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MORAL MINORITY by Brooke Allen


Our Skeptical Founding Fathers

by Brooke Allen

Pub Date: Sept. 15th, 2006
ISBN: 1-56663-675-2
Publisher: Ivan Dee/Rowman & Littlefield

As men of the Enlightenment, the Founding Fathers were not conventionally religious; they did not want the United States to be a “Christian nation.”

Allen, a journalist and literary critic (Artistic License: Three Centuries of Good Writing and Bad Behavior, 2004), has academic credentials (Ph.D., Columbia Univ.) and employs them vigorously in her analysis of the religious experiences and beliefs of six American icons: Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton. Not one of them, she argues, was a devout Christian, and Franklin and Jefferson, in fact, were agnostic. All of them struggled to keep religion out of public discourse and to prevent religious beliefs from becoming a qualification for public service. (She notes that no national politician today would dare declare himself or herself anything other than a pious Christian or, in a few cases, Jew.) Allen offers a counter to Michael Novak and Jana Novak’s Washington’s God (Mar. 2006), which argues that Washington, though publicly reticent about religion, was privately pious. No way, she says. She notes that the framers of the Constitution included no references to God or Jesus in that document. Allen chides Hamilton for being the first to encourage candidates to play upon the religious biases of voters. Her penultimate chapter deals with religion in American since 1787, and she ends with a primer in 18th-century history. In it, Allen explains latitudinarianism, Unitarianism and Deism and provides snapshots of the intellectual founding fathers of the Enlightenment—Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, et al. She worries today about a retreat from Reason. Allen’s style can be off-putting. She elected to use the Fathers’ own words to buttress the walls of her argument, but she quotes so often—and at such length—that her voice sometimes disappears; lithic chunks of others’ prose impede the pleasant flow of her style.

Because the author blasts George W. Bush and others who, in her view, wish to introduce more religion into government, Allen’s work—substantial and scholarly as it is—will appeal principally to those with more moderate or liberal religious and political views.