Monday, February 18, 2008

Reason in the American Experiment

The first book is Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.

It was a gift from about seven months ago, and so far I have managed to read about 50 pages. Written by Susan Jacoby, Freethinkers traces the role of reason in the founding of the American experiment. Indeed, the book makes the case that the United States was the first country to base the legitimacy of its government on the power of human reason rather than on the power of a deity or the “mandate of heaven.”

It is easy to overlook this point for a number of reasons. For example, last year the nation and the state of Virginia in particular celebrated the 400th anniversary of the founding of the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown. But most history courses then switch to and remain focused on New England: the 1620 voyage of the Pilgrim Fathers aboard the Mayflower and the landing at Plymouth Rock, the 1631 voyage of the Arbella to Massachusetts Bay, the sermon penned sometime during this latter voyage in which John Winthrop equated the Puritan experiment as a “city on the hill,” the New Jerusalem that would draw to itself all those whom God had destined to be saved.

Moreover, the quintessential U.S. national holiday is not July Fourth, Independence Day. Every country has a date on which a watershed event or declaration is endowed with this distinction – the very latest to do so occurring just yesterday when Kosovo declared itself independent of Serbia. The supremely “American” holiday is Thanksgiving, whose origin and tradition are intimately bound to Puritan life, work, and belief that they were God’s newly chosen people.

The list of influential Puritan divines is long: John Cotton, Thomas Hooker, John Eliot, Increase Mather and Cotton Mather. They were influential in part because of the long hours they spent reading, writing, and --ironically -- reasoning about God, man, and salvation. And because they were generally the most learned among the colonists, their views and opinions, expressed in pamplets, sermons or in the various print media of the age commanded the attentions of officials while pushing aside less erudite wrtings in the northern colonies.

This dominance ended in the first decades of the 18th century. By the time of the Great Awakening of the 1740s, not even the preaching and writings of Jonathan Edwards and other revivalists was powerful enough to stem the rationalist tide that celebrated the ascent of reason in the economic, political, and eventually the social advances of the era.

This past Friday, Bill Moyers’ guest on his weekly journal “Now” on PBS was the same Susan Jacoby whose latest book, The Age of American Unreason, was released last week. In it she describes what can best be described as the reversal – or the attempted reversal – of the application of reason to the challenges of the modern world and modern U.S. political and social institutions. The ferment of the 18th century involved the integration of ideas across a growing number of disciplines by men and women willing and able to challenge “received wisdom” by thinking critically from premises and assumptions to via analyses to conclusions.

The ferment of the 21st century seems to be in the opposite direction: moving away from examining the major issues of the day and seeking resolution thereof – which can demand concentrated thought and sometimes radical changes in context – and settling for the “sound bite” or “bumper sticker” kind of knowledge that more and more passes for “informed opinion.”

The Puritan divines were, above all else, teachers who had a powerful message. But this New Jerusalem bestowed on those who came to its shores the opportunity to rise above both the content and the processes of the Old World, steeped as they were in belief, in favor of fact (content) and investigation (process).

This is what the country lacks today – men and women in public life and in the public eye who are teachers, who can demand of the people what is well within their capability to achieve if only they are challenged to look beyond themselves.

If you missed the program, it is at


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