Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


A Nation with the Soul of a Church

George Thomas

K. Chesterton famously called America “a nation with the soul of a church” because it was founded on a “creed.” It is telling that American celebrates itself on July 4th, the day it declared its independence to the world, justified by the political principles it set forth, which formed the basis of what Chesterton called its creed. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln posited a nation founded with the Declaration of Independence that just happened to dedicate the nation to the proposition that “all men are created equal.” This creed explained why America was engaged in an ugly war to end an even uglier institution. Here Lincoln himself was following precedent: Fredrick Douglass famously turned to the Declaration to speak of America’s “great principles of political freedom and natural justice.” Yet Douglass turned to these creedal commitments to highlight America’s “great sin,” slavery, which made America “false” to itself. Douglass, with a wonderful sense of timing, gave the address on July 5th, as if to highlight the gap between America’s creed and its practice.

The idea of an American creed lends itself to the language of civil religion

The idea of an American creed lends itself to the language of civil religion. And there is something to this—particularly when it comes to civic education. As James Madison put it, contemplating how politics should be taught at the University of Virginia: “It is certainly very material that the true doctrines of liberty, as exemplified in our Political System, should be inculcated on those who are to sustain and administer it.” Writing to Thomas Jefferson, Madison even called for a professor “orthodox” in politics to foster out “political creed.” Yet at the same time, Madison and Jefferson appealed to distinctly modern understandings of freedom of thought and conscience. The very liberal principles they advocated seem, on their face, at odds with the idea of civil religion. Can we both foster a certain “political creed” and remain true to both genuine education and that creed insofar as it’s rooted in liberal principles.

These questions come to life in Madison and Jefferson’s advocacy, along with many of the leading minds from the founding generation, for a national university. The aim of the university was to sustain America’s constitutional experiment by shaping the minds of its citizens. Accepting the Declaration’s principles required altering the curricula of the colleges then in existence: theology would have to be removed the center of knowledge. Reconstituting the curriculum in line with the secular aspirations of the new polity would help embed the philosophical ideas underlining the Declaration into the mental habits and mind-set of the people. The ideas that shaped the curriculum would help constitution the American mind in a manner that made modern life possible.

These questions are at the heart of The Founders and the Idea of a National University: Constituting the American Mind. And while this work looks back to arguments from the founding generation, it does so better understand our present. It seeks to speak to contemporary debates about the link between democracy and education and how contemporary educational institutions are attending to this task.

Read an excerpt from The Founders and the Idea of a National University here.

About The Author

George Thomas

George Thomas is the author of The Founders and the Idea of a National University....

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