The following is a review of The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics: Political Theology, Natural Law, and the American Founding, by Kody W. Cooper and Justin Buckley Dyer (Cambridge University Press, 2022).
An enduring challenge in politics is how to achieve a strong and unified community amidst cultural and religious diversity. From ancient cities to Rome to medieval Europe to modern nation states, this has been a perennial problem. History has shown that it can only be overcome (temporarily) by state coercion or intellectual, cultural, or religious cohesion. Similarly, from its very beginning, America’s cultural and religious diversity has produced severe tensions and conflicts. Despite these realities, however, there has also been a surprising amount of coherence and unity in American politics—a unity that is difficult to explain given the realities of colonial America.
How was it exactly that in the American Revolution, rowdy, independent, and often violent Appalachian backwoodsmen came to make common cause with peaceful Quakers and German Pietists of the Delaware Valley? Or how did austere, disciplined, and devout Puritan Yankees in New England align with lax and flamboyant Virginian Cavaliers from the Tidewater region? Political unity in 18th century America is truly remarkable, given that a century earlier back in England, Puritans, Presbyterians, and Cavaliers were literally killing each other on battlefields, and the general civil strife led to large migrations of these groups to America. Furthermore, Anglican and Puritan establishments, in their turn, persecuted both Quakers and Scots-Irish, also driving both latter groups to America in large numbers. How then was America forged as one nation despite these pervasive cultural and religious conflicts? Without a dominant ecclesial institution, or the coercive power of a developed state, what exactly was the basis of E Pluribus Unum? Was American unity an act of pure human will guided by various interests or ideologies, or was it simply a mysterious manifestation of divine Providence? Was it economic interests, racism, or political ideology that pulled us together? How exactly did we come upon a foundation for political cooperation?
Many Americans believe and have believed that these sorts of questions are reserved for distant academics. Most Americans have simply accepted the nation’s cultural heritage and the veneration of its Providential origins which have long underwritten national unity and pride. This popular-level national attachment has been principally intuitive and reflexive. Thus, much of the unity in America for nearly two centuries has been manifested in a vague civil religion and a broad moral or cultural consensus.
For well over a century now, scholars—some well-meaning and some intentionally subversive—have proffered alternative narratives directly contradicting the traditional American account of its founding. Whether based in theoretical speculations about economics, race, or ideology, these elite-driven narratives have slowly chipped away at the original cultural consensus. In nearly every alternate narrative, the American order was engineered by an elite who sought to create an essentially secular polity. In some narratives, this represented a founding crime based in racism or economic oppression; in others, it was a necessary attempt to elevate the untutored masses above their latent capacities or superstitious attachments.
In response to these elite theories, popular voices have persisted in a stubborn attachment to American folk traditions of both the religious and libertarian variety. Their self-assured popular expressions of American culture often lack the philosophical, theological, or academic rigor to make their case stand up in the public square, let alone the halls of academe; yet, given their zeal and numbers, they cannot be ignored. The contemporary result of all of this conflict and confusion is a deeply fractured American polity.
In a new book, The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics: Political Theology, Natural Law, and the American Founding, Kody W. Cooper and Justin Buckley Dyer assert that one answer to America’s past coherence, and a potential guide to contemporary unity, can be found, as the title suggests, in the classical and Christian origins of American politics. Cooper and Dyer‘s account helps decipher many riddles and seeming inconsistencies of the American Founding; the authors deftly move around the historical table, fitting together various pieces of the larger puzzle into a coherent philosophical framework.
For example, let us return to the issue of diversity at the founding. How did Deists, Congregationalists, Anglicans, Quakers, Moravians, Baptists, Presbyterians, Wesleyans, Catholics, Jews, and more all find common ground to sign a Declaration, fight a Revolution, and draft a Constitution? One scholarly option simply downplays their religiosity in favor of materialistic explanations. Yet according to Cooper and Dyer, materialist or wholly secular explanations are insufficient. The vital common thread linking the multiplicity of religious communities together was a deep historic commitment to the classical Christian natural law tradition. This ecumenical tradition helps explain much of their unity, for “although the founders differed on ecclesiastical, and soteriological questions, they had a shared natural theology that remained a common inheritance of Christendom about the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” While these groups differed profoundly, this shared natural theology provided them a robust yet flexible political framework. “By analytically separating the natural law and the revealed law, the Christian natural law tradition provided a framework for the development of an ecumenical, conception of citizenship and the disestablishment of state churches.” If a metaphysical reality actually existed and could be known through human reason, then it could be known by all men regardless of their acceptance or rejection of particular sacred religious commitments.
This helps explain why, to the modern ear, some Founders sound like contemporary Evangelical Protestants, and others sound as if they were Stoic or Enlightenment philosophers. It also helps explain why there are intense culture wars in contemporary politics, as nearly all parties have rejected this tradition in total or in part. The natural law tradition contains a philosophical depth that grew out of pagan antiquity and reached maturity in the Christian intellectual tradition. Its ecumenical superstructure allowed for its adaption and acceptance by rationalist elites as well as popular religious enthusiasts. As the authors note: even while “a very small minority privately mocked the idea of miracles or supernatural revelation” or held “idiosyncratic view[s] of Christianity” and “remained philosophically or religiously skeptical,” these doubters still fundamentally “operated within a Christian milieu.” Even heterodox skeptics held beliefs on “divine providence, natural law, and natural rights, coupled with a grim view of human nature” that “might be held on the grounds independent of any belief in biblical revelation” and they ultimately did so because “those beliefs were deeply embedded in a culture that was shaped by Christianity.”
Beyond the political usefulness of its inherent ecumenism, the classical natural law tradition might also simply give the most complete account of the views of the Founders, from colonial pamphleteers to revolutionary leaders to Constitutional Framers. For example, Cooper and Dyer show how colonial leader James Otis, who is sometimes cast by scholars in a rationalist light, actually gives—in agreement with Ellis Sandoz—an “essentially Thomistic” argument that “can be seen as within the broad natural-law tradition.” Or John Dickenson who “lays out a classical natural-law perspective on the virtue of justice… affirmable by unaided reason.” Indeed, both “grounded their political arguments in a theistic and teleological natural-law theory of morality.” But what about obviously heterodox sceptic Thomas Jefferson? Cooper and Dyer hold that “…for all of Jefferson’s, private and idiosyncratic religious beliefs,” he did not jettison the essence of the natural law tradition; “he still affirmed the core essentials of classical Christian natural law theory.” The Declaration of Independence, while not overtly Christian, “is a theological political document that appears compatible with the broad swath of theological beliefs, held by Americans in the colonial era.”
In terms of justifying lethal force or revolution, unlike the secular and murderous grounds of the French Revolution, where ever shifting ideological conformity had to be coercively imposed, the American cause differed fundamentally at its core: “[in] the classical natural law, perspective, resistance, and/or revolution cannot be premised on appeals solely to abstract natural rights formulated as flowing from a state of nature.” The state of nature as a rational construct is simply not adequate to ground the relationship between natural rights and duties, rather both “community and authority are necessary features of embodied human existence: place, context, history, and custom matter.” Fending off abstract rationalism at one turn, Americans also had to ward off a thin Biblicism at the other. Certain literalist tendencies within Christian theology strongly rejected notions of armed resistance to civil authority; another strain of Biblical Christian thought had developed a robust resistance theology. For figures like Johnathan Mayhew or Samuel West, “[t]he patriots argued that resistance was warranted, both under the light of reason and the authority of revelation, an argument that was consistent in principle with the classical Christian natural law tradition.”
Not only did this tradition help bind American patriots together in political solidarity, but these fundamental premises also lay the groundwork for the entire American Constitutional system and rule of law rightly understood. Indeed, the very logic of constitutionalism suggests the existence of metaphysical limits on popular or state power that simply do not exist in secular narratives of the Founding. Indeed, the American Constitution is hardly intelligible without this recognition.
Cooper and Dyer develop this line of argument by exploring the thought of James Wilson, a key Constitutional Framer and architect of the American legal tradition: “Wilson’s lectures on law challenge this common interpretive framework of the Founding as anti-Christian by highlighting the essential continuity between the Christian natural law tradition and the first and most prominent lectures on American jurisprudence.” Any attempts to turn Wilson into a heterodox rationalist ultimately fall flat, for while Wilson drew much from the Scottish Enlightenment, Wilson departed from Hume and Hutcheson on a crucial point: “Wilson followed… [the] argument that reason rather than sentiment apprehends the first principles of natural law.” Wilson’s God is “the creator, known by reason… and in whose well he grounded the moral obligation, to conform to the natural law.” Thus, “To speak of the Christian natural law tradition, then, is to speak of the long Christian engagement with a philosophical tradition that understands human goods and moral norms to be based on a distinctive order of nature, created by God, and intelligible to human reason.”
As Cooper and Dyer point out, “These theological questions have practical implications for political philosophy… Power, without goodness, does not entail authority, and goodness without authority does not entail law.” It is only with the “unity of power and goodness” that “the rule of law [is] founded on the idea of an authority who may legitimately legislate for the common good.” Thus, the rule of law is not rooted in some stark and unassailable sovereignty of the people. Rather, “the rule of law understood in these terms, sets apart the Christian view of natural law from the modern, Hobbist understanding of absolute sovereignty.” Abraham Lincoln defended this view when he resisted the assertions of popular sovereignty by Stephen Douglas in the 1850s, as did Martin Luther King Jr. when he resisted expressions of popular sovereignty in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s.
America has, at its core, has fundamentally resisted “law” framed as the imposition of the strong channeled through unassailable expressions of state or popular sovereignty. Oliver Wendell Holmes once confidently quipped that, “Truth is the majority vote of the nation that can lick all the others,” in writing this, Holmes simply reflected a widespread 20th century intellectual view, which has only gained traction with onset of the post-modern deconstruction of politics and culture. What moderns and post-moderns do not understand, or intentionally ignore, is that every system must rest on a real metaphysical ground or some transcendent framework. And in this sense, all states are confessional states; but only some realize it. According to J. Budziszewski, modern liberalism lacks this awareness. Orestes Brownson put it this way: “The principles of metaphysical dependency constitute the deepest fount of the providential constitution and, consequently, of the US Constitution in full.” As Cooper and Dyer point out, for Brownson and the American Founders, this is vital: “Metaphysical dependence is the essential presupposition of ordered liberty… because the divinely grounded order of justice and the common good at once authorize and limit the state while grounding, natural rights and natural duties.” Conversely, a departure from this tradition has historically led to tyrannical conditions: “…the rejection of the Christian natural-law tradition in modern political philosophy led in the other direction: to the reunification of church and state and the suppression of religious dissent. So it is, for example, in the Hobbist vision of the Leviathan, and in the Rousseauian vision of the General Will.”
As Cooper and Dyer point out, the natural law tradition is the essential variable that allows for both the viability and the existence of the American political order as we have known it. Any efforts to re-orient or re-found America threaten its very existence. Cooper and Dyer’s work documents how the American Founders skillfully navigated the American order between the proverbial Scylla and Charybdis of tyrannical secular power on one hand or the overly particular sectarian religious authority on the other. The natural law tradition provided a safe passage between these dangerous shoals on which many a political regime had been wrecked. Cooper and Dyer’s careful analysis on a number of these fronts critically undermines the claims by Patrick Deneen and others that America was essentially modern, that American liberalism is failing because it has largely succeeded, and that the Founders were basically either fools or scoundrels.
It is also worth noting that Cooper and Dyer’s efforts are the latest in a growing body of contemporary scholarship that rightly sees the classical and Christian dimensions of American politics as an historical, philosophical, and theological reality. This reality is a strength to be emphasized, rather than an inconvenient truth to be airbrushed out of the founding picture. Contemporary scholars such as Paul DeHart, Mark Hall, Glenn Moots, and others have all been exploring and explaining the contours and influence of the American tradition helping to build an impressive body of scholarship showing how the ideas and actions of the founding generation, as well as the institutions they built, are only intelligible within a broad Christian natural law tradition.
In the end, Cooper and Dyer show how the classical and Christian origins of American politics provided, and can still provide, a sound basis for civic friendship— for the religious ecumenism, intellectual rigor, and cultural multiplicity that is vital to maintaining a modern political order. A question that this volume raises but does not directly answer is whether America still has the resources to recover the Founding era consensus. Many critics of America’s Founding tacitly or explicitly argue that it does not. The intellectual left and right seem to advocate a conformity imposed through our government or cultural institutions, while some on the religious right advocate a return to imposed piety through some form of religious establishment. Yet the Founding era Americans realized political unity by centering on the metaphysical reality that imposes itself on every human of every stripe. The American Founding’s focus on religious liberty was not a concession to powerful interests but a principled belief, in the words of George Mason: “That Religion, or the duty which we owe to our CREATOR, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” In this way, religious liberty lies at the core of unlocking the dilemma of a diverse culture. Both ecclesial establishments and state-imposed ideology violate this core principle rooted in the natural ability of all humans to discern fundamental religious truths.
The natural law tradition confirms the basic intuitions of the common man, even as those intuitions get refined and articulated with a precision of philosophers and theologians. In a sense, the original religious and cultural cleavages in America required a metaphysical orthodoxy rather than ecclesial establishment or ideological conformity at the national level. The research that is working to recover these lost or rejected natural law foundations, such as Cooper and Dyer’s work, is valuable not only to our continued scholarly understanding of the Founding, but also in its application to our current political moment and hopes of a stable American future.
Darren Patrick Guerra is a Professor of Political Science at Biola University in La Mirada, CA. He is the author of Perfecting the Constitution: The Case for the Article V Amendment Process. Guerra has also published articles in First Things, Public Discourse, and Christianity Today. Guerra has appeared on NPR and Voice of America and frequently speaks on how to preserve American Constitutionalism.