06 April 2005

God and the constitution: a debate

If you haven't already come across this exchange in the last month, it is certainly worth reading now. Brooke Allen, in "Our Godless Constitution," argues that the American founders were at most deists who aspired to leave revealed religion out of the new nation's political life and documents. Writes Allen:

If we define a Christian as a person who believes in the divinity of Jesus Christ, then it is safe to say that some of the key Founding Fathers were not Christians at all. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine were deists--that is, they believed in one Supreme Being but rejected revelation and all the supernatural elements of the Christian Church; the word of the Creator, they believed, could best be read in Nature. John Adams was a professed liberal Unitarian, but he, too, in his private correspondence seems more deist than Christian.

To this Christopher Levenick and Michael Novak respond in "Religion and the Founders." Tellingly, Levenick and Novak do not dispute the substance of Allen's argument. They do refute a number of smaller points where she has neglected, e.g., to note in the founding documents such vague references as "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," "Supreme Judge of the world," "divine Providence" and the like. Of course, this hardly proves that the American founders were orthodox confessional Christians, and Levenick and Novak do not assert that they were. Rather, their twofold argument is, first, that Allen, like all "leftists," is out of touch with the American people; and, second, that she is wrong to distinguish between Enlightenment principles and historic Christianity because the American people do not do so. The authors write:

Indeed, the Founders saw the cultivation of religious sentiment as the ultimate safeguard of American liberty. They knew that liberty could only prosper among moral citizens, whose practice of self-government in their private lives was a necessary prerequisite for its exercise in public. They believed that even if it were possible for certain individuals to behave morally without believing in God, on the whole an entire citizenry could not long keep its moral bearings without the guidance of religious faith.

Far from asserting that the founders were Christians, Levenick and Novak's argument seems to amount to this: As good men of the Enlightenment, the founders recognized the usefulness of revealed religion in the preservation of liberty. In short, the truth of Christianity was beside the point. The authors should not be disappointed if this utilitarian argument fails to satisfy either the convinced secularist or the orthodox Christian.

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