I am enjoying Susan Jacoby’s book Freethinkers, A History of American Secularism. Let me highlight one interesting passage (more to come in the future). She nails the philosophy that undergirds our nation’s founding, and how that philosophy exists alongside religion:
What did distinguish the most important revolutionary leaders was a particularly adaptable combination of political and religious beliefs, constantly subject to revision in an era when modern views of nature, science, and man’s place in the universe were beginning to take shape. These views included skepticism vis-à-vis the more rigid authoritarian religious sects of their day; the conviction, rooted in Enlightenment philosophy, that if God exists, he created human rationality as the supreme instrument for understanding and mastering the natural world; and the assignment of faith to the sphere of individual conscience rather than public duty. The logical extension of such beliefs was a civil government based not on the laws of God, as promulgated by self-appointed earthly spokesman, but on the rights of man.
Our framers’ understanding of Reason—what grounds our public laws and institutions—did seem to presuppose the existence of God. “Nature’s God,” is of course found in the Declaration. And even Jefferson’s VA Statute for Religious Freedom—a statute of “secular scripture” as Jacoby puts it—begins, “Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free…” (although our most important founding document—the Constitution—conspicuously leaves out any mention of God). We must keep in mind that our framers were fighting an ideological war against the old order, and it was extremely useful for natural rights to tie itself into God’s Will, in order to trump any other claims (hence Jefferson’s claim: “And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?").
But in any event, natural rights theory does invoke God—it does presuppose that a “Creator” exists—hence I can’t really find a problem with public references to God—even if it does appear to endorse the notion that a Deity exists—as long as these references are “ceremonial,” that is, they are not coercive, or forced upon non-believers. And I’m not sure if I feel that the pledge is coercive. I’d let it go under the doctrine of “ceremonial deism.”
Speak of this doctrine, I have been taken to task for endorsing it by writer Dennis Teti on a Claremont thread. Let me elaborate on some of the criticisms of it, what that doctrine means to me, and why I find it defensible. Teti writes, “Deism is a specific religious belief which is in conflict with Christianity and other faiths. So it turns out that the Constitution does prefer a specific religion after all: Deism.” He then calls this claim “silly.”
I replied that we should view ceremonial deism not as the most we can know of God, but the least we can know. But it is the most our reason can tell us about God. That is, [the founders would argue] our reason tells us that God exists and He created Man with inalienable rights…but not much more, if anything more. Man’s Reason does not tell us that the God who gave us our rights is the God of the Bible or the God that gave us the 10 Commandments. However, He could be. That’s where our faith must kick in. It’s an inclusionary deism, not an exclusionary one. In this respect, nature’s God is the God of the least common denominator.
Teti also objects to the notion that “strict” deism was common among the founders—especially Jefferson:
You say that we can ascertain no more than that God created Man with inalienable rights. But Jefferson – the chief “deist” of the Founders – said far, far more. He said that God is just and has the virtue of Justice. He said that God has “wrath.” In fact he said we can know God’s “attributes” clearly enough to recognize that He could not “take side with us” – meaning white slaveowners – if a black slave revolt occurred. He even said that “supernatural interference” with the system of slavery “may become probable.” In other words, God punishes social injustices. (Notes on Virginia, Q. XVIII.)
I think that Teti is making a big deal out of nothing here. Yes, I have seen that many of our founders, from Jefferson to George Washington, made public utterances that belie the notion that they were “strict deists” in the sense of believing in a God that created us and never intervened—that they alluded to “Providence”—a God that perhaps could, in some way or another, intervene in our affairs. I replied that based on Jefferson’s other writing, we have good reason to believe that He didn’t believe in an interventionist God (he thought the supernatural and miracles in the Bible to be absurd), that his utterances perhaps were meant to be taken figuratively, as “terms of art,” so to speak. But still, other founders—founders steeped in Enlightenment dogma—did make allusions to a God that, in some way, might intervene. But this by itself—believing in possibile deity intervention—by no means transforms any of these founders or their political principles into orthodox Christian ones. That’s because as I’ve written before there is a less strict version of deism—we can call it deistic-unitarianism—that allows for the possibility of an interventionist God, but still does not endorse the concept of a Biblical God. Here is how I described it before:
Deism is based on what we can know of God based on Man’s Reason….What is known as ‘liberal’ Christianity is simply the rejection of some ‘orthodoxies’ because they don’t comport with “Reason.” Christians who rejected a fair amount of orthodoxies, but retained others, were known as ‘Unitarians,’ around the time of the founding (and this evolved into today's very leftist Unitarian Church). Going beyond “Unitarianism” and rejecting even the notion of a God who intervenes at all is where we arrive at Deism. But we see how we start with orthodox Christianity, and through reliance on Reason, we begin to reject various orthodoxies, then we get to “liberal-Christianity/Unitarianism” and finally Deism. We begin with pure “Revelation” (orthodox Christianity) on one end of the spectrum and get to pure “Reason” on the other (deism). Many of our founders were somewhere in the middle, but I'd argue the most influential tilted heavily towards “Reason.”
If we look at the Founding documents that do contain references to God, as well as most of the prominent founders' (the first 4 Presidents) Deity utterances, they eschewed specifically Christian language, but referred to God in a more universalistic sense. And it’s true that this God, perhaps in His Providence, could intervene in our affairs in some way, this doesn’t take such references out of the “deist” box and place it into the “Christian” box, rather I’d argue that such references are better categorized as "deistic-unitarian-universialist" references. Again—the God of the least common denominator. A God that, by reasonable deduction, does exist, but is not, by the same use of reason, identifiable as the God of the Bible (but he may, or may not be).
And I think this accurately reflects Jefferson's philosophy. If we want to get technical, we should call Jefferson a "deist-unitarian," which is, for the most part, a deist who might allow for *something* beyond deism's strict belief in a non-interventionist deity. This also comports with the way Jefferson identified himself: Jefferson, at times, called himself a “deist,” a “Unitarian” and a “Christian.”
In any event, it is this universalistic God—“nature’s God,”—who “created human rationality as the supreme instrument for understanding and mastering the natural world” that appears to have made it into our public documents, when a deity is in fact mentioned. If there is a God who has a place in our public life, it is this one.