- The Founders on God and Government
Setting the tone of this anthology, Michael Novak, in the foreword, contends that "scholars since about 1950 have thoroughly misconstrued the high achievements of the founding generation with respect to religious liberty"(p. ix). Even a cursory examination of the literature will reveal that is correct. Recent historians of the founding period have concentrated their efforts primarily on social and economic questions of the era.
The editors of this anthology have assembled essays by ten authors who seek to demonstrate that religious belief was of prime importance for leaders of the founding generation. As with all anthologies, the authors accomplish this goal with varying degrees of success. Among the best of the essays are Morrison's on John Witherspoon and James R. Stoner's on the Carroll family of Maryland. At the other end of the spectrum is Dreisbach's essay on George Mason, an essay in which the author seems to devote more space to James Madison than to Mason. The other seven essays do a very good job of demonstrating the importance of religion and religious liberty for the founders. [End Page 350]
For example, Vincent Phillip Munoz, in his essay on Washington, makes a good case for Washington's view that "reason and the lessons of experience . . . taught that patriotic republicans ought to recognize and endorse religion because only a religious citizenry could sustain republican self-government"(p. 7). Indeed, this is a recurring theme throughout many of these essays—that religious belief, particularly Christian beliefs (although not Roman Catholic Christianity), was useful to maintain the orderly society. John Adams, according to John Witte, advocated the establishment of what he called "public religion."While not explicitly endorsing any particular sect or denomination, Adams's public religion would inculcate "honesty, diligence, devotion, obedience, virtue, and love of God, neighbor, and self"(p. 26), the characteristics necessary to sustain a republic. As Morrison points out, John Witherspoon's "formulation of the relationship between religion and republicanism [can be] reduced to this truism:no republic without liberty, no liberty without virtue, and no virtue without religion"(p. 129). Even the Reverend Witherspoon at times emphasized the utilitarian nature of religion.
Thomas E. Buckley, S.J., tackles the difficult job of addressing Jefferson's religiosity. Buckley presents convincing evidence to overcome the historical myth that "Jefferson was personally irreligious and desired his fellow Americans liberated from the shackles of belief"(p. 53). Equally challenging was Howard L. Lubert's task of resurrecting Benjamin Franklin's religious beliefs. The core of Lubert's argument is that "Franklin invoked religious language to promote socially beneficial behavior"and that Franklin believed "that the most acceptable form of worship is to do good works. . ."(p. 157).
The other theme in the book is the matter of religious liberty. Here the authors seem to be in agreement that freedom of religious belief was an important value for the Revolutionary generation, at least as that generation is represented by the ten founders dealt with in this collection. Even John Witherspoon "always argued that the conscience must be left free"(p. 131).
It is sometimes difficult for us in the early twenty-first century to appreciate the importance of religious belief for Americans of the late eighteenth century. And perhaps it is even more difficult to understand that the leaders of our Revolution viewed religion, specifically Protestant Christianity, as necessary for maintaining the stable society necessary for the preservation of republican government. This collection goes a long way toward putting us in the mindset of the founding period of the United States. It should be of interest to students of the founding era, and useful in advanced undergraduate as well as graduate courses in the history of the American Revolution and the constitutional history of the period.
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