Enlightenment and the Tension of the American Founding
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,
He hangs between, in doubt to act or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God or Beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little or too much;
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall:
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd;
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
(Alexander Pope, Essay on Man, Epistle 2)
Pope’s words capture the worldview tension of the era of the American founding. The cutting edge thinkers of the day were working their way more and more toward pagan ways of thinking (or perhaps I should say that they were working out more and more consistently the pagan impulses of their hearts), yet Christianity remained an enormous influence. This unstable mixture was reflected in the social framework incorporated into the new
In Reason We Trust
The American founding occurred at the high tide of the Enlightenment, which was a movement to enthrone human reason as the sole and independent arbiter of truth. Thomas Paine wrote, “My own mind is my own church.” But Paine was more extreme than most American founding fathers. Some were genuinely orthodox believers, such as John Witherspoon and Patrick Henry. Many were basically pagan in their thinking with generous dashes of Christian seasoning, most notably men such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. These men did not throw God out altogether, for they could not make sense of a world without him. But they did remake him into a god more suitable to human reason, and thus they stripped him of any real authority in the public realm of the new nation. They accomplished this largely by thinking in the same kinds of dualistic categories that Kant had.
This thinking is enshrined in the most important statement of the philosophy of the founders, the Declaration of Independence. Edwin Meese says that “the Declaration provided the philosophical basis”[i] for the new government. The Declaration pronounces these famous words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life,
Upon reading the Declaration of Independence, you will notice immediately the mention of the Creator who gives rights to men. He is appealed to for morality and for providential protection. These concepts certainly fit with the Christian worldview. But we must also notice that this god is not sovereign in two important areas – knowledge and authority. Revelation was not considered necessary to establish the rightness of the colonists’ cause. It was “self-evident” to any rational mind. Furthermore, the people were given ultimate authority for the government. It was not considered necessary to appeal to God for authorization. This is a direct challenge to the Christian worldview, and a definite departure from earlier European practice.
Yet this approach fit perfectly with the temper of the age. Most men did not try to jettison a divine power. After all, how could they explain the existence of the world and of morality without him or it? But this divine being was put into a box separated from the empirical realm of real facts and knowledge. The supreme law of the land could be forged and enforced without him or his revelation. All that was necessary was properly functioning reason.[ii]
This faith in reason also tied in with commitment to the idea of Progress. According to this idea, mankind is getting better and better. Faith in Progress, in all its varied forms, is as American as apple pie, although it is as old as the
The American founding also included the seeds of individualism. If all truth is determined by human reason, then the individual eventually becomes the sole arbiter of truth. Social relationships must be determined by contracts freely chosen.
Our American commitment to autonomous reason and progress still drives us today, even though the failures of the Enlightenment version of paganism are becoming increasingly evident. For example, appealing to the Bible as revealed fact and relevant truth in public discourse is a sure-fire way to be dismissed as a superstitious crank. Another example – if you have listened to the discourse justifying Operation Iraqi Freedom, you will have heard a great deal about making a better world through democracy. A third example – education is considered the savior from all kinds of ills. A fourth example – the current congressional drive for tax money to support research on embryonic stem cells reveals an unbridled trust in technology to provide the good life, totally divorced from moral concerns. The list of examples goes on and on. We will return to these thoughts in Section 3.
Separation of Church and State
The separation of church and state has been one area of continuous battleground between pagan and Christian ideas in
But there were some unintended negative effects as well. Religion became something relegated to the private sphere of faith, not the public world of “facts.” This is admittedly a fluid generalization. At times throughout our history Christianity was more prominent in Americans’ thinking, and at times it was less prominent. Nevertheless, I believe the generalization still holds. This separation of religion from public policy was something more than the separation of the institutions of churches and government. It was the old dualism surfacing again. Religion became a private matter and men were free to hold whatever opinions they wished in this realm. However, they were not allowed to let that religious belief dictate public policy. Thus, Americans today tend to believe that we are free to invoke God’s blessing on our nation, but they also do not believe that God’s revelation has any tangible bearing on how we conduct the affairs of our nation. We are more likely to identify God’s will with Americanism than with biblical religion.
Where then do we place our hopes? We trust in the living God who is actively accomplishing his purposes in the world today. The focal point of his activity, as we have already seen in Section 1, is the church.
As Christians who live in American society, we need to be wary of letting the common American ideals supplant truly biblical thinking in our lives. The following posts will deal with that topic in the context of our American history.
[i] The Heritage Guide to the Constitution (Washington, D. C.: Regnery Publishing, 2005), 1.
[ii] Later, there was a Romantic reaction to rationalism in American life. However, for our purposes we need to note that this romanticism still grew from the soil of a pagan worldview. The romantics, like the rationalists, looked to man and nature for their justification, not to God.
[iii] T. S. Eliot gives a thoughtful consideration to what might be called a “Christian Society” in his work Christianity and Culture. I am not opposed to such usage of this terminology as long as we remember the fundamental distinction between the biblical idea of a Christian and the use of the term “Christian” to describe nations and civilizations. In Scripture, a Christian is a person who is publicly identified and labeled as a follower of Jesus Christ. That is to say, he is one who has confessed faith in Christ through baptism and is now living according to Christ’s teachings with other disciples (the church). In the biblical sense, the term “Christian” cannot technically be applied to nations.
In American history, it is common to call 19th century