Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Reason and religion in the Founding

This review of a new book on Benjamin Franklin makes much of the undeniable rationalism of many of the Founders. Here are a couple of representative passages:

Dray makes clear that Franklin brought to his political work the same rationalism that informed his science. Franklin wasn’t irreligious; he believed in a Creator who paid some attention to what His creatures were up to. But he had no patience with theology; he considered sectarianism a blight and judged reason the appropriate measure of faith rather than vice versa. His parents, solid Puritans, lamented his lapse from orthodoxy; he responded with his own statement of faith: "At the last Day, we shall not be examined [by] what we thought but what we did; and our recommendation will not be that we said Lord, Lord , but that we did GOOD to our Fellow Creatures." One of Franklin’s revisions to Jefferson’s draft Declaration replaced "sacred and undeniable," in reference to the truths the Americans were defending, with "self-evident." The difference was crucial: "sacred" summoned the authority of God, "self-evident" the authority of human reason.

Franklin would no more have looked to Heaven for political guidance than he would have consulted the Bible in fashioning his lightning rod. God gave man reason, he believed, and expected man to use it. Franklin did so with confidence, as did his colleagues.

That was their genius, and it’s what separates Franklin’s generation from ours. Religion hasn’t driven reason from the public square, but it has gained political leverage it never enjoyed in the days of the Founding. Biblical literalism (currently cloaked as "intelligent design") has fought the science of evolution to a standstill in many schools. The very idea of the Enlightenment evokes derisive sneers. Orthodoxy of some Judeo-Christian sort has become a de facto requirement for American elective office; deists in the mold of Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson need not apply. Franklin’s partners weren’t all as scientifically minded as Dray reveals Franklin to be, but they all believed that reason was a surer guide to political progress than religion. And in this belief they accomplished the great things they did.

Yes, the contemporary defenders of reason have lost some confidence, though in the universities this has for the most part come through post-modernism and post-Marxism (e.g., the materialist emphasis on "race, class, and gender"), not through religions. But what they lack in confidence, they often make up in vitriol and condescension toward religious belief. Not only were there orthodox believers among the Founders, but many of them (even many of the rationalists) regarded religion as an ally, not an enemy. Consider, for example, this famous passage from
Washington’s "Farewell Address":

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. ’Tis substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule indeed extends with more or less force to every species of free Government. Who that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric.

Mere politicians, who may not themselves be pious, would still have a healthy regard for the civic role played by religion. They would welcome it in the public square, not lament its appearance there, or attempt to drive it out. I have explained many times (for example,
here) that talk about theocracy is way overblown. The public square is big and varied, and we ought to be generous in welcoming religious voices into it. The hypersensitivity of the separationists (worrying about the merest hint of "endorsement," for example) needlessly turns up the heat and makes it hard to differences to be addressed and accommodated "reasonably."

Discussions - 1 Comment

I haven’t noticed religion driving reason from the public square but I have noted that there are those who seek to divorce reason from religion and seek to drive religion from the public square with alarming success.

The frequent use of Jefferson’s seperation of church and state only demonstrates the ignorance of the vast majority of Americans since Jefferson was pledging that the Federal government wouldn’t institute a national religion to intervere with a state’s official religion. Hardly what it is trumpeted to be today.

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