Bench Memos

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Were the Founders Irreligious?


Brooke Allen thinks so, in a book just out titled Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers, and George Will, in today’s New York Times Book Review, thinks she is persuasive. I would be interested in seeing the book reviewed by someone who (ahem) knows more about this subject than George Will, like maybe Michael Novak, or Daniel Dreisbach, or James Hutson, or Philip Hamburger, just to name a few.

Where individual founders might align themselves in today’s debate on religion’s role in politics is a fun guessing game, but as James Madison rightly said (I paraphrase), the authoritative understanding of the Constitution is not that of a handful of founders like himself who drafted the text, but that of the people who made that text the basis of their government. In that light, the earnest but somehow eternally adolescent impieties of the Jefferson who bowdlerized the New Testament hardly matter, do they? His enthusiasms really never caught on with large numbers of Americans. Even at today’s University of Virginia, in the lodgings for guests in buildings Mr. Jefferson himself designed and built (as I recently discovered), the hotel nightstands have the Gideons’ good old King James Bible in the drawer, not the so-called “Jefferson Bible.”

But whatever the alleged Deism of the leading founders—with Franklin and Jefferson it’s generally agreed that it’s more than “alleged”—it’s awfully hard to believe that they would find themselves comfortable keeping company with Richard Dawkins or Andrew Sullivan, two who come to mind because their books too are reviewed in today’s NYTBR. Maybe Brooke Allen, on the other hand, would be more comfortable in such company than in that of, say, Michael Novak. And that’s where the debate today is located, between those who wish to chase religion out of the public square, and those who defend its place there. I’m not sure from George Will’s review whether Brooke Allen has made much of a contribution to that controversy, other than to recycle some well-known arguments.

Tags: Franck


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