Deism sought to answer this new situation, by leaving God as the ultimate cause of all, by now removed from human affairs. Thus, men were left with their reason to organize themselves into society, and to utilize nature to further their ends and improve their lives. In France, deism took a radical form, in the writings of Voltaire especially, in which everything that did not conform to reason was literally dangerous. This led to the infamous Terror, and the ‘cult of Reason’ installed during that time. France today is widely known as the model of a radical secularism, where even the slightest mention of the word God in public speeches is now unimaginable. In England, however, the situation was slightly different, in that the rationalist philosophy never reached such extreme. There never was a Terror there, nor were churches reconverted into ‘temples of Reason.’ This is the rationalism that the Americans inherited: the emphasis on the natural order, but a natural order that was not necessarily anti-religious.
All the Founding Fathers were believers in some sort–except perhaps T. Jefferson, but even he was not an atheist either–but all were wealthy men of the 18th century, and American institutions today bear thus mark. The Fathers’ religiosity is to be taken in that context. When Jefferson wrote that there is “a wall of separation between Church and State,” he meant by this that–contrary to England, from which they sought to liberate themselves–the State is not to support a Church, nor is a church to support the State, in the spirit of plurality that we saw above. The goal was to prevent the imposition of a creed above another. It was also in the deist spirit, which saw God as not intervening in human affairs. Therefore, a church, which deals with the relationship between man and God, could not pretend to direct human institutions. But it does not mean, however, that all forms of religiosity is to be suppressed. Rather, this problem, like so many aspects of the US Constitution, was left voluntarily vague and obscure.
We argue today over this issue as we argue over the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms. The American Constitution is famous for its brevity: it does not pretend to regulate every aspect of political life (this is the essence of a Constitution), nor did it seek to annihilate every aspect of religiosity even in public life. It was rather up to men, and human reason, to deal with these details later. In this sense American institutions today reflect the situation which was America’s in the late 18th century. The development that occurred in Europe since the French Revolution did not affect it. the differences between American and (Western) European secularism reflect a different evolutionary direction, with the Americans retaining characteristics of the Enlightenments. American secularism is the direct product of 18th century Anglo-saxon Enlightenment: human affairs are foremost among our occupations, but God is not discarded altogether.
The fact that God was still present in the 18th century, albeit a far removed, impersonal God, derives from a much longer tradition, that began with the inception if Christianity in the West. This will be the subject of the next post.