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Founding Faith

In On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding, Michael Novak amends the customary political history of the American founding to reinstate its religious underpinnings. Where most Americans do well in noting the Enlightenment elements of the American regime, they have been taught almost nothing about the religious—indeed, biblical—influence on the United States’ formation as a nation. Novak applies the corrective.

Author of numerous books dealing with freedom, religion, and business, including The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982), Novak situates the “rights talk” of the American founding within “God talk.” By showing how the founders understood rights and liberties to have a transcendent origin, Novak counters the postmodern attempt to hold onto rights without becoming beholden to what the Declaration of Independence calls “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.”

Despite the promise of its title (and subtitle), On Two Wings mostly focuses on faith as the neglected wing that gave flight to American independence. The wing of reason or “common sense” needs less attention because of the way in which Lockean rationalism has dominated contemporary discourse on the founding. In fact, Novak gives short shrift to Leo Strauss’s reading of the American founding precisely because of his emphasis upon the recovery of reason as a remedy for historicist interpretations of history.

Freedom within Moral Limits

Much like the American founders themselves, Novak gives a providential reading of the birth of the republic. His argument for a “biblical” or “Hebrew” metaphysics at work in the American founding, likely to be misread as merely reflecting the patriotic biases of a Jewish convert to Catholicism, gains credibility through a multitude of quotations and public actions drawn from the founding era. They demonstrate the unmistakably religious self-understanding that informed the emerging American republic.

Novak links the founders’ emphasis on religion to a concern that virtue be fostered as a vital attribute of a free people. Without it, freedom would become license and lead to the anarchy that gives rise to tyranny. As John Adams observed, “Our Constitution is made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” On this note, Novak argues that Adams, more than Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (who are more frequently cited as exemplars of the American founding), is more emblematic of the “national temper.”

But Novak also offers something of an anti-Federalist reading of the founders by reminding the reader that the target of the Bill of Rights was not government in general but the new national government of the 1787 Constitution. The local community plays an instrumental role in cultivating the good morals required of a people who allotted themselves greater freedom of thought and action than any nation in history. Novak argues that “in order to live in liberty, individuals depend on strong moral communities.” And the early American history he seeks to reclaim shows that state governments allowed for what Novak calls “‘mild’ establishments of religion.”

Of course, the American people eventually withdrew state support for churches and religious education. In practice, the arguments of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson triumphed over those of Patrick Henry. This begs a question not answered sufficiently by On Two Wings: To what extent should state or federal governments endorse religion?

Nevertheless, On Two Wings returns the discussion of American self-government to its proper moral context. Modern readers of the American founding usually see the public rather than the personal practice of self-government. Novak reminds us of what was obvious to the founding generation: Self-government implies self-control. Religion serves a public function by alerting citizens to their need to control themselves by exercising their freedom within moral limits and not simply to any arbitrary end.

Religion’s Preeminent Place

Mindful that his thesis and polemical style will invite objections, Novak devotes the last formal chapter to posing and answering ten likely questions arising from his religious account of the American founding. For example: Did the founders convey a personal or deistic concept of God in public utterances? Was the founding view of religion simply utilitarian? How did they define reason in political discourse? Does religion add or merely confirm what reason or common sense dictates in civic affairs?

Novak is not alone in recovering religion’s influence on the American founding. An excellent and more scholarly treatment of the subject is John G. West’s The Politics of Revelation and Reason: Religion and Civic Life in the New Nation (1996). But given contemporary quarrels over the role of religion in public life, as seen in recent court cases dealing with the constitutionality of the pledge of allegiance (for its “under God” clause) and vouchers used for religious schools, recovering the biblical influence on America’s founding deserves all the support it can get.

At bottom, Novak hopes to jump start a more extensive and thorough discussion of the principles and practices of self-government that each generation of Americans must understand in order for the republic to flourish. Here, religion has a preeminent place in the American Founding, and the least that subsequent generations can do is learn how and why it assumed this importance for the Founders.