Politics & Policy

Religion and The Founders

The Nation is out of step with the American people.

If one were looking for an example of how desperately out of touch the Left is with mainstream American culture, it would be difficult to find a better example than the February 21 issue of The Nation. That issue features an article by Brooke Allen entitled “Our Godless Constitution,” which attempts to prove that “[o]ur nation was founded not on Christian principles, but on Enlightenment ones.” What a strange distinction! It certainly would have been foreign to the Founders, who thought the moral precepts of Christian faith indispensable to the survival of the infant republic. And it’s a distinction that remains foreign to the vast majority of Americans today.

Why, one wonders, does Allen even bother to raise this argument? Why now, after the Left has so manifestly marginalized itself on moral and religious issues? For one thing, like most everything The Nation publishes, her article accuses President Bush of lying–indeed, of lying on an Orwellian scale. But it’s remarkable how uninterested she is in proving the point. She offers not one shred of evidence of the president’s actually saying what she accuses him of saying. Not one quote. And even if she were to find some example of Bush’s asserting that the United States was founded on Christian and not Enlightenment principles, she would have to provide evidence that Bush himself disbelieved the statement. Otherwise Bush wouldn’t be lying, he would merely be expressing his historical judgment. That judgment may or may not be wrong, but that possibility doesn’t make it a lie. Lying means saying something other than what you yourself think. It means intentional deceit.

Honest mistakes are not lies. Allen makes plenty of mistakes herself, but it would be unfair to call her a liar.

To take an example: In her litany of statements that intend to prove that “the Founding Fathers were not religious men,” she cites one line from a letter written by John Adams. According to Allen, “As an old man, [Adams] observed, ‘Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been upon the point of breaking out, “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!”‘” Pretty damning evidence, right? Well, no: Allen neglects to include the next two sentences from Adams: “But in this exclamati[on] I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without Religion, this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in polite Company, I mean Hell.”

Allen commits plenty of other errors in her argument, but we’ll confine ourselves to looking at just a few.

‐She asserts that “[i]n the Declaration of Independence, [God] gets two brief nods.” Not true. As every schoolboy knows, the Declaration mentions God four times: “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” “endowed by their Creator,” “Supreme Judge of the world,” and “divine Providence.” Equally problematic is her dismissive description of these invocations as “brief nods.” (In fact, if you exclude the long list of grievances against George III, the Declaration on average invokes the name of God just about once every paragraph.) More important than its frequency is the indispensability of divine sovereignty to the document’s overarching natural-law argument. The source of human rights, according to the Declaration, is not located in mutual human consent but rather in the creative activity of God.

‐Allen declares that “in the eighty-five essays that make up The Federalist, God is only mentioned twice (both times by Madison, who uses the word, as Gore Vidal has remarked, in the “only Heaven knows” sense).” Not true. The specific word “God” occurs twice, but neither time in Vidal’s sense. In Federalist #18, Madison uses the term in reference to Apollo; in #43, he echoes the Declaration by invoking the “transcendent law of nature and of nature’s God.” Yet The Federalist employs other terms for God. John Jay mentions the blessings of “Providence” three times in Federalist #2. In Federalist #37, meanwhile, Madison twice takes note of the “Almighty,” whose finger “has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.” Incidentally, a God who personally intervenes in the course of human affairs is not consistent with the Deist account of God. Such a God was known to the Hebrew prophets and the Christian apostles, but not to the philosophes who imagined a cold and distant watchmaker deity.

‐Allen claims that “our Constitution makes no mention whatever of God.” Not true. The Constitution does invoke the name of the Lord in the enactment clause of Article VII: “done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven.” Allen no doubt writes this off as a mere formality. But if we are to take seriously her claim that the “omission” of references to God in the Constitution is “too obvious to have been anything but deliberate,” perhaps we need to take a second look at the text. A close reading reveals that the Constitution mentions only one other specific date. Article I, Section 9 allowed the importation of bonded slaves until “the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight”–a date that excludes the words “of our Lord.” Given that she (incorrectly) thinks the “omission” of references to God was too obvious to have been anything but deliberate, surely she would agree that the omission of the phrase “year of our Lord” was likewise too obvious to have been anything but deliberate. And if it was indeed deliberate, wouldn’t this omission imply the ungodliness–or, to use a word not much in fashion at The Nation, the sinfulness–of chattel slavery?

Indeed, the fact that the Founders referred to God more frequently in the Declaration than in the Constitution is in itself further evidence of their belief in the compatibility of Enlightenment and Christian principles. The Founders learned from both classical statesmanship and Christian theology that the moral virtue of prudence involves first identifying the good to be achieved, and then formulating the means to achieve it. The Declaration, with its lapidary presentation of natural rights endowed by the Creator, identifies the good to be achieved. The Constitution in turn formulates the means for achieving this divinely appointed end. In this way the Founders rendered unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.

The list of Allen’s errors goes on. Allen portrays James Madison as making a blistering indictment of Christianity, when in fact Madison was disparaging nations that maintained an established institutional church. She contends that George Washington only occasionally mentioned the Almighty in public addresses, when in fact Washington’s official (and private) writings are littered with scores of references to “Providence.” She quotes a few lines from Benjamin Franklin, implying that they represent the mature reflections of a senior Framer, when in fact Franklin wrote the words in 1722, more than 60 years before the Constitutional Convention. She claims that “in modern-day parlance” Thomas Jefferson was “a secular humanist”–indeed, “not a Christian at all.” It’s a strange claim, especially since, not three sentences before, she quotes Jefferson’s letter to Charles Thomson, in which Jefferson adamantly insists, “I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus” (emphasis Jefferson’s). Presumably Jefferson was privy to the content of his own beliefs, but Allen seems to think she knows better.

There are other serious lapses, both of omission and commission, but it’s beside our purposes to catalogue them here. What absolutely must be addressed is the fundamental chasm that Allen sees between Christianity and the Enlightenment.

Every single one of the Founders believed that, at the level of both individual morality and public policy, the demands of reason and of revelation powerfully reinforce one another. They understood that with respect to the ultimate questions–the creation of the universe, the purpose of human existence, and the hope of life after death–faith and philosophy might differ. In the practical world they inhabited, however, the Founders believed that both Socrates and Jesus enjoined their followers to accord all persons truth, justice, and charity.

Indeed, the Founders saw the cultivation of religious sentiment as the ultimate safeguard of American liberty. They knew that liberty could only prosper among moral citizens, whose practice of self-government in their private lives was a necessary prerequisite for its exercise in public. They believed that even if it were possible for certain individuals to behave morally without believing in God, on the whole an entire citizenry could not long keep its moral bearings without the guidance of religious faith.

This conviction permeates their public and private writings. George Washington placed it at the heart of his Farewell Address, in which he advised the nation that of “all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men & citizens.” Indeed, he continued, “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Thomas Jefferson shared this sentiment entirely, as when he famously wondered whether “the liberties of a nation [can] be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but by his wrath?” John Adams likewise held the opinion that republican government required religious practice, as when he wrote as president: “We have no government armed with power of contending with human passions unbridled by morality or religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution is made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Such thinking runs throughout the whole of American political life, from Washington to Lincoln to Roosevelt to Reagan, and up to the present day. It is a tradition from which President Bush has not deviated.

Bush does not doubt that the religious principles of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews have nurtured and maintained our constitutional democracy. He doesn’t see an intractable opposition between Enlightenment and Christian principles. Rather, he perceives an innate affinity, a belief in which he is joined by the overwhelming majority of Americans. And until Brooke Allen, The Nation, and the cultural Left make their peace with that fact, they will remain on the fringes of our national politics, isolated and confused.

Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net. Christopher Levenick is the W.H. Brady Doctoral Fellow at AEI and a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago.


The Latest