- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2002

By Michael Novak
Encounter, $23.95, 235 pages

In arguing for a renewed recognition of the religious dimension of the American Founding, the eminent Catholic scholar Michael Novak navigates a rocky coastline. Although the Founders explicitly and repeatedly refer to Nature's God, our Creator, and divine Providence, readers of their correspondence know that some of them defined "God," "Creator," and "Providence" in decidedly heterodox ways.
Many of the Founders unquestionably remained faithful to Christian teachings the Rev. John Witherspoon of New Jersey and the philanthropist John Jay of New York being among the finest examples. But Thomas Jefferson privately denied the divinity of Christ and defended materialism, and the logic of Benjamin Franklin's portrait of the great preacher George Whitefield inclines toward blasphemy.
Even if one argues, as Mr. Novak does, that the orthodox outnumbered the heterodox, probably among the Founders and surely among the people they represented, how should one understand this, especially today? If the Founding was a Christian event, does that not leave Jewish, Muslim, and other non- and un-Christian Americans on the outside looking in, at odds with their own country? In redeeming the Founders' Christianity do we undermine their authority among too many Americans now?
Fortunately, In his "On Two Wings," Mr. Novak proves a skillful pilot. His carefully drawn navigational chart features two coordinates, one religious and one philosophic. Together, they guide us home.
The first coordinate consists of a spirited but never overly sectarian religious polemic, determining biblical points obscured by secularist weather. For example, Mr. Novak rightly observes that the Founders do not simplistically set biblical revelation against human reason. They knew that Jesus himself commends the prudence of serpents as well as the harmlessness of doves. The Founders' Enlightenment was not the Enlightenment of Voltaire; it was the Enlightenment of John Locke, a man ever at pains not to tread heavily on Christian sensibilities. The spiritedness that spirituality lends to reason gives strength to the quest for liberty, which might otherwise run to anarchy, on one extreme, or curl up in terror at its enemies, on the other.
Christian faith honors the marriage bond, providing stable homes for the inculcation of virtues that free men and women will need, given the dangers of living in freedom. Christians hold themselves under the scrutiny of an all-seeing God; insofar as they do, they are likely to behave better than citizens who suppose that they have no stern if forgiving Judge.
To skeptics who might reply that such a defense of Christianity is more utilitarian than pious, Mr. Novak has a ready reply. No less a Christian, and no less a mathematician, than Blaise Pascal deems faith a prudent wager. What is more supremely useful than the one thing most needful for the salvation of your soul? And where is the impiety of acknowledging such utility?
This religious-polemical coordinate of Mr. Novak's chart, taken by itself, might lead navigator and crew off course. Mr. Novak too easily overlooks the radical, Machiavellian challenge to Christianity embedded in the writings of such modern natural-rights philosophers as Thomas Hobbes and Locke, to say nothing of their march-of-history descendants, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx, who do not merely secularize Christian providentialism but transform it into a vast and (as it turned out in practice) disastrous attempt to conquer God's creation and eradicate religion itself.
So, to say that the Founders share the biblical understanding that something called "history" undergoes something called "progress" entirely misses a simple fact: Neither the Bible nor the Founders speak of "history" as an ontological object. The Declaration of Independence speaks of "the course of human events," not "history." For the Founders, history is still what it was for Aristotle, a literary genre, distinguished from poetry (for example).
History is not a process moving inexorably toward the realization of utopia an illusion prepared by Niccolo Machiavelli. If it were, Leninist fanaticism instead of Washingtonian common sense would have wrecked the American enterprise in short order.
Other examples of religious-polemical overstretch may be seen in such claims that "the very form of the Declaration was that of a traditional prayer" (rather more a logical syllogism and a legal indictment, actually); that faith better than reason fortifies us in performing those acts of virtue no one else can see (this depends upon the nature of the soul performing the acts); that Alexander Hamilton's refutation of the materialist philosopher Hobbes implies or requires a Christian understanding of natural right.
The worst of these distortions comes in the charge that pre-Christian philosophers saw no foundation for equality in nature, that previous human thought on natural right justified conquest and slavery. A careful reading of Aristotle's teachings on slavery and just war belies this claim, and the philosopher's understanding of political life as reciprocal ruling and being-ruled contradicts it as well. The Founders could find equality and hierarchy in nature, rationally, even as the ancient philosophers had done.
Mr. Novak's second navigational coordinate corrects such excesses of zeal. The philosophic dimension of his study refines and redefines the meaning of faith. "I am using 'faith' for all propositions about God," he writes, "even those that in earlier times would have been reached by pre-Christian 'pagan' philosophers who wrote of God." That is, Mr. Novak intends to recover for reason the terrain philosophers imprudently ceded when they cut themselves off theoretically from metaphysics and practically from the commonsense reasoning of classical ethics and political science. The dogmatic atheism of the continental Enlightenment and of German historicism left their proponents stranded on the shoals of tyrannical fanaticism from Robespierre to Pol Pot. Mr. Novak would reclaim the saner reaches of political reasoning.
Doing so yields excellent results, two of which speak to a familiar dilemma in contemporary American politics.
Our political landscape has been wracked by storms caused by the rift between religionists and secularists. School, prayer, church-state separation, abortion, and censorship of pornography all seem matters of insoluble controversy between determined and irrational partisans. Yet, as Mr. Novak indicates the Founders saw their way clear of such perils.
First, recognizing that no sectarian appeals could persuade many of their fellow Americans (given then as now to diverse religious opinions), Christian statesmen in and out of the pulpit had recourse to that part of the Bible all denominations honored: the Jewish part, or "Old" Testament, whose eternal newness they acknowledged. "The idiom of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was a religious lingua franca for the founding generation": One need not agree on, say, the relations among the persons of the Trinity to revere the virtues of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people, those wise and courageous nation-builders. Then as now, Americans could offer political participation to all "the peoples of the Book."
Second, recognizing that not everyone is a person of the Book, but that unbiblical persons may still bring considerable virtues to public life, the Founders established their new regime "in carefully modulated language, which could be understood by freethinking atheists in one way, by 'broadminded' Unitarians such as Jefferson in another, and by devout Presbyterians such as Witherspoon and partially secularized Puritans as John Adams in yet others.
The key to this code is the analogy between faith and reason" both extended so as to join and coordinate with one another. "While the American eagle rises on both wings, some individuals use both wings comfortably, but others feel at home only on the propulsion of one or the other."
This is it, exactly. Natural right, understood as the gift of the Creator-God (however conceived in the privacy of conscience) will be secured by citizens who prudently deliberate with one another about the political institutions and policies they pursue and courageously defend against tyrants who deny and defy natural right. On this point the American Founders can continue to teach us, even as their Constitution governs us. On this point, too, Mr. Novak teaches well, so that we can better govern ourselves.

Will Morrisey is assistant professor of political science at Hillsdale College.

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