America, young and beautiful

Things were more complex and murky than Reilly’s thesis of traditional “Christian natural law” principles “animating” the founding acknowledges.

In America on Trial, Robert Reilly, an American Catholic and patriot, presents the American Founding as “young and beautiful,” as a noble and just “city in speech.” By these Platonic characterizations, I mean two things. First, he locates the American founders and Founding within the full sweep of Western civilization and presents them and it as the heirs, custodians, and culmination of the best features of this unique civilizational order. Secondly, his focus in the Founding is on its basic ideas, as expressed in documents, public and private. These ideas are theological, philosophical, anthropological, moral, and political truths. Young America was beautiful America on the level of its foundational principles.

This leads to a question. Why and how did America depart from this well-founded beginning? From Reilly’s account, one can extract a genealogy of evil, a history of betrayals and betrayers, that has led to today’s moral and political “rot.” He begins by reminding us that the founders themselves said that only virtue can maintain a republic. Likewise, he tells us that they were aware of the risks of corruption inherent in human freedom and in the flawed nature of human beings. He even says that the founders acknowledged and made provision for “Original Sin” by the device of the checks-and-balances of government. They also expected churches to attend to their members’ sins and sinfulness. Politics as such could not eradicate human evil or provide human salvation. This Christian thought was the deepest meaning or presupposition of “limited government.”

Therefore, even with its predictable moral failures, America would still be on sound footing if Americans hewed to the founding ideas and principles. Alas, they did not persevere in this path. Or rather, some among them did not. Reilly focuses upon the Progressives, because they denied the possibility of transhistorical truth and were the first Americans to deny the truths (and truth) of the Founding. In this decisive episode, America let in a foreign serpent, German historicism.

This new form of thought, American-dubbed “liberalism,” laid down significant predicates for the perversions that followed. Reilly notes a few of the subsequent high points (or low points). Given his emphasis on virtue in the maintenance of the republic, he focuses on developments in morals and moral (or anti-moral) ideas. He rightly indicts post-1965 Supreme Court decisions for their authorization of anti-moral autonomous individualism. He also sees that informing this jurisprudence was a broader current of liberal-progressive thought. In the culture, “[w]e won the American Revolution but lost the sexual revolution—with all its attendant debasement (pornography, sexual perversity, homosexual “marriage,” abortion, infidelity, the destruction of the family, the general coarsening of culture, etc.” His assessment of today—undertaken from the point of view of “the Christian and natural law principles that,” he maintains, “animated the founding”—is unsparing. It also indicates the daunting nature of the task of return and retrieval for which he argues.

In his judgment, “the dominant forces of American contemporary thought and jurisprudence” exhibit an increasing anti-Christianity animus, finding even the most loving and mild statements of traditional Christian sexual ethics to be “hate speech.” Likewise, the idea of a normative natural law has lost almost all cultural purchase. The way forward would require another Great Awakening, one of unprecedented depth and scope.

Already daunting enough, it is made even more difficult by those who should be allies in the campaign, Catholic intellectuals. Alas, some have joined the cultured despisers of the founding. Reilly’s immediate opponents are two contemporary Catholic thinkers, Patrick Deneen and Michael Hanby. They represent a broader cohort, however. While they agree with Reilly on the character of today’s “moral degradation,” they believe it was rooted in, and flows naturally from, the founding principles. In their view, these principles embodied a false anthropology and a false metaphysics. In Reilly’s judgment, they mistake the cure for the cause and mislead the flock from the sole solid source of civic salvation. Hence magis veritas amicitiae must be applied (Aristotle famously said that he must prefer the truth to friendship, or, in this Catholic case, fraternity).

Given this venue, I should state that I agree with Reilly’s refutation of Deneen’s view of our “political founding,” that it’s pretty much Hobbes in drag. Deneen (a friendly acquaintance) takes to an incredible and unjust extreme a somewhat more plausible view of the founding of his great teacher, Wilson Carey McWilliams. Here, as he has elsewhere, Reilly lays bare the distortions of Deneen’s presentation of Madison, as well as skewers his skewered reading of the Declaration of Independence. I sincerely hope that the Deneen, a fine thinker, teacher, and writer, desists from these discredited readings.

As for Hanby’s critique of the founding, I am sympathetic to Reilly’s critique of it, with a reservation. Hanby tends to look at political things too metaphysically, in a way reminiscent of Heidegger. From his Olympian heights, he doesn’t really come to grips with what the Founders actually said. It’s unfair and misleading to say, “They lived during the Enlightenment, so they must have been conduits of Enlightenment metaphysics. Full stop.”

On the other hand, Hanby is on to a major issue that Reilly ignores or elides. America and Americans were not immune from the Baconian-Copernican-Newtonian scientific revolution. Just think of Franklin or Jefferson. This intellectual revolution dramatically changed things when it came to understanding nature. As a result, the same phrase or term–“nature,” “natural law,” even “cause” and “being”—could mean significantly different things, depending on context, subject, and thinker. This modern revolution in thought necessarily had tremendous impact on 17th- and 18th-century theology and philosophy, including the founders’. This is Hanby’s defensible point. With this infiltration or adulteration (if you wish), a principle of dissolution and departure from traditional views was implanted in (at least some) Americans’ theological and philosophical thought. The serpent entered the Garden earlier than the Progressives.

Reilly, however, wants to divorce the founders’ thought entirely from “modernity” and its “denial of formal and final causes.” He would have America untouched at the level of principles and ideas by modern Enlightenment. To speak gently, I find that claim incredible. Things were more complex and murky than Reilly’s thesis of traditional “Christian natural law” principles “animating” the founding acknowledges. The founders were more modern, more intellectually eclectic (or confused), and, in some cases, more intellectually creative, than Reilly acknowledges. His methodology and his commitment to his substantive continuity-thesis, however, rule out the possibility of recognizing this more complex picture.

Reilly is largely successful in his rebuttal of Deneen and Hanby, because he actually quotes the founders. They weren’t Hobbesians and they weren’t simply Newtonians. It is an open question, however, whether they were as thoroughly traditional in their understandings of God, nature, and natural law as he would have us believe. His method of citations without full textual context or their justifying argumentation means that we’re denied the opportunity to judge for ourselves. This is another way in which his founding America is rendered beautiful. Like Glaucon in the Republic, in America on Trial Robert Reilly exercises what Plato’s Socrates called “thumoeidetic” reason. This form of spirited reasoning seeks and finds perfect ideas and composes in speech a community formed in their image.

America on Trial arrives at a particularly fraught juncture in American history. A defender of 1776, Reilly doesn’t mention the 1619 Project. His main enemy is autonomous individualism and moral latitudinarianism, not racialized ideology. However, his discussions of “ideology” can be applied to our circumstances with illuminating effect. From them, one learns that modern ideology divides humanity into the good and the evil, it divides the world into “executioners and victims.” It thus denies common standards of moral judgment and the goal of equality under the law. It denies what Solzhenitsyn learned under Communist ideology, that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. One also learns that ideology is parasitic on Christianity, while hating it and wanting to replace it with this-worldly human projects of redemption and salvation. In Eric Voegelin’s famous phrase, ideology immanentizes the eschaton. It wants political action to eradicate human evil and to establish a real perfect city. This cannot end well, and until it is ended, it will be totalitarian in aims and means. Today’s cancel culture is a harbinger of things to come.

Today’s racialist and more generally “woke” ideology is therefore antithetical not only to America, but to Christianity, to natural law and conscience, and to western civilization. Reilly’s beautiful rendering of these lets us see what is at stake in today’s battles. The forces arrayed against them today are legion, the outcome of the battle over them is uncertain. Our task, however, is clear. It is fidelity to them, it is defense of them in speech and deed. In this battle, we can be sure of one thing. Robert Reilly will be present and accounted for. He is one of the “guards” of America of which the Declaration speaks.

Return to the Symposium’s Main Page

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Paul Seaton 1 Article
Paul Seaton teaches philosophy at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, MD. He works mainly in political philosophy and has translated a number of works by French philosophers.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. “American on Trial”: A Catholic World Report Symposium – Catholic World Report
  2. “America on Trial”: A Catholic World Report Symposium - Catholic Daily

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.