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In one key respect, the way the story of the United States has been told for the past one hundred years is wrong. It has cut off one of the two wings by which the American eagle flies, her compact with the God of the Jews - the God of Israel championed by the nation's first Protestants - the God Who prefers the humble and weak things of this world, the small tribe of Israel being one of them; Who brings down the mighty and lifts up the poor; and Who has done so all through history, and will do so till the end of time. Believe that there is such a God or not - the founding generation did, and relied upon this belief. Their faith is an "indispensable" part of their story.
By contrast, to read most philosophers and historians of the American polity today is to learn that America is an historical embodiment of secular philosophy, the Enlightenment. Virtually all schools of politics and law today diminish the power of religion in American thought - the conservative as much as the progressive school, the traditionalists as well as the civic republicans, and the followers of such diverse political philosophers as Leo Strauss and John Rawls.
Yes, most admit, the Pilgrims believed in God and covenants, sin and justice, damnation and moral uprightness, but the Constitution privatized religion, neutralized it, and put it on the slow road to extinction under the marching feet of knowledge and prosperity. Religion was deliberately subordinated to secular purposes. "The Constitution was ordained and established to secure liberty and its blessings," one scholar writes, "not to promote faith in God. Officially, religion was subordinate to liberty and was to be fostered only with a view to securing liberty."
This picture of the United States is partly correct and, therefore, wrong in the most dangerous way - it is partly wrong. What is truthful in it makes the test seductive. The true part is that without the Enlightenment America would not have assumed the beneficent shape it did. The influence of the arguments and formulations pioneered by Locke were both extensive and persuasive to many Americans - so much so as to have become a kind of common sense. Locke had to escape the wrath of the British monarch by fleeing to Holland for a time, as did the first Pilgrims on their way to Massachusetts. Locke's search for a better design of government was analogous to their own. Indeed, Locke may have gleaned many new ideas from reflecting on the early American compacts and declarations.
Like theirs, Locke's prose, too, sometimes moved on two levels at once. In calm phrases exuding a serene common sense, he nonetheless sketched in dark and atomic terms a "state of nature" outside civil society: As if individuals alone and in the state of nature were threatened, vulnerable, selfish, and committed above all else to self-preservation. Although presented in the sunny idiom of reason and common sense, Locke's view of man had a Protestant loneliness in it. Indeed, if any in the founding generation felt incompatibility between Locke and the Protestant tradition (as many writers do today), they did not mention it; and many preachers and writers cited both Locke and the Bible in the same paragraph. The founding generation moved easily between faith and practical, common-sense reasoning, indeed mounted upwards on both those wings in unison.
Professor Donald Lutz counted 3,154 citations in the writings of the founders; of these, nearly 1,100 references (34 percent) are to the Bible, and about 300 each to Montesquieu and Blackstone, followed at a considerable distance by Locke and Hume and Plutarch. No American edition of Locke was available until the nineteenth century, but copies printed in England were available in many law offices and church studies. Those who cited Locke in the writings of the founding period frequently listed him alongside Sidney, Cicero, Aristotle, "and the elementary books of public right," as Jefferson did in describing the sources of the Declaration. Scholars of a secularizing bent rightly point to Lockean phrases and turns of argument in Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, but fail to note the older influence of other authors and, particularly, the Bible. Before Locke was even born, the Pilgrims believed in the consent of the governed, social compacts, the dignity of every child of God, and political equality. As Professor Lutz writes:
That all men are created equal is a position central to Locke's writing, but for a repetitious insistence upon the point, it is to Sidney we should turn. However, the sentiments, ideas, and commitments found in Locke and Sidney existed also in American colonial writing long before these two English theorists published their great works.
Before Sidney and Locke, Americans had fashioned a political doctrine from the Hebrew Bible, and had acquired historically unparalleled practice in the arts of self-government, his less true to say that America was Lockean, Lutz writes, than that Locke was American.
Thus, a purely secular interpretation of the founding runs aground on massive evidence. Let me begin with seven factual events that draw attention to the second wing by which the American eagle took flight. I mean by "second wing" a Biblical metaphysics, the Jewish vision of the world outlined in the Jewish Testament.
Practically all American Christians erected their main arguments about political life from materials in the Jewish Testament, and they did so for three reasons. First, the early American Protestants loved the stories of the Jewish Testament, and from them took many names for their children. In addition, in national debates, lest their speech be taken as partisan, Christian leaders usually avoided the idioms of rival denominations - Puritan, Quaker, Congregationalist, Episcopal, Unitarian, Methodist, and Universalist. The idiom of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was a religious lingua franca for the founding generation. Third, the Christian Testament has little to say about the polity that is not already said in the Torah, and what it does say relies for its plausibility on the rich and complex experiences of nation-building already described in the Jewish Testament. For all these reasons, the language of Judaism came to be the central language of the American metaphysic - the unspoken background to a special American vision of nature, history and the destiny of the human race. Its effect upon the American understanding of law was vast, and also upon its understanding of human sinfulness. Thus John Adams warned Thomas Jefferson - the latter less tethered to the Bible's realism, more tempted to simple rationalism - in these words:
Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all His laws. Our passions, ambitions, avarice, love and resentment, etc., possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and convert both to their party.
It has been often remarked that the people of the United States come nearer to a parallel with Ancient Israel, than any other nation upon the globe. Hence OUR AMERICAN ISRAEL is a term frequently used; and common consent allows it apt and proper.
"The Bible was the one book that literate Americans in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries could be expected to know well," Robert Bellah has written. "Biblical imagery provided the basic framework for imaginative thought in America up until quite recent times and, unconsciously, its control is still formidable." As a design for the Seal of the United States, Jefferson suggested "a representation of the children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night." He later concluded his second inaugural address with this same image: "I shall need ... the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life." This image of "God's American Israel" made available four fresh perspectives, brought to intense focus by the Americans in a new and historically original way.
The first of these new perspectives was a narrative of purpose and progress. The Gentiles of the ancient world believed in cycles of time as regular (they thought) as the circular movements of the stars. They believed in eternal recurrence. But the Americans of 1770-1799 did not believe that time is cyclical, going nowhere, spinning in circles pointlessly. They believed that history had a beginning and was guided by Providence for a purpose. Thus, John Adams: "I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the ignorant, and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth." Time (in the view of the founders) was created for the unfolding of human liberty, for human emancipation. This purpose requires humans to choose for or against building cities worthy of the ideals God sets before them: liberty, justice, equality, self-government, and brotherhood. The very first paragraph of The Federalist stresses this moment of choice:
It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.
Time was created by a God who "humbled Himself," reaching down to dramatize full human potentialities by "providential signs" among the human beings He had created. Thereafter, "in the course of human events," human beings are called to learn from their own mistakes and failures, to put together piece by piece "an improved science of politics," and slowly work out a design for institutions of liberty in political economy. History is a record of progress (or decline), measured by permanent standards, God's standards, as learned from and tested by long experience.
History, in this sense - open, purposive, contingent in liberty - is not a Greek or Roman idea. It is Hebraic; its source springs from the Biblical historians and prophets. Probably most of the humans who had ever lived before the arrival of Judaism on the world stage never even heard of "progress." The literature of Greece and Rome looks backwards, to golden ages of the past; the movement of time is circular. For Jews and Christians, by contrast, history is heading somewhere new: toward the New Kingdom of God, a kingdom of justice and love and peace, a new city on a hill. Humans are impelled by their inmost nature to seek that new city. This "pilgrim's progress" is not a straight line, and it is not automatic or inevitable; it is by way of trial and suffering. Here is Federalist No. 14:
Had no important step been taken by the leaders of the Revolution for which a precedent could not be discovered, no government established of which an exact model did not present itself, the people of the United States might at this moment have been numbered among the melancholy victims of misguided councils, must at best have been laboring under the weight of some of those forms which have crushed the liberties of the rest of mankind. Happily for America, happily we trust for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe. They formed the design of a great Confederacy, which it is incumbent on their successors to improve and perpetuate.
Second, Hebrew metaphysics held that everything in creation in all its workings and purposes is intelligible - suffused with reason, not absurd - in the eyes of a divine and loving Creator, Who created from nothing everything that is, and saw that it was good, and loved it; a Creator Who is more powerful than earthquakes, floods, erupting volcanos, hurricanes or anything else in the world, and different from them. One should not mistake this God for any part of His creation - as the Mayan Indians seem to have done, identifying God with rain and snakes and frogs and jackals (powerful forces in the dark, all of them). On the one hand, the world is not in itself divine. On the other, its Creator cannot be touched, tasted, heard, seen, or smelled. The Creator is independent of the world; therefore, the world can be looked into, investigated, and experimented with without infringing on His divinity. Strictly speaking, the Creator is beyond human categories, cannot be expressed in words that are like other words, imagined from the things of this world, or named as other things are named. He is not part of the material world. Seeking Him, it is better to aim one's mind in the direction of Spirit and Truth rather than matter, toward an Ineffable One Whom we do not name. Instead, we place four letters where a name would normally be: Thus, the Hebrew letters that in English we pronounce Jahweh.
Third, cherishing humble and weak things most of all, the Creator made at least two creatures to know Him, to love Him, and in total freedom (and not as slaves) to walk with Him - "male and female, He made them" (Genesis 1:27). "The God Who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time," Jefferson wrote, summarizing the Biblical metaphysic. Liberty is the human condition established by the Bible, nearly every chapter of which turns upon the exercise of that freedom, as a wheel upon its axis. What will Adam, King David, Peter, Saul do next? Liberty is the axis of the universe, the ground of the possibility of love, human and divine. Thus John Adams wrote: "Let us see delineated before us the true map of man. Let us hear the dignity of his nature, and the noble rank he holds among the works of God ... and that God Almighty has promulgated from heaven, liberty, peace, and good-will to man!" Moreover, the American tradition clearly distinguishes a false idea of liberty - license - from the true liberty exercised in reflection and deliberate choice.
Excerpted from On Two Wings by MICHAEL NOVAK Copyright © 2002 by Michael Novak. Excerpted by permission.
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|Preface: The Forgotten One Hundred||1|
|Ch. 1||Jewish Metaphysics at the Founding||5|
|Ch. 2||Two Beat as One: Plain Reason, Humble Faith||27|
|Ch. 3||Immoral Man, Moral Society, Religious Liberty||51|
|Ch. 4||A Religious Theory of Rights||77|
|Ch. 5||Ten Questions About the Founding||99|
|1||You Wouldn't Pray to "Nature's God," Would You?||99|
|2||Wasn't the Religion of the Founders Merely Utilitarian?||101|
|3||"Common Sense" and "Faith" Have Many Meanings, No?||106|
|4||When and Why Did Legal Elites Become Hostile to Religion?||110|
|5||Does the Logic of the Founding Lead Inexorably to Relativism?||113|
|6||Is "Faith" the Same as "Natural Theology"?||116|
|7||Does America Subordinate Religion?||117|
|8||Why Do Scholars Today Clip "The Second Wing"?||120|
|9||If Aquinas Was the First Whig, Why Did a Regime of Religious Liberty Appear So Late?||120|
|10||What Is Your Favorite Story from the Founding?||123|
|App||The Forgoten Founders||127|
Posted June 27, 2004
Novak does a fantastic job in reminding us all of the Christian Faith of our Founding Fathers and how they used this faith to form our laws, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independance. That without this foundation, it would have been impossible to form a nation. In a time of the far left trying to remove Christianity from our lives and from our core beliefs and re-write history, this book comes at a perfect time to set the record straight. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, to name a few, were men who placed their faith in the hand of God to assist them in forming the United States of America.
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Posted August 5, 2002
Excellent recap of the founding father's religious views. Only one founding father was a deist and that was Jefferson who bordered on agnosticism. Most of the founders were Protestants (Many were Presbyterian) who had a deep faith in a Christian God. Novak brings this out clearly. Contrary to what is taught and is politically correct at this time the great majority of the founders were not deists nor catholics. They were also far better read in scripture than modern so called well read historians would have us believe.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 3, 2002
I found this book to be only an opion of someone with a personal agenda. It should not be listed in the category of history. Novak implies our Founding Fathers were not deists and were men of faith. I felt Novak was tring to imply that our Founding Fathers 'faith' was in the Judaism-Christian religion. This is just another effort by the Catholic religion to rewrite the American History to support their own agenda. As an avid reader of world and American history and political sciences, I find this book is a travesty. Terry Frazier Palmer Lake, COWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.