Is the American Founding really the ultimate cause of our woes? Was the Declaration of Independence the harbinger of Roe v. Wade, Obergefell, and our culture that celebrates will over reason, reason hermetically sealed from faith, and the power of Gov rather than the power of God? It is an old debate in many ways, with political philosophers Catholic and non-Catholic weighing in on the side of America having foundations that are so low as to guarantee their being overrun by the forces of relativism and then tyranny. In contrast, there were other philosophers, Catholic and non-, who always argued that while the foundations were low, they were solid enough to keep government properly limited to its task of providing a this-worldly tranquility of order because of the Founders’ recognition that the final good of human beings is something that is not available at any website ending in “dot gov.”
Patrick Deneen and Michael Hanby have been the most prominent contemporary Catholic proponents of the view that America’s foundations were not just low but ultimately rotten. For both, these foundations were mostly the products of John Locke—and a particular side of John Locke’s thinking that looks relativistic—who was really Hobbesian. While the Founders may have been slightly more than political Locke-smiths in their intentions, it does not matter because their own thought—perhaps aimed at goods identified by the Heilige Geist—was swallowed up by the 17th– and 18th-century radical Enlightenment zeitgeist, which separated freedom from truth. The Lockean Founding joint was simply a gateway drug to a tyranny of Hobbesian-Nietzschean crack.
Robert R. Reilly’s America on Trial provides a convincing answer to Deneen, Hanby, and their predecessors and contemporary followers. To wit: Locke is not the only source of American political thought; Locke is a complex figure who had some intellectual problems but is not in any way equivalent to the atheistic absolute government advocate Hobbes; the Founders did not rely on the “bad” Locke anyway; what they did follow was the Locke who was in tune with Algernon Sidney, Richard Hooker, and behind them, the Catholic and Scholastic tradition that includes Thomas Aquinas and is in continuity with but also builds upon and synthesizes the Old Testament revelation, Aristotle, Cicero, and the Fathers of the Church; and to say that the Founders’ own intentions and actions were irrelevant because History (capital “H”) had moved on is to surrender to a version of Hegelian determinism that Deneen and Hanby themselves condemn as problematic.
People today like to say that a writer who provides proof for assertions has “brought receipts.” Reilly’s book is full of receipts. Receipts from the Founders themselves about what they thought they were doing, whom they quoted and how, and how their statements, public and private, compare with statements from the greatest Catholic thinkers of the Middle Ages. (I considered titling this essay “Straight Outta Bellarmine.”) Receipts from Locke about what he actually thought and how he was not “Hobbes with a smiley-face.” Receipts from the Scholastics, Aristotle, and the Ancient Near East.
The IRS only asks for the last 10 years. Reilly has receipts from the last 30 centuries.
What those receipts show is that in the trial of the Founding, the verdict is not just not guilty—there was no swindle—but complete exoneration and a recommendation that the Founders receive some sort of honor for their ability to pay the gifts of Moses, Aristotle, and Aquinas forward. They may have done their work in a poisonous Enlightenment air, but they built on a foundation laid by Catholics, Protestants (especially the Anglican theologian Richard Hooker), and other men of good will and good sense. This is something recognized by Catholics such as Father (later Bishop) John Carroll at the time of the Founding but also in our time by Pope Benedict XVI, who saw in the American approach to the Church and politics “a continuation, adapted to the times, of the model of Pope Gelasius…” (314). The American experiment in ordered liberty was one that appealed to natural law for its principles of personal freedom, consent of the governed, and the public welfare. It built limited government because salvation does not and cannot come from the state. It included checks and balances because original sin is the one Catholic doctrine that is ascertainable simply by looking around.
So if Reilly is right (and I think him manifestly so) on the American Founding, what happened to the us that is the United States? Reilly’s answer, given in chapter 11, is: “German historicism,” by which he means the relativistic doctrine that all doctrines are simply “products of their time and place, and nothing more” (323). There is not much breathing space between this understanding and relativism, the conception that there is no stable Truth with a capital-T, at least not outside of natural science. Instead, a doctrine of “History” (capital-H) would guide human beings toward a continuously shifting goal that was perceived by those observing Darwinian evolution. Reilly identifies the Progressive movement, which had begun in the Republican Party and then began its transformation of the Democratic Party, as the main agent in transmitting this ideology, focusing on the educational theorist John Dewey and President Woodrow Wilson.
Unlike the Founders and unlike Catholics, who both believe that government cannot claim supreme sovereignty over humans, the Progressives hated the ideas of limited government and individual liberty. They did not believe in “man” as a being with a consistent nature who falls under the rule of a natural law whose rules perdure through time. And they did not believe that there were any limits to what a government could do on behalf of our always-evolving species. Some of their successors made it clear that the Constitution had to be opposed, while a great many others decided that they could interpret the Founding in the way that Hanby and Deneen do: as the founding of a “living Constitution” that changes what it demands, forbids, and allows as often as we decide to change what it means to be human. Reilly revealingly quotes Barack Obama’s best-selling memoir The Audacity of Hope regarding what the former president thinks “implicit” in the “structure” of both the Constitution and ordered liberty: “a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or ‘ism’” (327).
Wilson represents the first major incursion of such thinking into the government via his notions of an unaccountable administrative state, which grew substantially under Franklin Roosevelt, was rationalized under succeeding presidents, and put into hyper drive by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Dewey represents the long-lived incursion of these ideas into education via generations of educational theorists shaping teachers and curriculum in some version or other of this historicism and ultimately relativism. I remember in the early 1980s as a public school student being taught the “fact-value” distinction with questions that struck me, as a child of Evangelical parents, as putting all moral questions into the relativistic category of “values.” And though we still memorized the preamble to the Constitution and studied parts of its text with our ancient 8th-grade teacher Mr. Cox, the trend even in the 80s was toward the vague and politically correct “social studies” that now ensure that many students never study actual texts and certainly don’t study the mental world revealed in Reilly’s 3,000-year pile of receipts.
You are not going to get a lot of defenders of the Constitution or its truths when few children are exposed to it, and the ones who are learn only hot-takes, such as that it was racist because of its slave-owning signers or that it was relativistic because it did not establish a state religion.
Critics of the Founding like to accuse the Founders and their defenders of believing that they had created a fool-proof “system” of government that would work in some sort of automated fashion. It’s an odd accusation, since a fair number of Catholic critics are sure that a Constitution that acknowledged the Catholic Church or arranged for its indirect or direct influence on the government is necessary. Our Constitution does not settle the differences dividing Catholic and Protestant. The contemporary fate of constitutionally more explicitly Catholic polities such as the Canadian province of Quebec or the Republic of Ireland shows this is not the case. Reilly’s receipt pile indicates that the Founders knew very well that the kind of system they were proposing was dependent on a virtuous and indeed religious people to keep it going.
This is why the de-Christianization of our society is the key to the fate of the American Republic. Reilly’s argument is ultimately that the American Founding is not inevitable given Christianity, but it is certainly inexplicable outside of a Christian understanding of reality and man. That understanding was shared until recently by most Protestants and all Catholics. Even American unbelievers largely shared these views of human nature and natural law. But with public and much of Catholic education now reflecting a view of the human person, morality, and our relationship to government more in line with Dewey and Wilson than Bellarmine and Madison, we face a challenge of heroic proportions. Unmoored from the limitations of human nature that are available to reason but often only grasped in faith, we find ourselves slaves to cries of “change” that themselves change by the week. What was “woke” one week makes us liable to cancellation the next by those claiming the right to rule over us, individual rights be damned. “Change,” as Chesterton observed, “is about the hardest and narrowest groove that a man can get into.”
We need more Catholics who understand the history of freedom and constitutional government that Robert Reilly has told in this book. We need even more evangelists who will teach people to seek the hard and narrow way of the kingdom of God that alone allows for true liberty and avoids that much worse groove of change for the sake of change. I do not suggest that we preach Christ only for the sake of the nation: the Gospel is not simply a tool for limited government and political liberty. I do suggest, however, that if we do not help more people to seek that ultimate kingdom, we will find that our own age will continue down the road of seeing our freedom as Catholics and Americans devoured by the Leviathan Hobbes preached—and the Founders wished to avoid.
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