A remarkable book that defends truth against relativism and historicism

This book tells us much about how America got to this point and, unfortunately, the further chaos toward which we continue to careen ahead.

Robert Reilly’s America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding is remarkable for its depth and richness of insight and wisdom. Though I was familiar with Reilly’s past work, including his books through Ignatius Press, I’m really struck by the breadth of his intellect on full display in this book, whether tackling subjects from Martin Luther to the American founders or from natural law to nominalism. This book is impressive.

Given that this review is part of a larger symposium reacting to the book, I’ve put together less of a traditional review than a summation of what I personally found particularly intriguing and valuable. Even more specific, the material I’ve opted to highlight is a kind of a roundup I’d share for vigorous debate and discussion with students.

Working through from the opening pages to the last, I was first struck by a quote from historian Gordon Wood in Reilly’s introduction: “To be an American is not to be someone, but to believe in something.” It reminds me of a favorite quote of mine from Ronald Reagan, who in June 1952, long before he became famous politically, told a group of young women at little William Woods College in Fulton, Missouri: “America is less of a place than an idea.”

It is indeed, and Reilly’s book goes on to look at the very idea, or ideas, of America and its founding. Or, as Reilly puts it in response to the quotation from Gordon Wood: “What might that ‘something’ now be?”

One thing that it is apparently becoming, though it shouldn’t be, is what Justice Anthony Kennedy leveled in the absurdity now infamously known as his “mystery clause.” It was dropped by Kennedy in the June 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the latter being Pennsylvania’s late pro-life Democrat governor. Bob Casey lost in a 6-3 vote that affirmed a constitutional right to abortion in all 50 states. This pivotal case preserved Roe v. Wade. And Kennedy led the majority with one of the most shocking statements in the history of jurisprudence: “At the heart of liberty,” averred Kennedy, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Such philosophical balderdash would he laughable if not for the fact that it would legally justify the ongoing abortion of millions upon millions of unborn babies in America.

Had Anthony Kennedy been sitting in Independence Hall in Philadelphia in July 1776, the founders would have handcuffed him to his chair or chased him out with torches. Imagine Kennedy telling John Adams that “liberty” is the right of every individual to define his own meanings of life and existence and the universe and human life. That was plainly not the founders’ conception of liberty, nor a Judeo-Christian conception. As Robert Reilly writes at the start of this book, the founders who had set forth a new nation conceived in liberty “would have found completely objectionable Justice Kennedy’s misunderstanding of freedom.”

Such a misunderstanding of freedom—what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger called “a confused ideology of freedom”—is among the central theses of this book, which wraps up with an epilogue that poses a tantalizing question: “If the Founding Was Good, Why Did Things Go Bad?” The answer, in short, is because of the relativistic thinking of the likes of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who, to be fair, looks downright moderate and sensible compared to the fundamental transformers now radically redefining everything from life to marriage to gender.

In that concluding section, Robert Reilly powerfully takes aim at a form of relativism that isn’t well known enough and is not being taught enough, namely: historicism. “If the Founders are not responsible for the moral malaise afflicting America today, who or what is?” asks Reilly, who then answers: “This subject would require another book, so I will not offer more than a suggestion of a reply here. But the short-form answer is: German historicism.”

What does historicism refer to? Reilly gives us a good definition:

It means the essential historicity of truth—that is, that claims to truth can be explained as products of their time and place, and nothing more. Historicism teaches that as historical circumstances change, so do the meanings of words, as well as of right and wrong. Everything is contingent on History. Everything goes with the flow. We are now in different times at a different place with different “truths.” Nothing transcends History; there are no unchanging trans-historical truths rooted in the transcendent. Everything is intrahistorical—meaning there is nothing outside History immune to its alterations. Historicism erases the moral authority of Nature—taken as a reflection of God’s reason—of which the Declaration of Independence was an explicit expression, and replaces it with relativism. Gone are the tenets that Nature and reason are not temporal and that they supply truths which are right everywhere and always.

As Reilly correctly notes, it is a “short leap” from historicism to what Leo Strauss called “unqualified relativism.” Moreover, once ingested, German historicism cleared the way not only for relativism but progressivism.

That’s where we are today. Today, the march of history has taken us along a progressivism path where one can create one’s own definition of everything from whether a life in a womb is a life to one’s own definition of marriage and gender. How many gender options are there? Facebook lists at least 70. But really, to moderns, there are as many gender options as there are people willing to create options. Gender, like truth itself, is always changing and alterable.

In short, there’s no single universal truth. “Truth” changes according to history and progress, or historical progress, or historicism-progressivism.

Reilly quotes Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: “The concept of truth has been virtually given up and replaced by the concept of progress. Progress itself ‘is’ truth.”

That’s how Reilly wraps up this book. In between are indispensable treatments of other related matters central to his thesis. Here are just two I’ll highlight:

Among them is a section on natural law (pages 27-35), defined concisely by Reilly (quoting Aristotle and others) as simply “what is.” The essence or nature of a thing is what makes it what it is, and why it is not, and cannot be, something else. For instance, an acorn develops into an oak tree, and there is no point along its trajectory when it can turn into something other than oak. The same is true for a man or horse or a family. A man with XY chromosomes is a man. There’s no such thing as a woman with XY chromosomes.

As Cicero noted, true law should be based on the natural law. This is a law eternal and universal. “Any attempt to supersede this law, to repeal any part of it, is sinful,” said Cicero, “to cancel it entirely is impossible.” A law is legitimate only to the extent that it is in harmony with the natural law. A law made contrary to natural law would be an unjust law. (Memo to liberals: See Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birmingham Jail letter, where he stated precisely this, quoting none other than Augustine and Aquinas.)

For the record, laws in favor of, say, same-sex marriage, are not in harmony with the natural law.

Also of interest is Reilly’s provocative chapter on Martin Luther, titled, “Enter: Martin Luther—Exit: Christendom.” It focuses on the “unavoidable consequences” of Luther’s ideas and what they “unleashed,” whether intended or not. Because every person would share religious authority equally, apart from a centrally established single Church authority, everything is left to conscience and private judgment. This, says Reilly, who’s far from alone in saying so, was “obviously a recipe for division, which is what it produced.” This was not only a division between Protestants and Catholics but, much more, among countless thousands of differing Protestant sects. Reilly quotes one source quoting Luther in 1525, reportedly conceding that “there are almost as many sects and beliefs as there are heads.”

It would, of course, be unfair to lay all the chaos and rot of modern secular relativism at the feet of Martin Luther. But there’s no question that the product of each and every individual determining his or her own beliefs—and even Biblical interpretation—has helped pave the road to where we are today. Luther, no doubt, would have never favored the radical secular progressivism, angry atheism, and unhinged historicism that predominates today.

Nonetheless, where we are now is an America awash and amok in what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned of: a dictatorship of relativism. And who or what is pushing it? Well, no one can really say, or even see. If anyone or anything is driving, it is the empty wheel of the dictatorship of relativism, where the only directing power is an unidentified power where everyone is her or her own guiding power.

Ratzinger had said this in his final homily after the death of John Paul II, given just before the College of Cardinals convened to choose him as the next pope. What prompted those words from Ratzinger were the readings that day, April 18, 2005. He was quoting Ephesians 4:14, where St. Paul warned of people being “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). As Ratzinger noted with exclamation, “This description is very timely!”

It is indeed. And so is this book by Robert Reilly. Get a copy and read it carefully and thoughtfully. It tells us much about how America got to this point and, unfortunately, the further chaos toward which we continue to careen ahead.

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About Dr. Paul Kengor 54 Articles
Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His books include The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism, Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century, Takedown: From Communists to Progressives, How the Left Has Sabotaged Family and Marriage, and, most recently, The Devil and Karl Marx: Communism's Long March of Death, Deception, and Infiltration.


  1. The idea of America as more of a belief than a place troubles me. Nation as ideological construct where the “body” is less important strikes me as fundamentally liberal thinking. It certainly carries with it the seeds of globalism and heck, probably transgenderism as well. The fact is that America existed as a culture before it was a nation.

  2. If the Catholic Church is indeed the one true Church, then any state or constitution that does not recognize that fact will always be somehow flawed. Today’s social tumult and divisiveness is merely a super-amplified version of the tumult that existed in the original thirteen colonies and what led to a religion-free declaration of independence in the first place. You can argue like Adams or Washington that only a religious people will be capable of protecting liberty. But at the end of the day, the practical conclusion of today’s mass increasing secularism and relativism is substantially the result of a religion-free constitution.

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