America’s God, Chapter 6: “Theistic Common Sense”

Posted: June 16, 2009 by Scott Kistler in History, Politics

In Chapter 6 of America’s God, Noll continues in his exploration of how American Christianity became so connected with two streams of thought that were often associated with heresy or liberal theology in Europe: republican political thought and common sense moral philosophy.

Protestants, and especially Reformed (Calvinist) Protestants, had usually embraced an Augustinian view of man: there was a huge difference between the saved who had received God’s grace and spiritually dead who had not.  The damned did not have the same capacity to perceive morality that Christians did.  On the other hand, common sense moral theorists believed that all people had an innate moral sense that could discover true morality.  This goes along with the more optimistic view that the Enlightenment thinkers had of man’s nature: no matter how pessimistic some Enlightenment thinkers were that people would embrace reason, Enlightenment thinkers believed that people could embrace reason and make the world a better place.  The common sense moral theory is associated with Scottish thinkers like Francis Hutcheson and Thomas Reid.  Noll makes an interesting point about this theory: while it was in many ways a “liberal” idea that went against convention, it also was deployed against skeptics like David Hume who said that people really couldn’t know anything.  So it both criticized the traditional paradigm and tried to fend off something more radical.

Why did Americans come to believe that all people had the ability to discover moral truth, and why did Christians latch on to this system?  Noll admits that the evidence for his thesis is “circumstantial,” but he argues that the assault on traditional authorities that took place from the 1740s-1780s necessitated a new basis for morality and religion.  This was found in common sense ideas of morality.  For evangelicals and others, this meant that they could rest the American political, social, and religious order on principles that anyone could perceive through their natural common sense.

The challenges to authority had been many.  The Great Awakening preachers encouraged individuals to judge the purity of their churches rather than accept tradition.  Westward migration created new communities that people feared were devoid of order.  And of course the American Revolution overturned the political order.  The use of reason to order society could solve these problems.  Noll summarizes the appeal of common sense moral theory for traditional Christians as well.  For Protestants, it would:

preserve the hereditary position of Christianity that was turning against the structures of traditional religion (like the political episcopate or the Congregational establishment in New England) as actively as it was turning against other inherited authorities.  Moreover, patriots, both political and religious, needed not merely moral and intellectual justifications but justifications untainted by old world traditions associated with the corrupting forces of “tyrrany.” (109)

This makes logical sense to me, although I would have liked to see more evidence to be truly convinced.  Perhaps the evidence is coming later in the book.  For now, I wish he had followed up on this sentence:

Explicit in the lectures and textbooks of the nation’s leading intellectuals was the Enlightenment belief that Americans could find within themselves the resources, compatible with Christianity, to bring social order out of the rootlessness and confusion of the new nation. (112-113)

Given Noll’s careful work in the book so far and his reputation as a respected historian, there’s no reason to doubt him.  But I wish there had been some examples.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if these come later in the book.

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