Cover image for On two wings : humble faith and common sense at the American founding
On two wings : humble faith and common sense at the American founding
Novak, Michael.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
San Francisco : Encounter Books, [2002]

Physical Description:
235 pages ; 24 cm
Format :


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BL2525 .N68 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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"The leaders of the American Revolution were not, like the leaders of the French revolution, secularists. They did not set out to erase religion. Quite the opposite." Michael Novak points out in this brilliant book about the birth of the American idea that the very first act of the Continental Congress in September, 1774, was to pray to Divine Providence for insight on how to respond to news of the British bombardment of Boston. In setting a course for republican self-government, the founders not only believed that they were acting reasonably but that they were carrying out God's commandment. As Benjamin Franklin said, "Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God." Of course there had been religious peoples before in history-including Jews and Christians-who did not see in faith the beacon of civil liberty. Novak points out that the American eagle could not have risen without the empirical turn of mind embodied in John Locke's teaching on the ends of government and the consent of the governed. Yet as he also shows, the founders believed that liberty depended on certain habits of the heart-and that these in turn depended on faith as well as reason. Novak probes the innermost convictions of Washington, Jefferson, Madison and the others who helped the American eagle to take wing. He shows how they were able to find common ground by appealing to the God of the Hebrews. He traces what happened to this "Hebrew metaphysics" as the world of the founders became the world of modernity. In the course of his career, Michael Novak has written several prize-winning books on theology and philosophy. Now, in "On Two Wings," he has written a profound work on American history and on human nature and destiny as well.

Author Notes

Michael John Novak Jr. was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania on September 9, 1933. At the age of 14, he entered the preparatory seminary at the University of Notre Dame. He received a bachelor's degree in philosophy and English literature in 1956 from Stonehill College and a bachelor's degree in theology in 1958 from Gregorian University in Rome. While in Rome, he wrote for the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal and the Jesuit weekly America. After studying for a time at Catholic University in Washington, he decided not to become a priest.

He wrote a novel entitled The Tiber Was Silver. He received a master's degree in philosophy in 1966 from Harvard University. He taught at several universities including Stanford University, the State University of New York at Old Westbury, and the Catholic University of America. He wrote speeches and position papers for Eugene McCarthy, Robert F. Kennedy and George McGovern. In 1982, he founded the magazine Crisis with Ralph McInerny.

He wrote numerous books during his lifetime including Belief and Unbelief: A Philosophy of Self-Knowledge, A Time to Build, A Theology for Radical Politics, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics: Politics and Culture in the Seventies, Choosing Our King: Powerful Symbols in Presidential Politics, Confession of a Catholic, Will It Liberate?: Questions About Liberation Theology, The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, and Writing from Left to Right: My Journey From Liberal to Conservative. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He died from colon cancer on February 17, 2017 at the age of 83.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The U.S. isn't officially Christian, but Novak demonstrates that the men who created it rooted the country conceptually in the Bible. The characterizations of God in the Declaration of Independence derive from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), probably deliberately, because all Christian denominations accepted them. Faith in God was ubiquitous among the founders, who regarded religion as necessary to maintain a just and equitable society. Only a moral (because religious) society would foster responsible citizens; pursuing freedom without religion, individuals would create a chaos of competing self-interests. Finally, the founders' conception of rights derived more from Acquinas than from Enlightenment philosophers. Quoting so often from the founders and their influences that this is practically a documentary history, Novak is compelling on those major propositions and others. He concludes by answering 10 common questions about religion and the founders, and he appends comments on some lesser-known important founders and the Revolution's great fellow traveler, Thomas Paine, who believed in God despite disapproving all the religions he knew. Hard but invaluably informative reading. --Ray Olson

Library Journal Review

Novak (religion and public policy, American Enterprise Inst.; Belief and Disbelief) argues that religion played a central role in the lives of, and the documents by, the founders of the American republic. He further attempts to show how Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and others had in common a "humble faith." He is most convincing when presenting evidence that biblical language and allusions permeated the writings of these leaders but is less successful in showing that the religion they thought useful for others also held personal importance for them. The book is weakened by a definition of religious faith so broad that "humble faith" becomes merely religious sensibility. Novak is clearly passionate about his topic, but he relies heavily on secondary works, so that at times this is more of a summary than an addition to the topic. Useful for collections seeking differing viewpoints on American history. Jan Blodgett, Davidson Coll., NC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

This important book is divided into three parts. First comes a stunning documentary examination of the views of the American founding fathers regarding connectivity between religion and the civic virtue required for a successful commonwealth. The title of the book indicates the creative tension between these "two wings" of the American eagle (humble faith and common sense). Second, Novak (American Enterprise Institute) provides ten specific responses to ten questions that challenge this understanding of the founding fathers' views on faith and reason. Finally, an appendix examines these ideas in some 21 mostly obscure founding fathers, driving home the point of their near unanimity on the importance of religion in the new nation that they were starting. A quote from Alexis de Tocqueville sums up the book well: "In France I had seen the spirit of religion and of freedom almost always marching in opposite directions, in America I found them intimately linked together in joint reign over the same land." In these sobering days of international terrorism and tension, such a book calls us to reexamine our roots as a nation both religious and secular. Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty and researchers; general readers and professionals. R. W. Rousseau University of Scranton

Table of Contents

Preface: The Forgotten One Hundredp. 1
Part 1
Chapter 1 Jewish Metaphysics at the Foundingp. 5
Hebrew Metaphysicsp. 8
Seven Events that Revealed the Power of the Second Wingp. 13
Summationp. 24
Chapter 2 Two Beat as One: Plain Reason, Humble Faithp. 27
What is Faith?p. 27
The Added Lift of Faithp. 39
Political Corollariesp. 43
The Most Precarious Regimep. 46
Chapter 3 Immoral Man, Moral Society, Religious Libertyp. 51
A Whip in the Mouthp. 52
The Massachusetts Way-Virtue in Communityp. 61
Establishment, No; Pillars, Yesp. 65
The Corruptibility of Libertyp. 70
If You Can Keep Itp. 72
Chapter 4 A Religious Theory of Rightsp. 77
The Concept of Dignityp. 77
Zuckert's Exposition of Jeffersonp. 79
The Logic of Libertyp. 85
A Religious Interpretation of the Foundingp. 90
Chapter 5 Ten Questions About the Foundingp. 99
1. You Wouldn't Pray to "Nature's God," Would You?p. 99
2. Wasn't the Religion of the Founders Merely Utilitarian?p. 101
3. "Common Sense" and "Faith" Have Many Meanings, No?p. 106
4. When and Why Did Legal Elites Become Hostile to Religion?p. 110
5. Does the Logic of the Founding Lead Inexorably to Relativism?p. 113
6. Is "Faith" the Same as "Natural Theology"?p. 116
7. Does America Subordinate Religion?p. 117
8. Why Do Scholars Today Clip "The Second Wing"?p. 120
9. If Aquinas Was the First Whig, Why Did a Regime of Religious Liberty Appear So Late?p. 120
10. What Is Your Favorite Story from the Founding?p. 123
Part 2
Appendix The Forgotten Foundersp. 127
A Secular Hurrah!p. 129
Sherman, Williams, Williamson, R. T. Paine, Paca, Morrisp. 129
Alexander Hamiltonp. 131
Princeton's John Witherspoonp. 133
Livingston, King, and Henryp. 134
Rush, Dickinson, and Wilsonp. 135
The Three Catholic Cousinsp. 140
George Masonp. 142
Thomas Painep. 144
John Adamsp. 147
Benjamin Franklinp. 155
The Price They Paidp. 157
Acknowledgmentsp. 159
Notesp. 163
Appendix Notesp. 212
Bibliographyp. 219