Was the American Founding a philosophical fait accompli?

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.

In 2019 I participated in a conference in Rome at which one of the keynote speakers discussed the rise of unbelief in the West and how the Catholic Church ought to address it. Maintaining that apologetic arguments by themselves, even compelling ones, get very little cache in this post-truth culture—one often driven by images and emotion—he argued that perhaps it is time for the Church to reinvigorate its evangelistic efforts by reintroducing the world to the beauty found in the Church’s art, music, literature, and architecture. Beauty, he rightly noted, can draw one to the truth, as it has often done for many wayfarers on this side of the beatific vision. “But,” as I asked him after his presentation, “weren’t the engineers of our present ecclesial predicament themselves brought up on, and lived within the walls of, the very beauty that you suggest is the way by which we will draw unbelievers to the Church? So, if beauty was such a feeble bulwark against ecclesial infidelity the first time around, perhaps there is more to making and keeping disciples than attractive places, artistic excellence, and elegant expression.” The objective of my question was not to challenge his point about the power of beauty, a point with which I wholeheartedly agree. Rather, it was to suggest that stories of historical causality that attribute cultural decline and retrieval to the abandoning and accepting of certain ideas or practices always seem to leave something out, namely, what made the alternative ideas and practices so attractive to the dissenters.

That is the problem that sprang to mind while I was reading Robert Reilly’s fine book, America on Trial: A Defense of the American Founding. It tells a story of ascent, decline, retrieval, and decline, one that takes the reader from the late Middle Ages through the Reformation and post-Reformation Europe and England to the founding of the United States, concluding with remarks about how our present crises are not to be blamed on our predecessors who drafted and ratified the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Along the way the reader is told about how certain changes in political philosophy throughout this history—often generated by prior metaphysical and epistemological commitments—were the catalyst for the triumphs and atrocities by which we mark a people’s proximity to progress and justice.

As he notes in the introduction, Reilly was inspired to write this book to respond to the works of two Catholic scholars, political scientist Patrick Deneen and philosopher Michael Hanby, whose views have been popularized by writers like the Orthodox journalist Rod Dreher. Just as Reilly has a story to tell, so do Deneen and Hanby. According to Reilly, these authors argue that the rise of social justice warrior scrupulosity on matters of human nature, the family, and identity politics is the result of philosophical seeds planted long ago by the American Founders, which they appropriated from thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Of course, the Founders themselves would have never consciously countenanced anything like gender identity theory, same-sex marriage, or abortion on demand. Nevertheless, because they unwittingly accepted the metaphysical and epistemological beliefs of Hobbes and Locke, which became permanently embedded in our understanding of law and politics, the Founders’ appeals to virtue, morality, and religion as essential to civil society would in the long run seem less and less plausible as the nominalist and voluntarist assumptions of Enlightenment liberalism found their way into every nook and cranny of our culture.

Contra Deneen and Hanby, Reilly argues that there is a crooked line from Aristotle to Aquinas to Magna Carta (made crooked for a while by Ockham, Luther, and Hobbes) to Richard Hooker to John Locke (not entirely not crooked) and on into the American Founding. His story is that the American government founded in 1776, that subsequently ratified the Constitution (1788) and the Bill of Rights (1789), is one whose Founders rejected the nominalism and voluntarism embraced by figures like Ockham, Luther, and Hobbes, accepted only the good parts of Locke, and were deeply influenced by Hooker and the pre-Enlightenment tradition that he sought to retrieve. To strengthen his point, Reilly contrasts the American revolution with the French revolution, arguing that the latter is precisely what one would expect from a government founded on ideas that reject constitutionalism, metaphysical realism, the biblical idea of the imago dei, the consent of the governed, and rights grounded in the proper end of human life.

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. Take, for example, the contortions that Reilly goes through to try to downplay the influence of the “bad parts” of Locke on the American Founding (followed by my comments in parentheses):

“They [the Founders] took from Locke what was useful to them in their revolution, and not necessarily the epistemology.” (233). (How precisely did they do that? And how does that differ from liberation theologians who claim they take from Marx what they find useful, and not necessarily his dialectical materialism?)

“As far as Locke’s alleged nominalism, it did not extend to the absurdities of the fourteenth-century English nominalists examined in chapter 3.” (238). (What exactly does this mean? Nominalists are committed to the idea that universals have no ontological status, either as real forms in the mind or in an immaterial world external to it. Did Locke not believe this? If he did believe it, how does his nominalism not fall prey to the mistakes of his philosophical forebears?)

“Locke shared with Aristotle the notion that human action was directed by nature to the ultimate end of human happiness.” (243). (Given Locke’s empiricist epistemology—one that maintains that our ideas are the result of sense experience and not actual acquaintance with the real forms of real substances—he denied that we can know the real essence of a thing, including human nature. But Aristotle believed we can really know human nature. It seems then that Locke and Aristotle are not reconcilable after all.)

The fact is that the American Founders—despite their wide reading in classical literature and the judicious Hooker—were modern men, no less influenced by the dominant epistemological and metaphysical beliefs of their age than men and women have been in any era. For this reason, by playing down, and trying to reframe, Locke’s epistemological and metaphysical commitments and their connection to his political philosophy, Reilly does not help his case.

Like that speaker I encountered in Rome, Reilly offers no account of why anyone, formed in a culture marinated in (obviously) true ideas and practices, would abandon them for ones that are (obviously) false and pernicious. To be sure, in the book’s 11-page epilogue, Reilly blames German scholars, relativism, historicism, Woodrow Wilson, and John Dewey. But that simply begs the question: What precisely is it about these figures and ideas that dissenters from the Founders’ vision have found plausible and attractive? Reilly provides no answer.

Perhaps there is no answer, or at least no answer that can be cabined by a story only an intellectual could love. It could be, as my friend John Haldane is fond of pointing out, that it is not so much that ideas have consequences but that consequences spawn ideas, that we sometimes formulate theories, motivated by visceral yearnings untouched by reason, in order to justify what we wish to be true.

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 Francis J. Beckwith 3 Articles
Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Affiliate Professor of Political Science, and Associate Director of the Graduate Program in Philosophy, at Baylor University. His most recent book is Never Doubt Thomas: The Catholic Aquinas as Evangelical and Protestant (Baylor University Press, 2019)

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.


*