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David Ignatius’s “Wisdom”


You get the feeling, reading Ignatius’s column on religion, politics, and the Founders, that he has not spent much time thinking about the intersection of these topics. He seems to be under the impression that religious conservatives in America tend to have an ideological hostility to human reason. (I can think of a few books that might modify that conviction.)

Politicians and commentators have suggested that for the Founders, the very idea of freedom was God-given — or, as the Declaration of Independence puts it, that human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” [These are actually two slightly different ideas, but let's ignore that.--RP] Yet this famous passage begins with a distillation of the Enlightenment’s celebration of human reason: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

Yes: It is almost as though the Founders did not put reason and religion in stark opposition.

Anyone who reads Adams and Jefferson — or for that matter, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton or other voices of the American Enlightenment — can make their own judgment about what the Founders would say about Romney’s broadside against secularism. My guess is that their response would be something like: “That is bunkum, sir.”

Really? They would have reached for a word that wasn’t in circulation in the eighteenth century?

Adams believed that American Christians would be better off trying to purify Western Christianity of its “corruptions” than trying to convert non-Westerners. Which proves what, exactly? Does Ignatius imagine that contemporary religious conservatives–or their forebears–didn’t want to purify their co-religionists’ practices? Adams and Jefferson, he writes,

found loud, public displays of religiosity a profanation of this inner and spiritual practice of religion. Adams, the more conventionally “religious” of the two, insisted in a Sept. 14, 1813, letter that there is “but one being who can understand the universe, and that it is not only vain but wicked for insects to pretend to comprehend it.”

Well, that’s not surprising, since it is a conventionally pious thought. It doesn’t illustrate the preceding sentence, as Ignatius imagines.

He concludes this meandering series of non sequiturs thus:

One theme in this year’s political campaign has been whether the United States will move from the faith-based policies the Bush administration has celebrated to a more rationalist and secular approach. In this debate, religious conservatives like to stress their connection to the Founders and to the republic’s birth as “one nation under God.” But a rereading of the Adams-Jefferson letters is a reminder that in this debate, the Founders — as men of the Enlightenment — would surely have sided with the party of Reason.

Q.E.D., I guess.