about the beliefs of major figures. We are invited to wonder, then, why these authors were not more explicit about their most basic assumptions. For although both the Reflections and Rights of Man reflect a strong religious culture, Burke and Paine were both more reticent about religion than they needed to be. Wollstonecraft, on the other hand, explicitly articulated the theology and political agenda of rational Dissent and emphasized the reliance of her argument on notions of God. In her reading of the Reflections, she points to the religious assumptions at the heart of Burke's argument--and indeed, of most eighteenth-century thought. These texts, and the Revolution debate as a whole, were largely shaped by the expression in political terms of religious belief and by the coalitions formed among faith communities.
All political argument rests on fundamental assumptions about human nature and the world's possibilities--leaps of faith, if you will. Arguments that link religion and politics simply make those assumptions explicit. The modern corollary is, perhaps, the painfully detailed confession of one's theoretical assumptions that must now preface works of literary scholarship. Religion is a "theory" in this sense--not a method of automatically reaching prejudiced or illogical conclusions, but a set of basic assumptions from which argument can begin. Our knowledge of an author's religion, whether we mean personal conviction or inherited culture, helps us situate ourselves as we begin to listen.
One sign of good teaching comes when a student honestly cannot determine which ideas are her own and which her teacher's. There is much in this essay that David Bromwich, the director of the 1991 NEH Summer Seminar, would not agree with, but I would like to thank him in advance for any readings I have borrowed without acknowledgement.