How Founders Built a Nation Using Religion and philosophy.(BOOKS)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 20, 2002 | Go to article overview

How Founders Built a Nation Using Religion and philosophy.(BOOKS)


Byline: Will Morrisey, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In arguing for a renewed recognition of the religious dimension of the American Founding, the eminent Catholic scholar Michael Novak navigates a rocky coastline. Although the Founders explicitly and repeatedly refer to Nature's God, our Creator, and divine Providence, readers of their correspondence know that some of them defined "God," "Creator," and "Providence" in decidedly heterodox ways.

Many of the Founders unquestionably remained faithful to Christian teachings - the Rev. John Witherspoon of New Jersey and the philanthropist John Jay of New York being among the finest examples. But Thomas Jefferson privately denied the divinity of Christ and defended materialism, and the logic of Benjamin Franklin's portrait of the great preacher George Whitefield inclines toward blasphemy.

Even if one argues, as Mr. Novak does, that the orthodox outnumbered the heterodox, probably among the Founders and surely among the people they represented, how should one understand this, especially today? If the Founding was a Christian event, does that not leave Jewish, Muslim, and other non- and un-Christian Americans on the outside looking in, at odds with their own country? In redeeming the Founders' Christianity do we undermine their authority among too many Americans now?

Fortunately, In his "On Two Wings," Mr. Novak proves a skillful pilot. His carefully drawn navigational chart features two coordinates, one religious and one philosophic. Together, they guide us home.

The first coordinate consists of a spirited but never overly sectarian religious polemic, determining biblical points obscured by secularist weather. For example, Mr. Novak rightly observes that the Founders do not simplistically set biblical revelation against human reason. They knew that Jesus himself commends the prudence of serpents as well as the harmlessness of doves. The Founders' Enlightenment was not the Enlightenment of Voltaire; it was the Enlightenment of John Locke, a man ever at pains not to tread heavily on Christian sensibilities. The spiritedness that spirituality lends to reason gives strength to the quest for liberty, which might otherwise run to anarchy, on one extreme, or curl up in terror at its enemies, on the other.

Christian faith honors the marriage bond, providing stable homes for the inculcation of virtues that free men and women will need, given the dangers of living in freedom. Christians hold themselves under the scrutiny of an all-seeing God; insofar as they do, they are likely to behave better than citizens who suppose that they have no stern if forgiving Judge.

To skeptics who might reply that such a defense of Christianity is more utilitarian than pious, Mr. Novak has a ready reply. No less a Christian, and no less a mathematician, than Blaise Pascal deems faith a prudent wager. What is more supremely useful than the one thing most needful for the salvation of your soul? And where is the impiety of acknowledging such utility?

This religious-polemical coordinate of Mr. Novak's chart, taken by itself, might lead navigator and crew off course. Mr. Novak too easily overlooks the radical, Machiavellian challenge to Christianity embedded in the writings of such modern natural-rights philosophers as Thomas Hobbes and Locke, to say nothing of their march-of-history descendants, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx, who do not merely secularize Christian providentialism but transform it into a vast and (as it turned out in practice) disastrous attempt to conquer God's creation and eradicate religion itself.

So, to say that the Founders share the biblical understanding that something called "history" undergoes something called "progress" entirely misses a simple fact: Neither the Bible nor the Founders speak of "history" as an ontological object. The Declaration of Independence speaks of "the course of human events," not "history. …

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