No one should be surprised by the recent decision of the New Jersey Department of Education to remove the study of such Founding figures as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin from their state’s history requirements. Though unusually foolish and indefensible, it is but the latest installment in a tragic ongoing trend—the wholesale abandonment of our national past by the people who ought to be sustaining it.
It goes nicely with the evidence gathered in an astounding study conducted by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which found that seniors graduating from the fifty-five most selective colleges in the United States did not have a command of basic facts of American history, such as the meaning of our constitutional separation of powers or the historic events at Valley Forge and Yorktown. Our students are not only being denied their birthright as Americans, and being left unprepared for informed citizenship, but they are also being deprived of one of the most interesting and inspiring stories in human history.
Such findings, and countless others, ought by now to have sent a shockwave of outrage through academe, and through our society, comparable to that induced in the 1950s by the shock of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik launching. But instead they seem to have been greeted with a collective yawn. Perhaps bad news about education has lost its ability to shock. Perhaps the American public, itself ignorant about its own history, is comfortable feeling a quiet contempt for such knowledge. Perhaps our educational institutions are aware of the bad news, but think it is not so bad, and at any rate have no intention of doing anything about it. Crimes of omission and commission have both played a role in this debacle, and it is hard to say which represent the greater betrayal. Ignorance and misrepresentation, conservative indolence and PC revisionism, skin without warts and (more often) warts without skin—all have been freely in evidence in recent years. What is clear is that Americans simply cannot count on their educators to give them the straight story, skin and warts, about the origins of their civilization. Increasingly, when it comes to history, teachers are not teaching much of anything at all.
In no area has this been more true than in the story of religion’s pivotal role in our national history. Unlike the neglect of the Founders, which represents a relatively recent development, this has been the case for a long time. Even before the recent wave of politically motivated scholarship took hold some thirty years ago, the historical profession was already dominated by secular-minded practitioners who favored more or less materialist, rationalist, and structuralist explanations for historical change, and who therefore treated religion as, at most, a cultural epiphenomenon.
At best, religious faith was seen as an effect rather than a cause of historical events, or as the horse that certain secular innovations (such as constitutionalism and human rights) were constrained to ride in on. At worst, religion was the sworn enemy of the great American values of toleration, democracy, inclusiveness, rationality, enlightenment, science, pluralism, skepticism, privacy, and expressive freedom. One can see in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks an effort to tar all serious religious faiths, particularly those that have demanding moral and metaphysical frameworks, as dangerous, even to the point of being un-American. The war of the West against a virulent strain of Islam thus becomes reinterpreted as part of a war of sane secularism against two thousand years of crazed religious orthodoxy.
It is for just such a moment that Michael Novak’s eloquent new book has been written, and its appearance could not be more timely. A lively, marvelously accessible, and infectiously enthusiastic book, packed with unforgettable quotations from the leaders of the American Revolution and the founders of the American republic, On Two Wings is both a restorative and a touchstone. It should be required reading for every American who wants to grasp the whole truth about the nation’s neglected religious heritage.
Of course, it will not satisfy everyone. Novak steers a middle path between the partisans of both sides: on the one hand, those who want to claim the nation’s heritage exclusively for Protestant Christianity; and on the other, those who choose to ignore the nation’s religious roots, preferring to miscast the Founding as a triumph of secularism. Novak gets the balance of things just right. The most prominent leaders of the American Revolution were indeed men of the Enlightenment. But that does not mean they were secularists. In this respect, as in so many others, the American Revolution was unlike the French Revolution. In France, where antagonism to the ancien régime tended to be all-encompassing, if one was to oppose the monarchy, one was likely to oppose the Church, and in opposing the Church, to oppose religion. Not so in America, though, where Enlightenment and Protestantism existed in considerable harmony and complementarity.
Which brings us to the guiding metaphor of the book, the image of an American eagle kept aloft by two different, but equally necessary, wings. This enormously fertile image, which echoes Pope John Paul II’s use of the same image to describe the relationship of faith and reason, conveys the core of the book. Novak has no use for those who dismiss the Enlightenment en tout. “Without the Enlightenment,” he asserts, “America would not have assumed the beneficent shape it did.” It is no exaggeration to point, as secularists do, to the dangers of religion unchecked and unstabilized. But it is equally true that the Enlightened wing itself could not have operated beneficently without the stabilizing work of a second wing, that of a pervasively shared “biblical metaphysics” grounded in the Jewish vision of the world, and reflected in the pattern of human history embodied in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Our religious heritage and our secular heritage were not understood as antagonists by the generation of the Founders, and, Novak thinks, there is no compelling reason to see them as such today.
Indeed, there is every reason to recover the insight that came so readily to the Founders and their generation, but which now seems so remote to us, living as we do in an era in which Enlightened opinion holds religion to be best when privatized, the public square to be best when largely denuded, and the religious sentiments of Americans to be best edited out of the American past, as if they were so many contraband images of Leon Trotsky. There is every reason to hope that such recovery is possible. For all its dismal moments, human history also records moments of cultural renewal, when what seemed irretrievably lost and forgotten has been found and remembered, and reclaimed and made fresh for a new age. At a moment when the estimable tradition of liberalism is in so many respects at the end of its tether, etiolated and corrupt, it may be that its old sparring partner, religion, will turn out to be the very thing that can save and revitalize it.
In short, then, Novak believes that the design of the American regime reflects a profound understanding of the human person and of the delicate balancing act entailed in the optimal ordering of our common life. In making that case, Novak deals in an informal and winning manner with many of the most familiar misconceptions of the religious roots of the Founding. Weren’t all the Founders Deists and unbelievers? Certainly not, Novak shows, and even the handful whose orthodoxy was questionable, such as Thomas Jefferson, were strong believers in the indispensable public good of religion. Indeed, it was Jefferson who famously observed, in his conscience-stricken meditations on the horror of slavery, that the “only firm basis” of the nation’s liberties was “a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God,” and are “not to be violated but with His wrath.” That is an observation that perhaps rings truer today than ever before, at a time when doctors, technicians, and accountants have begun to arrogate unto themselves the right to define what counts as life, and when it should end.
But what about the notion of a “godless” Constitution, which was explicitly opposed to any establishment of religion, and which (unlike so many of the state constitutions) did not invoke the name of the Deity? Novak makes short work of that plaint too, pointing out that such assertions depend on serious misunderstandings. The Constitution forbade a national establishment, but it also (as originally conceived) forbade the federal government from interfering in existing state establishments, such as that permitted under Article III of the Massachusetts State Constitution. It struck a balance between the need to permit individual religious liberty to flourish and the need to respect the communal norms that order our social existence. By refusing to follow the model of the state constitutions, the U.S. Constitution was making a distinction between the mode of governance proper to the states, which retained very considerable “police powers” extending to the regulation of matters of religion and morals, and the mode proper to itself, as the instrument for establishing a national government which was largely federal in character, and which therefore was prohibited from playing such a role.
There are many more riches to be found in this small, highly compressed book, but its value goes far beyond its utility as a compendium of historical insights and arguments. What Novak has given in On Two Wings is a fresh vision of the national experiment, and a wise corrective to much of the folly of our age. It is, to repeat, a book that is accessible to virtually any literate and motivated reader, and, as such, may in its own way serve as something of a counterbalance to the pervasive miseducation to which most Americans are now subjected. With such a book in wide circulation, we may yet recover a more vivid sense of what we have, and of what we have lost—and then have the boldness to go on to reclaim it.
Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Chair of Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and is author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America.
Artwork by Auguste Millière is in the public domain. Image cropped.