Yesterday, I mentioned the links we’ve added on the left of the screen, one of which encourages applications to the Tertio Millennio seminar in Poland this summer. Michael Novak e-mailed this morning to mention another central European seminar this summer, the Slovak Seminar on the Free Society. The seminar features lectures by Michael himself, along with Russell Hittinger, Robert Royal, Fr. Derek Cross, Jan Simulcik, and Martin Bútora. Fellowships are available for a limited number of Slovak students and American students. For more information, click here .
Speaking of Michael Novak, the new book he co-wrote with his daughter Jana is finally out. Called Washington’s God , it’s an account of the Founder’s religious words and practices, and an astonishing fresh glimpse at the inner man, so layered over by his own combination of ambition and reserve. "How is it possible to reconcile Washington’s eloquent words about Providence with the picture that scholars generally paint of him as a man with only a distant interest in religion?" Lynne Cheney asks. "Michael and Jana Novak argue persuasively that it is not necessary to square this circle, because the scholars are likely wrong." Richard John Neuhaus, the editor-in-chief of some magazine called F IRST T HINGS , adds, "This important book brings to light sorely neglected dimensions of George Washington’s life and thought. Readers will better understand our country by understanding the deepest convictions of its founding father."
I’m not completely convinced. Oh, Michael and Jana Novak do a superb job collecting all there is to be said on the topic in Washington’s God . And the result is a necessary and forceful corrective to the twentieth century’s long attempt to read out religion¯and much else¯from the American Founding.
There have long been revolts and counter-insurgencies by conservatives looking to overturn the high liberal consensus that the Founders were really just 1950s Harvard professors, oddly misplaced in time. M.E. Bradford tried with A Better Guide Than Reason , and Forrest McDonald’s We the People ¯and on to books like Marvin Olasky’s Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and Thomas G. West’s Vindicating the Founders .
But over the last decade or so, the primary fight in the study of eighteenth-century America has been the attempt to restore an understanding of the place of religion. The Library of Congress’s 1998 display on the Founding may have been the first clear strike. Michael Novak contributed On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding , a book with so many passages on religious topics from the Founders that they ended up sounding more like theology graduate students than political theorists. Following up the work he did in Religion and the Founding of the American Republic , James H. Hutson has recently published The Founders on Religion , which slams one quotation after another against the wall of secular certainty that all those gathered at the signing of the Declaration and the Constitution were at best Deists and more probably atheists.
And the result of all this is, I think, basically victory. It will take another decade or two for the news to filter down to the writers of high-school textbooks, but no self-respecting scholar today assumes what scholars in 1959¯or 1989, for that matter¯assumed: that everyone at the time of the American Revolution knew John Locke better than they knew the Bible.
But where does that leave us? The scholarship that won this fight over the last decade has been essentially reactive, fighting to overturn a mistaken view. Apart from infuriating the likes of, say, Arthur Schlesinger, how much does all this actually prove? The radical Enlightenment element of the American Founding, the revolution of the Revolution, remains untouched, however nuanced our understanding of it may have to be. Perhaps we overemphasize the written documents, ignoring the context, particularly the Protestant religious setting from the Mayflower Compact through the Great Awakening, in which they were written. Eighteenth-century America possessed a set of received ideas the Founders both relied upon and had to make concessions to. If the Constitution strikes a balance among those ideas, then the conservative impulse requires insisting that the secular Enlightenment elements in it are counterweighted by other things¯some of which may not be clearly in the Constitution at all.
And where in all this are we to put Benjamin Franklin? That strange man was born January 17, 1706, and the new catalogues from book publishers show dozens of works in honor of his tercentennial. He has always seemed to me one of those authors, like Ovid or Jonathan Swift, of literally bottomless irony: Every time you peel back a layer, thinking at last you’ll find out what he really believed, you find yet another layer of irony lurking beneath. It was, if I remember correctly, Franklin who proposed that meetings of the Congress begin with prayers, a practice that continues to this day. And he meant by it . . . something, or other. Maybe the book we need is one called Franklin’s God .