The so-called Enlightenment was a period of philosophical thinking that came after the emergence of Protestantism. The entailing religious wars between Protestants and Catholics, and between these first Protestant sects and later Protestant sects, caused some to question religion in general, and to blame religion for all the violence. Some turned instead towards reason for answers, presuming that religion was no longer reasonable.
At this point, tolerance towards ever-evolving religious views was becoming the norm, a rejection of the violence that was seen as a tyrannical means for imposing a specific form of religion upon others. As the kings had been the ones imposing their various forms of religion upon their subjects, and forcing their subjects into seemingly unending wars over religions, the institution of the monarchy was also becoming less and less trustworthy. Religiously speaking, the new Baptists emerged out of this period, as perhaps the religious group who, together with the Unitarians, best represented it. Baptists were weary of creeds and rejected them, and they were independent in their self-ruled congregationalism. Seen as radicals by their fellow Protestant neighbors, they defended the conscience of individual men to think for themselves and rejected the notion that a king should impose his own form of religion upon anyone.
Doctrine and dogma were more and more questioned during this period. Politically speaking, people began to look back before the time of kings, towards the democracy of Athens and the republic of Rome. Architecture began to reflect those ideals with columned temples being built as homes, churches, court houses, and capitols. The United States emerged at this time, too, and represented the embodiment of these ideals.
During the Enlightenment, philosophy began to eclipse theology in some people’s minds. Religion (at least the Catholic religion) involved both philosophy and theology, including not only what is rationalized, but also what is revealed by God. But Christianity had splintered into so many Protestant pieces that it was almost impossible to know where to turn. Moreover, Protestants had been taught to reject their Catholic past as something of which to be ashamed. Their rallying call of “Sola Scriptura” meant that folks could dismiss or ignore 1500 years of history, and that anyone with a Bible could decide his own beliefs. And once the more “enlightened” Protestants rejected miracles and saints in the Catholic Church as merely superstitious, those same Protestants soon started questioning the miracles and saints in the Bible. Consequently, religion was a mess.
This same age was, however, one of many scientific discoveries, and so “reason” was becoming more associated with what one could scientifically prove. Thus enlightenment philosophy was rarely focused on metaphysics. Often called “Empiricism,” it was more a pragmatic philosophy based on experience and evidence and scientific method. As a result, “Enlightenment” thinkers often rejected the revealed God of scriptures, and sometimes compiled encyclopedias of knowledge that attempted to decouple European wisdom from the foundation of the Church from which it came, thus giving us secular education.
These same thinkers could sometimes still concede the necessity of some kind of supreme being based on the moral necessity of such. Therefore, some in their generation ended up being deists (believers in a god, but rejecting the God revealed through Christ). Some of these “Enlightenment” philosophers had a rather naïve optimism about human reason and freedom. They were sometimes quite surprised by evil. Voltaire, for example, mocked Christianity, but nurtured a cynicism that evolved into the French Revolution, which all but consumed his nation in mob violence. By comparison, American “Enlightenment” thinkers tended more toward a conservative approach. They might no longer personally profess or practice Christianity, but they conceded the importance of religion for morality and the stability of government.
Many of our founding fathers were influenced by the “Enlightenment” philosophies and probably were very proud of what they saw as their independence of religious thought. Almost all belonged to some Protestant sect and most of them had inherited the prejudices of their times and were highly suspicious of most things Catholic (there was but one Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence and only two Catholic signers of the U.S. Constitution). These founding fathers were often the celebrated geniuses of their day and successful leaders. Great men have reasons to be proud, but pride can still be a weakness, so we can both respect them and yet, at the same time, be critical of them. We need to understand the beliefs of the principle framers of American society so that we may understand how we got to our present moment in time. Politically and intellectually, after all, we are our fathers’ children.
Take Thomas Jefferson, for example, who penned our Declaration of Independence. He was a Unitarian, that is, one who believes in a supreme being, but rejects the doctrine of the Trinity. He had a respect for Jesus as a moral philosopher, but Mr. Jefferson could not have recited our Creed with us, as he did not believe Jesus to be God. Jefferson, who was raised Anglican, had a poor opinion of Catholicism and of priests, seeing them as hostile to his personal liberty, if not liberty in general.
The inventor, philosopher, essayist, scientist, and diplomat, Benjamin Franklin, was another principle framer of our American government and ideals. Doctor Franklin was the son of liberal Bostonian Puritans. While his parents wanted him to become a clergyman, Franklin became a Freemason and a deist, and in London worshiped among the Unitarians. Embarrassed by his own youthful waywardness, Franklin pragmatically returned to the notion that some form of generic organized religion was essential to encourage virtue and restrain vice. He saw organized religion as good for morality and accepted it as necessary to keep men good, and that the Republic needed good men if it was to last. Franklin called himself a Christian, but he stopped going to church and saw Sunday as his “study day.” He nevertheless maintained belief in the broad principles of faith, and he supported the revivalist preaching of American evangelicalism, because that evangelicalism saw morality as essential to salvation. This new preaching was highly supportive of religious liberty, and was, in a way, pan-denominational. Franklin believed that weak and ignorant people could become virtuous through religion. He also promoted prayer at times of great challenge. The Vatican even reportedly consulted the famous Doctor prior to choosing our first American bishop. While Franklin saw the religious diversity of Philadelphia as a good thing, he also defended atheists. A month before he died, Franklin admitted certain doubts about the divinity of Jesus, but nevertheless accepted the moral teachings with less hesitation.
The indispensable George Washington was officially an Anglican though he, too, later stopped going to Anglican services once he began to reject the divinity of Christ. While not Catholic, Washington shocked Protestant society by showing some good will towards Catholics (if only because so many Catholics had fought beside him). Above all others, it was Washington who formed our U.S. Constitution almost by the sheer force of his own will. Others were involved, of course, but it was Washington’s presence and leadership that molded it into the document we know today, and it never would have existed were it not for him. Under that Constitution Washington, with some reluctance, became our first president. As popular as he was, Washington retired after two terms, and moved home to Mount Vernon to live out the rest of his days. In his famous farewell address, Washington gave us some clear fatherly advice. While he was a Freemason and deist, he had faith in what he called “Providence” or a supreme being. Nevertheless, Washington evidently foresaw a trend towards secularism that concerned him. He knew most Americans were Christian, and he respected that. So, among his parting words to the nation was a warning that religion and morality were the real pillars of happiness that upheld our nation’s political prosperity and that to subvert them would be unpatriotic. The President argued that without religion, without that sense of religious obligations, and without an abiding notion of religious oaths, there simply could be no security for property. He also cautioned against the misguided notion that some kind of national, secular morality could be maintained without religion.
One last example: our second president, John Adams, was raised a New England Congregationalist. He, too, was taught from childhood to shun the pope and to be repulsed by Catholicism, yet as an ambassador in Catholic lands, Adams admitted to being a little fascinated by the Mass with all its pageantry, beautiful chant, and ritual. He seemed to be of two minds where Catholicism was concerned. In one diary entry, he declared priests to be knaves and the Mass to be but a bewitching spell to entrap the simple minded and the ignorant, and yet in another place, he admitted that perhaps he was being rash as there might be among Catholicism some wisdom and virtue. He was a Unitarian, that is, he didn’t believe in the Trinity. He reportedly once declared that the Catholic teaching of the Incarnation (that Jesus is God’s Son in the flesh) was “an awful blasphemy.” Nevertheless, some fifteen years after George Washington’s farewell address was penned, President John Adams also reiterated that religion and virtue were the only foundations of any free government.
Given all that we know, then, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams cannot be called good Christians, but neither should we call them bad atheists. They were men of their age, with the prejudices and intellectual trends of their peers. Still, they were men who molded our future (good and bad). And even if Christianity was “beneath them,” it was nevertheless the religion of most Americans, and these men, despite their doubts, were all influenced by Christianity and formed by it.
The “Enlightenment” gave us two revolutions. The French Revolution unleashed horrendous violence upon the world and brought with it much instability. It was viciously brutal towards the Church. The American Revolution, by contrast, had been forged in war, but it was not so self-destructive. What accounted for the difference in these two revolutions? The Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, came to this country to observe Americans, wanting to understand what made our national character and our Republic different. De Tocqueville was a Catholic. He admired the new American Republic, even as he saw its faults. He observed that Americans were religious, and in commenting in his book, Democracy in America, he wrote, “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.” He is also famous for having written these words, “America is great because she is good. If America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” That was then, but how about now?
Are we a religious people now? Short answer: not so much. If de Tocqueville could return to us, he would see that our nation has become more and more secular and amoral. Secular education is changing us generation by generation. Where Americans were once a people focused on the high ideals of political liberty, we are becoming a society increasingly fixated upon licentiousness. And while morals were once commonly agreed upon and actions seen by most as more or less black or white (holding as we did the common Biblical moral code), the less Christian our people become, the more we reject the morality embodied in those forgotten commandments, and the more the fifty shades of moral gray settle in.
Consequently our more contemporary secular mindset has a shaky foundation. Those pillars of morality and religion that President Washington mentioned in his farewell address might be all but forgotten ruins in most citizens’ minds. Our society has abandoned the old city built on a rock and has migrated to re-settle intellectually upon shifting sand. Living on the sand dunes can certainly appeal to the ever-evolving mores of a decadent society (who doesn’t like summer at the beach?), but this is no sound place to build a lasting future. And as we undermine religion and morality by our laws, we should little wonder why our citizens become liars, addicts, and brutes, or why our prisons are full to the rafters.
One of the problems with becoming more like Voltaire (more radical in our mocking dismissal of religion) is that we can lose the moral center and unleash forces beyond our control. As a consequence, we can start to look for a moral code in places where it is not, for we have to fill the void. For example, we might begin to look to the U.S. Constitution for our moral rules, and these days, having rejected the Bible and religion, not a few people are doing just that. But does a moral code exist in the Constitution?
Read it and you will see that it does not mention abortion or infanticide. Neither does it (nor the Bill of Rights) say anything about the recreational or medicinal use of cannabis, nor for that matter cannibalism, or even gay “marriage.” This is because our founding documents are about political freedoms, not moral absolutes, and those freedoms were predicated upon a shared morality that was already in place through religion when the Constitution was written. Tragically, we, as a nation, have long since lost that shared morality.
The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were conceived as a means to keep our federal government from becoming tyrannical and telling us what we should believe. Obviously, it has not been working well of late, as there has been a lot of overreach by (of all branches) the judicial branch, whose whole role it is to keep precisely these overreaches from happening. The government is getting pretty demanding lately about all the things we have to accept — or else.
As we begin our Fortnight for Freedom 2015, and as we steel our spines for future Supreme Court decisions that could have seismic consequences upon our culture and our future as a society, we need to appreciate what we have as Americans, but also what we can offer as Catholics. The civil liberties of our nation were born out of confusing times and less than ideal philosophies, but we can nevertheless see that the results have been positive for people of faith. Faith should never be imposed upon folks by force, but neither should the government regulate such that folks are forced to abandon their religion, or long-held tenets of that faith. This is tyranny – the very tyranny the patriots were opposed to from the beginning. So what happens to a people when the government turns hostile towards our Faith? And how can we resist the encroachments upon our consciences? And what happens to a nation that abandons God?