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Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers Paperback – September 9, 2007

4.5 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this study of the religious lives of six framers of the Constitution, which began as an article in The Nation, Allen (Twentieth-Century Attitudes) ably demonstrates the uncontroversial thesis that many of the founding fathers were not very devout. Franklin was a skeptic and a humanist who displayed outright "contempt for the niceties of Christian observance." Washington was, like other Virginia gentry, a vestryman in his local Episcopal church, but he was not especially pious. Adams's Puritan heritage left him with a commitment to hard work but not to Calvinism. Jefferson, unsurprisingly, appears as a devotee of reason and a champion of religious freedom, a cause in which Madison joined him. Hamilton's piety was mainly "opportunistic," and the religiosity he evinced on his deathbed had "no effect" on his participation in American politics. In the concluding chapter, Allen summarizes the history of the Enlightenment, that philosophical watershed that "produced the founders," and she ends by warning that Enlightenment values are now under threat. Allen's sparring partners are, of course, those representatives of the religious right who claim that America was founded as a Christian nation. Unfortunately, they are not likely to read this book, and those readers already generally inclined to agree with Allen-including most serious students of American history-won't learn anything new.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


Meticulously researched and eminently readable. . . . Enthusiastically recommended for all collections. (D. L. Davey Library Journal)

Ms. Allen succeeds perfectly. (Adam Kirsch New York Sun)

Enlightening, infectiously enthusiastic scrutiny. (Ray Olson Booklist)

Careful and provocative reading. . . . Allen's book is welcome counterweight. (Darryl Hart)

Allen's clear and intelligent eye is a pleasure . . . a fine small book. (Peter Matthiessen, novelist and non-fiction writer, twice winner of the National Book Award)

Allen lucidly demolishes the fundamentalists' revisionist history of the Constitution. . . . An elegant and riveting defense. (Heather MacDonald)

Well documented, exuberantly argued and quite persuasive. (George Will, winner of the Pulitzer Prize The New York Times)

Allen provides honest answers to the questions about the religious beliefs and practices of Washington and the other key founders. (Myron A. Marty St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

If our right-wing adversaries insist on claiming that Washington and Franklin actually wanted the United States to be a Christian theocracy, Allen's book certainly can help to refute that outrageous lie. (Emile Schepers People's Weekly World)

Her argument marks a salient starting point for an informed debate on a compelling topic. Those who call the U.S. a 'Christian Nation' when referring not only to the religious beliefs of its citizens but to the structure and intention of its government ought to welcome the contrarian challenge she poses. (Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Allen delivers a rationalist polemic against those who would make of the American Founders observant, believing Christians in the modern sense. . . . Ms. Allen writes with facility. (Aram Bakshian Jr. The Wall Street Journal)

This is an excellent book about the beliefs of the six founders and well worth a read. Highly recommended. (Marty Dodge Blogcritics)

A mighty case for the religious questioning of America's Founding Fathers . . . thoughtful, diligently researched and often eyebrow-raising. (Blue Ridge Business Journal)

[Written] in a brisk, highly readable style. (Village News)

This is a thoughtful, well-written book. (Alvena Bieri Newspress)

Examine[s] the . . . Founding Fathers to convincingly demonstrate that Christian belief did not guide their political thinking . . . an excellent concluding chapter. (Milton Berman Magill Book Reviews)

A small, and wildly underappreciated book. (Nicholas F. Benton Falls Church News-Press)

Ably demonstrates the uncontroversial thesis that many of the founding fathers were not very devout. (Old Durham Road)

Allen's book . . . brings the substantial literary talents of a public intellectual to the dialogue on church and state in America. (Journal of Southern History)

Informed by substantial research in their writings and provides numerous quotations. (Allen Gibson The Historian)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Ivan R. Dee (October 5, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1566637511
  • ISBN-13: 978-1566637510
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.7 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #895,025 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"Moral Minority" by Brooke Allen is a brilliant refutation of the popular but misbegotten notion that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation. Ms. Allen profiles the religious lives of six key Founding Fathers and proves that their scepticism was in fact widely shared among the vanguard of the Enlightenment. Placing the founder's source writings within their proper historical context and astutely drawing parallels to the culture wars of our own time, this important work deserves to be read by a wide audience.

Ms. Allen dedicates individual chapters to the religious attitudes of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Ms. Allen peruses the personal correspondences and other original documents of the founders to discuss how their thinking on religion might have developed over the course of their lives. In most cases, she finds that with education and life experiences came expressions of disillusionment and even hostility to organized religion, providing further evidence that these attitudes only became more resolute with age. In the case of Washington, who wrote almost nothing on the subject, the author presents strong circumstantial evidence that the first president was at best a Deist but almost certainly not a Christian.

Ms. Allen finds a modern antecedent in the person of Hamilton, whose defense of the Constitution's no establishment clause did not prevent him from advocating the use of religion as a political weapon. We learn that Hamilton's cynical political tactic to label Jefferson as the champion of 'no god!!!' during the 1800 presidential contest backfired, even as the advent of the Second Great Awakening was threatening to elevate religion as a major campaign issue. Interestingly, Ms.
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I purchased this book after reading a favorable review in the NY Times Sunday book review. The book uses a variety of sources, including letters and authored documents, to illustrate the very strong views and philosophies many of the founding fathers had on the issue of separation of church and state. The book dives into the historical context for their opinions. Contrary to what many of the Christian Right would have us believe about the view of our founding fathers, by reading original historical sources it is very clear that Jefferson, Madison, Washington, Adams and Franklin felt very strongly that central to the future stability and prosperity of the United States was the need for a separation of church and state. This was driven by moral, philosophical and pracitical considerations. In addition to gaining a much deeper historical perspective on this central tenet of our democracy, which has been under attack by the current administration, was the recognition of the combined brilliance of these men in reading their writings. I also gained a deeper appreciation of the uniqueness of our own constitution and declaration of independence and how it reflects upon the genius of these men and their peers. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in knowing more about the philisophical and moral perspectives of the great men who helped birth our nation.
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Brooke Allen is most known for her stellar literary criticism in journals like New Criterion and the Hudson Review, but here, she leaves her "conservative journal" credentials to the side and examines six of the Founders' religious views and their impact on our formation of government. Religious conservatives will be disabused of their "Christian Nation" and "Reconstructionist" views.

While 6 of 51 Constitutional Conventioneers does not establish the whole Convention's point of view, certainly Washington, Franklin, Madison, Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton were the central architects of our Founding Documents. What Allen aims to show is that these six individuals in particular were not normative Christians, and whatever religious views they held (mainly Deism or unorthodox Theism), the Enlightenment Ideals, not Christianity, prevailed. But, of course, it did.

One finds not a single Judeo-Christian notion, belief, concept, or ideal in any of our founding documents. NO mention of God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, the Decalogue, Charity, Faith, Hope, Forgiveness, Non-Judgmentalism, Self-denial, Spiritual Rebirth, etc. is found in any of the founding documents. Not even American "exceptionalism," based on Calvin's Divine Election of the Chosen, is found (however much it continues to surface in practical politics). If America's founding was "Christian," no evidence exists for a single Christian idea.

The Liberal Ideals of the Enlightenment, of course, opposed much of historical Christianity: Notions of self-rule, democracy, autonomy, freedom/liberty, anti-authoritarianism, equality, pluralism, freedom of thought and belief and practice, fairness/justice, impartiality, one-person-one-vote, human rights, diffusion of power, etc., all hail from the Enlightenment.
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The last chapter of the book, titled "The World that Produced the Founders," should probably have started the book. It is easily the best chapter of the book, laying out the history of religious freedom (or lack therof) in England and the American Colonies from the time when King Henry VIII broke with catholicism up to the point when the American Revolution occurred. The other chapters are targeted each on one specific founder, and while the chapters did contain good (and shocking) information on the religious beliefs of each, I believe the author missed out by not dedicating a chapter to the beliefs of Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen (who were more radical than many of the other founders who were given their own chapters). They are covered briefly in another chapter, however. But overall, I'd say this book covers some very important overlooked history which we should definitely not forget in today's day and age.
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