Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Battle Over the Founding

There are generally two views about the American Founders and the constitution when it comes to the influence of Christianity, perhaps particularly where I'm from. One view is that the Founders were Christians generally speaking and that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution both reflect Christian origins and Christian truths, and that this is good. The other view is that the Founders were strongly influenced by the Enlightenment, and that the Declaration and the Constitution both mainly reflect Enlightenment liberal political thought, and that this is good. Proponents of both views use their take on the Founders as a basis for criticism of today's politics. The first camp is very concerned about the secularization of American society, the loss of Christian roots and Christian morality, and view us as on the decline. They think that part of the cure for this decline is reminding people that our founding was a Christian founding, and they hope that this will inspire people to get back on track. The second camp is very concerned about the lingering conservatism and traditionalism in our society, which they think contradict democracy, equality and liberty. They want to remind people of the fairly progressive nature of the founding, again with the hope that people will be inspired to reject regressive elements and move forward.

What if neither of these camps had the truth?

What if the founding was not mainly a Christian founding (though the Puritan settlement of the country was), and what if the Declaration's "laws of Nature and Nature's God" were not as specifically about Christianity as some of us would like to believe. That language, as students of the Enlightenment have to acknowledge, was commonplace and often an attempt to change views about traditional religion rather than to entrench those views. If Thomas Jefferson wrote those words, and he compiled the Jefferson Bible too, then we have to know that those words in the Declaration did not mean anything terribly orthodox. Jefferson was a real free-thinker, and he definitely defined for himself what "God" meant to him. He was pretty keen on convincing others, too.

What if the fact that the founding was not mainly a Christian founding was not all good? While not all of the founding fathers were Enlightenment radicals, the Enlightenment philosophy had a profound influence on the way many of them thought. A lot of them were every bit as much steeped in secular philosophy as religion, and some of them (like perhaps George Washington himself) saw religion as very beneficial for society and for liberty while holding unorthodox views at the same time. But while many liberals today like to see the founding as having this type of foundation, they would all agree that it was good, and we need to understand the founders' intentions better, as this will guide us out of the darkness and back into the light.

What if the founding was not primarily an orthodox Christian event and had more to do with Enlightenment liberalism, but that was not all good? I have found it a very difficult undertaking to even be understood by people from both camps. The idea that liberals might be closer to the truth than some conservatives about the founding ideas might be startling to some, but the idea that the founding ideas might have been fundamentally flawed in some ways is so startling to all that it simply does not compute. We tend to find a way to pronounce our origins good--so instead of taking a clear-eyed look at their reality, we re-interpret those views to fit our own, and then pronounce them good. That is probably more an artifact of human psychology than anything else.

The prospect that the founding ideas, which were mainly inspired by Enlightenment liberalism, could be the cause of some of our problems rather than the solution is not a happy one, but it is this prospect that I've been exploring for the past several years. Some communitarian thinkers, who tend to be on the left, have explored this territory too but because their solutions tend to promote more socialism or big government (though not all) they tend to not get too much traction in this country. I tend the other way, and so I am trying to formulate a different response. One of the main reasons I've been exploring the idea of honor and how it has fared in the modern world is because it was one of the pillars of social coherence and moral courage in pre-liberal times. Honor, with its aristocratic origins, could be a corrective for liberalism's extremes, perhaps.

In the Introduction to Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, Sanford Kessler writes, "Only a virtuous people, [Tocqueville] believed, could lead worthy lives and defend their liberty in times of crisis. He also thought that democracy can corrupt people in normal times and as a matter of course. Democrats tend toward individualism, a phenomenon that causes people to turn inward and to neglect their public responsibilities. They also become overly materialistic, slavishly devoted to public opinion, and envious of any superiority, no matter how natural or worthy. These tendencies weaken human attachments, unbend the springs of virtue, and ultimately debase political life." (2000, Hackett, xxi)

I think I'm going to spend the summer reading Tocqueville.


  1. I think it is even more complex. It would be hard pressed to think some of the founders did not think it was a Christian based country. Someone like Adams. Jefferson was very complex and not an ordinary Christian. Washington's speeches to Catholics and Jews showed a complex understanding of the relationship between religion and politics. It is hard for me not to think of this as a Jeffersonian issue that has become the doctrine of liberalism. Any one position on this is problematic because of the different sects and practices of Christianity at the founding.

  2. That's why I need you reading this, Mark--and I agree with you about Adams. I found this neat quote from him:

    "Honor is truly sacred, but holds a lower rank in the scale of moral excellence than virtue. Indeed, the former is but a part of the latter, and consequently has not equal pretensions to support a frame of government productive of human happiness."

    That makes me want to explore Adams' thought more.

    It is more complex, and I need to do a lot more reading, but usually what I describe above is where the popular debate here begins and ends. Please let me know what you'd recommend as I move into this territory.

    1. Dear Laurie,
      I use this in my American Political Thought class and having used it many times it is my go to source---

      I hope it helps.