The Two Wings of the American Eagle: Biblical Religion and Common Sense1
Catholic theologian Michael Novak is Director of Social and Political Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He has served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and is a recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.
President Thomas Jefferson, the least religiously orthodox of America’s founders, thought it his duty to attend religious services at the U.S. Capitol building on as many Sundays as he could—at that time, the largest religious service in the country—and even provided the Marine Band at government expense. (Where was the ACLU in those days? They could have stopped this public expression of biblical religion in its infancy.) Jefferson’s reasoning was that Christianity (steeped heavily in Judaism) is the best religion a republic could have, and it was his duty, as Chief Magistrate, to lend it his public support.
The founders’ reasoning was not driven by any old common sense, but by a distinctively Jewish and Christian common sense, saturated with Jewish and Christian conceptions of human nature, liberty, historical progress, and the nature of God (Creator, Governor, Judge). No Islamic tradition ever exhibited the same philosophical structure. Neither did the reasoning of the ancient Greeks and Romans, nor that of Kant, Rousseau, Hegel, and other heroes of the “Enlightenment.”
Recent biographies of Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, and even Washington present these founders as deists, not Christians, formed mostly by the “Enlightenment,” and only superficially by Judaism and Christianity. My own reading of these and other biographies strongly suggests that contemporary historians tend to be relatively uninterested in religion, and are seriously uninformed about its intellectual structure and complexities. For instance, nearly all of them see “deism” where many in the founding period saw “natural theology,” that is, the study of everything that can be known about God through reason alone. Courses in natural theology were mandatory in virtually all the significant colleges and universities of the period.
The United States took flight on two wings, and could not have taken flight on one of them alone. The two wings were (and are) humble faith and common sense.2 By “humble faith” is meant the humbling that brought about the eventual recognition that colonies founded in pursuit for religious liberty were, in America, too often suppressing other sects in their midst—for instance, children of the Pilgrims administering public lashings to Quakers, Protestants in Maryland forbidding Catholics from holding public office, etc. Most Christians began to recognize that such behavior disgraced the religious principles they held. By 1787, they were seeking a far more “Christian” accommodation to religious pluralism, and took as their model, more or less, the Declaration of Religious Liberty in William Penn’s Charter of 1701 (to celebrate which, the famed Liberty Bell had been cast).
Not only that, the Americans pioneered in several new philosophical conceptions essential to their understanding of religious liberty, and profoundly Jewish and Christian in inspiration: concepts such as the self-evident duties that rational creatures owe to their Creator, and subsistence of this Creator as “Spirit and Truth,” who appeals to humans regarding their inalienable, Creator-given individual freedom. This argument is quite evident in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786) and in Madison’s Memorial Remonstrance against Religious Assessments (1785).
Today, some say that only one party employs the wing of faith, but I don’t find this fully accurate. A great many Republicans, at least one-third, do not attend church. More than one-third of Democrats are frequent church-goers. In fact, until very recently, the base of the Democratic Party rested upon a broad coalition consisting of the Jews and Catholics of the Northern cities, combined with most of the Bible-belt Christians of the South and West.
It is true that Roe v. Wade (1973) seriously disrupted this coalition, and that such new questions as abortion and same-sex marriage have sundered the traditional accommodation between religious reason and secular reason. But this alone would not divide us into “two countries,” except for one other factor.
In an unprecedented way, secular elites have violated the traditional harmony of the two wings by attempting to cut off the religious wing from any role in public life. The novelty of such aggression, it seems to me, comes almost wholly from the secular side, especially among professors, lawyers, and judges. Its best chance to power is the courts, not the consent of the governed.
Those who have been trying to cut off the religious wing of the American eagle are showing far less wisdom than Tocqueville observed in our forefathers:
Anglo-American civilization . . . is the product of two perfectly distinct elements which elsewhere have often been at war with one another but which in America it was somehow possible to incorporate into each other, forming a marvelous combination. I mean the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom . . . Far from harming each other, these two apparently opposed tendencies work in harmony and seem to lend to each other mutual support.
Religion regards civil liberty as a noble exercise of men’s faculties, the world of politics being a sphere intended by the Creator for the free play of intelligence. Religion, being free and powerful within its own sphere and content with the position reserved for it, realized that its sway is all the better established because it relies only on its own powers and rules men’s hearts without external support.
Freedom sees religion as the companion of its struggles and triumphs, the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its rights. Religion is considered as the guardian of mores, and mores are regarded as the guarantee of the laws and pledge for the maintenance of freedom itself.
The unstated intention of my own work is to honor Tocqueville’s principle by reminding religious people of the importance of the wing of reason and common sense, and secular people of the importance of the wing of biblical religion, the primary origin and nourishing mother even of such “Enlightenment ideals” as fraternity, liberty of conscience, and equality. Missing either of these wings, the American eagle cannot fly.
This Insight piece is adapted from an April 23, 2007, response to Brooke Allen on Brittanica Blog (“The U.S. Is Two Countries?”). Allen is the author of Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006).
See Michael Novak, On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at American’s Founding (San Francisco: Encounter, 2002).