About the middle of the first quarter of my American History classes we cover the Intellectual life of the colonies, looking to discover how the people of the time thought about their world. Pretty quickly my students begin to see two very different schools of thought that formed a divide that impacted our Nation’s birth, and continues to do so.
On one hand was the Great Awakening with the fire & brimstone preaching of Jonathan Edwards (Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God). This was the original get back to god movement that began in the burned out districts of the North and then swept through the rest of the colonies with varying levels of effect. They were reacting to a perception that people were beginning to turn their backs on God, and that they needed to change their ways…and fast! In large part what they were reacting against, was/is the other intellectual side of the burgeoning National character; the Enlightenment.
The Copernican Revolution that began the Enlightenment changed European attitudes about many things and brought about a general questioning of the accepted answers for everything. From Voltaire to Descartes, Newton to Locke — bedrock assumptions came under scrutiny, among them the divine right of kings and the assertions of religious dogma. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were obvious proponents ofEnlightenment Political Philosophy; a quick reading of Jefferson’s opening to the Declaration of Independence gives clear evidence of this. In fact the only change to Jefferson’s original draft that Franklin suggested was to replace “sacred,” with “self-evident” in order to avoid overly religious terminology. The majority of the “founders” were heavily influenced by this new worldview and all of our Nation’s founding documents contain these ideals.
But to say that these enlightened men were without faith in God would be to go too far. Many of them (including Jefferson and Franklin) were Deists. They had a personal faith in God, but were highly skeptical of organized religion. Their God was Newton’s great watchmaker, a god who put the planets to spinning, and then stepped back to see what we might do with it.
Our Nation was founded during the intellectual aftermath of both the Great Awakening and the Enlightenment and in many ways these two views have colored our politics ever since. The framers of the Constitution, seeing possible troubles from the more religious among themselves, found a simple solution; separation of church from state, stating in the non-establishment clause that no single religion would have preeminence, ensuring freedom for all religions.
The legacy of those who would see this as a nation of the Great Awakening versus those who see a more Enlightened nation is long and, at times, troubling. In many of the great debates of our history one can see these two sides at play, and in our own time the divide between red & blue states seems very clearly to break along these same lines — god-fearers vs. liberal elites.
But I just don’t get it… I’m as liberal elite as they come, but I still believe in God. I have no intention of destroying religion, but those on the other side see me as a threat because I agree with the framers and their prohibition against an established state religion. Why do the same people that decry the growing size of government as the advent of socialism want to give it enough power to legislate faith?
To think that learning about the theories of evolution in a public high school will damage someone’s faith says a lot more about the weakness of that faith, than the power of the theory. Sadly, I doubt the sincerity of many today who would rail about bringing the country back to God. I perceive their motives to be more strongly motivated by politics and money than by any actual faith.
Why is it that we cannot simply marvel at the genius of a government built on the guarantee of religious freedoms for all, without trying to suggest some Christian basis for it that never existed? Many on the right rage at the government interfering in the private sector – what could be more private than a person’s faith?
The Great Awakening was wrong; the Enlightenment was not an attack on religion, nor were its adherents atheists. If the Enlightenment attacked anything it was hypocrisy; especially the hypocritical use of religion by the powerful to keep the unpowerful in their place. When the rich tell the poor to “…get back to God,” they may really be saying, “…get back in line!”