Our Forefathers and the Age of Enlightenment

The late Francis Schaeffer, in one of his books, had the audacity to suggest that it wasn’t so much that America’s forefathers were Christian, but that they had a world view highly influenced by Biblical thought. They were also highly influenced by the Age of Enlightenment.

I agree with Schaeffer. There were a number of our founders who were Christian. However, not all were as Christian as we think they are, and some weren’t really Christian at all. Some of them believed in a measure of Biblical truth, and the idea of a God, but nothing more. Further, being a Christian and basing ideas on Christian thought doesn’t mean they were ‘right’ in every instance. There are dangers to the idea of Manifest Destiny, after all.

The Enlightenment heavily influenced Western culture, and what is now known as the United States. We owe the philosophy a great deal for the good it has produced. But it is a man-made philosophy, and not all of its effects have been good. The tragedy is how seamlessly we’ve incorporated some aspects of Englightenment thought into Christian thought, to the point where we think they are one and the same.

From the Wikipedia article:

Enlightenment thinkers believed that systematic thinking might be applied to all areas of human activity, and carried into the governmental sphere, in their explorations of the individual, society and the state. Its leaders believed they could lead their states to progress after a long period of tradition, irrationality, superstition, and tyranny which they imputed to the Middle Ages.

The continent of Europe had been ravaged by religious wars in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. When political stability had been restored, notably after the Peace of Westphalia and the English Civil War, an intellectual upheaval overturned the accepted belief that mysticism and revelation are the primary sources of knowledge and wisdom.

The Age of Reason sought to establish axiomatic philosophy and absolutism as foundations for knowledge and stability. Epistemology, in the writings of Michel de Montaigne and RenĂ© Descartes, was based on extreme skepticism and inquiry into the nature of “knowledge.” The goal of a philosophy based on self-evident axioms reached its height with Baruch (Benedictus de) Spinoza’s Ethics, which expounded a pantheistic view of the universe where God and Nature were one. This idea then became central to the Enlightenment from Newton through to Jefferson.

Many of the Founding Fathers of the United States were also influenced by Enlightenment-era ideas, particularly in the religious sphere (deism).

The Enlightenment occupies a central role in the justification for the movement known as modernism…The modern movement points to reductionism and rationality as crucial aspects of Enlightenment thinking, of which it is the heir, as opposed to irrationality and emotionalism.

The Enlightenment is held to be the source of critical ideas, such as the centrality of freedom, democracy and reason as primary values of society. This view argues that the establishment of a contractual basis of rights would lead to the market mechanism and capitalism, the scientific method, religious tolerance, and the organization of states into self-governing republics through democratic means. In this view, the tendency of the philosophes in particular to apply rationality to every problem is considered the essential change. From this point on, thinkers and writers were held to be free to pursue the truth in whatever form, without the threat of sanction for violating established ideas.

With the end of the Second World War and the rise of post-modernity, these same features came to be regarded as liabilities – excessive specialization, failure to heed traditional wisdom or provide for unintended consequences, and the romanticization of Enlightenment figures – such as the Founding Fathers of the United States, prompted a backlash against both Science and Enlightenment based dogma in general…In their book, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno wrote a critique of what they perceived as the contradictions of Enlightenment thought: Enlightenment was seen as being at once liberatory and (through the domination of instrumental rationality) tending towards totalitarianism.

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