When discussing the American founding, it is common to hear that the Founding Fathers were not Christian and not influenced by Christian ideas. This is patently untrue.
Yet the anti-Christian scholarship of the past century, especially the past 50 years, has “downplayed or denied the degree to which the animating ideas of the American founding were deeply indebted to the Christian natural law tradition.”
In their new book, “The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics,” published by Cambridge University Press, professors Kody W. Cooper and Justin Buckley Dyer return our attention to the fact that Christian ideas permeated the revolutionary generation.
Scholars have recently reemphasized the American founding’s reliance on political theology and classical virtue. Many books have challenged the de-theologizing of the American founding. Thomas Kidd’s biography of Thomas Jefferson, published by Yale University Press, restored the theological spirit of his political outlook. “First Principles,” a bestseller by Thomas Ricks, recovered the debt our Founding Fathers had to Greek and Roman thought.
Cooper and Dyer join this important and growing list of authors who returned to source material from the founding generation, which modernist scholars like to deliberately misinterpret or simply ignore. Beyond the Christian impact on the founding generation, Cooper and Dyer also reveal how the classical political tradition influenced the American Revolution. These two spirits of political theory were the common inheritance of colonial America.
“When John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail,” the authors wrote, “to report news of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the British North American colonists were not yet living in our secular age.”
Classical vs. Modern Political Philosophy
What is the classical political tradition and what distinguishes it from the modern political tradition?
Classical political philosophy starts with the assertion that humans have a nature that reason can discover, that freely and knowingly choosing to live in accordance with that nature offers freedom, and that the rule of law accords with man’s nature and freedom. The Anglo-American common law tradition was premised on the classical humanism of the Greeks and Romans and the Christian natural law tradition.
Modern political philosophy starts with the power of the will and the assertion that humans are creatures of desire who act on bodily impulses. To limit this will and its right to act upon its desires is tantamount to slavery.
Cooper and Dyer explain it in even simpler terms: “The classical political tradition begins with the rule of law, but the characteristic doctrine of modern political philosophy and the modern state is the arbitrary rule of will.”
The arbitrary rule of will now violently assaults the rule of law, the subordination of passion to reason, and, to paraphrase John Milton, the unity of virtue and liberty as the heart of freedom. He wrote that humans should “Love virtue, she alone is free.” Since modernists perceive the natural law and the rule of law as a threat to the triumph of the will and an expression of oppression, they seek to destroy the rule of law.
Revolution and Political Theology
From this context, the American revolutionaries argued their case for independence. The British Parliament and King George III were overstepping the boundaries placed on them by the rule of law and “nature’s God.”
There were, as many scholars now recognize, two Enlightenments: The Enlightenment that recovered classical humanism and merged it with Christian natural theology (sometimes referred to as the “moderate” Enlightenment) and the Enlightenment that sought to use scientific conquest and the will to power to transform the world (sometimes referred to as the “radical” Enlightenment). The Founding Fathers adhered to the former Enlightenment, not the latter.
Examining the pamphlet debates that led to the outbreak of the American Revolution, which culminated in the Declaration of Independence, it becomes clear that the supporters of American independence did not believe in a hands-off Deistic God as popularly imagined.
Almost all the major pamphlets, and the Declaration itself, share a belief in “a providential God whose governance of the world was an essential premise of their natural law theories of morality and law.” This “providential God” is firmly within the Christian natural law tradition while expansive enough to remain free of denominational confessions and creeds.
“Most of the leading lights of the patriotic pamphleteers held their natural-law principles within a Christian frame,” Cooper and Dyer wrote.
Providential theology culminated in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, which is far from a secular document free of Christian assumptions. While Cooper and Dyer acknowledge the plain fact that Jefferson “did not adhere to the major tenets of orthodoxy Christianity as presented in the religion’s earliest creeds,” they believe he nevertheless “affirmed the existence of a God of Nature whose attributes included being a providential, moralistic creator.”
Jefferson’s providential theology has “important continuities” with the “classical Christian natural-law tradition,” as Thomas Kidd emphasizes in his recent biography.
“Many of the patriots formulated public appeals to God,” and “the patriotic clergy [wanted] to demonstrate that, properly interpreted, the Bible concurred with reason regarding the revolutionary cause,” Cooper and Dyer wrote.
Quote by quote, document by document, pamphlet by pamphlet, the authors show that the political theology of the American founding conforms to the ecumenical natural law tradition Christianity nurtured. It is only we, standing on the other side of “the death of God,” who miss the obvious in our own ignorance and intellectual shallowness.
Why Christianity Must Be Destroyed
To destroy the rule of law, one must destroy the very basis on which the rule of law is premised: natural law and “nature’s God.”
In its 18th-century context, natural law and “nature’s God” did not signify an abstract and hands-off watchmaker god — far from it. “Nature’s God” was firmly rooted in the Christian natural law tradition, familiar to anyone educated in that moral theology while broad enough to transcend denominational confessions. Critics of the natural law try to eliminate Christianity because it places demands on humans as moral and rational agents.
Cooper and Dyer admirably restore the prominent role that Christian beliefs and sensibilities played in the American founding. The ecumenical Christian culture and natural law tradition that united patriotic Anglicans, Congregationalists, other Protestants, and Roman Catholics has been misleadingly reinterpreted as secular and deistic, but they demonstrate the error in that view.
If Christianity, the bedrock on which the natural law tradition was built, is destroyed, then the rule of law is destroyed alongside it. This permits the triumph of the will and the rule by arbitrary decree to take its place out of the ashes of that destruction.
Modern political philosophy, with its foundation in the will to power and opposition to Christianity and the natural law, necessarily ends in totalitarianism. And that is what we see sweeping the world today.