August 5, 2020


Will Tammy Duckworth be the first deist veep since Thomas Jefferson? (Steven Waldman, 8/05/20, RNS)

[D]eists were not atheists. Rather, they believed that reason was the path to spiritual knowledge and that nature itself offered the best proof of God's existence. Notably, Jefferson used the term "Nature's God" in the Declaration of Independence, and later wrote rhapsodically about the perfection of the universe, which proved that there must be "an ultimate cause, a fabricator of all things from matter and motion."

Tom Paine, the author of "Common Sense," was a deist, and at various points, both James Madison and George Washington used language that would suggest some sympathy.

Benjamin Franklin did declare himself to be a deist at one point. When he was a teenager, a Puritan elder tried to scare him away from deism, but the effort backfired. "Some books against Deism fell into my hands," he later wrote. "It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist."

But, it should be said, none of the Founders were pure deists. Classical deism imagined "a watchmaker God" -- a powerful deity who created the universe, and its rules, but then stepped away from the day-to-day management. Jefferson, Franklin and Washington all very much believed in the power of prayer and that God intervened in the affairs of people in general, and Americans in particular.   

While we don't know what flavor of deist Duckworth is, we can say that in some ways, it's actually a very modern formulation. At least 83% of Americans say they believe in God but only about 36% attend a house of worship weekly. Duckworth said, "I don't go to any particular religious institution."

Posted by at August 5, 2020 2:27 PM