Teeth kicked in.
“Why do reason, logic and truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way America now makes important decisions?” Al Gore poses this central question in his new book Assault on Reason, released this week. “Faith in the power of reason – the belief that free citizens can govern themselves wisely and fairly – this premise is now under assault,” writes Gore. Agreed. Yet reason is being battered only because it’s been stripped of its bodyguard. The Constitutional Convention, which convened in Philadelphia 220 years ago on this day, warned against this happening. They knew that reason requires a bulked up bodyguard or its teeth get kicked in.
The delegates that assembled on May 25, 1787 recognized that proper reason requires properly reasonable people – what we used to call virtuous folks. Virtue, according to the framers, could only be instilled and guarded by religion. The framers believed if there is no virtue, neither the law nor Constitution can sustain freedom and reasonable behavior. “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom,” wrote Benjamin Franklin. Couple this with John Adams’ warning: “We have no government armed with powers capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net.” The framers were unabashed in their view that virtue requires religion. Franklin spoke for many of the framers when he wrote, “If men are so wicked as we now see them with religion, what would they be without it?”1
This doesn’t mean that the framers were all people of orthodox Christian faith. They were not. Yet without exception they believed that religion was essential to virtue. In George Washington’s words, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”
The founders’ wisdom echoes that of the early church father St. Augustine (AD354-430). He is perhaps best known for his famous credo ut intelligam (I believe in order to know). Augustine taught that everything we know requires an element of faith. Those of us who have our retirement parked in a 401k don’t have 100% certainty that the money is actually there. We trust pension fund managers and accountants. That’s faith. It’s supposed to be good faith grounded in good reason.
This is why Augustine believed faith and reason are all of one fabric. Faith led to reason, but reason was indispensable to faith: “Heaven forbid that God should hate in us that by which he made us superior to the animals! Heaven forbid that we should believe in such a way as not to accept or seek reasons, since we could not even believe if we did not possess rational souls.” The ancient church argued for faithful reason and a reasoned faith. So did founding fathers such as James Madison (in his Memorial and Remonstrance), who argued that religion “can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” Only a freely chosen, disestablished faith can ground the virtue that guarantees freedom. Religion serves a vital role as reason’s bodyguard.
When Michael Novak addressed the Library of Congress in 1998, he was asked, “Can an atheist be a good American?” His answer was, “Yes. That has been done many times. But,” he continued, “can American liberties survive if most of our nation is atheist? The most common, almost universal judgment of the Founders was that it could not.” Our freedoms require reason exercised by reasonable people whose virtue is grounded in and guarded by faith.
The atheist Friedrich Nietzsche once observed that no reasonable person should rejoice in the death of God. He was certain that with the death of God arrives the death of reason. Welcome, Al Gore, to the last one hundred and twenty years (better late than never). While Gore laments our loss of confidence in reason, he fails to mention the relationship between reason and religion. Nietzsche understood that reason, stripped of the moral compass of religion, would yield such despots as Hitler, Mao and Stalin, who were enormously persuasive in their reasoning. Gore is half right. There is an increasing assault on reason, yet left unprotected by religion, what were we expecting?
1 C.f. “The Great Experiment,” a publication of The Trinity Forum (www.ttf.org), P.O. Box 9464, McLean, Virginia 22102-0464.