Defending America’s Rule of Reason

An interview with Robert R. Reilly, author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press, 2020).

(Image: Stephen Walker/Unsplash.com)

America is in crisis. Beyond the trials and tribulations associated with COVID-19, there is rioting in the streets and calls for the “rebranding” of the United States in terms of identity politics. These are times in which the very history of America is being questioned and in which heroes, such as those who founded the nation, are being demonized and derided. The very meaning of what it is to be an American is being questioned.

In the shadow of these attacks on the integrity of the United States, a leading scholar and former special assistant to the president has stepped forward to defend the American founding. Seeing the founding principles of the United States as part of natural law tradition, dating from the ancient Greeks, Robert R. Reilly has shown how the Founding Fathers saw themselves and the nation they were creating as part of the living tradition of Western civilization.

Robert Reilly is uniquely qualified to comment on the current crisis. He is the director of the Westminster Institute, established in 2009 to promote individual dignity and freedom for people throughout the world. He also has 25 years of government service. Reilly has served as director of Voice of America, was senior adviser for information strategy to the secretary of defense, and has taught at National Defense University. He has written and published widely on American politics and foreign policy. His books include The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis.

In the following exclusive interview with The Epoch Times, Mr. Reilly, author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding addresses, by email, the issues that have been ripping the nation apart.

Joseph Pearce: Mr. Reilly, your book has been published at a time when many people are questioning the very foundations of the United States. How would you respond to those who see nothing worth celebrating on the Fourth of July?

Robert R. Reilly: I would respond that they are committing colossal acts of ingratitude and impiety. By what standard of worth would they find nothing worth celebrating in the very thing that provides them with their freedom?

Mr. Pearce: At a time when statues are toppling, including statues of the Founding Fathers and of former presidents of the United States, how can we make a reasoned defense of the founders and of the founding principles of our nation?

Mr. Reilly: You cannot make a reasoned defense against those who have abandoned reason. The American founding was based on the primacy of reason as against the primacy of will and power. However, when the primacy of reason is being threatened, sometimes it must employ force in order to protect itself—as in federal officers being sent to keep violent mobs from burning down federal court buildings.

Mr. Pearce: Much of the identity crisis that many Americans are experiencing is due to the acceptance and embrace of relativism and the demands for radical self-autonomy, which is a logical consequence of relativism. What do the Founding Fathers say about relativism?

Mr. Reilly: Moral relativism is antithetical to the American founding, which relies on transcendent, immutable truths as in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”—for its justification. “That all men are created equal” is articulated as a moral principle in the Declaration of Independence. Either that is true universally, at all times, for all peoples, and you can therefore have something like the American Republic, or it’s not, and you get something like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, or communist China.

Mr. Pearce: How would you respond to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s statement in Planned Parenthood versus Casey (1992) that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”? Can Justice Kennedy’s understanding of liberty be reconciled with the concept of liberty expressed in the Constitution?

Mr. Reilly:  The founders would have found completely objectionable Justice Kennedy’s misunderstanding of freedom. The idea of freedom as contentless choice was totally alien to them, as would be the idea that liberty is the right to define one’s own meaning of the universe. For them, the meaning of the universe originates not in ourselves but in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Man’s obligation is to conform himself to those laws. That is what leading a moral life means. The Founding Fathers were unanimous in saying that the success of the American Republic was wholly dependent on the virtue of the American people, and that it could not survive without it. Much less could it endure the erasure of the distinction between virtue and vice, which is what Justice Kennedy’s nonsensical statement achieves.

Mr. Pearce: You write that the whole crisis is based on two opposing conceptions of reality, whether it’s constituted by reason or by will. What’s the difference between these two conceptions and why is it so important?

Mr. Reilly: Primacy of reason means that “what is right” flows from objective sources in nature and the transcendent, from “what is,” as Plato said. Primacy of will, on the other hand, means that “what is right” flows from power, that will is a law unto itself. In other words, right is the rule of the stronger.

The key issue, including in theology, is: Does the will follow reason, or does reason follow the will? Everything hinges on the answer to this question. Either the intellect directs the will, and the will then acts in accord with reason, or the will is in charge and reason becomes the servant of the will. There are huge political ramifications to this issue. As French writer Bertrand de Juvenal said, “The man who finds in God before all else will and power, will be disposed to the same view of human government.” If reason is primary, you get things like natural law and the rule of law as reason. If the will is primary, you get things like tyranny.

Mr. Pearce: You quote Robert Bellarmine as saying that “a bad law is not a valid law.” If this is so, what constitutes a good law? How is the validity of the law to be judged?

Mr. Reilly:  The validity of law is judged in accordance with its conformity to natural law. Another way to state this is that a bad law is not reasonable. Let me expand upon this from my answer to the preceding question. If God in his essence is Logos or Reason, then one must have reasons for law because law is Reason at the very source of creation. Therefore, the constitutive element of law is not will, but reason.

Reason is obligatory in man’s behavior and in his laws because it exists in nature’s order and as the law of God’s essence. That’s why bad laws are defined as unreasonable. Bad laws are a reflection of the primacy of the will over reason.

Mr. Pearce: John Locke, who was a major influence on the founders, stated that “the taking away of God, even if only in thought, dissolves all.” What did he mean by this? How important is it that the United States remains “one nation under God”?

Mr. Reilly:
 In the “Second Treatise,” Locke wanted to demonstrate the inviolability of the human person as God’s property. “For men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; all the servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by His order and about His business; they are His property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during His, not one another’s pleasure.”

Like his predecessors, Locke believed that human life is sacrosanct because of its provenance. Obviously, man’s life cannot be sacred unless there is a God to sanctify it, which is why Locke was so adamantly insistent on God’s existence. This also helps explain Locke’s revulsion at atheism: “Those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon or sanctity for an atheist.”

Locke maintained that “the belief of a deity is not to be reckoned amongst purely speculative opinions, for it being the foundation of all morality, and that which influences the whole life and actions of man, without which a man is to be counted no other than one of the most dangerous sorts of wild beasts and so incapable of all society.”

The “infinitely wise Maker” is also the guarantor of man’s equality, as no one is any less the workmanship of God than anyone else. This is the sacred basis of equality in Locke, as well as in the Declaration of Independence.

I would only add that the Declaration mentions God four times. It is no exaggeration to say that American independence was based on dependence on God. When I mentioned that the American founders were unanimous on the necessity of virtue, I should have also said that they all agreed that religion was the principal source of virtue. Should Americans today think that they are autonomous, no longer dependent on God, then they should prepare for what prior attempts at total human autonomy have produced: the Great Terror of the French Revolution and the charnel houses of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and communist China.

Mr. Pearce: You claim that “failure is written into the DNA of the modern project.” What do you mean by this, and why is it a cause for hope?

Mr. Reilly:
 Radical modernity and its project for man’s total self-sufficiency is parasitic. It will fail to the extent to which it succeeds. It cannot survive its own erasure of natural law and Christianity. Paradoxically, the loss of faith and reason is a cause for hope. It proved the downfall of the Soviet empire, which imploded from its own hollowness. The West’s moral, social, and political implosion proceeds apace for similar reasons. Yet we can avoid the cataclysm anytime we choose to, by returning to reality, to reason, to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Reality is resilient because, as Plato said, it is “what is”—not whatever one fancies. Logos wins in the end.

(Editor’s note: This interview was originally posted on The Epoch Times site and is reprinted here with kind permission of that publication.)


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About Joseph Pearce 22 Articles
Joseph Pearce is the author of numerous literary works including Literary Converts, The Quest for Shakespeare and Shakespeare on Love,Poems Every Catholic Should Know (TAN Books) and Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know (Augustine Institute/Ignatius Press), and the editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions series. His other books include literary biographies of Oscar Wilde, J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. A native of England, he is Director of Book Publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, editor of Faith & Culture, and is Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. Visit his website at jpearce.co.

18 Comments

  1. The founders made the mistake of locking slave clauses into the Constitution, bringing the credibility of the declaration into question. This contradiction was highlighted by the leaders of the Confederacy and while Lincoln attempted to reaffirm the declaration it is for us in this century to provide the second point to make the line of “created equal” by abolishing abortion. But this is why it is important to specifically deplatform the confederacy, especially the lost cause statues, as opposed to all other statues.

    • Susan,
      Surely you don’t believe we should remove statues that remember our dead from that war? Those were American soldiers. On both sides.

    • Obviously, Susan, you have no knowledge of the Constitution and what it said. The Constitution did not ‘lock” any slave clauses into anything. I suppose you are misconstruing the three fifths clause, which was actually an anti slavery clause, intended to keep the slave states by squiring more power simply because they had slaves. Of course, nothing in the Constitution “called the Credibility of the Declaration” ( and by that I assume you mean the declaration of independence) into question. No, the leaders of the Confederacy where not enabled by this supposed contradiction to do anything. You have a very distorted idea of what went on at that time. Southern leaders advocated for a lot of stuff, based on a lot of things. Your all too concise explanation of their views leads me to believe you have very little understanding of what they said and did. And you seem to buy into the leftist nonsense about “The Lost Cause” which is horribly exaggarated and actually just a convenient excuse the left invented to excuse their idiocy about statues. I agree with you about abortion, but abortion and the civil war are two different subjects you are conflating.

      You seem to have imbibed some of the left’s rather nonsensical explanations for history. I suggest you read more widely

    • ” But this is why it is important to specifically deplatform the confederacy, especially the lost cause statues, as opposed to all other statues.”

      Nonsense; and not least because anyone who uses the word “deplatform” ipso facto makes his opinion worthless.

  2. … we can avoid the cataclysm anytime we choose to, by returning to reality, to reason, to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

    And today the black, churning, lightning-streaked, ominously thundering clouds of a cataclysm are undeniably on the horizon and rapidly approaching, and are likely to arrive this November. So what, more precisely, must we choose to do? We are running out of time. Exactly what will constitute the “returning to reality, to reason” that will “avoid the cataclysm”?

    The too simple, obvious answer is to vote out of all power the Democrat party that has fully embraced the militantly atheistic element of the so-called Enlightenment, which is the source of the “primacy of will and power” that is currently bringing down Western Civilization because it has removed its foundation stone: Its Judeo-Christian heritage.

    The Democrats believe the state has the authority to “legalize” the murder of innocent humanity as a matter of social policy. If the militantly atheistic, leftist Democrats seize power we will surely “get something like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, or communist China.” One would think that the U.S. bishops would be pointing this out. Instead they continue to aid and abet Catholics in rationalizing voting for Democrat candidates. History will judge them harshly, as will God Almighty.

    Yet removing the Democrat party from all power is only the beginning step. If the Democrats are soundly defeated in November babies murdered by the thousands every day in America will still be “legal.” Euthanasia will still be rampant as will sex trafficking of children. There will still be states where aborting your frightened minor daughter without your consent or knowledge will still be “legal.”

    What is it going to take to return to reality and reason? What exactly must we choose to do? What are we obliged to do? Consider the following:

    The one only reason which men have for not obeying [civil authorities] is when anything is demanded of them which is openly repugnant to the natural or the divine law, for it is equally unlawful to command to do anything in which the law of nature or the will of God is violated. If, therefore, it should happen to any one to be compelled to prefer one or the other, viz., to disregard either the commands of God or those of rulers, he must obey Jesus Christ, who commands us to “give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,”(Mt 22:21) and must reply courageously after the example of the Apostles: “We ought to obey God rather than men.”(Acts 5:29) And yet there is no reason why those who so behave themselves should be accused of refusing obedience; for, if the will of rulers is opposed to the will and the laws of God, they themselves exceed the bounds of their own power and pervert justice; nor can their authority then be valid, which, when there is no justice, is null.
    — On the Origin of Civil Power, Leo XIII

    And consider also:

    Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. From the very beginnings of the Church, the apostolic preaching reminded Christians of their duty to obey legitimately constituted public authorities (cf. Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:13-14), but at the same time it firmly warned that “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). In the Old Testament, precisely in regard to threats against life, we find a significant example of resistance to the unjust command of those in authority. After Pharaoh ordered the killing of all newborn males, the Hebrew midwives refused. “They did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live” (Ex 1:17). But the ultimate reason for their action should be noted: “the midwives feared God.” It is precisely from obedience to God — to whom alone is due that fear which is acknowledgment of his absolute sovereignty — that the strength and the courage to resist unjust human laws are born. It is the strength and the courage of those prepared even to be imprisoned or put to the sword, in the certainty that this is what makes for “the endurance and faith of the saints” (Rev 13:10).

    In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to “take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it”.[Take note of that, U.S. bishops. The Democrat party has been running a propaganda campaign if favor of “legal” baby murder for decades. Voting for Democrat candidates is supporting that propaganda campaign.]
    — Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II

    We must openly defy our militantly atheistic, leftist establishment. If Trump has won we will have a Christian-friendly occupant of the White House which will be a gift of God to us as we begin to openly defy laws that pretend to justify “crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize.” We are obliged to defy them. This defiance should probably take the form of the massive civil disobedience that peacefully brought down the militantly atheistic, leftist Soviet Union, that practiced by Lech Walesa’s JP II-approved Solidarity Union.

  3. I really appreciate this article.

    At one point, though, Mr. Reilly responds that you can’t make a reasoned defense with those who have abandoned reason. While this is true, it’s not entirely true. All human beings have the capacity to reclaim reason. Therefore, the question becomes, “how do we do it?”

    I once had a philosophy teacher who had a student who presented a flowery opinion of emotional fluff. My teacher gave a long pause and then calmy said, “that’s very nice. But you have to ask yourself, ‘is it true?’”

    I don’t know if the teacher was effective with the student, but he made a big impression with me.

    • I believe as a Christian we should first approach others in charity and reasonableness but that becomes more difficult when they behave like ISIS.

  4. Like Steve Seitz, I, too, appreciate this article, especially the responses of Mr Robert Reilly; though, with Steve, I think that the forces of anti-reason only serve to underline the importance of reasoned argument and its expression in public life. Not that I consider reason alone sufficient to address current critical issues in society and the Church – faith has an indispensable part to play in illuminating and enabling genuinely Catholic response and contribution to personal and societal life.

  5. This interview article, the book, and the discussion that follows is an example of irrational rationality. Rationality here is used to perpetuate white supremacy and racial injustice calling protests against the above as irrational and thus need to be suppressed in the name of law and order failing to see that the protests are in the first place precisely responses to and calls to correct racial injustices. This is the blindness of those who either perpetuate or benefit from white privilege. It is best to read and compare the book with Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste and realize how rationality blinds the perpetuators and beneficiaries of America’s institutional racism from seeing it as having a lot in common with India’s caste system and Nazi Germany’s racist roots of genocidal actions.

    • The only “irrational rationality” on display is yours. You are attempting to justify vicious hatred and mindless destruction on the basis of mythical “white supremacy” and “white privilege.”

      There’s extreme irony in the fact that a woman whose first book won a Pulitzer Prize, who is lauded and lionized, and whose latest book is pushed and advocated by Oprah Winfrey, also clearly not suffering from oppression, is whining about how oppressed she is and how terrible America is. Assisted by those whom I cannot consider to be anything but feebleminded, who consider that random destruction and defacement is a positive thing, and who are themselves so racist that they see absolutely everything in terms of skin color.

  6. Mrs cracker, I think we should allow towns to decide to remove lost cause statues from the town square, where they have passively indoctrinated by virtue of their place of honor. They can be removed to another location which is not so indoctrinating.

    This is not erasing history it is expunging the product placement program of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who placed most of the statues. Their other activities included writing and censoring history textbooks, and writing and deploying a “Children’s Catechism of the Confederacy”. Creepy!

    • Susan,
      If each locality wanted to decide which historic monuments to remove I think it would still be a shame because erasing history teaches us little. But as Leslie said, that’s mostly not been the case. It’s more about mobs randomly destroying statues & monuments.

  7. The looting and the rioting are taking place in blue cities and states. This is accompanied by calls to defund the police, there is catch and release, and politicized prosecutors are prosecuting people for exercising their Second Amendment rights. The MSM are sweeping this under the rug. It would appear that the people living in these areas are not being treated as sovereign citizens, and are being left wide open to the looting and rioting. It would also appear that we may be seeing We the People being reduced to the status of serfs under the subjugation of the violent mobs.
    *
    How many worldwide organizations are anything other than unelected bureaucracies? Autocracy by bureaucracy as it were. No voting rights attach to being a citizen of the world. My vote begins and ends at the national border. Destroying the nation destroys my sovereignty. Trump and Brexit are people trying to protect their sovereignty against bureaucratic encroachment. The whole thing about the deep state is the realistic concern by people that unelected, unaccountable bureaucracies are trying to assume the roles as the peoples masters. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

  8. Best book I’ve read this year. Deals with our nation’s immediate crisis and its deep philosophical principles He understands its roots in epistemology and the inevitability of our modern moment’s many confusions, omissions, faulty analyses and foundational errors In understanding.

  9. After listening to the democrat communists on the issue of appointing a replacement for Justice Ginsburg, it is readily apparent that we cannot reason with evil people intent upon destroying the country. We are about to go to war. It will be a blood bath of apocalyptic proportions. If we go into civil war the rest of the world is then also at risk for bloodshed. Jesus Mary and Jesus, pray for us. The rot is so far advanced, there is no other way. Immorality abounds despite a pandemic. God is unable to get through to us because we have become so immoral. Everything is about sex. What is coming is the great Chastisement war and pandemics.

  10. Mrs cracker, I am speaking only of Confederate statues and I am comparing them to a Hitler statue, using the cornerstone speech of the Confederacy as my basis for my contention that this *was* to be a slave gulag regime.

    If the comparison were to hold, would you agree with the propriety of a towns deciding to remove a Hitler statue from town square?

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