Book Pick for the Fourth and Fortnight
BELIEVERS, THINKERS AND FOUNDERS: How We Came to Be One Nation Under God by Kevin Seamus Hasson
BELIEVERS, THINKERS AND FOUNDERS
How We Came to Be One
Nation Under God
By Kevin Seamus Hasson
Image Books, 2016
225 pages, $20 print, $11.99 e-book
penguinrandomhouse.com or (800) 733-3000
The Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, writing about the origins of human rights in a way also paradoxically applicable to contemporary American constitutional law, noted: “We agree on these rights, on condition that no one asks us why.”
Kevin Hasson, however, asks. His answer: America is a nation “under God.” The rest of his book uses that phrase — most familiar to Americans from the Pledge of Allegiance — to unpack just what being a nation “under God” has meant historically and why it is the keystone without which the whole of American-rights theory comes crashing down.
He knows some people think just the opposite, citing cases to declare the pledge’s “under God” an unconstitutional promotion of religion by a state some think should be agnostic. But the point is that the Founding Fathers never declared America agnostic. Whatever their denominational differences, whether they were mainstream Christians or maverick Deists, the founders all agreed: We could rationally know that God was Creator of the universe and of man and that Creator “endowed man with certain inalienable rights” that did not depend on governmental sufferance.
In other words, the United States of America was founded on a philosophical premise — a Creator who is author of human rights — and U.S. history (building on a philosophical tradition reaching back to Aristotle and extending in jurisprudence through the likes of de Bracton, Coke and Blackstone) affirms that core premise of “philosophical theism” at the heart of American-rights thought:
“Where the English nation historically has had Anglicanism, and before that Catholicism, America instead has a philosophy, and on the basis of that philosophy our government presupposes the existence of a God who endows the people with rights. Our rights tradition ... presupposes theism. That choice cannot simply be walked back after more than two centuries without abandoning the foundations of the rights themselves. And one of the most terrible lessons of the twentieth century is that a state does not long sustain cognitive dissonance about what rights its people have. Rather, what too often results is the emergence of a regime that resolves the dissonance in its own favor, maximizing its power while diminishing the freedom of the people.”
Affirming that America is “one nation under God” is no unconstitutional breach of the “wall of separation” as much as an acknowledgement, stretching back before America, but also by its founders, about the reason men have rights and why governmental power is limited and accountable. A short and highly readable yet very thorough tour de force of why “under God” is and has been so central to American civil thought — and why it represents no “establishment of religion” to hold that truth. It reminds us why, in America, there is a tradition that says that the law and rights are never just what kings, presidents or even the judges say they are.
John Grondelski writes from Shanghai, China.
- June 26-July 9, 2016