One nation, including God

On Two Wings
Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding
by Michael Novak
Encounter Books, $23.95, 239 pp.

Michael Novak is an intellectual paladin, ingenious and learned, contentiously empyreal and remarkably prolific, with some twenty titles in print on American public life and Catholic social thought. Over the years, Novak has moved politically from the left-center (Choosing Our King) via populism (The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics) to somewhere on the right, especially as a champion of the spiritual dimensions of capitalism. In all its seasons, however, there is a consistency to Novak’s work. He loves his country, and-as its critic or its advocate-he wrestles to bring America to speaking terms with God.

In On Two Wings, Novak celebrates the religious, specifically biblical, dimension of the American founding, arguing against thinkers who stress its roots in Locke and Enlightenment liberalism. (His contemporary target seems to be Michael Zuckert, Notre Dame’s distinguished political theorist.) From the beginning, Novak contends, the balance of the republic has depended on its second "wing": American democracy cannot soar without religion. On this central point, Novak is clearly right. Even the most secular and deistic among the Framers were the products of a culture permeated by biblical teaching, and the great majority of Americans, with varying sophistication and intensity, were devoted to Christianity.

For the founding generation, prudence alone counseled respect for religion: In Common Sense, even Tom Paine cast his argument in biblical terms. And in American history, just as Novak argues, biblical religion has been the culture’s alternative voice, a counterweight to the claims of individualism and self-interest.

But like many a debater, Novak carries his case to extremes, exaggerating the religiosity of a largely rationalistic generation preoccupied with this world; the Framers saw religion as an invaluable support for public life, but they were mostly indifferent or hostile to the spiritual, transcendent dimensions of faith. While Jefferson, as Novak reminds us, praised Jesus’ moral code as "sublime and benevolent," he disdained "mysticisms" and "artificial systems," including belief in Christ’s divinity, the Trinity, the Resurrection, Original Sin, or atonement.

In one response to such objections, Novak points to the founders’ virtually unanimous expectation of a future life and judgment, telling us that Jefferson, writing "in the silence of the night," trembled when he reflected on God’s justice. In that passage, however, Jefferson says nothing about nocturnal silences, and his trembling-about slavery-was for "my country," not for himself. He was worrying not about the fate of individual souls in the next life, but about that of a nation in this one.

Another example of Novak’s tendency to gild the lily: He devotes almost a page to Jefferson’s letter to the young Peter Carr in 1785, arguing that it reveals a belief that "faith stimulates and enlivens the conscience." In that letter, Jefferson does emphasize that Carr should cultivate virtue, defined as devotion to "the interests of your country, the interests of your friends and your own interests also," all pursued with "the purest integrity and the most chaste honor." But in the first place, Jefferson never refers to "faith," and the only more or less Christian text he recommends to Carr is Paradise Lost. More important, virtue, in Jefferson’s understanding, comes down to "interest," albeit of an enlightened sort.

Recognizing the implicit conflict between what Tocqueville was to call the "spirit of liberty" and the "spirit of religion," the Framers knew they walked a political tightrope. The civil theology of the Declaration of Independence, as Novak observes, is carefully ambiguous. Yet, in the last analysis, liberty was their lodestar. Novak argues that the moral reasoning behind the Declaration-especially, the belief in human equality-derives from biblical religion, and so it does. At the same time, the Bible speaks of righteousness rather than rights (let alone, natural rights). It presumes that human beings naturally have obligations. By contrast, Locke held that human beings are equal only in possessing equal rights, that they are born free, with slight if any obligations to others or claims on them. Following that teaching, Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration asserted that humans are created "equal and independent," before political second thoughts led to the amended text.

The Constitution, moreover, lacks even the ambiguous religiosity of the Declaration. It does not invoke or mention God, and there is no citation from the Bible, as far as I know, in any of The Federalist Papers. Those who designed our laws were determined to create a secular regime in which religion would be confined to the private sector and to the states, which-from political necessity if not choice-were allowed religious establishments. The Framers valued religious pluralism, just as Novak contends, but they did so in the expectation-a correct one, for the most part-that pluralism would teach any single denomination that it could not hope to rule, and that the "marketplace of ideas," like markets generally, would lessen attachments to any particular idea. The result, they hoped, would be a religion subordinate to law, a safe buttress for a politics of liberty.

Although Novak trumpets the achievement of the Framers, he recognizes that, relying on religion, they left it without public nurturance. The Constitution and the laws rely primarily on interests, just as Jefferson did in his letter to Peter Carr. And the laws teach: Americans, Tocqueville found, justified almost everything they did by reference to the principle of "interest rightly understood." Even where they were public-spirited or altruistic, Tocqueville noted, Americans were inclined to "honor their philosophy"-the self-seeking individualism of Enlightenment liberalism-rather than themselves. And while Tocqueville valued "interest rightly understood" as a check on simple selfishness, he also saw the danger that, over the years, America’s public philosophy would weaken the language-and hence the practice-of faith and duty in civic life.

So it has, and whatever its faults, Michael Novak’s book has the towering virtue of helping Americans to rediscover that indispensable voice.

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About the Author

Wilson Carey McWilliams, contributed regularly to Commonweal. He taught political philosophy at Rutgers until his death in 2005.