Christian Nation? The United States in Popular Perception and Historical Reality

By T. Adams Upchurch | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
The American “Orthodoxy”
Nonconformity among the Founders

FREETHINKERS AND FREETHINKING

Historically, the orthodoxy of any of the Christian nations of Europe was generally specific and well defined. There was little gray area, and anyone posing an unorthodox idea knew they were doing so, knew what the consequences would likely be, and rarely turned out to be wrong. The opposite holds true for American history. With the exception already noted of attempts by Puritans and Anglicans to establish an orthodox mentality in America during the Colonial era, virtually all the rest of the United States’ history has been characterized by “freethinking” of one type or another.1 Deism, Masonry, Unitarianism, Transcendentalism, and a host of smaller sects and movements spring to mind as examples. Likewise, “freethinkers” of several varieties are among the most famous of American leaders. Indeed, “Almost all great Americans have been called infidels,” including Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln.2 While it is true that certain freethinkers during the founding generation, such as Elihu Palmer, author of In Defense of the Age of Reason, might well be considered “infidels” because they had an antiChristian agenda to promote, others such as Abner Kneeland, author of the Bible of Reason, should not be called infidels merely because they possessed unorthodox religious opinions.3

The fact that freethinking permeates American history presents the illusion— which many modern secularists are either deceived by or see through, yet readily exploit to their own advantage—that the United States government was

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