America's Founding Fathers often kept their religious beliefs close to the vest, historians say, but that just won't cut it anymore.
That's because, 230 years after the first Independence Day, Americans of varied political and religious stripes are determined to prove that the Founders' beliefs are similar to their own. Helped by a spate of new books this year, skeptics and believers alike have fresh intellectual gunpowder this July 4 for claiming the framers as members of their respective camps.
For a nation torn over what role religion should have in the public square, the stakes are high. Both religionists and secularists say they're under attack in the public domain and want America's first patriots on their side to maintain legitimacy.
Each side has its favorites. Patrick Henry's frequent references to Jesus Christ help make him a darling of Christian conservatives, some of whom opened a Virginia college named after him in 2000. Secularists prefer to invoke Thomas Paine, whose "Age of Reason" treatise mocking Christianity earned him a badge of scorn in his day.
"People who are fighting battles now, against the Christian right or the secular left, feel their case will be stronger if they have history on their side," says Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.
At least nine new books this year – such as "Washington's God," "Moral Minority," and "American Gospel" – delve into the Founders' spiritual and ethical beliefs.
Some authors are raising questions about Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. Were they Christians who found salvation in a personal God? Or were they deists, that is, devotees of reason who saw God as a benevolent yet distant creator? Perhaps most controversial is the first president, George Washington, whose peculiar habit of refusing communion during worship is typical of disputed evidence about his true beliefs and doubts.