Memory matters because the past matters. The past is the soil out of which our lives and institutions grow. We can’t understand the present or plan for the future without knowing the past through the eyes of those who made it. Their beliefs and motives matter. For the American founding, there’s no way to scrub either Christianity or its skeptics out of the nation’s genetic code.
Nearly all the Founders were religious believers. Most called themselves Christians. In practice, John Adams and his colleagues in revolution were men who had minds that were a “miscellany and a museum,” men who could blend the old and the new, Christianity and Enlightenment ideas, without destroying either. Biblical faith and language saturated the founding era. Even Thomas Jefferson, stopped by a skeptical friend on his way to church one Sunday morning, would say that “no nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion. Nor can [it] be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has ever been given to man and I, as chief magistrate of this nation, am bound to give it the sanction of my example.”
Religion and sin, of course, can share the human heart quite comfortably. The evils of America’s past—brutality to native peoples, slavery, racism, religious prejudice, exploitation of labor, foreign interventions—are bitter. But they’re not unique to America or to religious believers. Nor do they define the nation. Nor do they void the good in the American experiment or its uniqueness in history.
Asked some years ago if he believed in “American exceptionalism,” the French political scholar Pierre Manent said, “It’s difficult not to, because it is the only political experiment that succeeded … the only successful political foundation” made through choice and design. “[I]f you are not able to treat the United States for the great political-civic achievement it is, you miss something huge in the political landscape.”
The good in our history is real. America’s “exceptional” nature, however, doesn’t imply superiority. It doesn’t even suggest excellence. It implies difference. It involves something new in governance and liberty, rooted in the equality of persons, natural rights, and reverence for the law. And it’s sustained—or was intended to be—by national traits of industriousness, religious faith, and volunteerism.
America is exceptional in another way as well: It’s the only society with no real history of its own before the age of progress. The continent, for the Founders, was not just vast and pristine. It was a blank slate for a new kind of political order, unlike anything that had come before. When the Founders stamped the words novus ordo seclorum—“a new order of the ages”—on the national seal, they meant it. And they proved it. A special genius of law, institutional structure, moral imagination, and an idea of the human person animated the American founding and its development.
From the start, religious faith has been the glue and rudder of the American experiment, its moral framework and vocabulary—at least as people have typically experienced it. That rudder and glue no longer seem to apply. We now really do have a new order of the ages. And it has shaped a new kind of human being.
Michael Novak has written on this dexterity of the founders in describing the founder’s marriage of faith and reason as the two wings that give flight to the American experiment.