“If God is dead, everything is permitted.” Dostoevsky
In the 1830’s a French nobleman named Alexis de Tocqueville spent several months touring the United States, then wrote an influential and popular bookabout what he had learned. Everywhere he went he was struck by the fact that American beliefs about freedom and civil rights seemed to be based in the Christian religion. “Upon my arrival in the United States,” Tocqueville wrote, “the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there the more did I perceive the great political consequences resulting from this state of things, to which I was unaccustomed.” Tocqueville went on to say “The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to conceive the one without the other.”
Don’t expect to hear Tocqueville’s words in a typical college history class. The perspective taught in most mainstream history texts is that humanistic philosophies had to unshackle America’s leading thinkers from the Judeo-Christian traditions of Europe before ideas like democracy and human rights could gain any traction.
The View from The Ivory Tower
The three professors1 who authored the textbook America’s Promise would have us believe that “skepticism about religion” was one of the Enlightenment Age philosophies that inspired the Founding Fathers to declare independence and build a nation on democratic principles.
In the textbook Give Me Liberty, author Eric Foner tells students that during the eighteenth century “Many prominent Americans” adopted the religious view known as Arminianism, and others Deism; and that “Belief in miracles, in the revealed truth of the Bible, and in the innate sinfulness of mankind were viewed by Arminians, Deists, and others as outdated superstitions that should be abandoned in the modern age.”
The Other Side of The Story
Dr. Foner is flat wrong when he puts Arminianism in the same category as Deism, but his characterization of Deism is fair enough. Deists did reject the Bible, the idea of miracles, and the concept of the innate sinfulness of Man. And Dr. Foner is speaking not just for eighteenth century Deists, but also for many of his colleagues in academia, when he describes Judeo-Christian beliefs as “outdated superstitions that should be abandoned.”
In the same textbook Dr. Foner describes Thomas Jefferson as a Deist, although Jefferson never referred to himself that way. In 1816 Jefferson announced that he had written a book “in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”
Other modern day writers have described Benjamin Franklin as a Deist, and in fact Franklin did consider himself a Deist for a few years in his youth; but he rejected Deism several decades before the American Revolution on the grounds that it was not conducive to good interpersonal relationships.2
Only one self-described Deist played a significant role in the Revolution; and the only contribution that Thomas Paine really made was a powerfully eloquent pamphlet that helped build public support for the war effort. He did not sign the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution was being ratified in 1787 he was on his way back to Europe. Soon he would turn up among the leaders of the French Revolution, where his “skepticism about religion” was more widely shared.
It is significant that Paine’s pamplet, entitled Common Sense, cited the Bible quite extensively. Paine may not have shared the faith that most of his readers had in the Bible as the inspired Word of God, but he obviously understood that the best way to convince the American colonists of anything was to adduced Bible verses.
All fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence, with the possible exceptions of Franklin and Jefferson, described themselves as Christians, and belonged to mainstream Christian denominations. The same is true of all thirty-nine signers of the US Constitution, again with the possible exception of Franklin. (Thomas Jefferson was on a diplomatic mission to France during the Constitutional Convention, and did not participate.)
When George Washington first took the oath of office he expressed the same view, more or less shared by everyone in the room, that God was the foundation of America’s existence as a nation:
It would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States.
This belief in Divine Providence as the source of American rights and freedoms was still prevalent when Alexis de Tocqueville toured the US over four decades later.
As I mentioned in a previous post, the philosophical foundations of the United States can be found in the writings of John Locke, the first and most religiously devout of the “Age of Enlightenment” philosophers.
Deism Has Its Day in France
More humanistic Enlightenment Age philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau had less influence on America’s Founding Fathers than they had on the leaders of the French Revolution, which really did have the sort of anti-religious underpinnings that history professors like to attribute to the American Revolution.
Voltaire considered himself a Deist, and was skeptical about the whole idea of democracy. Having a negative view of the intelligence of the masses, he said that democracy “seems only suitable to a very little country.” Rousseau wrote scathing criticisms of religion, and is frequently described as having been a Deist, although he did not describe himself that way.
Rousseau, in particular, was a political role model for Robespierre and the other French Jacobins; which may explain why they confiscated all the church-owned property in France, and declared Deism the state religion, as soon as they came to power.
And by establishing the first explicitly anti-religious government in world history, the French Revolution set a precedent that would be followed by the leaders of the twentieth century’s Communist states, who would take the concept a step further and make atheism the official religious belief of every Communist nation.
The Jacobin government was precedent setting in other ways too. Between 1789 and 1794 the Jacobins killed their own citizens in large numbers. Estimates of the number of French men, women, and children put under the guillotine during this period vary between ten thousand and forty thousand. Many others died by the sword as the government used brutal tactics to suppress a peasant revolt.
Godless governments of the twentieth century would follow this example. Under Joseph Stalin’s leadership the Soviet Union would slaughter some twenty or thirty million Soviet citizens; Mao’s government would kill an estimated fifty to seventy million Chinese citizens; and Communist governments in Cambodia, Viet Nam, and elsewhere would kill their citizens in large numbers.
The Jacobin government of France was overthrown by a new revolutionary government in 1794, then France went through more upheavals and violence,even reverting to monarchy for a while. After much bloodshed over many years France finally end up with democracy and religious freedoms more or less like America’s.
The French people would have been better off if they had based their 1789 revolution on principles more like America’s, and less like those of a typical twenty-first century university faculty.
1William J. Rorabaugh, Donald T. Critchlow, Paula Baker
.2The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Houghton Mifflin Co. 1923, pp. 89, 90