Thursday, November 16, 2006

Religion and the Founders: Going Beyond the "Top Six"

In 2001, Michael Novak wrote in Faith and the American Founding: Illustrating Religion's Influence:

For a hundred years scholars have stressed the principles that come from the Enlightenment and from John Locke in particular. But there are also first principles that come to us from Judaism and Christianity, especially from Judaism. Indeed, it is important to recognize that most of what our Founders talked about (when they talked politically) came from the Jewish Testament, not the Christian. The Protestant Christians who led the way in establishing the principles of this country were uncommonly attached to the Jewish Testament.

Scholars often mistakenly refer to the god of the Founders as a deist god. But the Founders talked about God in terms that are radically Jewish: Creator, Lawgiver, Governor, Judge, and Providence. These were the names they most commonly used for Him, notably in the Declaration of Independence. For the most part, these are not names that could have come from the Greeks or Romans, but only from the Jewish Testament. Perhaps the Founders avoided Christian language because they didn’t want to divide one another, since different colonies were founded under different Christian inspirations. In any case, all found common language in the language of the Jewish Testament. It is important for citizens today whose main inspiration is the Enlightenment and Reason to grasp the religious elements in the founding, which have been understated for a hundred years.

More recently, Novak has written about how the focus has been on the supposed irreligiosity of the "big six" founders (Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, and Washington). He's willing to admit that Jefferson, Franklin and Monroe were the least religious of the top 100 Founders, but also makes an argument against the assumptions for the other three. He also mentions that Gordon Wood has been making much the same case. According to Novak:
[Wood] has not found a single atheist during the Founding period (not even Tom Paine), and certainly not among the Founders. Second, he finds even the least religious of the Founders considerably more religious than the average professor at American universities today. Ours is a far, far more secular age, our leaders and our people are far more ignorant of religious ideas. Third, he finds that Jefferson—the Founder most attended to today—was an outlier among the Founders.

Wood has also argued that George Washington, while not being by any means an enthusiast or an evangelical in the modern sense, was probably one of the more religious of the Founders...
I don't offer all of this up to support some "Christian Nation" argument. But I do think things have a gone a bit too far in proclaiming that the Founders weren't really, you know, that religious and, by extension, they'd be somehow against referring to God in public. Historians have learned to contemporize their subjects in so many other areas of historical research. Yet, it seems to me that there is a deficit of contemporization with regards to how important religion was in both the daily life and the philosophy of the Founders.

Whether for political or ideological reasons, some scholars have improperly equated "religious" with "evangelical" (or "Christianist") . One can be religious, recognize its importance in setting up moral guideposts (especially in a Republic), but not seek to Establish an official religion. Some seem to think that any mention of God or reference to religion within the close proximity of the Public Square is just the first misstep down the slippery slope to a theocracy.

To wrap this up, I think Novak's call for more study of the religious aspects of the Founders philosophy (all of 'em, not just the big names) is a kick in the pants for young historians looking to make a mark.
We urgently need good studies of all of them, if we wish to have a fairer idea of “the faith of the Founders.” Let us suggest, for starters, studies about the depth of the Christian faith of Roger Sherman; Samuel Huntington; William Williams; the Carroll cousins Charles, Daniel, and John; Hugh Williamson; Robert Treat Paine; William Paca; John Dickinson; Rufus King; William Livingston; John Hancock; Benjamin Rush; Patrick Henry; James Wilson; and George Mason.
There's gotta be a thesis, dissertation (or three) in there somewhere....


EHT said...

I enjoyed reading your treatment of the Founding Fathers/Christianity puzzle. It's nice to see someone look at things from a rational point of view!

Marc said...

Thanks...I did a much longer piece a couple years ago with a similar theme. It was about how a Treaty with Tripoli is used to claim that the U.S. never claimed to be a Christian nation. It's a long post and the whole thing is a mystery. If you're interested, here it is.