False Founding: Was America Anti-Christian From the Beginning?
No, and the flummoxed Christians who reject American freedom are helping their enemies.
This essay is part of a series examining how American religious, economic, and political freedom are compatible with Christian views of a good society. It was provoked by the publication of the Tradinista Manifesto, which called for “Christian socialism” and an established national Church.
As our politics enters an era only Suetonius could comprehend, some Catholics and other Christians desperately lunge at explanations as to why. Most improbably but vocally, some of them answer that it is the fault of our Founding. As Charles Kesler noted, “Many conservatives attribute today’s cultural crisis, not to the abandonment of our country’s political and cultural principles, but to their victory.” In other words, the Founding was a poison pill with a time-release formula. We are its victims.
But what are the country’s principles that have done us in? When Judge Roy Moore, then the chief justice of Alabama, argued in a CNN interview (February 12, 2015) that “our rights do not come from the Constitution, they come from God,” anchor Chris Cuomo, son of the late New York governor Mario Cuomo, objected: “Our laws do not come from God, and you know that. They come from man. … Our rights do not come from God. … that’s not our country.”
Cuomo’s view is in concert with Justice Anthony Kennedy’s infamous proclamation in the Planned Parenthood v. Casey case, “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.” In other words, America is about radical individual autonomy.
The shocking thing is the degree to which some conservative Christians have come to think these very things in their understanding of what constitutes America’s Founding principles. They are in full agreement with Justice Kennedy and Cuomo as to what the Founding teaches. Kennedy sees radical autonomy there, and so do they. The only difference is that they excoriate it, while Kennedy celebrates it. But they both agree as to its substance.
If this view is correct, can abortionists, pornographers, and same-sex “marriage” proponents legitimately claim that “the Founding made me do it”? Can they require approval of their behavior on this basis? Kennedy and certain Catholics apparently agree they can.
Can abortionists, pornographers, and same-sex “marriage” proponents legitimately claim that “the Founding made me do it”?
When Faithful Catholics Agree with Justice Kennedy, Something is Off
Therefore, says Notre Dame Professor Patrick Deneen, “To have allegiance even to this mixed constitutional founding is ultimately to declare allegiance to the trajectory of radical autonomy and individualism.” How could a Christian give such allegiance? To these terms he obviously can’t. Since the government promotes and in some cases enforces policies that are anti-Christian, it can seem that the American proposition is not only hostile to Christianity, but in fact the product of its denial. So, concludes Deneen, “I increasingly fear that Americans will have to break with America, and seek to re-found the nation on better truths. …” [emphasis added] Better than what?
Here, then, is the key issue: Is there something that the Founders did not know or that they chose to deny concerning the ends to which human souls are ordered, so that they could amplify the powers of the human will to reorder reality according to their wishes? Was their premise the primacy of will over reason? If so, then Deneen et al. are right. If not, they are wrong.
In fact they are worse than wrong. Such a teaching about American Founding principles would form citizens who would, and should, despise if not hate the regime based upon them. This diagnosis disarms us in the face of our enemies and empowers them.
Our Founders Weren’t Nihilists
However, the Founders would be completely unfamiliar with the terms of choice that Deneen and others see them as having made. They would absolutely reject the idea that they chose to found a regime on moral relativism and radical individual autonomy. The Founders repeatedly described these concepts as repugnant.
The Founders did not see any contradiction between these two sets of principles — moral order and liberty. Indeed, they saw the one founded upon the other. They quoted the Bible and John Locke together and saw points of commonality. “In fact,” as Angelo Codevilla has written in a forthcoming essay:
America’s founders did what they did without ever choosing explicitly between Natural Law and Natural Right. It seems that no one had ever told them that such a choice had to be made. Nevertheless, they went to great lengths to explain what they thought they were doing. None of what they were doing or thinking is compatible with what is happening among us in our time.
The Madness of Justice Kennedy
The notion that man gets to make up the meaning of the universe, “to define one’s own concept of existence,” would have been considered hilarious, if not certifiably insane, by the Founders. Only by abandoning the general principles of Christianity and natural law could one imagine liberty as “autonomy of self.”
According to its own understanding of itself, the American Founding was informed by principles that derive from a source higher than man or the state. It is life according to these higher principles that the Founders held of greatest importance. Its value was inestimably superior to anything encompassed by the state. As it is above, so it should be beyond the state’s purview.
Man’s supernatural destiny confined and properly ordered the state to its temporal duties. The idea of the complete subordination of the individual to the state was entirely incompatible with this supernaturally ordered view of man, derived from the Judaeo-Christian tradition. This is the perspective of the Founding.
In other words, the Founding is not the problem; it is the solution. We have not remained true to the Founding. That is the problem. What’s more, it is a suicidal blunder to denigrate the Founding in this way because those who do so automatically exclude themselves from the public arena by conceding it to their opponents — therefore accelerating the very decline they decry.
Roots in the Middle Ages, Not the Enlightenment
Another problem with the poison pill thesis is that the ideas central to the American Founding — human equality, popular sovereignty, the requirement of consent (no taxation without representation), representation, the right to rebel against tyrants — were all products not of the Enlightenment or John Locke, but of the Middle Ages. The American Founding was a recovery of these principles — not a departure from them — after the Age of Absolutism and the “divine right of kings.” Back in the 1950s, the late Fr. Joseph Costanzo warned, in the Fordham Law Review:
[N]othing could be more disastrous to the results of long centuries of constitutional struggle than to uproot constitutional government and its representative institutions from those Christian political principles which inspired and directed their growth and were ever the[ir] first principles of defense.”
We are now facing such a disaster, jointly sponsored by radical liberals and some Christian reactionaries.
How wrong they are needs to be repeated. Scholar Ellis Sandoz has pointed out that the views of man or nature as radically autonomous, unburdened by “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” “do not reflect the intellectual horizon of any significant segment of the thinking public at the time [of the American Founding]” Here is what was on the intellectual horizon at that time: In his June 28th, 1813 letter to Thomas Jefferson about the basic principles on which the Founders achieved independence, John Adams asked, “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. …” For those who wish to re-found America, take note: There are no principles better than these.
The fault is not in our Founding principles, but in ourselves. We are demonstrating our power to become antithetical to the Founding, but we only delude ourselves by trying to make the Founding antithetical to itself.