Interviewer: In the chapter on the American Revolution you include a new discussion of Christian Republicanism. Would you explain what this was and why it was significant for the revolution?
Eric Foner: I use the term Christian Republicanism to describe a particular set of beliefs held by the Founding Fathers. Today there’s a lot of controversy and, I think, misinterpretation, of what the founders’ views of religion and the relation of religion to the national state were, or should be.
Many of the leading founders were what we call Deists. That is, they believed in a god but not in organized religion in any dramatic way, at least for themselves. God had created the world, and created it operating according to the laws of science, particularly as revealed by Isaac Newton and others. This is the so-called "watchmaker" god. In other words, the world was so complicated and operated according to such dramatic laws that it could not have come about haphazardly or accidentally; there must be some mind or purpose that had created everything. But once doing that, god did not intervene in the world anymore and there was hardly any point in praying for divine intervention or worshiping god in any dramatic way. The way to worship god was to study his creation—the world, science, etc.
Now, there were many others who didn’t hold those views but for Founders like Jefferson and Jon Adams and Benjamin Franklin, this was the religion of The Enlightenment. Nonetheless they still insisted that, if not for them, deep religious commitment was important for most people. In a republic, that is, a government based upon the will of the people, there is no monarchy setting down principles from on high. There is no established church where people are required to adopt a certain set of beliefs. Well, a republic requires virtue. It requires moral behavior on the part of the citizenry to survive. If government is based on the people, the people had better be upstanding citizens. Well, what is going to make them that?
This is where Christianity comes in. People like Adams were very explicit in saying, to paraphrase, "I don’t believe in this stuff but ordinary people need a code of moral behavior so that they don’t succumb to vice and licentiousness and immorality." So, Christianity is necessary for a republic to survive because it provides a set of moral standards that help to uplift the citizenry. I don’t know if you call that a religious belief or simply a belief in the political usefulness and utility of Christianity. It’s a particular set of ideas that we really don’t have anymore, although there are echoes of it. I know that in the 1950s President Eisenhower used to talk about the importance of religion in underpinning the country. He said, "I don’t care what religion it is but some kind of religious belief is necessary for people to live a moral life."
And so, this Christian Republicanism is not related to any specific denomination. It’s more a view that religion underpins the functioning of a republic such as the one established during the American Revolution.