I saw this column by Tom Flannery in the Worldnutdaily and was planning on writing a critique of its many false claims, but Jon Rowe beat me to it. That’s not a big surprise since we’ve done that often. Flannery attempts to make a common argument among the religious right, that the French revolution turned to despotism while the American revolution did not because ours was grounded in “Judeo-Christian principles” while theirs was grounded on the primacy of reason (or atheism, in some versions of the argument).
The argument is quite silly and betrays some rather obvious historical ignorance. The same broadly deistic language appears in both the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Our Declaration refers to the “Laws of nature and Nature’s God”, which endow all men with equal rights under the law; theirs is offered under the “auspices of the Supreme Being” and parallels those same rights. It is hardly a surprise that the two documents should be so similar, since the principal author of ours, Thomas Jefferson, was in France and helped them to write theirs.
Jon quotes the following statement from Flannery’s column:
Well, don’t look now, but a move is afoot by leftists in media and government today — having learned nothing from the horrors of the French Revolution or the Soviet experiment or other such examples throughout history — to once again enshrine human reason, with the twin engine of scientific discovery, as man’s guiding light. They hope that by doing so they can do away once and for all with what they view as the “superstition” of religion.
And notes the irony that Flannery would cite John Adams in particular as being “increasingly troubled” by what Flannery considers the excess focus on the concept of reason in the French revolution. But as Jon notes, this passage could not set up more perfectly the following statement by Adams himself on the nature of America’s founding:
“The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or in America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.
“. . . Thirteen governments [of the original states] thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind.”
This was exactly the passage that came to my mind as I read the Flannery piece as well. Adams argued quite strongly that America’s founding, and the Constitution in particular, were grounded purely in the use of reason, with no pretense of religious influence, and that this alone established the rights of mankind. And note that he wrote this one year before the French Declaration of the Rights of Man was written. Suffice to say that there is not a word in that declaration that Adams would have disagreed with.
There is more in Jon’s fairly thorough destruction of Flannery’s arguments. I urge you to read the whole thing.