The Faiths of the Founding Fathers
by David L. Holmes.
Oxford University Press, 240 pages, $20.
God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation
by Jon Meacham.
Random House, 416 pages, $23.95.
There seems to be a real panic out there in Secular Land. Some endow the “Christian Right” with dreadful mythical intent to destroy the Bill of Rights—which would be odd, since the Baptists of Virginia were the first champions of the Bill of Rights, when they refused to pledge their votes for Congress to James Madison until he renounced his public opposition to a Bill of Rights and promised to fight for it, and especially for the First Amendment securing religious and civil liberties.
Others tremble because powerful evidence shows that a very large majority of the American people learn to think morally by studying biblical principles and narratives, not Darwinian materialism. More, those who attend church regularly have been departing from the Democratic party and coalescing around new Republican leaders. Secular intellectuals of the Left are frightened by their image of the Christian Right, mainstream Protestants despise the Christian Right, and a good many liberal Catholics (including bishops) condescend to it. Contempt for evangelicals seems to be the last universally accepted bigotry.
Still, a good many responsible and serious liberals have taken it upon themselves to warn secular Americans that in their opposition to religion they are going too far. The secularizers really are in danger of losing the country—and for reasons that are entirely avoidable. In American Gospel, for instance, Jon Meacham directly confronts this new turn of events. Meacham, the managing editor of Newsweek, has readers of the secular persuasion most in view. Thus, he makes much of the secular hero Thomas Jefferson—while also showing how right up to the manner of his dying he was a far more religious man, and closer to the faith of his Christian forebears, than most secular professors of law, philosophy, or political science today would be allowed to be.
Meacham's main thesis is that secularizers should recognize that the genius of America lies in its balance among faith, freedom, and common sense. That balance is what Meacham means by the unique, historically distinctive “American gospel”—a system of “truths we hold” that do not exactly represent orthodox Judaism or Christianity but are far closer to those founts than to the secular materialism of our own day. Meacham is, in this way, an apostle of the “American gospel” to those Americans who nowadays pitch their tents outside the boundaries of biblical faith.
By contrast, David Holmes, a longtime professor of religious studies at the College of William and Mary and author of A Brief History of the Episcopal Church, is an apostle to the mainstream Protestant churches of America. In The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, he is eager to show that today's evangelical churches were not the formative influences on the Founders that some today imagine they were. Holmes is aware that secular readers will be looking in on his book, of course, and he writes in a way that all will understand. Yet his main point is that there were many Christian faiths among the Founders, and the subtlety and nuance of the faiths of the Founders—even when all, or nearly all, could in some sense be called Christian—need to be more clearly recognized in the nation's self-understanding.
Meacham begins his story on that day in 1775 when George Washington rode out of Philadelphia to take command of the Continental Army. At the religious service before his departure, the preacher at Christ Church voiced a challenge certain to warm Washington's heart: “Religion and liberty must flourish or fall together in America.” Religious liberty, Washington often said, was the primary motive that drove him onto the field of battle.
Even fifty years later, the first thing that most struck Tocqueville on his visit to America in 1831 was “its religious aspect.” This aspect was, if anything, even more visible in the 1770s than in the 1830s, Holmes writes. The close conjunction of religion and liberty in the minds of Americans of all ranks was then and still remains the most distinctive aspect of American life. On this, Meacham and Holmes are fully agreed.
Meacham and Holmes are also at pains to note that most of the Founders eschewed evangelical “enthusiasm,” few spoke of a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” and nearly all preferred a fairly philosophical language about God and the things of God. This more abstract language about God seemed more in harmony with the language of the science of that time, and with the political philosophy of John Locke and Algernon Sidney, Cicero and Aristotle.
NONETHELESS, THE MINDS of most of the Founders, even the least orthodox among them, had been formed by the Bible, and virtually all quoted from Scripture much more than they quoted from any other author. Even the least orthodox among them, such as Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin (the two outliers in this respect), wrote frequently of God, Judgment Day, and Providence. All held with the Declaration that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” and with Jefferson's personal aphorism that “the God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time.”
Consider that the opening words of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom announced quite starkly: “Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free . . . ”
For Holmes and Meacham alike, the by-now conventional notion that the Founders were purely men of the Enlightenment does not satisfy the evidence. Yes, the Founders sometimes took up such themes as common sense and limited government and religious liberty in the language of Enlightenment thinkers. But they also strongly believed that, while conscience and religious liberty must be inviolable, and church and state ought to be separate, nevertheless, government still has the duty to support religion, by one method or another.
“Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure,” Washington wrote, the morals required for republican government depend, for most people, on religious cultivation. Most people learn their morals intermixed with the narratives, symbols, and disciplines of religion. This is as true today as it was then—indeed, in past ages, philosophers held it to be a truism.
Meacham is particularly good at rejecting the conventional term “civil religion” in favor of his own useful notion of “public religion,” a term he borrows from Franklin. By “public religion” he means the public's belief in the sacredness of conscience, the importance of religious liberty, the link between religion and republican virtues, and the necessity of these virtues for the faithful and steady workings of our Constitution. Furthermore, religion—or at least Judaism and Christianity—limits the state (“Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's”) and is a barrier against totalitarian government (as mere secularism has proved not to be). Such religions also inculcate an almost religious sense of obligation to defend liberty at home and, at times, around the world.
Meacham faults Rousseau's “civil religion” as artificial and man-made, and Robert Bellah's for lacking in critical bite. Yet he takes Lincoln's phrase “an almost-chosen nation” to be a neat summary of the American gospel. He thinks of a “public religion” of this type as a way of criticizing any stage of “civil religion” that falls short of such transcendental ideals as liberty and justice for all. These ideals are “transcendental” in the sense of always failing of full achievement and yet always to be strived for.
Holmes is immensely useful for giving information about the many different faiths and philosophies extant in the complex America of the founding era. According to the federal census of 1790, he reports, there were only 1,243 Jews in America and thirty thousand Catholics, among some three million citizens. For Catholics, the largest concentrations were in Maryland and Pennsylvania, especially Philadelphia. There were enough Jews in Charleston, New York, Philadelphia, Newport, Savannah, and Richmond to build synagogues. That three of these synagogues were in the South may confound contemporary expectations.
Holmes also offers a lengthy discussion of deism in its many variations in the America of the 1770s, including tendencies that many who thought of themselves as orthodox shared. At least the males among them did. One of Holmes' most brilliant sections addresses why women were so much less attracted to deism, and men at that time so prone to it. For one thing, Holmes offers some brief portraits of leading women of the founding period and their tangibly orthodox faith, often markedly more so than that of their husbands and sons. Women were closer to the mysteries of life and death, he opines, and among themselves their conversations about such matters were more intimate and familiar than “male talk.” Further, their letters and diaries display imaginations and emotions much more engaged by the biblical narratives than by abstract philosophical discourse.
Holmes also includes some wonderful vignettes about the least-orthodox Christians among the Founders, and some of the most. This is a good step toward the project I called for in On Two Wings, a complete picture of the religious life of the top one hundred Founders, including the eighty-nine signers of the Declaration and/or the Constitution, plus other leaders in that world, such as Abigail Adams, Thomas Paine, and George Mason.
Both books cover a lot of ground in relatively few pages, so their portraits of individuals and events are necessarily abbreviated. At many points, when I knew a lot about a given individual, series of events, or set of ideas, I sometimes winced at large generalizations or descriptive arrows that did not hit the target. But I found both books surprisingly congenial, thoughtful, and informative. Where I cannot agree with one or the other of the authors, or both—on important details about the faith of George Washington, for example—further discussion seems likely to be cordial and mutually helpful. In short, both books, different in intention though they be, well reward time spent in their company.
Michael Novak, a member of the Editorial Board of First Things, holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.