“America on Trial”: A Catholic World Report Symposium

Thirteen authors engage, debate, and dialogue with Robert R. Reilly’s new book on the founding of the United States.

Ignatius Press recently published Robert R. Reilly’s America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding. It is, as the subtitle indicates, a response to recent books and essays arguing that the moral, social, and political disintegration in the United States over the past few decades is the logical result of Enlightenment-era ideas—especially a notion of radical individual autonomy—built into the founding documents and principles.

America’s decline, argues Reilly, is not due to the founding principles, but has come about because of the disavowal and dismissal of those very principles. In defense of this thesis, he draws upon a wide-ranging array of ancient, medieval, and modern sources, as he describes the intellectual, political, and philosophical streams that flowed into and out of the American founding.

Thirteen philosophers, historians, professors, and authors offer here their thoughts on Reilly’s book.

“An often effective defense of the Founding that is uneven and flawed” by Christopher Altieri, who writes, “Pace Reilly, the way back to reality and reason is a hard road—a methodos—one that will be hard to find and harder to keep.”

“Was the American Founding a philosophical fait accompli?” by Francis Beckwith, who says that “although my sympathies lie with Reilly, since I think he has the slightly better story, he doesn’t give Deneen and Hanby their historical due.”

“The debate over the American founding is filled with irony and possible rapprochement” by Casey Chalk argues that Reilly, Patrick J.Deneen, and Michael Hanby share a significant number of ideological commitments, “enough to serve as the basis for agreeing on a way past battles over liberalism.”

“All these things will be added…and a republic, if we can keep it” by David Paul Deavel, who says Reilly demonstrates 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.

“An undeniably timely book during a most troubled time” by Marc D. Guerra, Ph.D., who says the book offers a high-minded defense of the intrinsic goodness, nobility, justice, and wisdom of “the provenance of ideas” that informed the Founding, and is the product of a serious Catholic who is also a grateful American citizen and committed patriot.

“A remarkable book that defends truth against relativism and historicism” by Dr. Paul Kengor, who states that this book tells us much about how America got to this point and, unfortunately, the further chaos toward which we continue to careen ahead.

“Both a challenge and a source of consolation” by Kathryn Jean Lopez, who reflects that when you start to meditate on where we started from and how we got to where we are, what we are living through right now all really does makes sense.

“The American Founding vindicated against its cultured despisers on the Right and Left” by Daniel Mahoney, who says that there can be no meaningful defense of Western civilization, of “order in history,” without a thoughtful and manly defense of the great achievement that is the American republic.

“A magisterial book on the perennial struggle between realism and voluntarism” by Robert Royal, who states Reilly’s book is not just defense of the nation’s founding, but also a much deeper and broader philosophical presentation of the natural law principles that lie beneath that founding—and must be the basis for any legitimate social order.

“A clear and well-informed addition to an old and important debate” by Kevin Schmiesing, who writes that the primary reason to stand with Reilly in this quarrel is not because of the practical ramifications of letting the other side win; it’s because he’s right.

“America, young and beautiful” by Paul Seaton, who says that things were more complex and murky than Reilly’s thesis of traditional “Christian natural law” principles “animating” the founding acknowledges.

“How Americanism put ‘baby in the corner'” by David Upham, who writes that while Reilly shows that America’s Founding was not a modernist celebration of the autonomous will, his defense is incomplete.

“Correcting the “no true Founder” fallacy” by Dr. Christopher Wolfe, who says Robert Reilly has told the long story of why the American form of life is worthy, and has made a strong case that the Founding Fathers should be judged “not guilty” of causing America’s current crises of the soul.

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 Carl E. Olson 1227 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


    • I enjoyed Fr.Schall’s articles very much too. He wrote with orthodoxy, grace, and courtesy. Our culture seems to have mislaid courtesy recently.

  1. Dear Mr. Olson and Symposium Members –

    I just want to say THANK YOU for your devotion to the truth, and your appeal to “the better angels of our nature.”

    Your work is worthy of the citizen soldiers who have “consecrated this ground,” our earthly home, with their suffering and death.

    May God bless you all, and may God save our country, and give us the grace to labor for cause for which we pray.

    As the poet taught us to sing, may we be live by example, and give rebirth to The United States of America: “‘till all success be nobleness, and every gain divine.”

  2. Recently, we have seen a fair number of extremist Catholic traditionalists (SSPX, sedevacantists, anti Vatican II people) form this bizarre theory that America was founded on evil principles. What most people do not realize is that this goes back to the fake narrative pushed by the SSPX, where all evil flows from the enlightenment. This is an old French theory and since Lefebvre was French, he convinced all his cult members that anything to do with the enlightenment was evil.

    Further compounding the confusion is that Deneen et al constantly claim they are against “liberalism” and then they never define that term. So Deneen sort of relies on people thinking he is denouncing modern extremist progressives and all their idiocy. So people think that by supporting Deneen, they are simply denouncing modern progressive excesses. But Deneen means something entirely different by “liberalism”. His system fails, because he is basically saying what Churchill said – that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”. Deneen offers no reasonalbe replacement for democracy. He just pretends that everything bad came because of it.

    This is, in my opinion, lazy sophistry that only confuses people, enables the extremist sects of Catholicism to think they are on to something – when they are not. They have caused great harm. It is good to see Robert O Reilly correcting the record.

    • Theologian David S. Schindler (editor of Communio, and Gagnon Professor at the formerly-titled John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family) shows that an ostensibly neutral public square—displaying its wares of tolerance, pluralism and civility—is a poor and inadequate substitute for what comes before, namely a prior and positive receptivity to a triune and incarnational God.

      What Schindler is getting at is what precisely comes “first.” Is the first thing neutrality with human CREATIVITY or is it Marian RECEPTIVITY: the “fiat”? Did the Enlightenment, after all, enable/ignite the divorce of reason from faith?

      Schindler detects a nuanced but pivotal split between neutral-liberalism [my term] and non-neutral/affirmative “communio”—-a fatal concession which then inevitably infects the liberal Academy, economics, and politics (including the taproot beginnings of American culture).

      He writes:

      “My suggestion here has to do with what is primary. Certainly neoconservative theology does not reject love and relation (and attendant dispositions) as important in its understanding of person: this is the heart of its defense of a ‘communitarian’ Scottish Enlightenment over and against a harsher Continental Enlightenment. Nor does a liberation theology formed in the “fiat” reject creativity (and its attendant features: ‘doing,’ freedom, responsibility, and the like) as important in its understanding of the person. What is at issue, rather, is what each theology assumes as “first”; and the relevant point is that what is first gets carried into, and thus informs, all of what follows [….]”(David L. Schindler, Heart of the World, Center of the Church: Communio Ecclesiology, Liberalism, and Liberation (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1997, pp. 103-4).

      Schindler is a dense read, and I am not the one to do justice to either his thesis or to anyone he analyzes (the so-called “neocons”: Neuhaus, Weigel, Novak, John Courtney Murray–all on board with Vatican II), but would point out here that the Lefebvre tribe has no part.

    • “bizarre theory that America was founded on evil principles”

      Well, there are troubling aspects: Fathers has been influenced by enlightened deism. This means that there is serious trouble since deism negates Triune God. And more than that, spiritual background contains whole range of “evil principles” like predetermination, various strains of lollardism, hussitism, and so on.

      But it is useless to embrace some 18th-19th century theses. Nobody knows what terms like “liberalism” or “catholic state” mean. Authors of these terms failed to recognize even Adam Smith. They failed to recognize the fight between so called classical liberalism and welfare state, and so on.

  3. For me what is key is just how much Locke was influenced Hooker.

    Reilly gives the impression that Locke was imbibed in the Thomist Richard Hooker. True Locke tips his hat to Hooker; but closely reading what Locke says, he doesn’t appear to be imbibed in Hooker. I wouldn’t say Locke was a closest Hobbesian. Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau each had their own unique perspective. But all three of them did posit the “state of nature,” social contract and rights theories that appear to be much more “modern” (for the era) and not traditional.

    • There are, of course, big differences between Locke and Hooker. Locke was not a Thomist. And as I try to point out, there is an ambivalence in Locke that allows for different readings. The key question is whether or not his thinking was anti-teleological. I don’t think it was. More importantly, the Founders didn’t think it was. Also, Locke’s “state of nature” has nothing in common with either Hobbes or Rousseau.

  4. Faith of Our Fathers. A Catholic 1849 hymn by Frederick William Faber in memory of Catholics martyred by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I (Wikipedia). It could have been written for less dramatic witness by our Founding Fathers. Two takes standout, David Paul Deavel, who says Reilly demonstrates the Founders knew the kind of system they proposed depended on a virtuous and religious people. Hence Marc D. Guerra who says the book offers a high-minded defense of intrinsic goodness, nobility, justice, and wisdom. That leads to the premise that if we interpret the Constitution it’s incumbent that we do so insofar as practicable as strict constructionists. Slavery institutional at the time was putatively morally challenged by the Declaration. We may reasonably presume Abolition was expressed in the Constitution with mind for later practice. Who can argue the case that Abraham Lincoln and the Rep Party did not draw their antislavery sentiment from both documents? Tragically today hordes of students radicalized and supported by their anarchist professors [ratio of Leftists to Conservative profs is alleged by Dr David Hanson to be 13-1] are the main protagonists for annihilation of the past in order achieve justice, whereas justice has roots in Common Law and Natural Law as well as Christian beliefs. Now the fallacy is that all Whites are inherently white supremacists. Catholic Charities among the woke. Woke Whites assuage their perceived guilt attacking statues. They’re decapitating, smashed to the ground statuary reign of terror like Macbeth’s indelible blood stain is insufficient to absolve what merely exists within a self deceived mind. Justice if it is to survive seems at a crossroads in November. Sunday’s Gospel reading is that used for the Feast of the Sacred Heart. If ever this American Nation needed an intervention by that fount of love it is now.

  5. I am very appreciative of Robert Reilly for writing and Ignatius Press for publishing this important book. CWR also deserves tremendous credit for organizing this symposium I am currently reading.

  6. If this is such an evil country, as some would have us believe, why – going back decades – do we have such a problem with illegal immigrants?

  7. I am very happy that many Americans have realized that the “Black Live Matters” has been hijacked by the enemies of America, atheists, and antichrists, including other “Big” countries which want to pull America down and take over the World Power from America which is supposedly a Christian Country.

    It is white a great pity that most of the Democrats because of desperation to take over from Trump are backing up the dirty deal.

    I urge that Christians and good – thinking people of America should speed up the efforts to make Americans know that what is going on is not a question of Republican or Democrats, but America as Great Nation. Pelosi is still surprising me as she claims to be a Christian, and a Catolic for that matter.
    May God save America from those agents of destruction, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

  8. Having recently finished Robert Reilly’s generally solid book, I offer a few observations that perhaps were not made by the reviewers in the symposium last year. First, I think Reilly does an effective job of refuting the thesis that the degraded state of contemporary America is the inevitable result of the Founding principles. Frankly, the burden rests with Deneen and Hansby to prove such a bold claim and I don’t think they come close to doing so.

    There are a few flaws In America on Trial that should be addressed, however. It is pretty astounding that a book defending the American Founding from a largely Catholic perspective fails to discuss the striking similarities between American federalism and the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity. One of the defining characteristics of the American constitutional system, federalism, as much as anything else, allowed the Republic to flourish without the interference of an overbearing central government that increasingly tyrannizes us today. In fact, it seems pretty obvious that much of America’s decline since at least the time of the New Deal, if not earlier, can be traced to the progressive abandonment of this crucially important principle. Secondly, Reilly seems to overstate the Founders support for democracy and equality. Features of the original political system such as the indirect election of senators and restrictions on the franchise, and the many warnings of the dangers of “mobocracy” demonstrate that the Founders had serious reservations about pure popular rule. Likewise, the limitations on voting rights, not to mention the toleration of slavery, indicate a somewhat more nuanced understanding of equality than most moderns possess. Finally, Reilly seems to endorse the view that the American system, or at least democratic government, has universal applicability to all peoples and cultures. This ahistorical notion has caused much trouble over the last few decades and should be discarded. The system of government emanating from the American founding was the result of the development of a particular people and culture over centuries, as Reilly’s book documents so well. What worked so well here for so many years is not going to enjoy similar success in places like Iraq and Afghanistan for a number of reasons. I do not know how much of the above is attributable to any neoconservative tendencies in Mr. Reilly’s thought, but I note that writings of intellectuals of that persuasion, like Harry Jaffa, are quoted favorably in the book on multiple occasions.

    The above criticisms notwithstanding, Mr. Reilly should be commended for a good and convincing defense of the America Founding. If my points are valid, they only strengthen his argument. America on Trial belongs on the bookshelf of every patriotic American, Catholic or not.

15 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. An undeniably timely book during a most troubled time – Catholic World Report
  2. The American Founding vindicated against its despisers on the Right and Left – Catholic World Report
  3. A magisterial book on the perennial struggle between realism and voluntarism – Catholic World Report
  4. All these things will be added…and a republic, if we can keep it – Catholic World Report
  5. The debate over the American founding is filled with irony and possible rapprochement – Catholic World Report
  6. A remarkable book that defends truth against relativism and historicism – Catholic World Report
  7. How Americanism put “baby in the corner” – Catholic World Report
  8. Both a challenge and a source of consolation – Catholic World Report
  9. Correcting the “no true Founder” fallacy – Catholic World Report
  10. The debate over the American founding is filled with irony and possible rapprochement - Catholic Mass Search
  11. An undeniably timely book during a most troubled time - Catholic Mass Search
  12. Was the American Founding a philosophical fait accompli? – Catholic World Report
  13. Historical fiction at the service of Lockean liberalism – Catholic World Report
  14. Historical fiction at the service of Lockean liberalism - Catholic Daily
  15. Historical fiction at the service of Lockean liberalism - Catholic Mass Search

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.