Republicanism, Religion, and the Soul of America / Edition 1

Republicanism, Religion, and the Soul of America / Edition 1

by Ellis Sandoz

 As debates rage over the place of faith in our national life, Tocqueville’s nineteenth-century crediting of religion for shaping America is largely overlooked today.  Now, in Republicanism, Religion, and the Soul of America, Ellis Sandoz reveals the major role that Protestant Christianity played in the formation and early period of the


 As debates rage over the place of faith in our national life, Tocqueville’s nineteenth-century crediting of religion for shaping America is largely overlooked today.  Now, in Republicanism, Religion, and the Soul of America, Ellis Sandoz reveals the major role that Protestant Christianity played in the formation and early period of the American republic. Sandoz traces the rise of republican government from key sources in Protestant civilization, paying particular attention to the influence of the Bible on the Founders and the blossoming of the American mind in the eighteenth century. 

Sandoz analyzes the religious debt of the emergent American community and its elevation of the individual person as unique in the eyes of the Creator. He shows that the true distinction of American republicanism lies in its grounding of human dignity in spiritual individualism and an understanding of man’s capacity for self-government under providential guidance. Along the way, he addresses such topics as the neglected question of the education of the Founders for their unique endeavor, common law constitutionalism, the place of Latin and Greek classics in the Founders’ thought, and the texture of religious experience from the Great Awakening to the Declaration of Independence

To establish a unifying theoretical perspective for his study, Sandoz considers the philosophical underpinnings of religion and the contribution that Eric Voegelin made to our understanding of religious experience. He contributes fresh studies of the character of Voegelin’s thought: its relationship to Christianity; his debate with Leo Strauss over reason, revelation, and the meaning of philosophy; and the theory of Gnosticism as basic to radical modernity. He also provides a powerful account of the spirit of Voegelin’s later writings, contrasting the political scientist with the meditative spiritualist and offering new insight into volume 5 of Order and History.

Republicanism, Religion, and the Soul of America concludes with timely reflections on the epoch now unfolding in the shadow of Islamic jihadism. Bringing a wide range of materials into a single volume, it confronts current academic concerns with religion while offering new insight into the construction of the American polity—and the heart of Americanism as we know it today.

Editorial Reviews

Journal of Peace Research
"This is a fine contribution to political theory, and a welcome attempt to appreciate the role of religion in the creation and safeguarding of peaceful civilization."

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University of Missouri Press
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Republicanism, Religion, and the Soul of America

By Ellis Sandoz

University of Missouri

Copyright © 2006 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8262-6562-3


Republicanism and Religion


§1. Introduction and Contemporary Setting

Despite the Enlightenment's concerted project of doing away with the Bible as the basis of political and social order in favor of "Reason," religion today continues to condition politics as an undergirding belief foundation: Men always have God or idols, as Luther long ago said. The present war against terrorism with its religious dimensions evident to even the most blinkered secularist underlines the point. Perhaps less evidently, this phenomenon can be seen in the context of a global revival of traditional religiosity, including Christianity, as a major event of the present—following the era of the death and murder of God proclaimed by Hegel and Nietzsche—now called "the revenge of God" by such scholars as Gilles Kepel, Philip Jenkins, and Samuel Huntington.

Leaving aside the radical Islamists and the contemporary revivals of Christianity and Hinduism for present considerations, the principal intellectual fruit of Enlightenment rationalism's systematic deformation of reality—through occlusion against transcendent divine Being and consequent catastrophic ontological result—has proved to be the ascendancy of various competing political "idealisms" in the form of reductionist ideologies. These are largely comprehensible as forms of intramundane religion and magical operations decked out as "science" that immanentize aspects of the Christian faith. They then generate such familiar belief systems as progressivism, utopianism, positivism, nihilism, and Marxist-Leninist revolutionary activism. Such artifacts of modern and post-modern "egophanic revolt" culminate, for instance, in the radical humanism that proclaims Autonomous Man as the god-men of this or that description and politically in the totalitarian killers of recent memory. Properly they can be understood as manifestations of the recrudescence of superstition, of resurgent apocalypticism, and of the ancient religiosity called Gnosticism that replaces faith with fanatical certitude beyond experience and reason. Eric Voegelin's more intricate analysis of these phenomena was long preceded by that of acute observers of the French Revolution and its bloodlust disguised as the Religion of Reason, such as Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville—who is especially clear on the point: That civilizational upheaval, he found, was a religious movement clothing murderous zealotry and enthusiasm in the ingratiating mantle of instrumental reason and republicanism. Tocqueville wrote that its ideal "was not merely a change in the French social system but nothing short of a regeneration of the whole human race. It created an atmosphere of missionary fervor and ... assumed all the aspects of a religious revival.... It would perhaps be truer to say that it developed into a species of religion, if a singularly imperfect one, since it was without God, without a ritual or promise of a future life. Nevertheless, this strange religion has, like Islam, overrun the whole world with its apostles, militants, and martyrs."

§2. Religious Roots of Whig Republicanism

Since my primary interest here is in the American experience and its unique experiential contexts, I must also leave aside the totalitarian ideologies, even though they loom large in the immediate background. In turning to that subject, then, let us remember Tocqueville's further observation that the men and women who colonized America "brought ... a Christianity which I can only describe as democratic and republican.... There is not a single religious doctrine hostile to democratic and republican institutions.... It was religion that gave birth to ... America. One must never forget that."

The question to be addressed is this: How can the religious dimension of Anglo-American republicanism best be understood when viewed against the backdrop of radical political movements and doctrines just mentioned? The answer is not simple, and I can attempt only a synoptic sketch. In giving it I am reminded that, if war is too important to be left to the generals, then history is surely too important to be left to the historians—not to mention political scientists, many of whom blithely write as though the Enlightenment dogma of their own complacent persuasion has rightly ruled for the past three hundred years and seldom mention, except disparagingly, religion as having much to do with the rise of modern democratic republicanism. As Perry Miller remarked a generation ago when confronting an attitude he labeled "obtuse secularism" in accounts of American experience, "A cool rationalism such as Jefferson's might have declared the independence of [Americans in 1776], but it could never have persuaded them to fight for it." There is more to reality and politics, dear Horatio, than your philosophy has dreamt of.

What then? The tangle is dense and the terminology ambiguous at best. Advocates of republicanism in the Anglo-American Whig tradition (to be distinguished firmly from French Jacobinism, which was both atheistic and anti-property) assert liberty and justice in resistance against tyranny and arbitrary government and do so in the name of highest truth. To summarize: In varying degrees they attempt, within limits, to apply Gospel principles to politics: The state was made for man, not men for the state (cf. Mark 2:27). The imperfect, flawed, sinful being Man, for all his inability, paradoxically yet remains capable with the aid of divine grace of self-government—i.e., of living decent lives as individuals; through understanding and free will able to respond to grace and to accept the terms of eternal salvation; and capable, with providential guidance, of self-government in both temporal and spiritual affairs, in regimes based on consent and churches organized congregationally.

This characteristic attitude has a religious and specifically Protestant Christian root in the conviction that evil in the world must be combated by free men out of the resources of pure conscience, true religion, and reformed institutions of power and authority. The fundamental virtue basic to all others is godliness; and the fundamental source of revealed truth is the Bible—to remember John Milton and the seventeenth-century English experience widely revived in eighteenth-century America during the struggle leading up to independence.

Favored institutional arrangements drew from classical sources, to be sure—from Aristotle's description of the mixed regime in Politics even more than from Polybius—but they drew also from the republic of the Israelites and the rule of seventy Elders (or Sanhedrin or senate) recounted in the Old Testament (Num. 11:17, Deut. 16:18). The mixed constitution delineated by Aristotle is extolled by Thomas Aquinas, in whom Lord Acton finds "the earliest exposition of Whig theory"; and finding it like the ancient "Gothick polity," it also was favored by Algernon Sidney. English republicanism's brief career followed the Puritan Revolution, civil war, and deposition and execution of Charles I for tyranny when England was declared to be "a Commonwealth or Free-State." Oliver Cromwell sought to fill the void left by the regicide with new governing institutions. He saw the situation under Charles I as analogous to the Israelites' bondage in Egypt and himself as a latter-day Moses leading a confused and recalcitrant people through the Red Sea into a promised liberty Christ would show them. The failed experiment ended after little more than a decade with the Stuart Restoration; and English republicanism itself is said to have died on the scaffold with Algernon Sidney and been "buried in an unmarked grave" by the Settlement of 1689—only to be resurrected and transformed in America a century afterward. All the old arguments and imagery then were reasserted, and fervid sentiments echoed John Milton's convictions that the "whole freedom of man consists in spiritual or civil libertie." "Who can be at rest, who can enjoy any thing in this world with contentment, who hath not libertie to serve God and to save his own soul, according to the best light which God hath planted in him to that purpose, by the reading of his revealed will [in scripture] and the guidance of his holy spirit?"

Tyranny and superstition alike were enemies of the "the Good Old Cause" of liberty, rule of law, salus populi, government based on consent of the people, freedom of speech, press, and conscience. The political theory of republicanism was explicitly identified with Aristotle's mixed regime as the "free commonwealth" he ultimately preferred as the best practicable form of government, because monarchy was too vulnerable to derailment and perversion into tyranny. Along with the New Testament teachings, the whole classical theory of politics especially as given in Aristotle and Cicero was absorbed into Old Whig discourse. This was no merely Sectarian affair, Milton stressed, but eagerly drew from all reliable authorities. In abandoning the Commonwealth and allowing restoration of Charles II, Milton thought the English were like apostate Israelites returning to idolatry in Egypt, reversing the Exodus and again installing Nimrod. Thought and speech were "soaked in the Bible," with Magna Carta and Bible quoted side by side and together with the classics. Thus, it was urged in a fast sermon: "You are a free Parliament, preserve your freedom, our laws, and liberties"; "let not England become a house of bondage, a second Egypt." Political and religious liberty were seen to be all of a piece, Edmund Burke and John Witherspoon insisted a century later, still invoking the Good Old Cause. The latter went on to say that "there is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage." No impiety prompted Bishop James Madison occasionally to pray the Lord's Prayer using the words "Thy republic come." Nor did he or the other American patriots ignore the prayer's next clause, lying as it did at the heart of their republicanism: "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." "Patriotism without piety is mere grimace," one American preacher quaintly asserted.

§3. The Bible, Politics, and Philosophical Anthropology

That multiple pre-modern sources of political culture were complexly woven into foundation of the American representative republics as the most eligible form of government (even if we routinely call it democracy today) is, of course, beyond dispute—most especially common law constitutionalism and the Greek and Latin classics, among other neglected sources. But the importance of Bible reading and the spiritual grounding nurtured by it can hardly be overrated. From this perspective it is not the institutional forms that were decisive (if they ever are), and like many before him James Madison regarded them as "auxiliary precautions" of consequence. Decisive from antiquity onward is dedication to salus populi as supreme law (or bonum publicum, the universal or common good) and as the end of government and requisite animating spirit of the political community and of any persons vested with authority. These fundamental matters of community and homonoia can be glimpsed in Federalist No. 2 where Publius (John Jay) remarks that "Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established their general liberty and independence." The supposed hostility between liberal individualism and republican communitarianism can be overdrawn and distorted.

At the bottom of republicanism lies a philosophical anthropology of the kind I have limned and which must steadily be held in view, one that concretely exists solely in the hearts and minds of individual human beings, the only concrete reality of political existence. That anthropology is basic to the claim of human dignity. To amplify briefly, it is decisively grounded in biblical faith philosophically elaborated as disclosing hegemonic reality, with its appeal to transcendent truth and to eternal Beatitude (blessedness and felicity, happiness) as humankind's summum bonum and ultimate destiny. "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion ... over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them" (Gen. 1:26–27). The Trinitarian structure of the image reflects that of the godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit theorized by Augustine as the esse, nosse, velle infinitum of God mirrored in the image's being, wisdom or knowledge, and will or love finitum of the creature. The human being is, therefore, the same through participation—a likeness reflecting divine Being. But since the creature is divided into mind and body, will and knowledge tend to be in a conflict which—through the mutilation of the Fall—manifests itself in cupidity, lust, avarice, greed, and other sin. Thus, the creature as imago dei is a trinity: it is, it sees, it loves: God created it (being); it sees, since God illumined it (knowledge); and it chooses or inclines always to love the Good at least in appearance, if (because of human imperfection) not always in reality. We are drawn to seek and to find true Good because "God first loved us" (1 Jn. 4:19). In Bonaventure (following Augustine) the Trinitarian structure is analyzed in terms of the faculties of memory, intelligence, will and love (the capacity to choose), which ontologically correlate with eternity, truth, and goodness. The sinful perversions in the creature are identified as the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 Jn. 2:16).

Philosophical anthropology in its several versions supplies the core of political theory, and it opens into the heart of the republican argument as that builds on natural law and consent of the people as foundations of any just regime. This is not merely ancient and medieval lore long since forgotten by moderns. Rather, natural law as theorized by Aquinas was mediated lock, stock, and barrel into English Protestant theory by Richard Hooker's great work entitled Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1593). In Hooker's formulation:

God alone excepted, who actually and everlastingly is whatsoever he may be, and which cannot hereafter be that which now he is not; all other things besides are somewhat in possibility, which as yet they are not in act. And for this cause there is in all things an appetite or desire, whereby they incline to something which they may be.... All which perfections are contained under the general name of Goodness. And because there is not in the world anything whereby another may not some way be made the perfecter, therefore all things that are, are good. Again since there can be no goodness desired which proceedeth not from God himself, as from the supreme cause of all things; ... all things in the world are said in some sort to seek the highest, and to covet more or less the participation of God himself. Yet this doth nowhere so much appear as it doth in man: because there are so many kinds of perfections which man seeketh. The first degree of goodness is that general perfection which all things do seek, in desiring the continuance of their being. All things therefore coveting as much as may be to be like unto God in being ever, that which cannot hereunto attain personally, doth seek to continue itself in another way, that is by offspring and propagation. The next degree of goodness is that which each thing coveteth by affecting resemblance with God, in the constancy and excellency of those operations which belong unto their kind. The immutability of God they strive unto, ... by tending unto that which is most exquisite in every particular. Hence have risen a number of axioms in Philosophy showing how The works of nature do always aim at that which cannot be bettered. These two kinds of goodness rehearsed are so nearly united to the things themselves which desire them, that we scarcely perceive the appetite to stir in reaching forth her hand towards them.... Concerning perfections in this kind, that by proceeding in the knowledge of truth and growing in the exercise of virtue, man amongst the creatures of this inferior world, aspireth to the greatest conformity with God, this is not only known unto us, whom he himself hath so instructed, but even they acknowledge, who amongst men are not judged the nearest unto him. With Plato what one thing more usual, than to excite men unto the love of wisdom, by showing how much wise men are thereby exalted above [other] men; how knowledge doth raise them up into heaven; how it maketh them, though not Gods, yet as gods, high, admirable and divine?


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