Brooke Allen claims in her article “Our Godless Constitution” that America “was founded not on Christian principles but on Enlightenment ones.” The Enlightenment is a term used to describe a period in eighteenth-century Europe and America when reason, coupled with advances in science, was declared to be the principal source of intellectual and moral authority. Something had to be argued rationally and demonstrated empirically to be true. “Enlightenment thinkers rejected the idea that religion can be a source of truth, and believed instead that the application of reason to the evidences of the senses is the sole source of the truth.” Reason was in, and the Bible was out. Many of these early Enlightenment figures were not atheists; they were deists. Deists believe in God, but they do not believe in divine revelation or that God interacts with His creation. God can only be understood through the right use of reason and the study of nature. “A deist is described by the poet Alexander Pope (1688–1744) as a ‘Slave to no sect, who takes no private road, but looks through nature up to God.’” They could do this because they believed that God was the Creator. The “Laws of Nature” were the creation of “Nature’s God.”
Almost every modern critic of America’s Christian heritage argues that America was founded by deists on Enlightenment principles. For evidence they refer to Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson and for good measure James Madison, John Adams, and Thomas Paine. Here are two examples of many that could be cited: “Among the Founders who rejected the faith of their Puritan Fathers for the Enlightenment were [Benjamin] Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. . . .” Another historian offers a similar assessment: “The founding fathers were predominately deists: Washington, Madison, Franklin, Jefferson.” But after making this claim, the author states, “Yet none was overly dismissive of traditional religion. Indeed, religious concepts . . . kept creeping into their pronouncements, from the Declaration of Independence to the American Constitution.” C. Gregg Singer tells us why:
A Christian world and life view furnished the basis for this early political thought which guided the American people for nearly two centuries and whose crowning [achievement] lay in the writing of the Constitution of 1787. This Christian theism had so permeated the colonial mind that it continued to guide even those who had come to regard the Gospel with indifference or even hostility. The currents of this orthodoxy were too strong to be easily set aside by those who in their own thinking had come to a different conception of religion and hence government too.
For example, the following words appear on Panel Three of the Jefferson Memorial: “God who gave us life gave us liberty.” Thomas Jefferson then asked, “Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?” This is hardly a deist belief, and to a certain degree, it does not square with an Enlightenment philosophy.
In an address to the military on October 11, 1798, John Adams stated that “[W]e have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. . . . Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Adams wrote the following:
The general Principles, on which the [founding] Fathers Achieved Independence, were the only Principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen could Unite, and these Principles only could be intended by them in their Address, or by me in my Answer. And what were these general Principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all those Sects were united: . . . Now I will avow, that I then believed, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God; and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System.
George Washington warned the American people in his Farewell Address, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensible supports. . . . Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be sustained without religion. . . . Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Physician Benjamin Rush affirmed Washington’s assessment that religion is the prerequisite for morality, virtue, and liberty: “[T]he only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in Religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments. . . . [A]ll [of Christianity’s] doctrines and precepts are calculated to promote the happiness of society, and the safety and well being of civil government.”
One of the problems in answering the Enlightenment charge is that not all Enlightenments are created equal. There were actually two Enlightenment philosophies in the eighteenth century: a Left-Wing Enlightenment and a Right-Wing Enlightenment. The Left-Wing Enlightenment which festered in France about the same time that America was putting its final touches on the Constitution promoted an anti-Christian rival religion that promoted a top-down, centralized social and political philosophy that was sanctioned by the blood Madam Guillotine. The Right-Wing version kept the basic elements of a Christian world and the adoption of a social and political philosophy that promoted a bottom-up, decentralized society that led to the War of Independence, but without the excesses of the French bloodletting that became known as the “Reign of Terror.”
Right-Wing Enlightenment philosophy was tempered by Christianity. The French version had thrown off every vestige of Christianity and declared Reason to be god. This did not happen in America. Right-Wing representative James Madison understood that reason has its limitations and man’s nature is often governed by passion:
As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves.
Rushdoony writes that Madison “denied the Enlightenment faith in the objectivity of reason, which, in Christian terms, he saw as inalienably tied to self-love. Man’s reasoning is thus not objective reasoning; it is personal reasoning and will be thus governed by ‘the nature of man’ rather than an abstract concept of rationality.”
Today’s Enlightenment figures, many of whom go by the moniker “Brights,” have made reason an absolute. Man’s nature is not the problem; it’s man’s claim that there is something more than nature. They are Nothing Butters. Of course, the Nothing Butters can’t tell us what really matters. Like Enlightenment figures of centuries ago, the Nothing Butters must borrow from a Christian worldview to make sense of the world.
Herbert Kohl, From Archetype to Zeitgeist: Powerful Ideas for Powerful Thinking (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1992), 65.
Kohl, From Archetype to Zeitgeist, 49.
Franklin Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 161.
Meic Pearse, The Age of Reason: From the Wars of Religion to the French Revolution—1570–1789 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), 330.
Pearse, The Age of Reason, 330.
C. Gregg Singer, A Theological Interpretation of American History (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1964), 284–285.
This phrase originally appeared in “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” (July 1774).
The original phrase (“And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?”) appear in Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia.” (Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia [Boston: Lilly and Wait, 1832], 170). These notes were written in 1781and corrected and enlarged in 1782.
John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1854), 9:229. October 11, 1798.
John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, June 28th, 1813. Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 338–340.
Benjamin Rush, “Of the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic” (1798).
The Federalist, No. 10 .
Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Nature of the American System (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1965), 73.