Presidents Adams and the Religious Right

Introduction

In 2000 The Columbus Dispatch published a letter that exemplifies the Religious Right’s attempts to rewrite early U.S. history.

The letter said Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams were “born-again Christians who accepted the Bible as the word of God.”

America’s second and sixth presidents were thus made to look as though they would support the Religious Right if they were alive today.

Both of them, however, would have had little regard for the Religious Right. And the Religious Right would have had little use for them.

Liberal religious beliefs

John Adams’s biographer and the editor of his Works, his grandson Charles Francis Adams, wrote that “with the independent spirit which in early life had driven him from the ministry, [Adams rejected] the prominent doctrines of Calvinism, the trinity, the atonement and election. . . .”

Moreover, church-state scholar Greg Hamilton says John Adams criticized the notion of Christ’s divinity as an “awful blasphemy.”

Likewise, James Haught’s book 2000 Years of Disbelief describes Adams as “another non-Christian president of the United States.” Haught explains that Adams was a “Deist who rejected the divinity of Christ.”

Historian Craig Nelson adds that Adams described the Bible as being full of “whole cartloads of trumpery.”

It’s hard to imagine clearer proof that Adams did not view the Bible as the inerrant word of God. In fact, these views alone would have earned Adams harsh denunciations from the Religious Right. In their eyes, he would have been anathema.

Haught also says Adams once told a friend that he saw in the clergy the “pretended sanctity of some absolute dunces.” And if he thought those guys were idiotic hypocrites, one can imagine what he would say about some of the Religious Right’s televangelists.

Franklin Steiner’s book The Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents relates that John Adams was a Unitarian. Adams “believed that all good men are Christians regardless of their theological belief,” writes Steiner. That is a liberal religious position if there ever was one, and it couldn’t be more inconsistent with the views of the Religious Right.

Steiner further reports that John Adams’s son, President John Quincy Adams, was an “outspoken” Unitarian. As a result, the younger Adams’s Unitarianism was “common knowledge,” says Steiner.

John Quincy Adams had the strong respect for reason and individual judgment that characterizes Unitarianism – but is often lacking in the Religious Right.

He wrote: “When I observe into what inconsistent absurdities those persons run who make speculative, metaphysical religion a matter of importance, I am fully determined never to puzzle myself in the mazes of religious discussion, [and] to content myself with practicing the dictates of God and reason so far as I can judge for myself. . . .”

Strong supporters of church-state separation

Besides having major problems with the religious beliefs of both Adamses, the Religious Right would loathe their views on church-state separation.

In 1788 John Adams said in regard to the nation’s founding: “The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature. . . . [In] the formation of the American governments . . . it will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of heaven. . . . These governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.”

As president, John Adams approved the “Treaty with Tripoli” and presented it to the U.S. Senate in 1797. It contains the statement that “the government of the United States of America is not founded in any sense on the Christian religion. . . . ”

At that time, the Senate was comprised of many persons who had participated at the Constitutional Convention or the state conventions that ratified the Constitution. Those senators had firsthand knowledge of the founding of the U.S., and they unanimously approved the treaty.

Moreover, John Adams wrote in 1812: “Nothing is more dreaded than the national government meddling with religion.”

Nelson quotes John Adams as saying that if Puritan fundamentalists weren’t restrained by the civil law, they would unreservedly “whip and crop, and pillory and roast.”

As a member of the Massachusetts constitutional convention of 1820, John Adams fought strenuously to disestablish the state religion. Although his efforts failed, the goal was achieved seven years after his death. In a statewide referendum in 1833, Massachusetts voters chose disestablishment by a 10-1 margin.

While serving in Congress after his term as president, John Quincy Adams opposed attempts to make Sunday a mandatory day of rest.

He considered such efforts divisive and said: “There are in this country, as in all others, a certain proportion of restless and turbulent spirits – poor, unoccupied, ambitious – who must always have something to quarrel about with their neighbors. These people are the authors of religious revivals.”

No early presidents supported fundamentalism

Actually, it’s impossible to find any early presidents who would have fit in with the Religious Right.

That is certainly true of George Washington, the first U.S. president and the “Father of his Country.” Joseph Ellis writes: “The historical evidence suggests that Washington did not think much about heaven or angels: the only place he knew his body was going was into the ground, and as for his soul, its ultimate location was unknowable. He died as a Roman stoic rather than a Christian saint.”

Steiner explains that Benjamin Harrison, who became president in 1889, was the first president who was unquestionably a communicant in an orthodox church when elected.

Some clergymen bemoaned the lack of orthodox religious beliefs held by the early presidents.

In a sermon reported in the newspapers, Episcopal minister Bird Wilson of Albany, New York, complained in 1831: “Among all our presidents from Washington downward, not one was a professor of religion, at least not of more than Unitarianism.”

Conclusion

Today’s Religious Right is attempting to avoid that problem.

To advance their theocratic agenda, they are spreading bogus history to mislead people into thinking the U.S. government was founded on – and can therefore promote – their religious views.

John Adams and John Quincy Adams would surely be appalled by those acts.