Why We Can’t Divorce America’s Founding and Future from Christianity
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.
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.”