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The Faith of the Founding: Religion and the Founding of the United States

Michael Novak

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My colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, Walter Berns, has written that the philosophy of John Locke was decisive in the American founding. According to Berns, Locke's disguised but unmistakable aims were to break with the traditional Christian understanding of nature and to drive religion out of politics by confining it to the private sphere. Professor Berns invokes Jean-Jacques Rousseau to set the horizon and framework of this interpretation, and thus makes the European Enlightenment a hermeneutical key to the American founding. In doing so, he neglects the testimony of John Adams, Benjamin Rush, Alexander Hamilton, John Dickinson, and others of the founders, whose views on the source of natural rights are far more religious than those of Locke (narrowly interpreted). In addition, Berns largely ignores the practice of the founding generation, which accommodated a far more public role for the free exercise of religion than the American Civil Liberties Union now tolerates.

Nonetheless, the Berns thesis does throw some doubt upon the generous and affectionate thesis about the American founding propounded by the genial Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, one of the thinkers who prepared the way for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If Berns is right, Maritain cannot be. And vice versa.

Read the entire article on the American Enterprise Institute website.



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