On “The Ben Shapiro Show: Sunday Special” this week, Ben Shapiro speaks with historian and author David Barton about the faith of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Were they deists? Were they Christian? Barton debunks the myths surrounding the Founders and where they actually stood on matters of faith. Video and partial transcript below:
Ben Shapiro: Let's talk about the religious perspective of the founders. The typical narrative goes in public education, I was in public school and I went to public school for college as well. Historians tend to say that the founders were basically deists, that they believed in the clockwork universe maker. God set the universe in motion, and then through natural law discoveries we came up with all of these wonderful ideas, but the Bible is really sort of a secondary afterthought, that these were theist. They may have been sort of the root-level theist belief system that they believed in. But when it came to the Bible, they didn't take it literally, not seriously. What do you make of that characterization of the founders?
David Barton: "Characterizations" is the right word, and it's based on the fact that we really don't know them or who they are. We actually reprinted an old 1848 public school textbook that we used for generations. In public schools, we studied all 56 signers of the Declaration. We knew who they were, their names, their character their sacrifices. We knew their faith and their family; we knew all about them.
Today we know a small handful. I was recently with an academic at Notre Dame and he jumped me and said, “You overstate the faith that the founding fathers; they were largely deists.” I said okay, here's the deal, you name it a deist, name what you call a deist founding father, and for everyone, you say I'll name five overtones that today would probably be considered evangelicals in religious terms.
So, you name one, I'll name five, let's see who runs out first. Well, he got through three or four and kind of ran out. I'm still going, and the problem is we take the least and we make that into the rule. And the rule is that for example, the 56 signers of the Declaration, 29 of them graduated from schools that in their day were considered Bible schools or seminaries. Now, you're going to have a hard time convincing me that a deist is going to attend a bible school or a seminary, a place with trained ministers, and they were largely Christians, so that's their faith?
An easy example is to take somebody like a John Hancock. This (document shown in video) is an original proclamation from John Hancock and this is for the state of Massachusetts, and by the way, he's calling them to a day of public fasting humiliation prayer, which is fairly serious. That’s kind of serious on your faith, but you find throughout that he is very open as a Christian, he talks about Jesus Christ and savior, etc. In fact, he called the state of Massachusetts to prayer like these twenty-two times.
You find that by the time you get to 1815 there had been 14,000 government-issued calls to prayer in America, largely by founding fathers. So, if they're deists, why do they have you praying? And why are they calling you to prayer with what might be considered evangelical language? He would alternate oftentimes with thanksgiving and fasting, it is one of Hancock's Thanksgiving proclamations. This is when we found out Benedict Arnold was trying to kill George Washington, and it’s such an amazing story. He says “wow”, the fingerprints of God and this are such, to know that this was a God thing. Because of the way the weight came about they should never have been discovered, It’s a too well-laid plan.
Ben Shapiro: But people don't know that story, could you share it?
David Barton: Yes, the story is really kind of interesting because Benedict Arnold had an ego which didn't get matched in the American Army because he thought he should have been promoted much faster, but he wasn't being recognized or wasn't being promoted. So, he starts saying, “Well the British will respect me, they'll honor me, I can get a promotion through them,” and so he starts working with the British and he's in charge of West Point. By the way, the biggest statue you find when you go to the battlefield at Saratoga, which is the first major victory of the American Revolution, massive statue of Benedict Arnold because he was the hero. He was an American general, he was courageous, but he just didn't think he'd get enough respect, and so because of that ego, he turns to the British. He works with them.
He makes his plan to give West Point to the British and it will happen at the time that George Washington arrives, so they can kill Washington or capture Washington and end everything right there. A British officer, John Andre, is going back and forth with Benedict Arnold and so they lay out the plans. Andre actually takes the plans, folds them up, puts them in the bottom of his shoe to hide so that no one would find them. He gets into what is considered to be a safe part of New York, run by the British with all the loyalists and no Americans. He runs up to three guys and starts talking to them, which he believes are British guys, so he can tell them what's going on. He starts sharing more information than he should have, and it turns out they weren't British guys, there were three American militiamen who had just escaped from a British prison, they shouldn't even be in this area.
They were prisoners that got free, and now as Arnold starts becoming too open with them, they start getting curious and they think this “doesn't smell right,” and so they actually grab and take him to an American post, which wasn't supposed to be in that area at all. Everything was improbable all the way through. They searched him and for some reason checked the bottom of his shoe, where they found the papers. They saw too many coincidences, too providential and too much God here, so that's why Hancock called that time of Thanksgiving.