Journal Watch: Faith and the American Founding

Though connoisseurs of the culture war appreciate fresh servings of the religion-versus-science staple, they may have an even greater craving for simplistic pronouncements about America's founding generation.

Thankfully, scholars have produced outstanding work in recent years on the question of early American intentions about the relationship between religion and politics. Philip Hamburger's masterful Separation of Church and State leads the way. Daniel Dreisbach, Steven D. Smith, Patricia Bonomi, Michael Novak, and many others have also contributed to the public understanding of the issue.

Christopher S. Grenda, writing in the Journal of Law and Religion (volume XXII, number 2), eschews propaganda. Grenda's article, "Religious Culture & Natural Rights: Understanding the 'Paradox' of Early America," explains that there was not necessarily a dichotomy between secular Lockean liberal thinking and devout Christianity on the matter of established churches.

He demonstrates the organic union of the two schools of thought and the complexity of early American thinking about church-state separation with two examples—British Americans Jonathan Dickinson of New Jersey and Elisha Williams of Connecticut. They combined Lockean and Christian worldviews in their cases against the American legal establishment. Further on, Grenda posits human degeneracy as an argument against state-established churches—a significant and underexplored line of thought.

Grenda's conclusion goes straight to the heart of the matter: We cannot understand the founding of America if we think of Christianity as some anti-rational appendage that rode along with Enlightenment thinking. Neither can we satisfy ourselves ...

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