Today's Politicos vs The Words and Deeds of The Founders
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American On Trial: A Defense of the Founding

Robert Reilly has undertaken a gargantuan task in his latest book, making his case in defense of the American Founding against a subtle attack couched as a moral argument. It’s almost as though he is forced to explain everything in Greek despite his readers only speaking English. Perhaps a better analogy would be to say that it’s as though he were told to demonstrate a mathematical or geometrical proof without the use of givens.  E.g. given A=A and A=B then B=A. No doubt recognizing his challenge, Reilly nevertheless ploughs forward demanding only attention and consideration from his reader and not requiring of his audience the basic historical and philosophical underpinnings possessed by the founders whose work he defends.

America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding was inspired by Reilly’s reaction to the poison-pill thesis espoused in the writings of Michael Hanby and Patrick Deneen. This poison-pill is that for Deneen, the Founding “… is based on a lie about humanity, a false anthropology. Hanby believes that it is based on an error about the nature of reality, a false metaphysics.”

The question at hand is on what basis was America founded?  Was it a product of enlightenment thought contaminating its religious and moral tenets? Is the progressive path down which the nation seems to be headed the inevitable and inescapable outcome of “all men are created equal?” Did the founders sow the seeds of our destruction unintentionally by creating a system that ultimately grew to exclude the possibility of moral stricture as a governing force?

Was the American Founding rooted in the Judeo-Christian heritage and natural law, or was it infused with notions of the radical autonomy and perfectibility of man and, therefore, inimical to the Christian and natural law conception of reality? Was the Founding America’s Original Sin? Are present-day evils simply the logical outcome of this fatal flaw, or does the current malaise result from a fundamentally sound principle gone awry for other reasons?

There is a lot to unpack here and this is what Reilly does, only returning to these questions at the terminus of his narrative. Between the introduction and its conclusion, Reilly lays out a history of philosophical and political thought extending from the Pentateuch and ancient Athens, throughout the middle ages, the enlightenment and modern times. It is a long but not necessarily complicated thread that encompasses not just the “what,” but also the “how” and “why.”  

Reilly is a patient, if demanding expositor who never talks down to his reader, but neither does he obfuscate his thesis by assuming too much a priori knowledge of either history or philosophy. What he provides is a comprehensive outline of both, demonstrating the impact of monotheism and Christianity on political philosophy and its synthesis with the Logos or reason.

The influence of the Catholic Church on political systems forms a big part of this outline in the first part of the book.  While Reilly might be considered as an apologist for Catholicism, this book is not a religious tract advocating for converts. However, his analysis of Martin Luther’s impact may be difficult for some protestant readers. Reilly does not argue that the Catholic Church was not in need of reform, but that Luther inadvertently opened the floodgates to nominalism and voluntarism and from thence Hobbesian totalitarianism.

Nominalism: the doctrine that universals or general ideas are mere names without any corresponding reality, and that only particular objects exist; properties, numbers, and sets are thought of as merely features of the way of considering the things that exist. Important in medieval scholastic thought, nominalism is associated particularly with William of Occam. Oxford English Dictionary

Voluntarism: the doctrine that the will is a fundamental or dominant factor in the individual or the universe. Oxford English Dictionary

The jump from Luther’s salvation by grace alone1 has been taken to mean that man has no agency whatsoever and that his end is subject to predestination.  Reilly doesn’t directly jump into Protestant-Catholic religious debate.  Instead he explains a creation in which, if God is good, then everything he creates is good. This is not to say that God’s creation is incorruptible. God gave man the ability to make choices.  The tool with which God provided man was his reason. Judeo-Christian teaching says that man was created imago Dei and John 1 explains that God is Reason – Logos.  Luther helped promulgate the idea that man had no ability and no free will outside of God’s will and argued against man possessing reason with which to consider the mind of God.  This bifurcated reason from revelation.  If reason plays no role in salvation then salvation is to be understood solely as a product of revelation – faith.  If reason plays no role in salvation then how are we to determine who’s revelation is true? If man, as God’s creation doesn’t possess a spark of the Divine, if man isn’t a “good” creation, then this makes Hobbes’s version of life: “nasty, brutish, and short” and one governed solely by appetites, plausible.  If man has no redeeming characteristics, the need for a Leviathan state to keep man in check is perhaps logical – especially if one discounts revelation entirely.  A man without access to reason is incapable of self-governance.

Reilly has two objectives in conducting his defense. His two-pronged attack is first an explanation of the path that led us to where we are.  At one point Reilly even says that Deneen and Hanby aren’t wrong about their description of where we are as a nation, just wrong as to the causes. Reilly painstakingly explains the meld of Christianity and classical philosophy and how reason complements revelation (faith.)  This is the tradition on which the Founders based their thinking. He also explains how the Divine Right of Kings was the natural consequence of voluntarism and that once revelation (religiosity) was removed, all that remained was the all powerful state – the absolutism of one isn’t so different from that of the other.

Reilly concludes his defense by absolutely eviscerating Deneen’s arguments showing how Deneen has persisted in misquoting and consequently misinterpreting Madison.  There can be no other conclusion than intellectual dishonesty. Even after admitting that he was misquoting Madison, Deneen continues to persist in his interpretation of that misquote as the major tenet of his arguments. As part of his conclusion, Reilly delves into the influence of John Locke on the American Founding.  He points out that Locke’s volume of work is frequently cited on both sides of the argument.  However, he asserts that it’s less relevant how people today interpret Locke, than how the Founders interpreted Locke.  Here the evidence is substantial.  Hobbes was held in disrepute by the Founders and they said as much.  It’s clear that the Locke they channeled was not a Hobbesian Locke. This doesn’t slow down critics like Hanby who states “.. what the Founders may have meant is less significant than what they actually gave us and how that gift was destined to be received in an emerging culture infused with voluntaristic, nominalist, and mechanistic assumptions about God and nature.”   Reilly demonstrates that what the Founders bequeathed to us was in fact rationally sound, and not infused with historicism and relativism. Hanby and Deneen think that the Founders may have believed that they were appealing to transcendent truths, but that they were “imprisoned by an 18th century mind-set that denied these truths.”  Apparently Hanby and Deneen are convinced that “they, not the Founders see it as it truly was.” Conversely, Reilly (successfully) argues that where we have gone astray is in abandoning the principles the Founders laid out. 

The Founding is not the problem; it is the solution. We had best return to its principles before it’s too late.

postscript: Interested readers may wish to check out this interview of Robert Reilly.

  1. Romans 3:28 Luther added the word “alone.”  For an interesting dialog on this:


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