Faith of Our FathersMICHAEL NOVAK
The religion of our Founders.
Just the same, the 18th century was so very much more religious than our own that historians of the last hundred years, far more secular in education, have developed a project of their own, which is (to appropriate George Will’s words) “an intellectual hijacking” itself — one every bit “as audacious as the attempt to present America’s principal Founders as devout [read “evangelical”] Christians.” They want to show that these six principals were “skeptics,” at best Deists, certainly not real Christians, and that they privately held quite different religious views from those they displayed in public.
One problem with this hijacking is that each of these key terms — “Deist,” “not Christian,” and “skeptic” — is equivocal. Each is susceptible to several different definitions and even connotations. For instance, how could any Christian grow in understanding her faith, if she were not first puzzled, skeptical, inquisitive, about how to understand certain articles of the creed, texts in Scripture, or statements of doctrine? Skepticism is quite healthy, since it pushes the mind to deeper and deeper philosophical and theological levels.
Moreover, in every age of Christian history there have been Christians of vastly different temperaments, philosophical styles, and theological preferences. Christianity is a faith a mile wide, so that an infant can wade in it, and many miles deep, so that the strongest of creatures can scarcely plumb it. Long before George Washington, the Stoics were favorites of many early church writers, and Stoic teachings dominate motifs in many Roman churches, libraries, and palaces. The Stoic Christian is a quite familiar type.
Besides, there are many facts that make one skeptical about secular conventional wisdom. One fact is the scene at Hamilton’s deathbed, as he begged Bishop Moore for the Holy Eucharist, and the bishop at first refused, since Hamilton’s wounds had come from dueling (a practice not blessed by the church). Then the next day, moved by Hamilton’s continued pleading, the bishop brought the Eucharist to the dying man, affording him much consolation.
I believe in one God, creator of the universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshiped. That the most acceptable service we render to him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental principles of all sound religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever sect I meet with them.
How many professors at American universities today are so certain that they will meet Jesus Christ after death, to see the evidence for themselves?
Wood has also argued that George Washington, while not being by any means an enthusiast or an evangelical in the modern sense, was probably one of the more religious of the Founders (and certainly of Allen’s top six). Further, Wood points out that Washington’s frequent expressions of gratitude for the “signal interpositions” of Divine Providence (interpositions that Washington had personally experienced) make it impossible to call him a Deist in the conventional sense (that is, anti-Christian). If by Deism you mean a belief in a watchmaker God who has no intimate concern for human individuals or individual nations, a God for whom interpositions in history are out of the question, Deism is contrary to Judaism and to Christianity — and to the public (and private) convictions of George Washington.
On the other side, it is quite certain that few among the Founders, if any, were in the current sense of the term “evangelicals.” From the stern sons of New England and the staid Quakers of Philadelphia to the gentlemen farmers of the South, most disliked enthusiasm. Even the devout tended to understate their faith.
Among the 89 signers of the Declaration and/or the Constitution, nearly a dozen had studied theology, were ordained ministers, were preachers though not ordained, were chaplains to a militia unit, or were officers of national Bible societies and the like. Historians of the last hundred years have been remiss in their study of the religion of the Founders. We urgently need good studies of all of them, if we wish to have a fairer idea of “the faith of the Founders.” Let us suggest, for starters, studies about the depth of the Christian faith of Roger Sherman; Samuel Huntington; William Williams; the Carroll cousins Charles, Daniel, and John; Hugh Williamson; Robert Treat Paine; William Paca; John Dickinson; Rufus King; William Livingston; John Hancock; Benjamin Rush; Patrick Henry; James Wilson; and George Mason.
Evidence does suggest that Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and James Monroe may have been the least religious of the top 100 Founders. James Madison is harder to be exact about, without a very close study, because many of the motives for his initial resistance, as president, to pay for chaplains for the military, or to issue thanksgiving proclamations, were themselves religious. He feared that government would corrupt religion. Madison had gone back for an extra year of study at Princeton under the Reverend John Witherspoon, one of the greatest defenders of religious and civil liberty in that generation. Because of Madison’s early support for their religious liberty, the Baptists of his congressional district were his most numerous and devoted bloc of supporters. As is well known, Madison at first resisted the idea of amending the Constitution. But these Baptists gave him their votes on the promise that he would get the First Amendment, at least that amendment, into the Constitution. Although reluctant, Madison complied. Yet other evidence suggests that Madison may also, by the end, have been rather estranged from the religion of most Virginians.
As the driving intellectual force behind the new Massachusetts Constitution, John Adams insisted upon the mandatory teaching of the Protestant religion in all the schools of the Commonwealth, at government expense where necessary. This is no infringement on religious conscience, he argued; you don’t have to believe in religion. But if you want the good habits and sound morals that come from religion, you must pay for its presence in the schools.
Beyond that, one must consider the full implications of Allen’s fundamental thesis, as stated by Will: This tiny minority of six expressed a very different set of beliefs privately from those they showed in public. The usual term for that species of action is hypocrisy. Its ingredients are a lack of candor, if not outright dishonesty, and an exceedingly low sense of honor. One has only to express this implication to grasp either its moral repulsiveness or its implausibility. For George Washington, it is out of the question.
We are also skeptical on three other points of the conventional wisdom concerning the religious philosophy in play during the Founding period.
First, one must recognize that it is not the “top” six who ratified the Constitution of the United States, but rather “We the people of the United States.” We the people who fought and died in the War of Independence. We the people who count ourselves a religious people, with the manifest and self-evident duties that any conscious creature owes to its Creator. To understand the religion of the Founding, one must also understand the faiths of the American people.
Second, an underlying vision allowed the Founding generation, ordinary citizens as well as intellectuals, to grasp why “rights” are self-evident. George Mason articulated that vision in this way. It is self-evident that any conscious creature owes immense gratitude to the Creator who summoned him up out of nothingness. But if conscious creatures owe duties to their Creator, then they must have the right to fulfill these duties. Moreover, these rights are so super-eminent that no mere man should dare to step between the individual conscience and God. God is “spirit and truth,” and he wishes to be worshiped in spirit and truth, without obstruction by states, civil society, family, or friends. Moreover, this God, though he could have done otherwise, made us free, and desires us to come to him with free consciences.
Michael Novak. "Faith of Our Fathers." National Review (October 25, 2006).
Reprinted with permission of the National Review and Michael Novak.
© 2006 National Review
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