Will Tammy Duckworth be the first deist veep since Thomas Jefferson?

If the Illinois senator becomes a national candidate it’s likely the Founding Father’s faith tradition will come to be as controversial as it was in the 19th century.

(RNS) — Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who is actively being considered as Joe Biden’s running mate, has an unusual religious pedigree. Her mother is an active Buddhist, her father was Southern Baptist – but she describes herself using a term rarely used by modern politicians. “I think of myself as a deist,” she told a group of constituents in 2012.

In some ways, this self-description seems to hark back to a distant era. The last vice president to be connected with deism was Thomas Jefferson, though he never explicitly declared he was one. During the founding era, quite a few well-educated, Enlightenment thinkers held the view that God had created the universe but did not reveal his intentions, either through the Bible or prophets. They believed in God but often eschewed organized religion.

Given deism’s relative lack of dogma, it’s hard to know what Duckworth meant exactly, or whether it would become as controversial as it was in the 19th century. Many orthodox Christians viewed Jefferson and other deists as anti-religion and anti-Christian; Jefferson himself noted that others thought him to be an “atheist, deist, or devil.”  In the 1800 election, one Federalist newspaper advertisement proclaimed that the campaign forced every voter to decide: “Shall I continue in allegiance to GOD — AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for JEFFERSON AND NO GOD!!!”

In truth, deists 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.”

Duckworth isn’t alone in her spiritual formation either. About 21% of Americans now come from mixed-faith households as she did. “My mother’s Buddhist and my dad’s Southern Baptist. You can imagine the childhood I had,” she said to laughter at the town hall meeting in 2012. Growing up in such households often requires extra levels of consciousness and choice on the part of the children.

It also helps if you have a sense of humor in the face of some of the religious arguments that erupt at home. Duckworth noted that her mother, who lives with her, would always quip that she, as a believer in a faith that espouses reincarnation, “would have the last laugh because she would be reborn.”

Duckworth’s near-death experience as a helicopter pilot, losing both of her legs in Iraq, surely prompted a deep level of soul-searching too. Without hearing more from Duckworth, we don’t know how that affected her, but at a minimum it must have made her more spiritually deliberate.

While we can only speculate on the nature of her personal spirituality, she has commented on her approach to religious pluralism. And it sounds, well, very much like Jefferson, who once wrote, “it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Asked by an atheist how she would treat them if elected, Duckworth responded: “I think that’s my personal belief. That’s not anyone else’s. And I’m not going to infringe my  belief on yours or anyone else.”

Her deist forebears would be proud.

(Steven Waldman is the author of “Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom,” winner of the Wilbur Award for best nonfiction religion book of 2019. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)