The Gift of Bethlehem and the Rise of the American Eagle, Part 2

Since 2007 Peter Johnston has periodically used the holiday season to draw attention to the remarkable overflow of cultural common good stemming from the Gift of Bethlehem two millennia ago. Drawing upon the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, join Peter as he documents the constructive contributions Christ and Christians have made particularly to economic, political, and social liberty throughout the centuries.

Yes, there was a marriage of faith and reason at our nation’s founding as addressed in my previous column and superbly documented in Michael Novak’s excellent book, On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the Founding of America.

With regard to the importance of faith would you consider James Madison, recognized as the father of the U.S. Constitution and fourth president of the United States to be authoritative?  How about Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States? Or perhaps George Washington, who was commander in chief of the revolutionary forces during the War for Independence and first president of the United States?

As Novak shares, James Madison stated:

The belief in a God All Powerful wise and good, is so essential to the moral order of the world and to the happiness of man, that arguments which enforce it cannot be drawn from too many sources nor adapted with too much solicitude to the different characters and capacities impressed with it.

Novak quotes Jefferson as stating, “And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?  That they are not violated but with his wrath?”

And then President Washington’s assessment in his Farewell Address, “ “[o]f all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

American founders also relied on reason, but not as atheists.  According to Novak, “[t]hey rejected atheism because it opposed to common sense.”  He added, “[w]ere atheism widely promulgated, most believed, everyday morals would slide into decadence, and reason would lose its steel.”

Novak adds:

Without a Judge of consciences, men would learn to rationalize away their weaknesses, and do their evil deeds in private chambers, unswayed by moral qualms.  Is not all history a witness to the seductions of disorder? First atheism, then…contempt for reason, surrender to tyranny.

It is important to note that Novak is not saying all atheists are immoral.  Some are no doubt very moral. However, as Washington aptly puts it, “[r]eason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles” (emphasis added).

Novak and his book deserve our attention as American citizens in the courtroom of public opinion, in the field of education, the media, the halls of justice, and both state and federal legislative bodies.  From his opening chapter, “Jewish Metaphysics at the Founding” through later chapters such as “A Religious Theory of Rights” his thoroughly researched writing deserves to be weighed seriously.  While some of the principles Novak addresses such as Jewish metaphysics pre-dated the birth of Christ, it is undeniable that the Gift of Bethlehem planted seeds of those principles into the Western world rising to national and international prominence with the founding of our nation.


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