The Founders on God and Government

By Mega, Thomas B. | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2006 | Go to article overview

The Founders on God and Government


Mega, Thomas B., The Catholic Historical Review


The Founders on God and Government. Edited by Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark D. Hall, and Jeffry H. Morrison. (New York: Rowman & Littlefield. 2004. Pp. xx, 314. $80.00 cloth, $29.95 paperback.)

Setting the tone of this anthology, Michael Novak, in the foreword, contends that "scholars since about 1950 have thoroughly misconstrued the high achievements of the founding generation with respect to religious liberty" (p. ix). Even a cursory examination of the literature will reveal that is correct. Recent historians of the founding period have concentrated their efforts primarily on social and economic questions of the era.

The editors of this anthology have assembled essays by ten authors who seek to demonstrate that religious belief was of prime importance for leaders of the founding generation. As with all anthologies, the authors accomplish this goal with varying degrees of success. Among the best of the essays are Morrison's on John Witherspoon and James R. Stoner's on the Carroll family of Maryland. At the other end of the spectrum is Dreisbach's essay on George Mason, an essay in which the author seems to devote more space to James Madison than to Mason.The other seven essays do a very good job of demonstrating the importance of religion and religious liberty for the founders.

For example, Vincent Phillip Munoz, in his essay on Washington, makes a good case for Washington's view that "reason and the lessons of experience .. . taught that patriotic republicans ought to recognize and endorse religion because only a religious citizenry could sustain republican self-government" (p. T). Indeed, this is a recurring theme throughout many of these essays-that religious belief, particularly Christian beliefs (although not Roman Catholic Christianity), was useful to maintain the orderly society. John Adams, according to John Witte, advocated the establishment of what he called "public religion." While not explicitly endorsing any particular sect or denomination, Adams's public religion would inculcate "honesty, diligence, devotion, obedience, virtue, and love of God, neighbor, and self" (p. 26), the characteristics necessary to sustain a republic. …

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