Humanism and The Tradition of Dissent

The point of these observations is to stress the intimate interplay of the two sources of contemporary democratic humanism, especially as it exists in the United States. Our understanding of the nature and social function of the humanist philosophy must remain incomplete – and handicap us for pursuit of our historical task – if we devalue either side of the dual history that generated our movement and sustains its intellectual and ethical mission.

The authors of the constitutional separation of church and state, principally Jefferson and Madison, but including Mason and others, were able to succeed only because of the existence of a fortunate alliance in favor of disestablishment; a coalition of Enlightenment rationalists of the upper class deistic type (including a number of the Founding Fathers) and a grassroots movement of evangelical separatists, especially frontier Baptists and Presbyterians (the ministers of the latter wavering for a time in Virginia, but finallycoming down – indeference to lay opinion – on the side of Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance of 1785), with the successful examples of Pennsylvania and Rhode Island to guide them, as I have recounted elsewhere. (See, American Freedom and the Radical Right, 1982, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.; and my forthcoming book, America. The Dream Never Dies, also to be published by Ungar.)

Jefferson and Madison both furnish superb biographical examples of the Enlightenment character, combining the moral passion and love of mental liberty embodied in the Anglo-American tradition of spiritual independence with the urbane pleasure in the free play of ideas that expressed the best of Renaissance humanism and the rise of modern science. In them, the Whig love of individual liberty – heir to so much of the Lollard and Roundhead experience – found a perfect flowering. Deism and reason (as they conceived it) formed a bridge by which they crossed from the supernatural worldview of the ancestral Christianity to the essentially secularized outlook of the Enlightenment. It was the watershed between two contrasting realms, and in that respect, the deists were architects of the contemporary world, as even the most progressive of the separatists could never be (except by imbibing generous drafts of deistic rationalism under the mask of theological symbol and language).

The effect of the watershed is apparent when we contrast the concept of unqualified religious freedom as put forth by Jefferson and Madison with the outer boundaries of Christian tolerance or soul liberty as allowed by even such noble examples of Christian freedom as Roger Williams, the Calverts of Maryland, and William Penn. With them, the stream of tolerance was broad and placid, but necessarily confined within the embankments of theistic fidelity. A loyalty oath to God lurked behind every grant of religious tolerance; and while the Quaker Penn may not have approved of oaths, a profession of faith in God was nevertheless required of those receiving toleration under Penn’s frame of government. Even the great John Locke, who had advised his admirer Penn on his proposed constitution, remained orthodox on the essential point of insisting that faith in God is necessary for good citizenship. But Locke’s bolder disciples, beginning with Shaftesbury, cut loose from this stricture, and while Shaftesbury and the non-Christian deists who followed in his footsteps professed to believe in an intelligence behind nature, for them, obedience to the divine mandate was not a matter of faith or profession of belief. Deistic piety consisted of humility before the facts of nature respect for truth in the everyday meaning of truth. This meant free inquiry, honest observation of nature and nature’s laws, and respect for the dictates of reason. Jefferson, who had read and admired Shaftesbury from his youth, could argue from such premises that it makes no difference whether my neighbor believes in twenty gods or no god. The honest atheist may be an exemplary citizen, but the religious bigot can never be. We can know nothing about the nature of the Creator; deity remains “undefinable,” except for the attributes of perfection and benevolence which we find – so Jefferson believed – manifest in the order of nature. Morality too is built within our natures, so that an uneducated gardener may be, and often is, a more principled person than a skilled logician.