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Thanks for Mark Noll's review of Gordon Wood's Empire of Liberty ["Jefferson's America?", January/February]. Noll gave due credit to Wood's brilliance at analyzing republicanism while questioning how this political ideology could drive all features of life, even religious ones, in the early Republic, and how Wood can call Jefferson "the supreme spokesman for the nation's noblest ideas."
Noll is modest in not saying right out loud that Wood's view downplays the many contributions made in the past 30 years by historians of American religion, especially evangelical ones, notably Noll himself. In fact, Empire of Liberty reveals that evangelical historians need to write grand interpretations of American history as well as writing monographs. We can't be content just to make bricks if the architects and builders misuse them.
Empire of Liberty has pushed me over the edge, toward writing a providentialist history of the United States (the colonial period, too) to continue my earlier work for InterVarsity Press, This Rebellious House and God's Judgments. At least I've begun the project. Who knows if anyone can finish it.
Wood's casting of Jefferson and Madison as our Romulus and Remus, originating our national life, is a bit idolatrous by implication. Wood points to their imperfections and indiscretions, but the Romans and Greeks allowed their gods some faults. The key issue is, who did the originating?
After the debunking of the Founders in the 1960s, we now see a bidding war between the political Right and Left to see who can be more patriotic in praising them. The result borders on filiopietistic history—and Wood's book comes close. If we're going to be pietistic, why not pick the right Person and outline how Providence acted skillfully in the Founding, using the "Founders" as his tools? (More emphasis on the colonial period helps to show that Jefferson was no Romulus.)
A thoughtful providentialist approach can help citizens question Obama-articulated ...