Published Humanitas, Volume IX, No. 1, 1996

The Theme is Freedom: Religion, Politics, and the American Tradition, by M. Stanton Evans. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1994. 366 pp. $24.95.

M. Stanton Evans is former editor of The Indianapolis News, former CBS commentator, and longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. Evans, who now directs the National Journalism Center in Washington, D.C., has written one of the most important books of the decade. I confess not to have liked the title, but those his friends apparently suggested were even worse. Examples: “The Civilization They Tried to Hide” and “Everything You Were Ever Taught Was Wrong.” Such titles may have scored dubious points for commercial success, but they were rightly judged too casual for the gravity of the subject and the dignity of this serious piece of work. If the main title still sounds a bit trivial, the subtitle well describes the crux of the book’s content. One should not judge a book by its cover—or by its title. A more erudite and accessible treatment of the central role of religion in Western liberal tradition and American political thought is not known to me. This work is suitable as a college textbook for courses in American political and intellectual history. It should be a supplemental text for any number of other courses. It is also essential reading for the educated citizen.

Evans uses a wealth of historical data to trace conceptually the nexus between religious values and the rise of the American political system. Following key institutional threads, he tracks the beliefs and customs of our people from one stage to the next and, in so doing, proves what the historian Forrest McDonald has also said: “. . . the basic ideas of the American Republic all derive from the Bible and from medieval Christianity.” Of greater moment is the inference that, in the absence of such religious moorings, the tradition of freedom that most now take for granted cannot persist. Jane Shaw On Evans’s The Theme is Freedom points out that, even those who have personal difficulty with religious faith find evidence that civilization needs it. In The Fatal Conceit, F. A. Hayek attempted, less than successfully, to bridge his own agnosticism and the indispensable God of Western culture. Evans would quickly distance himself from such an approach, however. No mere system of moral tradition is adequate if it is based on nonbelief.

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