In The Ideas That Made America, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen provides a brief intellectual history of the United States from the first European contact to the present day, focusing on the movement of ideas across national and local borders and across time. Recognizing that new ideas are always dependent on the intellectual work of those who came before, Rosenhagen includes many of the European ideas that had a major impact on American intellectual life.
To summarize centuries of intellectual work in a short book of 180 pages is no easy task, but Rosenhagen does a reasonable job of presenting the major intellectual currents of each period. It’s well worth reading to get a high-level view of where our current ideas and conflicts originated.
While I won’t attempt a full summary of the book, I will comment on two overarching themes that I think tie everything together: 1) America’s resistance to authoritarianism (both political and intellectual), and 2) America’s secular foundation.
1. America’s resistance to authoritarianism
Throughout its history, America has had to resist several authoritarian forces and temptations to remain a democratic republic. This starts with George Washington, who could have easily instituted a monarchy with himself as king had he not willfully abdicated his power after the Revolutionary War. Even King George III said that Washington “would be the greatest man in the world” if he voluntarily relinquished his power, not believing that he would actually do it. Yet this is exactly what he did.
Next came the threat of theocracy, during the Great Awakenings and beyond, from religious leaders who wanted to breach the wall of separation between church and state. And of course, there was the threat of fascism and communism during the desperate times of the Great Depression.
Yet throughout all the trials and temptations, America has remained—remarkably so—a democratic republic, stubbornly resistant to the dogmatic religious and philosophical movements of the day.
America’s resistance to authoritarianism was not only political but also intellectual; no single religious or philosophical system has taken hold as the one true way to live. We’ve seen transcendentalism, existentialism, and postmodernism (as only a few examples) come and go, along with both eastern and western religions, none able to hold the American mind for too long. As Rosenhagen wrote:
“No matter how much Americans get involved in (and worry over) contestations of truth, beauty, morality, and justice, they do not really want philosophers—or any professional intellectuals for that matter—to settle the debates once and for all. That is what a totalitarian society looks like, not a vibrant, if messy, democratic one.”
An open, democratic society is in constant flux, and every problem that is solved generates new ones. What we gain in active engagement and disagreement we sacrifice in simple consensus, and perhaps this is the way we should want it to be. The second we lose our impassioned disagreements is the second we lose our democracy to some form of authoritarian force we’ve been able to somehow resist over our tumultuous history. As Rosenhagen wrote:
“Over the course of the centuries, Americans learned and self-taught, native born and immigrant, religious and secular, and left and right have contributed to this long conversation by offering new arguments and key terms for Americans to think about the world, themselves, their truth, and their America. No one, so far, has been successful in answering these questions once and for all. They only came up with provisional explanations and then posed new questions. Perhaps we should not want it any other way. And so the conversation of American thought continues.”
This is not to endorse cultural relativism; it’s to point out that the conversation should never close, and that the best way to strengthen our views is to have them challenged and defended. This process of rational debate leads to progress, however slow, and is best described in the words of Martin Luther king Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
2. America’s secular foundation
It may seem less so now, but leaving the words “God,” “Jesus,” and “Christianity” out of the US Constitution in the 18th century was absolutely revolutionary, especially considering that the Constitution was written 72 years before Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species, during a time when the theory of special creation was still (somewhat) persuasive and when almost everyone was Christian. As the great American agnostic Robert Ingersoll said:
“They [the US founders] knew that to put God in the constitution was to put man out. They knew that the recognition of a Deity would be seized upon by fanatics and zealots as a pretext for destroying the liberty of thought. They knew the terrible history of the church too well to place in her keeping or in the keeping of her God the sacred rights of man. They intended that all should have the right to worship or not to worship and that our laws should make no distinction on account of creed. They intended to found and frame a government for man and for man alone. They wished to preserve the individuality of all to prevent the few from governing the many and the many from persecuting and destroying the few.”
In fact, religion in general is mentioned in the Constitution only twice:
- Article VI, clause 3: “…but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” (even though in practical terms this probably isn’t true, at least until an atheist can legitimately run for office)
- The First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
That’s it for religion; no mention of God, Jesus, or Christianity. The focus is entirely on human rights and duties and the establishment of rational lawmaking for the promotion of the general good for and by the people. As Rosenhagen wrote, “Although the American Revolution cannot exclusively claim to have put Enlightenment ideals into practice, it can claim to have been the first to try to do so.”
It could be countered that the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, does include the words “creator” and “God,” but there’s good reason to suppose he had in mind the Deist God rather than the Christian God, and here’s why.
First, Deists believe that a supreme being created the universe, but that this being does not actively intervene in it. Deists therefore do not believe in prayer, miracles, or divine intervention and instead believe that the universe operates according to natural laws.
Here’s how we know Jefferson was a Deist:
- Jefferson expressed his Deist leanings to John Adams in personal letters.
- Jefferson said that the three greatest men that have ever lived, “without any exception,” were Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Isaac Newton; if he were a Christian, there’s an obvious omission in that list.
- Jefferson wrote The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, commonly referred to as the Jefferson Bible, which he created by removing all of the miracles and supernatural elements from the New Testament, leaving only the moral teachings. Jefferson did not believe in the divinity of Christ, only the greatness of his moral instruction.
Many of the founders were also Deists, most definitely Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, while in others it may be a debatable point. But what’s most important is that the Deist framework, rather than the orthodox Christian framework, is what was incorporated into the Constitution. It is largely thanks to this that, to my mind, America has been able to thwart all attempts at authoritarian or religious rule.
Here are two of the best recent releases in United States history:
- These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore
- American Dialogue: The Founders and Us by Joseph J. Ellis
And here is the best book on the history of American secularism:
- Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby
And finally, make sure to check out this upcoming release:
- The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American by Andrew Seidel