The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics: Political Theology, Natural Law, and the American Founding. By Kody W. Cooper & Justin Buckley Dyer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022.
In this important book Kody Cooper and Justin Dyer argue that the American founding formed a synthesis of Christian theology and classical philosophy. When 18th-century patriots advocated for liberty, innate rights, popular sovereignty, rule by consent, and resistance to tyranny, they were doing nothing less than claiming inheritance of a Christian natural law tradition that predated the Enlightenment by hundreds of years. They gave breath to what became the public ethos of American life at its birth and which provided it coherent direction for the future. That future was one of dedicated constitutionalism that fostered the common good not merely for short-term dividends in the immanent frame, but one that oriented community life toward a transcendent reality. Law, rule, and citizenship were anchored to eternal principles. To this end, the study’s six central chapters consider the Pamphlet Debates of the 1760s and 1770s (Ch. 2), reassess Thomas Jefferson’s political theology (Ch. 3), analyze Just-War theory on the eve of the revolution (Ch. 4), survey Diplomacy and Intelligence networks (Ch. 5), recount post-revolutionary disputes about popular sovereignty (Ch. 6), and summarize the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court Justice James Wilson (Ch. 7). None of these chapters attempts to break new ground, and their thesis is not meant to be a revelation. This is a work of correction. Decades of revisionist scholarship have so obfuscated American history that once-clear truths are now “hiding in plain sight” (pp. 6).
At the heart of the book is the question of what role God played in the conception of American political authority and its execution. Of course, America was not founded to be a sectarian confessional state, but Christianity nonetheless deeply influenced its founding. It is not for nothing that the American founders cited the book of Deuteronomy more often than they did the entirety of John Locke’s corpus. This was not merely superficial language that packaged otherwise secular ideas; Christianity gave shape to America’s most fundamental principles. Yet scholars have been at pains to advance the “subversive theology thesis,” which takes mention of God and “Nature’s God” as really referring to some kind of Hobbist or Rousseauian pantheism. On this reading, the founders effectively gave up the Christian natural law tradition and instead embraced a new secular liberal individualism. This ideological revolution, so the argument goes, takes God’s sovereignty as absolute and “unbounded by anything other than arbitrary will” (pp. 13). The implications are profound because politics, like morality, derive from theology. Both Hobbes and Rousseau assumed a metaphysics that renders virtue artificial and erases meaningful distinction between good and evil. They take the Euthyphro question and bullishly answer it by saying things are only good if the gods (or, here, read the monarch or general will) say so. If natural law is not tethered to eternal precepts, laws are little more than civil conventions designed to keep peace and stability. Human flourishing becomes defined by arbitrary sovereign will. As long as the social contract remains intact, governments and societies have unlimited license to pursue any course of action and call it good.
Cooper and Dyer carefully demonstrate the opposite: the founders took for granted that human reason can comprehend natural laws established by a lawgiver who is separate from creation. They believed that nature imposed moral obligations that order things to their proper good. And they assumed that all authority emanates from God and that legitimate rule, in whatever form, remained subject to eternal principles revealed in nature and Scripture (pp. 4-5). The American founders thus answered the Euthyphro question quite differently: God’s goodness and justice were coterminous, and that meant governments are legitimate only as far as their ordinances align with natural law. It was not the arbitrary assertion of American will that justified resistance to British rule. It was rather that the British government mandated unjust legislation contingent on George III’s unbounded sovereignty. The Christian natural law tradition had always recognized the role of consent, even in monarchical societies. So, when the United States Constitution speaks of “We the People,” it means what the authors call “secondary sovereignty,” which recognizes that man depends on God for his existence and is subject to an objective moral reality, and that governments are “a form of participation in the eternal law” (pp. 180-1). In short, the former reading of American politics sits squarely within a this-worldly context; the latter recognizes that the founders accepted without question a transcendent reality beyond the immanent frame.
The debate of whether or not America was founded as a Christian nation is often really about whether or not she ought to be one. One gets the feeling there isn’t much of a debate anymore. The fact is mainstream America is abandoning the values that once defined it. Those who think patriotism, religion, and having children are “very important” have dropped by 32 percent, 23 percent, and 29 percent, respectively, over the past twenty-five years.1 Meanwhile, vicious identity politics divide the world into oppressors and oppressed, deny a common human nature, and reject universal reason. An identity group’s arbitrary will forms the basis of a truth that is defined chiefly by its transience. Like the pagan poet Ovid relates in his Metamorphoses, they “speak of forms changing into new entities.”2 Hobbes and Rousseau may not be the wellspring of American politics, but they sure do track now. They both invite an immanentist faith that sacralizes the world and worships the creature rather than the Creator. Is it any surprise to see a push to make Earth Day a religious holiday3 or that paganism is among the fastest growing religions in the country?4
Given this discussion, it is hard to avoid a cynical outlook with the current state of affairs or to indulge in a sinful nostalgia that neglects to thank God for mercies that are new every morning.5 But what do we do? Against these trends some Christians have felt the right path is to enter political office and, once there, clandestinely draw closer together church and state to achieve a conservative common good. This “integralist” approach seeks to expand government regulations according to Christian ideals in the attempt to make the state an arm of the church. While ostensibly attractive as a counterweight to identity politics, Cooper and Dyer caution against this chiefly because it is inconsonant with American constitutionalism and limited government. It also ironically depends on the very immanent, Hobbist basis for authority that undermined American ideals in the first place. We would do well instead to take Cooper and Dyer’s advice and re-embrace the constitutionalism of the American founding. It does indeed direct local community life toward the transcendent good, and so we should learn it, teach it, and practice it in our vocations as citizens. But we do even better to heed Augustine’s words in The City of God Against the Pagans: “So it falls out that in this world, in evil days like these, the Church walks onward like a wayfarer stricken by the world’s hostility, but comforted by the mercy of God.”6
1 Aaron Zitner, “Americans Pull Back from Values that Once Defined U.S., WSJ-NORC Poll Finds,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 27, 2023, https://www.wsj.com/articles/americans-pull-back-from-values-that-once-defined-u-s-wsj-norc-poll-finds-df8534cd.
2 Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book I, quoted in Liel Leibovitz, “The Return of Paganism,” Commentary, May 2023, https://www.commentary.org/articles/liel-leibovitz/paganism-afflicts-america/.
3 Paul Greenberg and Carl Safina, “The Case for Making Earth Day a Religious Holiday,” Time Magazine, April 21, 2023, https://time.com/6273684/earth-day-religious-holiday/.
4 Leibovitz, “The Return of Paganism.”
5 I learned of this insight on sinful nostalgia second hand from some who listened to Rev. Dr. Adam Koontz speak at the Wittenberg Academy Family retreat in April of 2023 at Camp Okoboji, Okoboji, Iowa.
6 Augustine of Hippo, The City of God Against the Pagans, Books XVII-XXII, trans. Gerald G. Walsh, S. J., and Daniel J. Honan (Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2008), 174.