The Evangelization Station
Pray for Pope Francis
Scroll down for topics
We Hold These Truths and More: Further Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition
When we put aside historicism and all the modern relativisms that rob the events of our national past of their proper character, only then can we begin to understand that practically everyone in the country in 1776, except for a decided minority of men like Jefferson and Thomas Paine who mocked revealed religion, understood.
When Ralph Waldo Emerson was visiting England in 1848 the American poet tells us in his book, English Traits, he was asked by Thomas Carlyle and other friends “whether there were any Americans? — any with an American idea — any theory of the right future of that country?” 
Englishmen, Frenchmen, Italians, it has been said, do not feel compelled to explain what their countries are all about — what John Courtney Murray would call their national “Proposition.” But they do expect a self-justification of America; and on that summer day in 1848 Emerson felt compelled to give one to Carlyle and his circle of brilliant friends. Other thoughtful Americans do too; and this has never been more the case than today when the United States has become for millions and millions of people simply a place to live and pay taxes.
One can hardly imagine an Emerson or a Carlyle discussing the “American idea” and the “right future” of the United States in the world of the late twentieth century; or even men with the remarkable personalities of an Emerson or a Carlyle. The Hegelian God-state or better, God-society has triumphed. State and society exist for themselves, not for God and man, giving man — in Hegelian terms — whatever “worth” or “spiritual reality” he possesses. 
There is no moral law, universal and immutable, no Emersonian conscience to guide man. Instead, as the founder of American legal pragmatism and Hegelian, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. decreed, there is only the morality of the community, what Will Herberg was later to call the democratic religion of “the American Way” of life.
What Murray and others feared, the complete “loss of identity “ seems have taken place. American national existence has become an end itself, its own absolute. No longer can America claim with the Pilgrims and the countless millions who have lived here to be the New Israel, knowing only one Absolute, one God. 
But in 1776, when Emerson's grandfather was a Congregationalist minister and zealous patriot in Concord, the whole Revolutionary generation was asking itself Thomas Carlyle's question of “whether there were any Americans? — any with an American idea — any theory of the right future of the country?”
What was the “American idea” in 1776? Or, to use the language of John Courtney Murray almost two centuries later, “What were the truths Americans held at the founding of the nation?” . What was and is the “American Proposition?” What is the real patrimony of the American Revolution? When we put aside historicism and all the modern relativisms that rob the events of our national past of their proper character, only then can we begin to understand the meaning of America in 1776 — and today. This may be “the most difficult thing in the world,” as Hilaire Belloc cautions us, but we must try to see events as contemporaries saw them, otherwise the past will be distorted beyond all recognition, as is pretty much the case already in our textbooks. “Anybody can make history,” said Oscar Wilde, “only a great man can write it.”
Father John Courtney Murray's We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, appeared in the year the first Catholic, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was elected President of the United States.  This fact, whatever else is said, makes Murray's collection of thirteen previously published occasional essays a rewarding study in political and religious sociology. Moreover, there is a polemical dimension to his writing, and this should be taken into account in any evaluation of the book.
But the question I should like to address as a historian is much simpler. It is the question about the “American idea,” i.e., the question about what conception the American people had at the Founding that, in Murray's words, “constituted us a people organized for action in history.”  My comments will have to be brief and somewhat impressionistic, given the limitations of space. But it is my hope that they will reflect many years of study in the field of the American Revolution and have heuristic value for other students.
The contents of the public consensus at the time of the American Founding, writes Murray, were the `principles and doctrines” of “Western constitutionalism, classic and Christian.”  These truths are. our patrimony, and their vitality can be preserved in the public mind only by argument. “In the public argument there must consequently be a continued recurrence to first principles,” he goes on. “Otherwise the consensus may come to seem simply a projection of ephemeral experience, a passing shadow on the vanishing backdrop of some given historical scene, without the permanence proper to truths that are 'held.'” 
That the principles and doctrines of Western constitutionalism, as seen in the Declaration of Independence and the federal and state constitutions, and a public philosophy resting on a realist epistemology inspired the American Founding cannot be doubted. And perhaps Murray was right to think in the days before Roe v. Wade that the Catholic Church could best contribute to public ethical discourse in an increasingly de-Christianized society by appealing to philosophy alone, rather than to faith, reason, and the ancient pre-Reformation fullness of the Church's tradition. 
But it is also true, as John A. Coleman, S.J., notably has suggested, that Murray, by not including religious symbolism and biblical imagery, and arguing only from the tradition of reason in his discussion of the American Proposition, has exaggerated the influence of liberal public philosophy and individualism in the creation of the American nation.  The fact is, to take Coleman's point further, that the Christian faith, religious symbolism and theological discourse of the Revolutionary generation have not only been neglected by the author of We Hold These Truths , even though he was-after all-a theologian. American historians of the 18th century, who should know better, continue even today to impose their own highly secularized, reductionist categories of understanding on the rich American past. 
Having made these preliminary observations, that the Murray thesis errs in reading too much into the public philosophy of the Founding generation and leaving out altogether the public theology, I will use the time that remains to suggest the importance of the latter in the shaping of the “American idea.” But in all this we should keep in mind that Murray's argument, that America needs a public philosophy based on natural law, does not stand or fall with his interpretation of the Founding Fathers. 
It is anachronistic to think, as Murray seems to do, that the founding generation did not believe that government must submit to divine positive law. Here the author confuses the Enlightenment minimalistic natural law views of Thomas Jefferson and a relatively small group of Founders with the consensus of the overwhelming majority of the American people in 1776 and 1789 that the state indeed has an obligation to worship God or perish. The Declaration of Independence and the Federal Constitution, as well as the state constitutions, however they may be celebrated and interpreted in liberal historiography today, were seen at the time as having meaning only within the much larger “oral constitution” of what was a Christian culture-not an Enlightenment culture.  These charters, important as they were, were never intended to be made into absolutes. The Declaration Independence, for example, was seldom invoked at the Constitutional Convention, in the pages of the Federalist Papers, or by delegates to the ratifying conventions.  The point is, that for practically everyone in that generation, it was their Christian culture that endowed documents with meaning.
Dr. Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) of Philadelphia signed the Declaration of Independence, but his understanding of its meaning as an evangelical Protestant was very different from that of his secular minded friend, Thomas Jefferson. The “unalienable Rights” of the Declaration, Rush believed with many, many other Americans, were bestowed on man not immediately by some abstraction called nature in the Jeffersonian and Lockean sense, but directly and immediately by the living God. This was no dogmatic individualism! “Self-existence” he protested against the eighteenth century spirit of presumption that would culminate in the French Revolution, “belongs only to God.” The 'language” of American independence, Rush wrote in 1783 to his English Quaker friend, Granville Sharp, has for many years appeared to me to be the same as that of the heavenly host that announced the birth of the Saviour of mankind. It proclaims “glory to God in the highest — on earth peace — good will to man.” 
How foolish it was, how presumptuous it was, to think that some autonomous Jeffersonian man had brought this about, relying only on natural reason! Fulton J. Sheen was much closer to the truth about the meaning of the Declaration of Independence to the American people at the nation's Founding. While no friend of Catholicism, such as he understood it, Dr. Rush would have agreed with the Bishop's characterization of the Declaration of Independence as also a Declaration of Dependence. “The Declaration of Independence” Sheen had the historical insight to realize, “asserts a double dependence: dependence on God, and dependence on law as derived from God...
Read the Declaration of Independence and there find the answer: [I might add to the nature of the “American idea”] “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Notice these words: The Creator has endowed men with rights and liberties; men got them from God! In other words, we are dependent on God, and that initial dependence is the foundation of our independence. 
Everyone in the country in 1776, except for a decided minority of men like Jefferson and Thomas Paine who mocked revealed religion, understood the Declaration and the constitution of the United States, including the Federal charter, in this way. Rush believed that the hand of God was to be seen in the Federal Constitution, as much as it had been in His dividing the Red Sea to give a passage to the children of Israel.  The divine character of the new government of the United States was professed from a thousand pulpits, and one did not have to look far to see this confirmed in newspapers and magazines.
M.E. Bradford has shown that, out of the fifty-five men who signed the proposed Federal Constitution in 1787, no fewer than fifty were members of established Christian communions. Nearly thirty of them were not just active, hut extremely active in the administration and growth of their churches.  Benjamin Franklin proclaimed himself a deist, but he was no Thomas Paine, and the good Doctor urged public prayer at the Philadelphia Convention, attended religious services and was generous in contributing to the many churches in the City. “If men are so wicked as we now see them with religion,” he told a would be author, probably Paine, who was attacking organized religion, “what would they be if without it?” “Talking against religion is unchaining a tiger,” Dr. Franklin liked to say, “the beast let loose may worry his deliverer.”  Even “deists,” a very imprecise term in any case that has been much over-used, generally accepted traditional Christian meta physics and epistemology in a pre-Kantian American culture.
Except for the few Catholics — perhaps as many as 20,000 out of a Population of less than 5,000,000 — Americans were not men of the ancient Faith. But there was still in eighteenth century America much that was left of the historic reality of Christian culture.  Antinomianism, with its Hutchinsonian theology of continuous revelation, was ever threatening; yet it was still held in check, as Alexis de Tocqueville was later to point out, by public opinion.  The social way of life, to use Christopher Dawson's standard for a Christian culture, was still largely based on the Christian faith.  Most Americans, fragmented as were in their sectarianism, possessed even in schism that “rich and vivid vision of reality” which is the hallmark of Christian culture.  The American Proposition,” I have been arguing right along, simply cannot be understood in its integrity without that Christian vision of reality. The social and political symbols of the American Founding took their meaning from it.
The swelling numbers of the bourgeoisie, with their `stale and superficial” world-view, had not yet succeeded completely in separating faith and reason, religion and culture.  When that happened, it was Thomas Jefferson's American Revolution that became normative- not Benjamin Rush's. What John Henry Newman called the “goodly framework of society which is the creating of Christianity” was still in place in the period of the nation's Founding.  Religion was the “bond of society,” and real law of the land, not, what was often ridiculed as `parchment” constitutionalism. Tocqueville was right to say, and many years had passed from the creating of the Republic when he said it, that the Christian religion was “the foremost of the political institutions of the United States (my italics).  The “conscious moral effort” of American society in 1776 and 1789 was, in any case, largely inspired by Christian ideas and directed to Christian ends,” to borrow be words of Christopher Dawson in his description of Christian England. As in that country, secular Liberalism was soon to triumph, with its principle of utility. 
In 1776, though, Dr. Benjamin Rush was representative of the great majority of Americans in giving explicit Christian and biblical meaning to the Declaration of Independence and all the other national and state charters that were to follow. They were covenants, having a solemn religious character as among the ancient Hebrews, no mere secular contracts or Lockean compacts. Their model, whether consciously realized or not, was that of the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620 applying ideas of church government to civil government. Only the Anglicans to some extent, were exempted from what Perry Miller has called the “Federal or Covenant Theology,” the American people's intense awareness of their being “a chosen race, entered into specific covenant with God, by the terms of which they would be proportionately punished for their sins.”  The symbols of the covenant an jeremiad,” that popular recital of the Chosen People's sins, were what mattered. Even “British liberties” and the social and political philosophy of John Locke made sense only within this Gestalt. 
Liberal as well as pietist Calvinists hailed the Continental Congress' appeal to the states to encourage “true religion and good morals.”  On June 12, 1775 the Congress recommended to the states that July 20 be set aside as “a day of public humiliation, fasting, and prayer.”
...that we may with united hearts and voices unfeignedly confess and deplore our many sins, and offer up our joint supplications to the all-wise, omnipotent, and merciful Disposer of all events: humbly beseeching Him to forgive our iniquities, to remove our present calamities, to avert those desolating judgments with which we are threatened... 
No less than three times during the war Congress declared Fast Days for prayers and contrition.  Only a crude Marxist could dismiss this as a clever manipulation of the Christian belief system. 
Clearly, something other than Jefferson's “cold philosophy” of the Enlightenment was involved here. Benjamin Rush's public theology, if you will, was shared to a large degree by the American people at large, who sought “to discover and communicate the socially significant meanings of Christian symbols and tradition.”  Their doctrine of man, for example, derived not from Enlightenment rationalism but from the biblical sources of the Great Awakening and the older Aristotelian-Thomist tradition of the West. 
Man for Rush and most of his Revolutionary generation was made for God in the Hebrew and Augustinian sense that, without Him, the human person was incomplete and even deformed. Consciously or not, Christ for them was the ideal man on whom they must model themselves. In Rush's view, the American Revolution was to be the historic opportunity for regenerated men, men like himself of “new heart” and “new spirit,” to found the New Jerusalem here in America, as Jonathan Edwards and other holy men of the Great Awakening had prophesied. 
There was no “right to life” in the Lockean and Jeffersonian manner of speaking, nor were there autonomous rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Christ was the “`life of the world,' `the prince of life,'and `Life' Itself, in the New Testament,” Rush wrote in his Three lectures Upon Animal Life.  Man did not exist in himself: he was a relation to God. Rush, while more articulate in his political anthropol ogy than millions of his compatriots, was like them in still thinking man as made in the Image and Likeness of God, absolutely dependent upon His life- breath, and subject to His government. 
Jefferson, on the other hand, as a Modern thinker according to the classic definition of Romano Guardini, was untypical of Americans at the time in his ancient Greek and Renaissance understanding of man in the abstract.  This presumptuous way of thinking about man as an absolute would find its bloody climax in the French Revolution which, as Ross J. S. Hoffman so very well points out, must not be confused with the conservative American Revolution.  Jefferson's philosophical friend, English-born Tom Paine, may have written the Age of Reason: Benjamin Rush's in-law and president of the Continental Congress, Elias Boudinot, answered Paine and other deists with his The Age of Revelation.  This is important to know.
As for the “right to liberty,” this too was to be understood according to the ultimate, religious norm of the society. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3). Central to this political anthropology was the biblical love of God and one's fellow man as the absolute criterion of all human life. The Jeffersonian language of the Declaration was understood by most Americans in the Judeo-Christian context of man's recognition of his dependence on God, rather than the Enlightenment's of making man “a limited god in opposition to God — a rebellion he could not accomplish if he were not free, or if there were no God.” 
We cannot address here the serious problem of reconciling this “freedom,” indispensable to democracy, with orthodox Calvinism — a problem that Isaac Hecker saw very clearly in the next century. 
Rush found his solution in the doctrine of Universalism.  The great majority of Americans never seem to have confronted the problem, or avoided it altogether by embracing Arminianism as a substitute for the Catholic doctrine of free will.
I have discussed Rush's political and social theology at length elsewhere, a theology in which the new republican government and progressive evangelization of America would lead to the restoration of all things in Christ and the millennial reign of Love Himself.  Jonathan Edwards and the other Great Awakeners had also called off a new Christendom in the land to be established by re-born men who made up the “Party of Christ.”  The Christian ethos of love, declared one prominent evangelical minister in 1784, in the Great Awakening tradition, would soon create “ONE GREAT REPUBLIC,” with “ONE HEART AND ONE LIFE.”  Alan Heimert in his encyclopedic Religion and the American Mind: From the Great Awakening to the Revolution (1966), has demonstrated just how widespread these views were among evangelical nationalists. 
Indeed, Rush harkened back to seventeenth century Puritanism in describing himself at the end of the century as not a Republican or a Federalist but a “Christocrat,” a latter-day Fifth Monarchyman who believed that the Holy Community, with Christ as its Head, would soon he realized in America.  Any number of articles in contemporary magazines and newspapers like the American Museum and the Pennsylvania Packet, written by both ministers and laymen, reveal how strong millennialism was vis-a-vis Enlightenment rationalism and naturalism. Even as late as 1831, Tocqueville saw that the pulpit was the “most powerful single force in America for the creation and control of public opinion,”  and there is a whole literature of travel accounts by Europeans that supports this. Americans interpreted events, political and otherwise, in the biblical images, language, and style of their seventeenth century forefathers. The ultimate norms of American society remained moral and religious, but the trend to secularization was growing fast. Politics and economics were not yet autonomous.
Writing of the “translation of the conception of the Holy Community from an ecclesiastical ideal to a principle of revolutionary political action” during the Cromwellian Commonwealth, Christopher Dawson argued that Puritanism's religious impulse opened the way for a new type of civilization based on the freedom of the person and of conscience as rights conferred absolutely by God and Nature. The connection is seen most clearly in America where the Congregationalist Calvinism of New England which was a parallel development to the Independent Puritanism of England, developing from the same roots in a different environment, leads on directly to the assertion of the Rights of Man in the constitutions of the North American States and to the rise of political democracy. 
It was this” new type of civilization,” republican and constitutional, that Orestes Brownson had enthusiastically pronounced compatible with Catholicism. 
The Enlightenment, Murray and liberal historiography notwithstanding, was not as important as Christianity in the founding of the American nation. At least three-quarters of the American people at the time of the Revolution came from Puritan families.  And, as Christopher Dawson early pointed out, Calvinism, like Catholicism and unlike Lutheranism, asserted that the state must be under the spiritual power.  Americans accepted Calvin's view of church-state relations in 1776 and 1789; consistently following his and traditional teaching that natural law and moral law were one and the same, and that together they constituted the norm revealed by mankind's reason and conscience. This was the norm to which men and governments must conform.  As one New England minister put it, “Christ confirms the law of nature.” 
In a true sense, the American Revolution was justified more in terms of public theology than Enlightenment philosophy. Eighteenth century Americans held many truths, not just the few mentioned by name in the Declaration of Independence and the other founding charters. The Declaration itself says this, otherwise many men probably would not have signed it. “We hold these Truths to be self-evident” [“sacred,” Jefferson wrote in the original draft], that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness [my italics]. 
The Truths and Rights, natural and supernatural that Americans held at the time were too numerous to be listed in any document; moreover, it would have been thought absurd even to try.
It was unnecessary to put in writing, nor could it be done, the Truths and Rights that had created Western civilization itself and continued to inspire Christians and Jews. The ultimate Truth of Eighteenth century American society, cherished above all other Truths and Rights, was the Truth of Christianity. And the ultimate Right, which included all others, was the Right to be a Christian, with all that entailed to Protestant Christians, separated from Rome but the Church's wards all the same. This is the patrimony that Father Murray, with all good intentions, has minimized. This is the history of the American Founding that we must reclaim. For, surely, the American people believed at the creation of the Republic, as they had always believed, that the loss of God was the beginning of tyranny.
If we must search for the meaning of the “American Proposition” it is here, in the Christian origins of the American nation. The American Founding was a prophetic and messianic movement, drawing from the depths of the Christian experience of God, as well as a “Proposition.” These are the Truths we hold. It is here that our true identity as a nation lies.
D'Elia, Donald. “We Hold These Truths and More: Further Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition” Chap. 5 in We Hold These Truths and More: Further Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition The Thought of Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J. and its Relevance Today. 62-76. Steubenville, OH: Franciscan University Press, 1993.
Published by permission of Franciscan University Press. To order books from Franciscan University Press call 1-800-783-6357
Donald J. D'Elia is Professor of History at the State University of New York at New Paltz. His book, The Spirits of '76: A Catholic Inquiry, is an appraisal of the Founding Fathers of the U.S. from the perspective of Catholic thought. Don D'Elia is Co-Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists and a member of the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.
Copyright © 1993 Franciscan University Press