on February 2, 2002
The founders emphasis on God and the practice of religion receives its just due in Michael Novak's On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding. Novak argues the founders agreed on the importance of religion. Ben Franklin represented the founders thought with the statement "...that God governs in the affairs of men." (p.42) The faith of George Washington and his reliance on prayer during the trials of the Revolutionary War is representative of the founders in the truest and noblest sense. (see pp.18-20) Novak surprised me with documentation of Hamilton's faith. The author correctly gives John Adams credit for his leadership while stressing his faith in God and belief in justice as well as the importance of liberty. The author correctly points out how the founders believed liberty was desired by God for men, but may be easily lost by men in less than a generation.
The greatest gift of many in this book is the recognition of the forgotten founders. Novak reports on one of the greatest educators of American History John Witherspoon as well as George Mason, James Wilson and Charles Carroll. The most dramatic of the forgotten founders was the story of Joseph Warren and his heroics at Bunker Hill. Warren said prior to Battle of Bunker
Hill, "You are to decide the important questions upon which rest the happiness and liberty of millions not yet born." (p.124)
This book was very well documented. The footnotes are excellent. The book would have benefited from an Index worthy of this excellent book.
on June 6, 2002
Michael Novak has written a profusely documented and succinct analysis of the influence of religion on the form and the founding of the United States government. The author writes, "On two wings the American eagle rose into the sky. On plain reason and humble faith." Discerning that American historical scholarship has greatly neglected the study of religion's influence on the form and character of our nation, Novak proceeds to answer the question "But how did the founders think of faith?" At the time of the Revolution, religion was important in American culture; the text states "During the years 1770-1776, the fires of revolution were lit by Protestant divines. . ." and continues "The very form of the Declaration was that of a traditional American prayer. . ." The author notes that the founders mentioned that faith provided at least seven contributions to the nation's founding which reason did not supply, and then he discusses each contribution.
George Washington was deeply religious. The text observes that "Washington does not call religion `optional'. The word he uses is `indispensable." As Commander of the Continental Army he "gave orders that each day begin with formal prayer, to be led by the officers of each unit." I'd hate to guess the outcome if the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff tried that one today. The text states that "The founders did not think the constitutional government they were erecting could survive without Hebrew-Christian faith." and continues on page 129 "Virtually all the signers of the Declaration and Constitution were churchgoing men."
Chapter Five is titled "TEN QUESTIONS ABOUT THE FOUNDING". The author answers and discusses ten critical questions. Question four asks, "When did things go wrong?" On page 112 Novak notes ". the traditional alliance of religion and liberty in the United States came under assault after World War II from the rejection of Judaism and Christianity by many secular liberals in the academy, the law and journalism . . . A determined effort was made to banish religion from American public life. Beginning about 1948, one Supreme Court case after another turned the judiciary (and the law schools) into aggressive enemies of religion in public life"
Novak continues "One reason the drive to secularize public life through the courts succeeded so quickly after 1945 may have been that for some decades the historians and political philosophers had already been dismissive of the powerful religious forces that had propelled the founding. They preferred a strictly agnostic view of the philosophy of natural rights." However, on page 114, Novak asserts that "The purpose of the founders was far removed from wishing to ban religion from public life altogether; it was almost the opposite."
There were founding fathers other than Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison. An excellent and very useful Appendix discusses several almost forgotten founders such as George Mason, Rufus King, Benjamin Rush, James Wilson. Alexander Hamilton, etc. and to a degree John Adams has been forgotten. On page 147, the text declares that "Jefferson supplied the words of the Declaration, but Adams begat the deed." The book, rightly, gives much credit to John Adams for his faith-based leadership and contributions in stressing justice and freedom for all.
Today with the media's influence plus countless court decisions and lawsuits concerning religion and the nation, it is difficult to realize that religion had any influence on the founding of the United States. However, some readers may be surprised to read that "In his days as president, the largest church service in the United States took place every Sunday in the Capitol Building and Thomas Jefferson thought it his duty to attend." The text states that while Jefferson didn't "believe a word in it", " he strenuously affirmed that "the Christian religion is necessary for a republic." Novak further recalls that ". . . on a day of great crisis at the Constitutional Convention, when the two sides almost walked out on each other, it was Franklin - the supposed Deist - who moved that the Convention stop for a day of prayer to Divine Providence, for guidance through the impasse."
The author notes ". experience shows that republics need virtue, and that virtue needs religion. . ." and closes the book stating "That it has historically been the habit of republics to sink into moral decay - that, too - was a constant theme of the founders." While the influence of religion on public life today may be limited or nonexistent, Michael Novak's book clearly documents and illustrates that religion had a great influence on the founding of the United States.
For those interested in the Declaration, the Constitution and the forming of the nation, this book is a must read.
on January 21, 2002
This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what was in the hearts and minds of America's founders. Read John Adams, yes. Read Founding Brothers, yes. But don't think that you have the whole story until you read Michael Novak. He shows that our Founders were not a bunch of deists and pantheists; that they had no notion of establishing walls between their government and their God. They were profoundly and traditionally religious men whose passion for justice flowed out of the depths of their faith. This is a classic book that shows the role of faith at our founding and restores our Founders'identity as men of God first and men of the Enlightenment secondly.
on April 20, 2002
Now in its third printing in four months, this is one of my favorites among all my books, and I dare to think it is one of the more important among them. For it deals with an utterly fundamental matter: How to interpret the American founding. And it presents an immense amount of evidence which shows, at least, that many commonly accepted views today are insupportable in historical fact. My works often fly in the face of conventional wisdom, so I have become accustomed to nasty reviews over the years. In this case, the reviews so far--First Things, National Review, The Wall Street Journal, and The Commonweal in particular--have been uncommonly good. For which I am grateful. I'm also grateful to Brian Lamb for putting the book on "Book Notes," and many kind radio personalities for doing the same. I'm trying to get accustomed to so many good notices. It will be time to go back to being annoying, soon enough. -- Michael Novak
on December 10, 2002
One-winged birds can't fly. That's why Michael Novak, the author of "On Two Wings," asserts that the history of the United States has been taught incorrectly for the past 100 years. The American Republic took flight on two healthy wings, one called Faith and the other called Reason. American history, as taught now in our schools, would have students believe our Founders set flight with one wing only: Reason.
Novak, the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy and Director of Social and Political Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, makes a strong case for both wings working together. But today the wing of Faith is the one too severely clipped to work as it should.
For instance, most people today believe that the Enlightenment was more critical to the American Founders than the Old Testament. The historical record shows that it was the Old Testament that was far more important than the Enlightenment.
That's because the Founders held a "Hebrew metaphysic," which included the concepts of time having a beginning and an end, and of final judgment in the hereafter for human actions in this life. The Founders agreed with the Hebrews, that time is linear, not cyclical, as the ancient pagans believed. And the Declaration refers to God as "the Supreme Judge of the world."
This "metaphysic" - a mix of theology and philosophy - gave the Founders a wonderful nomenclature in which to express political ideas. The Founders wisely shunned specific theological terms, such as Savior, Trinity, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and used instead the imagery of the Old Testament. In this way, they charted a course for common ground. This book should be required reading in college political science programs.
on April 29, 2002
Michael Novak's book is one of the most concise and still thorough treatment of the issue of religion and the Founding. A look, not just at obvious conservative figures such as Washington and Adams, but also of the religious ideas of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton (in other words, not the typical people you think of associated with the ideas of God and Government). One complaint: NO INDEX!!! The font also could be more readable, it looks like bold Times New Roman. But no complaints on the manuscript. Perfect.
on July 21, 2002
Citizens who have been led to believe that the Founding Fathers intended to establish a republic free from religion need to read this book and the cited sources. From Jefferson to the Presbyterian minister Witherspoon (who was president of Princeton), all believed that religon and the unfettered public worship of God was vital to a free and moral society. Read this book and learn what the men who fashioned our form of goverment really believed. It's not what the revisionists would have us think.
In a word, BRILLIANT!!!! We seem to be surrounded today by people who have wrongly interpreted the intentions of the nation's founders regarding religion. Novak decisively eradicates the false theories being pushed on our society, even by our own judicial system. Novak superbly presents the case that the founders intent was not to eradicate religious belief, but rather to avoid divisions of religious sentiment and find common ground among the Hebrew and Christian faiths.
When examining the founders, many fail to recognize what life was like under the Anglican Establishment, which the founders sought to end. While being against the national establishment of a secular religion, the founder's went so far as to support the state establishment of such.
While the first half of the book examines the intent of the founders, the second half takes a look at some of the founders who have been often overlooked by historians for their religious views.
Overall, this book is clear and accurate. I was thoroughly impressed by the authors' research. The book reads extremely well. I only had two complaints about the book, I wished it were another thousand pages, as I absolutely did not want this book to end, and the font size was a little small, making it difficult for us old codgers.
This is a book I will keep on the bookshelf by my desk, as I am sure I will reference this magnificent work often. I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone interested in learning the true intent behind the separation of church and state.
on January 27, 2015
Hmm..... a little too opinionated. A lot of it was interesting, and even true, but it was clearly biased. I would have liked to see more facts and context to support the claims, a lot of which I know to be true, however I think it could have been better presented. Some things I didn't know the facts on I was left wondering because I wasn't presented more than one side of the picture.
on November 3, 2009
Michael Novak's On Two Wings sets out to correct the way the story of the American founding has been told in recent times. Although both reason and religious faith were essential wings to the American founding, the recounting of the story has cut off faith from the founding, focusing only on the secular philosophy of the Enlightenment in explaining the story. Michael Novak, bringing to the reader dozens of firsthand accounts of the writings of the founders, sets out to prove that the founders believed that they were acting on a religious duty in establishing a new model of self-government.
Novak provides the reader with an arsenal of quotes and writings of the founders to support his thesis. George Washington, for example, after escaping what many believed would be a catastrophic battle in August of 1776 against the Royal Army in Long Island, wrote to Samuel Langdon that "The man must be bad indeed who can look upon the events of the American Revolution without feeling the warmest gratitude towards the great Author of the Universe whose divine interposition was frequently manifested in our behalf" (p. 191). Of the 3,154 citations in the writings of the founders, "nearly 1,100 references (34 percent) are to the Bible" (p. 6). Invocations of the name of God and prayers of thanksgiving to Him are frequent among the founders. Considering the fact that the first act of the Continental Congress was an act of public prayer and that the Declaration of Independence invokes God four times--as Lawgiver, Creator, Judge, and Providence--Novak concludes that "what the founding generation did cannot be explained by the Enlightenment alone" (p. 24).
The other wing of the American founding--common sense--enabled the founders to reason plainly and to reflect soberly on the conditions of man. This common sense went hand in hand with religious faith. Even Tom Paine, the author of Common Sense, was so opposed to atheism that he sailed to France to fight against it after 1789. Virtually all the founders believed not in a watered down form of religion, but rather, held religious faith in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Judaism and Christianity "reinforced in men's minds the role of reason in human affairs, as well as the idea of a cosmos open to liberty" (p. 46).
Interestingly, Novak describes John Locke as one of the most influential political thinkers in inspiring the founders. Of the political theorists who were cited in the writings of the founders, only Montesquieu and Blackstone eclipsed Locke: "In a total of 3,154 citation, Montesquieu was cited most (8.3 percent), followed closely by Blackstone (7.9 percent), third Locke (2.9)" (p. 183). Novak writes "if any in the founding generation felt incompatibility between Locke and the Protestant tradition (as many writers do today), they did not mention it; and many preachers and writers cited both Locke and the Bible in the same paragraph" (p. 6).
Novak follows his study with an appendix providing summaries of the many signers of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution such as Robert Sherman, Benjamin Rush, and George Mason, who, though they are not as well-known as Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, or some of the more "secular" of the founders, were important leaders in their generations and held strong religious beliefs. He recounts, for example, Alexander Hamilton's "tender requests that the Holy Eucharist might be brought to him on his death bed" (p. 150).
The book is generally effective at dissipating the myths on the secular nature of America's founding. Yet Novak's statements are not always supported by the evidence he provides. He writes, for example, that "Virtually all the founders of the American Republic believed mightily that of all philosophies and religions, the Jewish and Christian religion is the best foundation for republican institutions" (p. 33). He then quotes James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and other founders, yet the quotes offered do not even mention Judaism or Christianity or their importance to the founders. For example, Jefferson wrote: "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?" (p. 33). The "God" that Jefferson refers to is not necessarily the God the Christian faith, but rather, may be the God of any religious faith that upholds the supernatural.