Monday, October 30, 2006

the religious roots of American democracy

This weekend on Speaking of Faith Krista Tippett had an interesting interview with Jacob Needleman, philosopher and author of the book, The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, well worth listening to.

Needleman, I think, brings some balance and perspective into the tendency to simply brush off most of the founders of the United States as Deists and men of the Enlightenment, and not Christians. There is much good to be said for them, in spite of the truth in such an assertion.

Needleman himself seems to champion the Enlightenment. He sees it as good, stating that knowledge leads to good actions. Nevertheless his point about how the founders saw democracy compared to how Americans look at democracy today is interesting. In terms of how they saw "happiness", and how rights entailed responsibility for them, contrasted to the "individualism" that can so characterize us today. Also interesting is how Needleman sees the vision of the founding fathers as being appropriate and helpful for the pluralistic society America finds itself in today. A pluralism that is inclusive of all the good in religions, an understanding that many of the founding fathers were more than aware of.

While this does not make some of the leaders in the "religious right" correct about their assertions of the Christianity of the founders, it does provide some balance so that we can see and appreciate their keen insights that in themselves lay the groundwork for a progression towards the realization of the ideals of democracy in the republic, of which they held dear.


L.L. Barkat said...

Reminds me of the Esther movie I just saw... I thought it was quite amusing how the characters were talking about "democracy" in ancient Persia.

Well, I suppose if they had any concept of democracy at that time in history, it would look a lot different than ours today.

Charity Singleton said...

I heard David McCullough speak about the "pursuit of happiness" once, which as you've said, is quite contrary to the rugged individualism of our day.

He said the pursuit of happiness included the time and ability to acquire knowledge and apply that to our civic lives. In this sense, then, reading may be one of the most patriotic (democratic) things we can do. And as Christians, having this learned perspective lends credence to a point of view that is often otherwise characterized as dim-witted or out of touch.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Good comments. There is no doubt that those on the right who tout the notion that America was founded by nothing but Bible-believing Christians are clearly oversimplifying the complexity of the history. At the same time, those on the left who believe that the Founders were only putting in place a secular democracy are also simplistic in their account.

Ted Gossard said...


Interesting from Esther film. I wonder what historical basis there may be for that.

Both differences and similarities, surely. Each culture surely has its contribution to make in any endeavor. How a democracy plays out is surely dependent on the peoples' or nation-state's worldview and structure set.


Ted Gossard said...


Thanks for your thoughtful comment.
McCullough is interesting (as I recall). Good point.

If I understand your last point, so true. For so many things in this life, as to how they're worked out, I believe there are no easy answers. And the more we learn, the more we realize the complexities involved in any given situation. So that should help cast us on God, to be sure.

Ted Gossard said...


Thanks. I certainly agree. Let's take them and their work, warts and all. There's plenty of good for us there. But it's not the kingdom of God.

Richie said...

As a life-long Christian and also history teacher this is a subject I've long been interested in. There is a tendency on "the left" to over-emphasize deist influence on the founders while the tendency on "the right" is to portray the founders as something like 20th century evangelicals. As usual, the truth is much more complicated. First, it is undoubted that the all of the founders knew the Bible better than all but a small percentage of Americans today. Second, Deism was "in the air" amongst the intellectual elite in America but never to the extent that it was in Europe. The result was that each of the founders worked out their own theology through a life-time of study, thoughtful reflection and correspondence with others, and, normally, within the churches of their times. They were almost unanimously believers in God and a consistent moral order stemming from that God and that was providentially governed by him. Otherwise, there was a wide range in their religious views on the details of theology. Perhaps, the best current book on the subject is "The Faiths of the Founding Fathers" by David L. Holmes and published in 2006 by Oxford.

Ted Gossard said...


Thanks for adding your helpful perspective and knowledge. We need that kind of nuancing over and over again, certainly true in historical studies. And thanks for the book recommendation.