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The Religious Roots of American Democracy3 min read

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Needleman_1 Today I found a fascinating interview with Jacob Needleman, the philosopher.  This interview is about his book The American Soul : Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders.  The interview is from American Public Media’s Speaking of Faith site (gotta love public radio).  It aims to answer the question:

"What was the content of that religious impulse in early American thought?  Was it dogmatic, as we fear the imposition of religion in public life in our time?  And how might the religion of the founders continue to shape the American experiment in our more pluralistic, more secularized age?"

Needleman on George Washington:

"I was stunned when I started reading the works of Washington, and found that he really was a great man….What stands out about Washington is the fact that he turned away from power.  After the Revolutionary war….he could have been king of America….He represents to me the sacrifice of one’s own egoistic desires for power for the good of the country."

Needleman on the phrase "the laws of nature and nature’s God."

"This is an Enlightenment concept….The idea that by looking at nature, independent of any religious teaching, we can conclude…that there must be a creator.  Nature has laws, and principles and forces in it that are moral as well as physical….The best enlightenment thinkers wanted to be free of the tyranny of religious dogma, and tore away from it, and said that just by the independent activity of the mind observing nature, we can conclude that there is a God, and we can draw conclusions about our moral life from that."

Interviewer:   "I think this is important because…the way the Enlightenment has come down to us is as something diametrically opposed to religion."

Needleman:  "That is a complete distortion of what many of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers believed….Today, people associate religion with…some of the most superficial and degraded aspects of religion, and that’s a terrible mistake. Part of what I want to show in this book is that a deeper understanding of religions shows that the spiritual dimension of American is not at all what people think about then they think of religious America."

Needleman on applying faith to public life:

"The human mind, when it works deeply at its best, will come to spiritual truths and be able to apply them to human life as the basis of morality….Even our modern science was deeply rooted in a belief in God’s ordering of the universe."

This 53 minute interview is a mature, historical, and scholarly approach to the subject of the role of religion in American life.  There is so much more here than what I have excerpted.  Enjoy.