On Two Wings

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...

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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.