Public Religion and Civic Virtue: Making Good Citizens in the American Founding Era
31 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2010 Last revised: 24 Aug 2010
Date Written: 2010
Recent debates concerning the reinvigoration of civic engagement and civics education have often looked to the American founding era to support the idea that civic virtue is necessary for the maintenance of a healthy, liberal democracy. Modern debates, however, often fail to consider the degree to which civic virtue has been historically founded in religion. In this paper, I examine the ways in which the idea of a public religion was used in the American founding era to support civic virtue while transcending the problems created by religious pluralism. Two of the most notable American commentators on the relationship between religion and virtue are the focus of this paper: Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine. Each of these thinkers advocates a form of public religion that highlights the virtues of charity, benevolence, and wisdom. This prescription for religion is distinct from a civil religion in that it both stresses the importance of religious liberty and emphasizes the necessity of virtue in order to secure the blessing of providence. By comparing their views on the appropriate relationship between religion and politics, it is clear not only that religion influenced the civic tradition but also that these thinkers believed religion would help make individuals better citizens.
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