REL Who gets credit for American democracy?
By Richard N. Ostling
Two thinkers began 2005 with simultaneous articles in neo-conservative magazines expressing differing views about who gets credit for laying the foundations of America's distinctive democracy.
Both agreed, however, that the nation is fortunate that those foundations were profoundly biblical.
In the American Jewish Committee's Commentary magazine, Yale professor David Gelernter lauded New England's oft-maligned orthodox Puritans, who dominated pre-Revolutionary religion.
In the interfaith magazine First Things, Fordham University's Cardinal Avery Dulles celebrated the role of the heterodox believers known as Deists.
Though Puritanism and Deism greatly influenced the Founders and succeeding generations, both movements faded soon after the new nation's birth.
Puritanism, Gelernter said, was transformed into a common civil religion of Americanism that all Jewish and Christian denominations absorbed, quite unlike England's single national church.
"The Bible is not merely the fertile soil that brought Americanism forth. It is the energy that makes it live and thrive," Gelernter wrote. He said the national creed asserts each person's dignity as a creation of God and thus "entitled to freedom, equality and democracy."
He contended that these tenets, enshrined in the words of Jefferson, Washington and especially Lincoln, stem directly from the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament).
The Book of Exodus provided the concept of freedom. The Book of Genesis taught the equality of each person as created in God's image.
The third principle, democracy, might seem alien to the Old Testament, where kings typically ruled (though the prophet Samuel spoke powerfully against monarchs).
The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1638), considered the first democratic constitution, was inspired by the Rev. Thomas Hooker's sermon on Deuteronomy 1:13: "Pick from each of your tribes men who are wise, discerning and experienced and I (Moses) will appoint them as your heads." Hooker, and many preachers after him, interpreted this as God's directive to have the populace choose public officials.
European elites have always been hostile toward the deeply religious aspect of American culture, Gelernter concluded, but "we ought to thank God" for it.
Dulles, who can lay claim to being America's leading theologian, thinks the founding Deists' influence has been "enduring, beneficial and, one might say, providential."
That's a notable tribute since Dulles is an orthodox Catholic and the Deists were liberals who opposed Christianity's doctrines about God's activity and the divinity of Jesus Christ.
Nonetheless, Dulles wrote, they shared with Christian traditionalists biblically based belief in a divinely ordained moral law and the ethical teachings of Jesus. And they considered the citizenry's faith essential to the maintenance of democracy.
By Dulles' count, Jefferson and Franklin were full-fledged Deists while Washington, John Adams and Madison were liberal Christians with Deistic leanings. Even the skeptic Thomas Paine agreed with Jefferson that "without belief in God and in a future life, morality in society could not be sustained," Dulles said. Other founders were orthodox Christians (Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, Alexander Hamilton).
Rather than a "Christian nation," Dulles said, America from its founding has been a land "in which the biblical faiths are at home and in which other religions are welcome." Yet that tradition "is now being eroded or at least threatened" by pluralism and judges who are reluctant to "encourage any form of religion, however generic."
Dulles says Jefferson's church-state concept kept government from meddling in the particulars of religion but expected that Deism's "required minimum" of belief in God and basic morality would be accepted by most citizens and perpetuated by families, churches and schools.
If Jefferson were alive today, Dulles said, he'd wonder whether "the welfare of the republic can stand" in the absence of the Deists' "minimal consensus" on faith and morals.