absolutely there were Christians among the
founders: John Jay, Roger Sherman, John Witherspoon and others. There
were believers among the founders. I don’t think there were any
deists, ironically, among the founders unless you go deep enough to
get to Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen. That’s pretty far down the list
of founders. I think people should be very leery of someone who tells
you, “the founders believed this”. Because the founders were
discreet individuals who held different beliefs. They didn’t all
believe the same thing in lock step. They’re like politicians today.
We can’t say, “politicians belief…” right? There’s a little bit
of difference between what Donald Trump believes and what Nancy
Peloci believes. And the same thing was true of the founders. They
weren’t just a mass. They were individuals, and so I try not… you
should be leery about people saying, “the founders believed” on
anything other than what they actually wrote, like the Constitution.
CS: It’s important that we know what
these guys believed. Because there is a movement out there saying
that the US is a Christian nation, founded by Christian men. That
isn’t really true. It is a nation that was deeply influenced by the
morals of Christianity, yes. But, fundamentally, Christianity isn’t
about morals. We are saved by faith. Not by works, not by being good
enough. To say that Christianity is a religion of morals is to miss
the point entirely and to skip historic, orthodox beliefs.
Just to give you a taste of what they
believed, we’ll go over some basic parts of Christianity…
Like, miracles… do miracles happen?
Nope. None of those guys believed in all of the miracles of the
Bible. Though Franklin did fancy at least one. Turning water into
wine. Go figure. The guy liked his wine. Did they believe that Jesus
was God? None of them. Not Adams, not Franklin, not Madison.
Did they go to church? Yes. They went
to church. Isn’t that crazy? They didn’t believe in Jesus but they
went to church anyway! Partially to keep up a public persona. And,
they believed that it was important to learn morals.
Let’s go back to that illustration
about trail mix at the beginning of the show. The theistic
rationalists laid out in the book believed they could pick and
choose. Remember what their primary requirement was to determine if
God actually did what the Bible claimed? It had to fit their ideas of
his benevolence. His being good. If it didn’t fit their human,
rational ideas, they threw it
out like we might ignore the parts of trail mix we don’t like. Just
as trail mix stops being trail mix when you’re just down to a pile of
nuts, Christianity stops making sense when we cut out the parts you
Are there any ways that we do this
today? Of course. They removed everything that didn’t fit with God’s
benevolence. Today, we do it when parts of the Bible don’t match up
to our ideas of God’s love. Really. Many of our modern arguments with
Christianity stem from this gap in our understanding. From where our
human ideas of what love is collide with God’s actual character.
the gospel apart, pulling out what we don’t like leaves us with
something that has no power. No complexity. And, ultimately, leaves
us with something that is about as valuable as a pile of old mixed
Special thanks to Dr. Gregg Frazer. His books are “The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders” and “God Against the Revolution: The Loyalist Clergy’s Case Against the Revolution”. We’re going to be spending some more time with him soon. Subscribe to the podcast so you’ll get every new episode as it’s released.
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We’ll be back in two weeks with more
about the founders. What do we hope to gain by calling the US a
Christian nation? And was the revolution even a biblical idea? It’s
going to be great. Thanks for listening. I’m Chris Staron. This is
Are you curious about why Truce is covering the topics that it is? Wondering where this thing is going? We’ve heard you! In response to the confusion of our audience, we’ve put together this special interview episode to answer some of your questions.
Chris is joined by Eric Nevins, host of the Halfway There podcast.
Would you like to see Eric’s review of Truce in Podcast Magazine? Click here to learn more. The review will come out March 30, 2020.