Saturday, May 13, 2006

Alan Wolfe on the Founding and Religion:

Alan Wolfe of Boston College briefly reviews three books on the Founding and religion for the New York Times. One of which he recommends, David L. Holmes's "Faiths of the Founding Fathers," I have already recommended. This book notes, as I long have, that the key Founding Fathers were not orthodox Trinitarian Christians, but rather somewhere between Deism and Unitarianism.

Another book Wolfe reviews, Jon Meacham's "American Gospel," I leafed through at Borders (and was about to buy it). Wolfe gives it a more lukewarm review. Based on what I read in it, I was impressed by how it accurately captured the rational middle ground in the debate and well understood the concept of the "civil religion." The secular left is wrong if they try to assert that our Founders intended no public expression of religion or otherwise worked from atheistic premises in Founding our civil order. The religious right is wrong when they declare that we are a "Christian Nation" or that the God who founds this nation's public institutions is necessarily the Biblical God. No, our public order rests on generic monotheism, where God's attributes are purposefully left vague, so as to be inclusive as possible of the variety of different faiths. The notion of a "Nature's God" could be some orthodox Biblical deity, or some radically heterodox Enlightenment Creator, and is actually an amorphous lowest common denominator between the two. As this article notes, "Even Wiccans might feel kinship with Jefferson's 'Nature's God.'" Previously, I've argued that even atheists should feel kinship with the notion of "Nature's God," if they take such as a metaphor for the ultimate non-negotiability of natural rights.

Finally, Wolfe reviews Peter R. Henriques's book on George Washington, "Realistic Visionary," which includes a chapter that accurately captures Washington's religious faith. Wolfe quotes from Henriques's book: "[I]f one defines 'Christian' as the evangelicals do . . . George Washington cannot be properly referred to as a Christian." Yes, based on my meticulous research of Washington's faith, if one lays out all of the evidence, pro and con, one is led to believe that Washington held to the same Enlightenment influenced "theistic rationalism" of Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and the other key Whig Founders. There is some mystery as to what Washington believed given that Washington kept his exact religious creed safely guarded. Which, given the context of the time -- orthodox Christianity had far more social and legal power over society; one was expected socially, to affirm the tenets of orthodox Christianity -- hiding in a religious closet (as Washington and Madison did) itself is strong evidence of possessing heterodox religious beliefs.

Also, Wolfe's article has other interesting things to say. Read it!

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