A Catholic Defense of the American Founding

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By Gillian Richards, The Catholic University of America 

Certain Catholic critics of the American Constitutional order often point to the contemporary social and political climate as proof that the founding was a project doomed to failure: we are now experiencing the fruits of the founders’ fundamentally individualist, “Enlightenment liberal” philosophy.

But did not the founders believe in “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” as well as the reality of man’s fallen nature? And isn’t such a belief enshrined in the Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights? As I will attempt to show, the founders did indeed have an understanding of the common good, as articulated in the founding documents. Drawing from Robert Reilly, Jacques Maritain, and other political thinkers and historians, I will attempt to show that the founders espouse a notion of the common good that is consistent with Catholic doctrine—including, in particular, through the right to freedom of religion as articulated by the First Amendment.

Common Good as Ordered to Supernatural End

As Aquinas understood, a political community is a unity of order, rather than a substantial unity. This is ultimately where the Church derives her understanding of the temporal common good. As is articulated in Gaudium et Spes,

“The common good, that is, the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment, today takes on an increasingly universal complexion and consequently involves rights and duties with respect to the whole human race. Every social group must take account of the needs and legitimate aspirations of other groups, and even of the general welfare of the entire human family.”[1]

Catholics, and those within the Judeo-Christian tradition more broadly, may agree on this definition of the common good, yet disagree over whether the American founders espoused such an understanding. Was the American founding rooted in the Judeo-Christian, natural law tradition? Or was it tainted with Enlightenment visions of radical individualism, autonomy, and the perfectibility of man? In other words, were the founding principles themselves faulty? Were they the root cause of what led us to where we are today, with Obergefell, Roe, “drag queen story hour,” and the like? Or were the founding principles fundamentally good, but something went awry along the way? If the latter is true, then it is our task to restore the founding principles as originally conceived. I will argue just this. But first, we must consider the arguments of those who argue that the constitutional principles themselves are to blame for the current state of our country. Some critics of our founding order, who claim that the founders planted a “ticking time bomb,” describe themselves as “integralists” because they desire some form of integration of Church and state. This arguably violates the First Amendment prohibition of the establishment of religion. But for integralists, this begs the question, since such separation between Church and state is, in their view, a cause of our current problems. They take the First Amendment, among other constitutional principles, to be the epitome of secular, Enlightenment liberalism, which seeks to eradicate truth and natural law principles from the public square. (Whether this is true will be discussed in a later section.)

Catholic Critics of the American Constitutional Order

Even if most Catholics share a basic understanding of the common good as articulated in Gaudium et Spes, is the American Constitution consistent with such a view?

Some, especially in recent years, have criticized the founding documents (the Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights) either for having an improper understanding of the common good, or lacking any notion of a common good altogether. Some such critics include “integralists,” who maintain that the “liberal Enlightenment” philosophy as espoused by the framers (Madison, Jefferson, Adams, etc.) was baked into our founding documents and thus sowed the seeds to our own destruction. In this following section I will be synthesizing the ideas of various integralist thinkers, focusing on Patrick Deneen in particular.

As critics such as Deneen contend, our representative democracy and the “liberal” principles of religious freedom, equality, and so forth ultimately led to the degradation of our society. Indeed, many across the political spectrum may agree with the integralist diagnosis that our culture is in a dire state—we can point to the rise of gender ideology, secularism, atheism, consumerism, and materialism as prime examples. Merely looking at the cultural landscape, there is something to the argument of many faith-based critics of the constitution. Just listing a handful of contemporary court rulings—Roe v. Wade, Obergefell, Griswold v. Connecticut, and Lawrence v. Texas—all seem to reflect the overall trends of modern culture. Surely, there is some fault in our founding principles which led to this political climate.

On the other hand, Western culture more broadly has certainly lost a conception of the human person as created in the image of God, endowed with a rational soul. It seems odd to blame the American founding principles in particular for such trends, when atheism and secularism plague many other Western nations to an even greater extent. The integralist may respond that it is not the founding per se, but the broader principles that inspired the Founding, which are to blame. Ultimately, an irreparable rupture took place between the Christian synthesis of Jerusalem, Athens, and ancient Rome on one side and the Enlightenment, which underlay the American Founding, on the other. If so, it is then worth exploring such “liberal” values integralists bemoan. There may be some truth to the claim that the philosophies of Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes played a role in our culture’s decay, given their profound influence on modernity.

Indeed, one such prominent critic of the Constitutional order is Patrick Deneen, who has written that “to have allegiance even to this mixed Constitutional founding is ultimately to declare allegiance to the trajectory of radical autonomy and individualism.”[2] This emphasis on the autonomy of the individual is largely an Enlightenment idea, as thinkers like Deneen argue. Autonomy takes precedence over virtue and the pursuit of the good, true, and beautiful. We do, in fact, see this prizing of autonomy over all else in the current political landscape. Take Justice Anthony Kennedy’s notorious “Mystery of Life” opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey: “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.”[3] He would later write in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), “Liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct.” Such a conception of liberty is highly individualistic and seems divorced from any underlying, objective ordering of the universe. Justice Kennedy’s thinking emphasizes the role the individual plays in carving out his own existence—and his own essence. There are no natures that make us certain types of creatures—a critic might surmise that Kennedy’s writings are reminiscent of existentialism, in which existence precedes essence.

Critics of the American system (notably integralists) see Kennedy’s postmodern view of the world as a result of the Founders’ philosophies. They often point to Locke and Hobbes as philosophers who undermined natural law teleology—and further, they contend that Locke and Hobbes’s political philosophies are essentially the same. Even if Locke and Hobbes shared the same epistemology—most likely they did not—it is not clear how this directly influenced their political philosophies. Although the founders were inspired, especially by Locke’s philosophy, many still embraced a kind of teleology—although theirs was more teleo-mechanistic than Aristotelian. 

Moreover, aside from Locke’s epistemology, others have argued persuasively that his understanding of political theory is compatible with a more traditional, conservative understanding than that of Hobbes and Rousseau, according to historian Robert Reilly. As Reilly put it:

“It is impossible to interpret Hobbes as the American Founding’s intellectual source. His notion of mutable man dominated by his passions, incapable of ruling himself, requiring an absolute sovereign to hold his desires in harness, is incompatible with the idea of immutable man under the rule of his reason, capable of ruling himself through constitutional government. Hobbes’s teaching was as antithetical to the founders’ thinking as Locke’s was congenial to it.”[4]

Indeed, Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the most Enlightenment-tinged of all the Founders, pushed back against Hobbesian philosophy. In a letter, Jefferson wrote that “the principles of Hobbes” are a “humiliation to human nature; that the sense of justice and injustice is not derived from our natural organization, but founded on convention only.”[5] Unlike Hobbes, who denied the existence of human nature and was able to justify a Leviathan state on this basis, the Founders embraced Locke’s understanding of the “laws of nature.” As such, they did not dismiss formal and final causality, but rather used it in part as a basis for limited government. The American founding depends upon the laws of nature, rather than subverts them, as some critics contend. Critics will say there was a new ontology that arose during the Enlightenment era and pervaded the thought of modern thinkers—including most especially the framers of the constitution, perhaps without them even realizing it. What was this new ontology? A denial of formal and final causality? How essential is this to the founding itself?

Defenses of the Founding

So how did we get to the predicament we are in today? Even if the integralists’ grim diagnosis of our current situation is correct, is the founding itself really to blame, or something else?

To answer this question, I will start by looking at the Constitution itself. As the framers wrote in the preamble: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” It is clear the founders understood themselves as creating a government designed to protect and promote the common good: indeed, this is what they understood by “common defense,” “general welfare,” and so forth. As John Adams wrote,

“Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity and happiness of the people; and not for the profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men: Therefore the people alone have an incontestable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to institute government; and to reform, alter, or totally change the same, when their protection, safety, prosperity and happiness require it.”[6]

The Constitution was written in such a way as to place internal limits upon government power. Article I vested all legislative powers in Congress, which would be composed of a House and a Senate; article II vested executive power in the president; and article III vested judicial power in the Supreme Court, and also established inferior courts which would be ordained by Congress from time to time. Such checks were introduced to protect citizens from an overly expansive federal state. The framers created a federal system which was based upon what was essentially the principle of subsidiarity, as understood by Catholic Social Teaching: what can be done by individuals and smaller groups should not be subsumed by a larger power. As such, the framers delegated to state and local governments various powers that are better handled by more localized authorities. For those who feared power being centralized in a single authority (the anti-federalists), the federalists drafted a Bill of Rights. These amendments would place further limitations on government power. It is key that the very first clause of First Amendment stated that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The first amendment of the Bill of Rights is a recognition of one of the most fundamental rights of man: to worship God in the way he sees fit. The respect for religious freedom is a crucial aspect of the American founding. I will touch on this point in a later section.

Ultimately, the founders set up a government for the purpose of protecting and sustaining the common good, primarily through the protection of the individual’s liberties. But what if the populous cannot uphold the institutions of virtue that the founders put in place? Indeed, the founders themselves predicted America’s downfall if we could not sustain a moral order. We have a republic, as Benjamin Franklin famously said, but only if we can keep it. Samuel Adams wrote that “Revelation assures us that ‘Righteousness exalteth a Nation’—Communities are dealt with in this World by the wise and just Ruler of the Universe. The diminution of publick Virtue is usually attended with that of publick Happiness, and the publick Liberty will not long survive the total Extinction of Morals.”[7] He would later warn that “if we are universally vicious and debauched in our manners, though the form of our Constitution carries the face of the most exalted freedom, we shall in reality be the most abject of slaves.”[8] And as John Adams pointed out, “We have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net.”[9]

James Madison would write in The Federalist No. 62, “No government, any more than an individual, will long be respected without being truly respectable; nor be truly respectable without possessing a certain portion of order and stability.” Madison conceded that “it is a misfortune incident to republican government, though in a less degree than to other governments, that those who administer it, may forget their obligations to their constituents, and prove unfaithful to their important trust.”[10]

Robert Reilly, in his definitive treatment of the American Founding, America on Trial, wrote the following about the founders: “The total dependence of liberty on virtue—both Aristotelian and Christian—was abundantly, unmistakably clear from their frequent writings… For them, the meaning of the universe originates not in ourselves but in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”[11] One such example is seen in John Adam’s letter to Thomas Jefferson, in which the former explains what he believes were the founding principles behind the Revolutionary War: 

“And what were these principles? I answer, the general principles of Christianity in which all those sects were united and the general principles of English and American liberty in which all these young men united. . . . Now I will avow that I then believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God. And that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature…. I could, therefore, safely say consistently with all my then and present information, that I believe they would never make discoveries in contradiction to these general principles.”[12]

Freedom of Religion

American Democracy, as enshrined in the Constitution and Declaration, prioritizes certain rights (life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and property). Our inalienable right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness entails, as the first amendment of the Constitution posits, that “the government shall not establish any religion or prohibit the free exercise thereof.” Freedom of religion, therefore, is the essential part of our flourishing according to the founders. This leads to questions of the jurisdiction of the state. The founders believe man’s religious ends do not fall within the jurisdiction of the state. But is that to say they are antagonistic toward religion? Certainly not, for the emphasis is on following one’s conscience to the best of his or her ability, without the interference of a third party. In some sense, the First Amendment is a perfect articulation of Aquinas’s understanding of the common good as orienting man to his final end. A system of government which respects a man’s desire to worship God in the way he sees fit (which is arrived at by way of a properly formed conscience) and does not interfere in such a process as long as it does not involve violating another’s fundamental rights is certainly in line with a traditional Christian understanding of the common good.

Some argue that it is precisely this between church and state, Caesar and God, that made America the prosperous nation it is. Ultimately, this understanding that God and Caesar must be distinct spheres stems from the Judeo-Christian tradition (indeed, Christ said “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”)

As Paul VI emphasizes in Dignitatis Humanae:

“A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man, and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty. The demand is likewise made that constitutional limits should be set to the powers of government, in order that there may be no encroachment on the rightful freedom of the person and of associations. This demand for freedom in human society chiefly regards the quest for the values proper to the human spirit. It regards, in the first place, the free exercise of religion in society.”[13]

 The council reinforces the importance of freedom of conscience. Indeed, only can one freely choose to accept the Gospel of Christ. Religious freedom, then, is based in the dignity of the human person, and is a fundamental right insofar as we have the duty to worship God in the way we see most fitting (given that we are not infringing upon another’s right to life, liberty, or property in the process).

Even Aquinas—who integralists often tout as being antithetical to the American Founding philosophy—made a sort of defense of religious freedom in the Summa Theologiae. Thus, the contention of constitutional critics who hold that the founders’ emphasis on freedom of religion was a distinctly modern and secular notion is misguided.

Furthermore, as Robert Reilly points out, with Christianity “the primacy of the political was over. The most important aspect of man’s life, his salvation, was marked off from the state and was not to be reached through its agency.”[14] Specifically, “Man is no longer subsumed by the polis; rather the polis exists to serve man.” Indeed, as Jacques Maritain argued, the state exists for the purpose of the common good, which involves the goods of individual members. The members of the body politic, then, have the right to full autonomy and self-government.[15]

Citing Aquinas in The Person and the Common Good, Maritain writes, “The most essential and the dearest aim of Thomism is to make sure that the personal contact of all intellectual creatures with God, as well as their personal subordination to God, be in no way interrupted. Everything else-the whole universe and every social institution-must ultimately minister to this purpose; everything must foster and strengthen and protect the conversation of the soul, every soul, with God.”[16]

We are ordered to a greater, supernatural good over and above the imminent common good. The common good of the political order should exist to orient man to God, which is his primary end. As Maritain writes, “The beatific vision is therefore the supremely personal act by which the soul, transcending absolutely every sort of created common good, enters into the very bliss of God and draws its life from the uncreated Good, the divine essence itself, the uncreated common Good of the three Divine Persons.”

In other words, man is created in the image of God and endowed with a rational soul. We have a specific end, therefore, that consists in the fulfillment of our intellectual nature—ultimately contemplation of the Beatific Vision in union with God. In turn, we also have one foot in the physical, temporal world. As such, we have certain obligations and duties necessary to achieve this end. Part of this end involves living in harmony with others. The reality is that humans live in communities of individuals, each of whom is willed by God for his or her own sake.

Thus, no temporal community can subordinate each person’s dignity to the good of its own whole. As Maritain writes, “Because the common good is the human common good, it includes within its essence, as we shall see later, the service of the human person.” A political community or mystical body is one that leaves the personality and individuality of members intact, unlike an organic body that subsumes all the members into a single whole, as, for instance, fascist states conceive of themselves.

The notion of man as created in the image of God, endowed with an intellectual soul, is a strong limiting force on the power of the state. With the Incarnation of Christ, we see a clear demarcation of the roles of Church and state. In Mark 12:17, Christ said to the Pharisees: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”[17] In the Gospel of Matthew it was noted that the crowd “marveled” when they heard this, which is interesting, because it implies this was a novel concept Christ introduced. This distinction between God’s authority and civil authority was unheard of in the ancient world. Christ thus introduced a divide between the sacred and the secular. This is a crucial reality. As Reilly points out, “Caesar’s image was not stamped on man; God’s was. From this crucial difference sprang the distinction between the sacred and the secular. The secular is not antithetical to Christianity; it is a product of it. Christianity created the secular. It insists on it.”[18] As Lord Acton put it, Christ’s words in the Gospel of Mark placed upon temporal authority “bounds it had never acknowledged; and they were the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of Freedom…. The new law, the new spirit, the new authority, gave to liberty a meaning and a value it had not possessed in the philosophy or in the constitution of Greece or Rome before the knowledge of the truth that makes us free.”[19]

Nevertheless, Christ did grant civil authority legitimacy as well. There is a religious realm as well as a secular realm. Both must be accorded due respect, while the divine order ultimately trumps the temporal. In temporal, worldly affairs, we can rely upon man’s practical reason and judgment, as God ordained. Indeed, Christ’s kingdom is “not of this world.”[20] This is yet another rebuttal of the integralist thesis that state and church ought to be integrated. Aside from integralism’s utter impracticality, it also contradicts Christ’s very words in the Gospel of rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and God’s what is God’s, as well as the fact that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. It is also worth noting, one of Christ’s temptations during his forty days in the desert was being granted temporal political power, which he resisted. 

As Jacques Maritain wrote in Man and the State, “Society itself and its common good are subordinate to the perfect accomplishment of the person and his supra-temporal aspirations as to an end of another order—an end which transcends the body politic.”[21] In other words, there is a greater good which the good of the body politic is aimed at. In attempting to proclaim itself supreme, over and above God’s providence and the eternal order, human society “perverts its own nature and that of the common good.”[22] To be sure, “the common good of civil life is an ultimate end, but an ultimate end in a relative sense and in a certain order, not the absolute ultimate end.” The nature of the common good is to further the ends of the human person. Man is directly ordained to God, and thus any attempt by political authorities to supervene on this relationship of man and God “sins against the human person and the political common good.” As Maritain puts it, the body politic has an “indirect subordination” to this higher good—ultimately, there is a “primacy of the supernatural.”

Religious freedom, then, is of the utmost importance to the political community. As Maritain aptly put it:

“Not only is the freedom of the Church to be recognized as required by freedom of association and freedom of religious belief without interference from the State, but that freedom of the Church appears as grounded on the very rights of God and as identical with His own freedom in the face of any human institution. The freedom of the Church does express the very independence of the Incarnate Word.”[23]

The Church, as an institution, is in the body politic. The health of the political community in fact depends on the free operation of the Church (and churches of other denominations) so that she may influence other societal institutions such as families, schools, and so forth. That said, the claim that the Church is in political society, as a part of it, is not uncontroversial. Does this not imply an irreligious and secular body politic? Maritain emphasizes that the political realm is primarily concerned with the temporal life of men—and the Church has said as much. Pope Leo XIII in Immortale Dei, for instance, stressed the autonomy and independence of the state. That said, the spiritual order is intrinsically superior to temporal life. Furthermore, while the body politic is autonomous in a certain respect, the Church and state are not entirely isolated from each other either. Some level of cooperation between the two is certainly necessary.

Ultimately, the distinction between the sacred and secular would ultimately provide the basis for the First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty.  Other key aspects of the founding, including limited government, individual sovereignty, rule of law, had philosophical roots in the natural law tradition. As we will see in the next section, such values are, again, not solely rooted in liberal enlightenment philosophy. Rather, they have roots in Ancient Greek and Stoic philosophy.

Foundations: “The gift of the Greeks”

What Benedict XVI called the “gift of the Greeks” would prove to be of utmost importance to the American founding. Namely, the Greek’s belief in reason gave rise to philosophy and their idea of the agora, or public square, in which people would come together to discuss and philosophize. The existence of a body politic relies upon a certain conception of man: namely, that human nature is fundamentally reasonable and endowed with an intellectual soul. Such a view relies on the belief in objective reality, and its knowability. Unlike pagan cultures, which viewed the world as fundamentally chaotic and non-rational, the Greeks had a strong conception of the knowability of the universe.

Even before Aristotle and Plato, pre-Socratic philosophers devised notions of the universe as fundamentally reasonable. Heraclitus, for instance, believed Logos (thought or reason) pervaded the universe and thus accounted for its intelligibility. As Heraclitus believed, “It is the highest virtue and true wisdom in speaking and acting to obey nature that is the common logos. Therefore, all human laws are nourished by this original divine law.”[24] Such ideas would later pave the way for Aristotle’s understanding of natures or universals as immanent in the natural world. Namely, we can know things about the world by abstracting universals from particulars. For Aristotle, substances have ends (or a telos) inscribed on their nature such that they act either instinctually or by reason for the sake of this end. As Aristotle writes in the Politics, “The ‘nature’ of things consists in their end or consummation; for what each thing is when its growth is completed we call the nature of that thing, whether it be a man or a horse or a family.”[25] Nature, then, always acts for the sake of an end—or “purpose” so to speak, whether or not that’s conscious or unconscious. Further, in some sense, one can know what a thing is by reason of its end—which also is linked to a thing’s form.

Aquinas, in question 91 of the Summa Theologiae, would expand upon Aristotle’s view of nature in the following way:

“All things partake somewhat of the eternal law, insofar as, namely, from its being imprinted on them, they derive their respective inclinations to their proper acts and ends. Now among all others, the rational creature is subject to Divine Providence in a more excellent way, insofar as it partakes of a share of Providence, by being provident for itself and for others. Wherefore it has a share of the eternal reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end, and this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law.”[26]

How, then, did this inform the American founding? Was the enlightenment not a rejection of traditional wisdom? The emphasis on reason was certainly a pervading theme in Enlightenment philosophy. However, the Founders were eclectic. For instance, they drew not just on Scripture but on Stoic philosophy, which was the heir to ancient Greek philosophy. And the Roman Cicero, notably, believed the law is based fundamentally on reason. As he wrote in On the Commonwealth,

“True law is reason, right and natural, commanding people to fulfill their obligation and prohibiting and deterring them from doing wrong. Its validity is universal; it is immediate and eternal. Its commands and prohibitions apply effectively to good men, and those uninfluenced by them are bad. Any attempt to supersede this law, to repeal any part of it, is sinful; to cancel it entirely is impossible. Neither the Senate nor the Assembly can exempt us from its demands; we need no interpreter or expounder of it but ourselves. There will not be one law in Rome, one in Athens, or one now and one later, but all nations will be subject all the time to this one changeless and everlasting law: for God, who is its author and promulgator, is always the sole author and sovereign of mankind.”[27]

This passage reveals Cicero’s strong sense of a higher law that temporal lawgivers are beholden to—indeed, he believed it is a sin to supersede this law. The “changeless and everlasting law”—God’s eternal law—takes precedence over all other laws. This idea echoes Aquinas’s understanding of the four types of law, which he lays out in the Prima Secundae of the Summa Theologiae. According to Aquinas, the four types of law are eternal, divine, natural, and human. God’s eternal law is infinite and eternal. We know the eternal law through the natural law, which is written on the hearts of men—this is understood as the way in which the natural law is promulgated.

Similar to Aquinas’s understanding that unjust human laws are not laws at all, since they are not in accord with the natural law, Cicero believed “wicked and unjust statutes” are not laws because “in the very definition of the term ‘law’ there inheres the idea and principle of choosing what is just and true.”[28] This normative view of nature would influence the American founders’ own understanding of the basis of temporal law. John Adams, for instance, studied Cicero in depth and would quote him in his Defence of the Constitutions of the United States, saying, “Those laws, which are right reason, derived from the Divinity, commanding honesty, forbidding iniquity; which are silent magistrates, where the magistrates are only speaking laws; which as they are founded in eternal morals, are emanations of the Divine mind.”[29]

Influence on the Founders

These ancient thinkers had a key influence upon the founding philosophy. A key mediator was Anglican Richard Hooker—who was influenced by and adopted Aquinas and Aristotle’s understanding of the natural law. Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity was directed at Calvinist Protestants in particular, who believed the only important law was “sacred scripture.” Hooker set out to revive and Aristotelian/Thomist notion of the “Law of Reason” (i.e., the natural law).[30] He feared the loss of reason in common affairs, and he saw the rise of Machiavellianism as a threat to Christianity. In response, Hooker re-introduced Aristotle to his Christian thought—later, Locke would be inspired by Hooker and draw from him in his Treatise on Civil Government. Hooker would also influence Sidney, who Reilly describes, along with Locke, as one “directly associated with the intellectual lineage of the American founding.”[31]

Hooker, like Aquinas, believed in a law of nature that is derived from the eternal law.[32] In opposition to those reformers who rejected natural reason, Hooker reaffirmed the general reliability of man’s reason, which does not always need the direct assistance of divine revelation, but can instead rely upon the law of nature. This view can be described as a kind of “Christian rationalism,” standing in contrast to the voluntarism that was prevalent in Hooker’s day. 


As G.K. Chesterton so aptly put it in Orthodoxy, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”[33] In a sense, this quote by G.K. Chesterton encapsulates the project of the American Founders. They saw the American experiment as a democracy of the dead, as well as a democracy of those not yet born. The Constitution was designed, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, to establish a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” which “shall not perish from the earth.”[34]

The founders created a government with internal checks and balances because they recognized both the pervasiveness of sin as well as the “laws of nature and of nature’s God.” They not merely relied upon Enlightenment philosophy, but also drew from wisdom of the past, the natural law theory of the Stoics as well as that passed down to them through Hooker, Locke, and Sidney, to create a representative democracy designed by the people and for the people. Ultimately, they recognized the inherent dignity of every person—as enshrined in the Declaration and Bill of Rights. Indeed, the First Amendment expressly prohibited the federal government from establishing any particular religion, not because they sought an irreligious society, but so that the people could exercise their unalienable right to worship the Creator. Catholic critics of the Constitutional order, although well-meaning, miss this crucial fact.

[1] Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes, December 7, 1965, https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html.

[2] Robert Reilly, “For God and Country: Can Good Christians be Good Americans?” Claremont Review of Books (Summer 2017), https://claremontreviewofbooks.com/for-god-and-country1/

[3]  Clifford R. Goldstein, “Justice Kennedy’s ‘Notorious Mystery Passage,’” Liberty Magazine, July/August 1997, https://www.libertymagazine.org/article/justice-kennedys-notorious-mystery-passage.

[4] Reilly, “For God and Country.”

[5] Reilly, “For God and Country.”

[6] Massachusetts Declarations of Rights, Article 7 (1780), https://blog.mass.gov/masslawlib/legal-history/massachusetts-declaration-of-rights-article-7/.

[7] Steve Straub, “Samuel Adams to John Scollay, April 30, 1776,” The Federalist Papers, January 10, 2013, https://thefederalistpapers.org/founders/samuel-adams/samuel-adams-to-john-scollay-april-30-1776.

[8] Reilly, America on Trial, 321.

[9] Ibid.

[10] James Madison, The Federalist No. 62, New York, February 27, 1778, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-04-02-0212.

[11] Reilly, America on Trial, 10.

[12] John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, June 28, 1813, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-06-02-0208.

[13] Paul VI, Dignitatis Humanae, 1, December 7, 1965, https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651207_dignitatis-humanae_en.html.

[14] Reilly, America on Trial, 52.

[15] Jacques Maritain, Man and the State (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998), 25.

[16] Jacques Maritain, Person and the Common Good, trans. John J. Fitzgerald (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947).

[17] Mark 12:17

[18] Reilly, 52.

[19] John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, The History of Freedom and Other Essays (London: Macmillan, 1907), 29.

[20] John 18:36.

[21] Maritain, Man and the State, 148.

[22] Ibid, 149.

[23] Ibid, 151.

[24] Ibid, 27.

[25] Aristotle, Politics 1, 2, 1252b.

[26] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 91, a. 2.

[27] Cicero, On the Commonwealth 3, 33.

[28] Cicero, De Legibus 2, 11.

[29] The Works of John Adams: Second President of the United States, 10 vols. (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1850–1856), 6:56. (emphasis mine)

[30] http://www.nlnrac.org/classical/richard-hooker

[31] Reilly, America on Trial, 36.

[32] Robert Faulkner, “Richard Hooker (1554-1600) and Natural Law,” Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American Constitutionalism, August 13, 2015, http://www.nlnrac.org/classical/richard-hooker.

[33] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, goodreads.com, https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/54814-tradition-means-giving-votes-to-the-most-obscure-of-all.

[34] Abraham Lincoln, “The Gettysburg Address,” November 19, 1863, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm.

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