Was America’s Founding Fatally Flawed by the Provenance of Its Ideas?

Was America’s Founding Fatally Flawed by the Provenance of Its Ideas?
(Robert R. Reilly, December 13, 2022)

Transcript available below

About the talk

In early December, Westminster director Robert Reilly gave a talk to the Center for the Restoration of Christian Culture at Thomas More College in New Hampshire. Troubled by the ample evidence of a moral decline in the United States, some Christian and other thinkers trace the problem to what they see as a fatal flaw in the American Founding: a reliance on the philosophical principles of the Enlightenment – to wit, the assertion of radical individual autonomy. Reilly, the author of America on Trial, disagrees. He argues that the genealogy of the ideas that made the founding conceivable is grounded in classical Greek philosophy, Jewish revelation, and Christianity. The founders’ principles come from pre-Enlightenment sources. They are compatible with—and indeed derived from—the tradition of respect for Reason and Revelation, Church and State, developed and refined by philosophers of the Middle Ages. After a period of state absolutism, the founders restored these principles. Reilly shows on what basis political scientist Ellis Sandoz could claim that “the whole of medieval Christian constitutional and political theory . . . lay squarely behind the American determination [to achieve independence].” 

The Westminster Institute is grateful to the Center for the Restoration of Christian Culture for the use of this video. 



Phil Lawler:

Good evening! For those of you I have not met, I am Phil Lawler and I am the program director for the Center for the Restoration of Christian Culture at Thomas Moore College, and I welcome you here to this talk by an old friend of mine. I have to say I have introduced a whole lot of people in my time, many of them very impressive, and this is one more case, but not many as variegated in their résumé as my friend, Robert Reilly. And as I give you a little bit about his background, you will see what I mean. He is the director of the Westminster Institute. In 25 years of government service, he served as Special Assistant to the President, as Director of the Voice of America, as senior advisor for Information Strategy to the Secretary of Defense, and he taught at the National Defense University.

He attended Georgetown University and the Claremont Graduate University, and has published widely on American politics and morals, foreign policy, and classical music. And his latest book, which brings us to the topic of his talk tonight, is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding. The subject is: “Was America’s Founding Fatally Flawed by the Provenance of its Ideas?” The speaker is Robert Reilly.

Robert R. Reilly:

Phil, thank you very much. My background is so highly variegated because everyone who could fire me did until I reached that stage in my life where there is no one left. Now, Phil and I indeed go back a long way. In fact, it was 1981-82 when we founded the American Catholic Committee along with Michael Novak and published that book together, Justice and War in the Nuclear Age, so just like yesterday. Well, I am very grateful for this invitation. It is nice to see we happy few.

So the topic tonight, which is related to the last book I wrote, addresses this contention that the American founding was fatally flawed, that indeed, it is like a time release poison pill, and we are its victims. This school of thought holds that widespread pornography, abortion, transgenderism, [and] the disintegration of the family can all be traced to the principles of the American founding.

Now, no one would have possibly suggested that some years ago because our grade school American civics class taught us quite otherwise. However, these contentions are not entirely new. What is new is the attention that they are getting.


Was the Fault in the Founding?

And the answer is precisely the moral degeneration of this country, which has reached such an aggravated state that people are looking around. Well, you know, why? Whose fault is this? And particularly, Christians, by the way, since we are so often told that Christianity is a hate crime. Well, if that is so, Christians in turn are going to despise the society or the state that so labels them in this way. And some have accepted this explanation, that this is endemic from the principles of the founding.

Now, how could they? How could they assign that blame to the founding? They say that it contains Enlightenment principles of radical individual autonomy, and the purpose of the American polity, according to its principles, is to remove obstacles from whatever one desires in whatever way one wishes to indulge one’s passions. Oh, so long as someone else does not get hurt, right, as long as it is voluntary, so it is really without a moral compass.

Deneen and Hanby

In writing this book I address this argument, whether it is the provenances of America’s ideas that have led to this disaster, and I do it by using as an example two of the important Catholic thinkers of the school. One is Patrick Deneen, a Politics Professor at the University of Notre Dame. The other one is Dr. Michael Hanby, who is a Professor at the John Paul II Institute in Washington. Both of these are outstanding individuals. From friends of theirs, I know that they are extraordinarily fine teachers.

I have read some of their works, which I have found very illuminating. Patrick Deneen is a very fine classicist. His reflections on the ancient Greek world are marvelous. Michael Hanby is a first-class metaphysician, and I found his work excellent. Both of them are superb in diagnosing the ills of this society, the enormous harm which it does, and why. I am completely on board with them insofar as that goes.

The problem is when they assign the causes of that in the American founding itself, and that is why I wrote the book, to challenge their assertions on this. I will just say briefly how, you know, we must wonder how they possibly do this. It does not seem to be there in George Washington or Hamilton or Adams or Jefferson. And the explanation is that the American founding is the product of the thought of John Locke.

John Locke

John Locke was an Enlightenment thinker, and whereas his second discourse, Second Treatise on government, contains a justification for limited free government, and expresses it in ways with which I think most of us would agree, and that had a great impact on the American Founders at the time. And in fact, John Locke was one of the most often quoted people in colonial literature back in the late 18th century, most often quoted from the pulpit. And what made him so attractive to the colonists is Locke’s justification for revolution against tyranny, that being of course exactly what our Founders had in mind, whether a revolution against tyranny was morally justified. And of course, Locke gives a very powerful explanation of why it is.

Well, so far so good, but who could find a problem with that? Both Deneen and Hanby say, well, actually, Locke is Thomas Hobbes with a smiley face, that he just presents the same principles of Hobbes but dressed up in a way. Hobbes, of course, the author of Leviathan, justified absolutism and state rule, and also had a very grim view of man in the state of nature, that it was all against all, everyone trying to take what belonged to others, including their wives.

And the problem with the state of nature is that everyone lived in fear of a violent death, which in fact, they considered the worst thing, a violent death, so they made a compact together, I will not kill you if you will not kill me, but the only the only way of enforcing this is by having an absolute sovereign. You see, man is incapable of self-rule. The order in society must be imposed by a sovereign who is so powerful he cannot be contested with, nor could any revolt against him succeed. Anyway, so they say that actually we have a Hobbesian founding, and so indeed, these principles have finally been made manifest.

Why Now?

Well, why now? Why is the time release formula just coming out now? Well, the explanation they themselves give is that Christianity was such a strong religion in the United States that we endured on the strength of our Christian tradition for so long, and as that receded, voilà, up arose these malign principles that have led to the moral degeneration of our country. So that is roughly the indictment.

Now, whereas in the book I offer a critique of what they have to say, that is not what the book is principally about. It is if what they say is not true, then what is the lineage of the ideas that made the American founding conceivable, without which it could not have been thought of, and from where did those ideas come? That is the main body of the book, and that takes me on a very long journey to the pre-philosophic world, say, the 9th/8th Century BC, the tribal world in which man was incapable of recognizing a man in another tribe as a human being, because the words human being was not in their vocabulary.

The other tribe, the word for the other tribes is basically enemy, foreigner, enemy. They could not think of themselves outside the confines of their tribal life dedicated to the gods of their tribe mediated through the head of that tribe, who usually had some semi-divine association with the gods, which is why he had the right to rule, right, or in empires [there was] the pharaoh who was himself a god.

The Gifts of the Greeks

The major eruption in human thought that transformed what had been a tribal world was Greek thought, philosophy, what Benedict XVI calls the gifts of the Greeks. And what did this philosophy propose? It proposed that things have natures, they have essences, which is the way we know what they are and why something cannot be other than it is, because it has the nature of what it is, and that everything that has a nature has an end, that is you will know what the thing should be when it reaches perfection.

The Acorn

Tiny example: the acorn.

The acorn has the nature of an oak. Along the trajectory of its development it will never become something else. It will not turn into a giraffe or a turnip, but I know [it is an oak] because it has the nature of an oak. And in that course of development, how do we know what is good for the oak?

Well, we know that moisture is good for it. We know that rich soil is good for it. What is bad for it? We know drought is bad for it. We know overly acidic soil is bad for it, and so a vocabulary develops in the philosophical life of Greece of good and bad, what is natural to a thing, and what is unnatural to it. The drought would be unnatural to it. The water would be natural to it.

Now, that is fine for a plant, and it is fine for animals. When you get to man who has free will, that vocabulary expands to the moral world. Why? Because man has free will. Amongst all these creatures, he is the only one who can choose to undertake those actions that fulfill his nature or refuse to do that and take actions which subvert the end for which he is made.

The Nature of Man

Well, what is that end? What is someone when they are fully human?

Well, Aristotle said that the end of man is happiness. Happiness is the thing for which there is no other purpose. It, itself, is the purpose for everything else. And how does one achieve this happiness? One achieves it through virtuous actions, right, so virtue is indispensable to happiness. So Aristotle can then describe those actions which are morally good and those which are morally wrong, evil, because they subvert man’s nature. How does Aristotle know? Through reason, so what is good is what is rationally good, and what is wrong is what is rationally evil.

Doing what is evil is irrational. Reason has a normative authority. All those centuries later, Thomas Aquinas would say that the nature of sin is its irrationality, you see. Man is a rational creature with free will. What should rule him is his nature, not his passions, alright?

Jewish Revelation

Now, the other seminal development in the ancient world was Jewish revelation. You have to understand the Middle East, the whole area, was a sea of polytheism. The idea that there could be only one God had never occurred. What is more, that this God was transcendent [was shocking]. What could that possibly mean, that he is beyond this world, this universe?

In the ancient world, in the pantheistic world and polytheistic, they did not think there was anything outside the cosmos. The gods were just up in the imperium, you know, at the highest place, but they certainly were not outside of it. He would not have had the conceptual apparatus to think of anything outside of it, any more than he had the conceptual apparatus to say this is a human being and this is not, you see, or that guy with the other tribe, he is a human being.

So God is one. He is transcendent. And then what do we find out from Genesis?

God creates from nothing. The world is not an emanation from God, unlike what the pantheists thought. They thought, you know, Mother Gaia and nature is divine. No, it is not. God made it from nothing. It is not part of His being. It does not have the essence of God.

Creation was Good

Now, the other startling thing, which again was not shared by any of these surrounding cultures, is that creation was good. It was all good. There were not two contending forces, a demiurge of good and a demiurge of evil, which were fighting it out for the control of the cosmos, and that the order that we do see in the cosmos is sort of the temporary triumph of the good demiurge while the evil demiurge is still down there, threatening to overwhelm it and return the world to the primeval ooze out of which it came, you see. It is a bifurcated view, not everything is good. There is a malignity underlying reality, you see.

Genesis dispenses with this. No, it is all good, and what is particularly good? We know that magnificent refrain from every day of creation, “and God saw that it was good.” And then on the sixth day, He created something which is particularly good, man. Why is that particularly good? Because He makes man in His own image and likeness, the imago dei.

You think there was anything in the surrounding cultures in the Middle East that thought man was made in the image of God? Quite the contrary, in the Sumerian mythology, the Acadian, the Babylonian, the gods created man to be their slaves. That is why they were created. They were not made in the images of those gods but as slaves.

Now, in that pantheistic world, which was an emanation, a divine emanation, all the ancients believed that the world had existed forever and would forever exist. There was no history. There was a succession of events, but no history in the modern sense of the world. They believed that everything that could happen would happen, and then it would repeat itself. History is a loop. It is an endless succession of the eternal return of the same.

History is the Gift of the Jews

And you see the inherent sense of futility involved in that view of things. What is the significance of man in that? Well, he is just a dispensable speck. He is not someone of account in any particular way. He can be used for whatever one would want, as of course slavery was endemic to the ancient world. So if philosophy is the gift of the Greeks, history is the gift of the Jews.

Now for the first time, things have a beginning, they have a middle, and they have an end. The world will not always exist. It did not used to exist, so the endless loop is over. Now history is seen as some kind of progression for the first time. Every notion of history we have today is a secularization of the Jewish sense of history, which of course was salvation history.

Locating Evil in Genesis

Now, the other thing, by the way, that was particularly important was the location of evil in Genesis. Since it was not in the world, from where did it come? And they describe it from the disorder in the wills of Adam and Eve, who were tempted to be as gods, so their pride. It was that that introduced evil into the world, to such an extent everything was affected. As Saint Paul says, all creation groans, so out of the Garden of Eden work by the sweat of your brows and the pain of childbirth. What hope has man?

Well, as we know from the Old Testament, various prophets arise. Man has nothing within his resources to repair a relationship with a transcendent, all-powerful God when he is just this tiny, little, limited human being. What does he have of worth that he can offer to this God that would repair this damage? Nothing, but God does not abandon him. You cannot do it, but I will send someone who can, right, and so we see through the Old Testament this, these prophecies about who will come and what he will do, the suffering servant of Isaiah.


Now back to the Greeks for just a moment, and this is in pre-Socratic Greece in the early days of Greek philosophy. Heraclitus was observing the order in the world, and he was curious as to how his reason could apprehend this order. The order itself seemed rational. How could this be? He speculated [about] the way it is, [that it] is because behind everything that exists there is a divine intelligence, and the order we see in the world is a manifestation of that divine intelligence. And what word did Heraclitus use for the divine intelligence (and this is for the first time)? Logos, the Greek word for reason or word.

Now we move to the greatest revolutionary happening in history, the Incarnation. How does the beginning of the Gospel of Saint John [start]? Well, how does it begin? The gospel is in Greek as you know, so as in the beginning was the word. We will just keep the Greek word. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God. All things were made through Him, logos, who now becomes incarnate. Logos incarnate enters into history to participate in it and undertake the salvific action, which will restore the relationship with this almighty God.

What if Heraclitus, having speculated on logos, met logos walking through the door? That is the shock of Christian Revelation on the ancient world. And of course, that part of the world of which we speak was Hellenic in culture, Roman ruled but Hellenic in culture, so the Gospel of Saint John is stated in such a way that the Greeks would understand what he was talking about. They might not accept it, but they would say the claim is that this is logos. The logos they know is now this logos incarnate in Jesus Christ.

And He puts the end to any notion of pantheism by saying Christ, logos, Christ is the only begotten, unigenitum. Well, that is the Latin. He is the only begotten. Why is that in there? Well, it means God did not beget anything else. He did not beget the Pharaohs. They are not divine, only Christ. He is the only begotten, so God did not beget the world. He created it from nothing. It does not share in His being, you see, so there is only one and that is Christ, no one else, no more theocracy, which just about everything was back in that era.

Demoting the Political Order

Now, the other thing that Christianity did was forever demote the political order. As I mentioned, in the ancient city man’s access to the gods was only through the ruler of the city who had some kind of semi-divine relationship. Only the words of the ruler could intercede for the citizens of the city. They had no access. There was no personal relationship to Zeus. And now that political order has been permanently demoted.

The political order has nothing to do with the salvation of man, which comes only through Christ in a personal relationship with each individual person. You do not need the mayor of the city, and so it is through that personal relationship that man finds his salvation and the political order can never again take upon itself the pretensions that it is itself salvific, you see. This is the greatest reason, without which forget modern, limited constitutional government. There otherwise would be no reason to limit it unless we had this Christian context.

And of course, in Christ we know the end of history is in Him, so the imago dei now has a much clearer picture. What is the image of God? Well, nothing could be a clearer image of God than God incarnate in Jesus Christ, so the message of the New Testament is to be like Him. By the way, this also makes so very clear that each of individual person is the object of infinite love. If that is true, each individual is of inestimable worth and not to be disposed of for some reason other than the purpose for which he was made.

And now what do we know that purpose is? As revealed in Christ, it is sharing in God’s divinity. So Adam and Eve fell because Satan had told them, you know, eat this and ye shall be as gods. What Christ offers is ultimately the divinization of Man by sharing in the inner life of God.

Do you think anyone in the ancient world could possibly have had the conception for a supernatural end such as that? They would not even know how to hope for it. But once revealed, we see the hope that it provides in the most off-scouring of the Earth, the lower classes, the slaves, the people who were treated as if they were of no significance now know that they are of inestimable significance, so this, of course, is a teaching of the most profound equality that there could possibly be in Christianity and through it.

Giving Legitimacy to the Political

Now, the other thing that was offered by Christianity, which is a reflection of this permanent emotion of the political, was that wonderful episode in the New Testament when the Pharisees and the Herodians try to catch Christ by offering a Denarius and saying is it permitted to pay taxes to Caesar? And we know Christ’s response, “give to Caesar the things that our Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

And what does the Gospel of Matthew record? The crowd was amazed. Well, they might have been amazed because nothing like that had ever been said before. Wasn’t everything Caesar’s? No, some things are God’s. However, the demotion of the political did not mean its elimination because Christ intentionally gives the political legitimacy. There are some things that are Caesar’s properly so. It is just they cannot be confused with the things that are God’s.

And what are God’s? We are, so the mystery of man is revealed in Jesus Christ.

The Middle Ages’ Influence on the Founding

Now, I think I better pick up the pace. I am still in the ancient world, and what I want to do is get to the Middle Ages. Why? Well, Ellis Sandoz, who is a wonderful Professor of Political Science, now Emeritus from LSU, said the following, “The whole of the medieval Christian constitutional and political theory lay squarely behind the American determination to achieve independence.” It is worth repeating. The whole medieval constitutional and political theory lay squarely behind the American determination to achieve independence.

Does that surprise you? Have you ever heard it before? Well, let me briefly talk about the ways in which this came to be true. The Middle Ages was a period in which the significance of the imago dei was instantiated across a society in its theology, in its philosophy, and in its political institutions.

Two Swords Teachings

Now, to say that, give to God what is God’s, and to Caesar what is Caesar’s, that is fine, but how do you organize a society around the truth of that? It is difficult. Pope Gelasius in the fifth century in a letter to the Byzantine emperor had forth the two swords teachings. There are two authorities. There is a spiritual authority exercised by the church, which has care of man’s souls and their eternal destiny, and there is the secular sword exercised by the emperor and other civic officials that sees to the material well-being and conditions which make the pursuit of this higher life possible, a tranquility of order that allows man to address himself to the highest good for which his soul is aimed. So [that is] the two swords teaching or the two powers teaching.

What is so fabulously interesting about the Middle Ages is how they went about organizing themselves to reflect this. So you had the authority of the church, and you had the authority of the monarch or the prince or the states, and they were supposed to keep in their respective spheres of authority and not transgress each other.

The interesting thing is for the first time in history the individual citizens were subject to two sovereignties simultaneously. They were subject to the spiritual sovereign, and they were subject to the secular sovereign, so you can imagine there was some bumps and nudges going on as the borders between these two sovereignties were defined. There were a lot of controversies, some of them not entirely peaceful, that worked their way through the clear recognition of where those boundaries were.

Boundaries Between Sovereignties

Now, no one in the Middle Ages suggested that there were not boundaries. No one suggested, ‘Well, actually, the church does not have any power. I should have all [of the power].’ No, that was never said. It was just where the one began and the other ended.

Now, the one thing that you can imagine from this dual sovereignty is neither sovereignty was absolute. Each sovereignty limited the other sovereignty, so neither of them could claim the whole of man. And interestingly, between the intersections of these two claims, man in the Middle Ages found a greater area of freedom. And in fact, if something was not going terribly well in the civil courts, he would run over and take his case to an ecclesiastical court, so there was a lot of interesting pollination going on there.

Let me just describe to you a statement by Stephen of Tornay that makes this explicitly clear. “In the same city,” and this is a medieval contemporary [account], “In the same city under the same King, there are two peoples, and for the two peoples, there are two ways of life, and for the two ways of life, there are two governments. In accordance with these two governments, there is a two-fold order of jurisdiction. Render to each its due, and all will be well.” Do you see? There plays out that demotion of the political from Christian revelation and the demarcation lines of competence in each of those two spheres, those two powers, those two swords.

The Divine Rights of Kings

Now, the one thing that was alien to the Medieval world, and this is another surprise because it is so contrary to the popular imagination, is there was no such thing as a divine right of kings. That notion was totally foreign to the Middle Ages. No prince or king would make such a claim. I am sure he would have enjoyed exercising the power, but it was not theoretically or even practically possible.

Now, here is the most interesting thing. Every constitutional principle that made the American founding possible was first articulated in the Middle Ages. And where did that first articulation occur? Brace yourself. In canon law. The canonists were the first ones to come up with this. And how was that so, in what way did that happen?

The Influence of Canon Law

Well, in the 11th century the Code of Justinian was rediscovered, and the canonists were fascinated by this attempt by Justinian to rationalize this mishmash of Roman law that had accreted over so many centuries. And they wanted to do the same thing with canon law, and they were now about to do it.

Tangit Ab Omnibus Approbari

Now, there was one principle in that ancient Roman law that particularly appealed to them, and it became, in fact, one of the most important principles of the Middle Ages. That principle was, “tangit ab omnibus approbari,” which means what touches all must be approved by all.

Now, what did that mean in Roman law? First of all, it was only for private law. In other words, particularly in the case if there were several trustees of a piece of property, or several trustees overseeing a minor, tangit ab omnibus approbari meant that all the trustees had to agree over the disposition of that property or the future of the minor and their charge, it had no significance beyond that. It had no political significance whatsoever.

But the canonists gave it a larger significance because they were also dealing with something else that was unique, which was the creation of corporations in the church, the first corporations that were ever created outside of imperial authority. How were they created? Through the voluntary consent of those who were part of these corporations. And these were all Church corporations.

How were they to rule themselves?

Well, if what affects all has to be approved by all, there has to be some kind of consent, so the members of this corporation, which by the way, could be an abbey, a religious order, a Diocesan, clergy, it meant there had to be a means of consent. And by the way, most of these matters that were necessary for consent had something to do with taxes, whether what was needed to support parochial schools or whatever, whenever there was a thing. Well, you had to get the approval at least of all those who were being taxed.

So what you have in in the church the Middle Ages is the first manifestation of the principle which is familiar to us all, no taxation without representation. So again, how was this consent reached? Well, by vote. How was the vote conducted? In secret. If any coercion applied, it would be invalidated. And how large a majority was needed to reach agreement on that? Well, again, as developed in the church, including for the vote for Pope, was two-thirds, a two-thirds majority would do it.

Now, underlying this, of course, was also that profound teaching of Christian equality, which I mentioned earlier.

The Influence of Religious Orders

Now, one thing that had a tremendous influence on the Middle Ages was the religious orders, and I will just give you a small example of the impact of the Dominican order. So Saint Dominic called an assembly of 12 Dominican abbeys, and he said each abbey is to elect two representatives who have the power to bind the other members of the abbey on any matter that is a consideration of our conclave. And he made also clear [that] as the conclave meets with these representatives, it is sovereign, and I, myself, the head of the order, am subject to the sovereignty of this and [I am] bound by the decisions that majority of them make. Do you see? This is another unique thing accomplished within canon law and by the church, the combination of consent with representation.

Now, as the Dominicans arrived in England, many clerics as you probably know were dual-headed. They served not only the church but also, they were in royal courts and had civic functions. And by a process of osmosis these same constitutional principles began permeating the civil order and helped give rise to the early parliaments, which again re-articulated the same principle quod omnes tangit ab omnibus approbari, what effects all must be approved by all.

I could talk more about the development of parliaments, but I have spoken way too long. I will just quickly say, well, oh, this is fine. Why then wasn’t there a straight line from the Middle Ages to the American founding, or why would an American founding have been necessary?

The Influence of William of Occam

Well, that is because there was an interruption occasioned by two major things in the 14th century. William of Occam in a radical theology of God’s omnipotence said there is no such thing as nature. This is this Greek Aristotelian limiting of God’s omnipotence. There is no nature. Things do not have ends. Man through his reason cannot know what is right and wrong.

Well, how can we know? Only through revelation. Well, the Occamist school gained a lot of traction. And at the University of Erfurt in Germany, it was the principal school of thought, and guess who attended? Martin Luther. He was an Occamist. Martin Luther did not believe that nature provided any guidance to how one ought to live. It was entirely corrupt, plus nature was not imbued with any purposes. There is no order in nature because there is no nature. Everything is just an individual act of God’s will from moment to moment. Do you see?

Now, what did that mean politically as Luther developed his thought? One, the denial of popular sovereignty. Why? Because he denied equality. If there was no such thing as popular sovereignty, guess what, there is no need for consent. But what if you are ruled by a tyrant? Do you have any recourse? No, said Luther. By the way, throughout the Middle Ages, I forgot to tell you, the other principle of modern democratic constitutional rule was the right of revolution against tyrants.

Thomas Aquinas, you name the thinker, it was generally known and agreed to, the right to revolution against tyrants, against those who are ruling without reason who did not keep the compact of consent through which the head of state received his authority in the first place, from the people. The people were sovereign. God did not invest the king or the prince with authority directly. The people were invested with that authority, and therefore had to express their consent to convey authority to the king or prince. Do you see?

For Luther, no, none of that is true, and therefore under no circumstances is revolution permitted. The worst tyranny should be experienced by man – that would certainly not authorize his being in a state of rebellion. Later after 1630, Luther changed his mind a bit. He modified that view, but brother, it was really pronounced and emphatic.

You can imagine the political consequences of this. The other thing Luther did, of course, is he burned the canon law of the church in front of the cathedral in Wittenberg up in smoke. Well, what goes up in the smoke? Well, of course, the actual copy of the canon law, but up in smoke went all of the church corporations. What happens to the two swords teaching? If there is no corporation embodying that spiritual sword, what happens to it? It is very easy to tell you.

Luther can join those authorities in the prince. The prince was now the head of the national church. It was the greatest enhancement of secular power since before Christianity. As you can imagine, there were many princes in Germany and elsewhere who thought this was a great idea. I get to enhance my power because not only do I get the property of the church, but I am actually the head of the church.

And this, of course, destroyed Christendom, but the other thing to emphasize particularly is the rule of reason was over. What this magnified was the rule of will and power. Will constituted reality, not reason, not God as logos, but God as pure will and power, which when taken down to the human form meant the ruler was going to be a reflection of this. He would rule by pure will and power, and his rule was uncontestable, absolute, nor did he have to live under the laws which he declared. Do you see?

Now, there were two forms of absolutism that resulted from this. First of all, you can see nascent in Luther the divine right of kings because Luther said the authority of the prince is invested directly by God to him, not to the people. The people have nothing to do with it. There is the inception of the divine right of kings.

Now, the secular version of absolute sovereignty I already touched upon from Thomas Hobbes. The religious version aside from Luther of the divine right of kings found its greatest expression in James I of England and in his apologist Sir Robert Filmer, who wrote a very famous book, sort of the Bible of the divine right of kings, called Patriarcha, advancing the power of the king is absolute.

The relationship between the king and his subjects is as of a father to his children. They are not equal. Some voices arose against this divine right of kings. Again, this may surprise you. Where were the most powerful voices against it? Where do those come from? Well, one came from an Italian Cardinal, Robert Bellarmine, and the other from a Spanish Jesuit, Francisco Suarez. Both of these powerful thinkers re-articulated the natural law argument against the divine right of kings and were so effective in doing it that James I got in a public dispute with Bellarmine in a series of monographs.

It was unheard of that a sitting monarch would engage with a commoner, but James I knew he had to because the arguments of Bellarmine were so powerful. He was so miffed at what Suarez wrote that he had the public hangmen burn his works in a public square in London. They both as I say restored the natural law as the principal opponent. They restored all the principles I just spoke of, popular sovereignty, God invests the people with sovereignty, the consent that is required, the right to revolution, etc.

Now, there was also in England a voice that rose in late Elizabethan period that made the same argument that restored the thought of Aristotle and Aquinas to the Anglican Church. He was the first Anglican theologian. He wrote a famous book called Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. I had not been familiar with this work before I started to work on this book, and I was stunned. I am a huge fan of Shakespeare’s, and I thought, well, if Shakespeare had written a book on theology and philosophy, it is this book. It had such an impact that the pope at the time said this is one of the greatest things that has ever been written, even though it was by an Anglican clergyman, and will last as long as literature last. That is how stunning it was.

Now, the significance of this is also the fact that restoring the natural law and domestic thought to Anglicanism, it was available to the English opponents of the divine right of kings, particularly Sydney, as in Hampton, Hampton Sydney College in Virginia. I do not know if you have ever heard of it. But Sydney opposed the divine right of kings, and he wrote a work called The Discourse on Government, which itself is a solid, classical natural law argument against divine right rule. He had to refer to the arguments of Cardinal Bellarmine because they were the best arguments. He was a bit miffed because he was a Protestant quoting a Catholic cardinal, but he said, after all, this is just the common sense of mankind. That is fine with Bellarmine. He himself said what I am telling you is just the common sense of mankind.

Now, Sydney had a huge impact on the American colonies, which the name of this college would tell you, and so did his book, The Discourse on Government, which Jefferson recommended as one of the most important books for people to read in the young American Republic if they wish to sustain it.

Now, this book Patriarcha, which I mentioned [was written] by Filmer, that was also present in the colonies. People knew about this book. They also had Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity because as many of them were Anglicans, they would be familiar with this work. Jefferson had it, and what do we see in Jefferson’s Library, this volume being in the Library of Congress now? Those sections in which Filmer, to contest Bellarmine’s positions, has to quote them at length. Bellarmine says this, I say that Bellarmine says this etc., and Jefferson underlined those.

Aha, all of a sudden, from Robert Bellarmine to Thomas Jefferson. I am not suggesting the founding was Catholic by the force of that, but what do we see Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suarez saying? All men are born free and equal. What? Saying that in the early 17th century? We are not talking about the late 18th [century]. They articulated this. Sydney had a huge impact.

John Locke was another major opponent of the divine right of kings. His First Treatise on government is a devastating takedown of Robert Filmer. He destroys the divine right teaching, and he does it through the imago dei. He does it with Genesis. He said, look, Adam and Eve were not the only ones made the imago dei, all their descendants were, we all are, and so no, we are not the children of the king.

But the second discourse, as I already mentioned to you, the Second Treatise, was the one in which he articulated the law of reason found in the state of nature and what sort of political life logically develops from that law of reason. And I mentioned to you [that] Locke was extremely influential in the colonies as was Sydney.

Now, okay, we are finally at the founding. Before Phil gets the hook, I just want to share with you some statements by the founders that I think may get pretty evidently clear that they were in this lineage of thinking, of both natural law thinking and the principles which I have enunciated from the Middle Ages, and in the thinking of Bellarmine. Okay.

Jefferson attested that in the writing of the Declaration, “I did not consider it any part of my charge to invent new ideas.” He was calling upon a tradition. John Dickinson wrote that men are free only when taxes are imposed on them, “With their own consent given personally or by their representative,” quod omnes tangit ab omnibus approbari. By the way, that phrase in Latin was current at the time of the founding, was used in the letters of the Pennsylvania farmer, was used by James Wilson, one of the most important founding fathers, a signer of both the Declaration and the Constitution, whose lectures on law are one of the greatest natural law works produced by any American. He, by the way, quotes quod omnes tangit ab omnibus approbari. He, by the way, quotes Richard Hooker.

I am sorry I did not give the name of the Anglican Theologian who resuscitated natural law and Thomist thought. James Otis [said], “There can be no prescription old enough to supersede the law of nature and the grant of God Almighty, who has given to all men a natural right to be free.” In another place Otis says, “Should an act of parliament be against any of God’s natural laws which are immutably true, their declaration would be contrary to eternal truth, equity, and justice, consequently void.”

James Madison maintained that “The laws of nature are the laws of God whose authority can be superseded by no powers on Earth.” As I mentioned, James Wilson [said], “The law of nature and the law of revelation are both divine and that they come from the same adorable source. They cannot be separated because they share the same object, to discover the will of God, and both are necessary for the accomplishment of that end,” both faith and reason.

I forgot to say Luther was, of course, sola fide, faith only, sola scriptura, scripture only. He denigrated reason. And I could give you the quote. It would take the hair off your head. Jacques Maritain, the famous French philosopher of the 20th century called the United States, “A great political Christian document.” Calling Patrick Deneen and Michael Hanby. John Adams would not have been surprised by what Maritain said. Adams said, “The Americans did not invent this foundation of society. They found it in their religion.” Elsewhere, Adams said, “The doctrine of human equality is founded entirely in the Christian doctrine that we are all children of the same Father, all accountable to Him for our conduct to one another.”

Well, I am unable to detect any notion of radical individual autonomy. It is just not there. It is not in them. Such a term would have been foreign. They would not understand what you were talking about if you talked about radical individual autonomy. Anyway, that is my case. You have been very patient as has Phil.


Audience member:

I was wondering how the medieval church interpreted Romans 13 because I am guessing that is probably what Luther was pulling from, where Luther was drawing his divine right ideas from. It would have been passages like Romans 13. How did canon law interpret that?

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, I mean I think you would have to see that in isolation to everything else to pretend that it meant what, say, Luther wanted to make of it. And also, you have to understand the audience to which he, Paul, was talking to at the time, under Roman Authority when this suspect religion was considered subversive. I mean, if I could give a subtext, he was saying do not behave subversively. I mean, do not sacrifice to the gods of Rome or to Caesar, but it is not part of your purchase as a Christian to overthrow the state. The state has its own authority. I do not know if that helps.

Audience member:

If the anchoring of the founders of our constitution had different views, where was the schism?

Robert R. Reilly:

That is a very good question, and it is another book. Actually, I have sort of a postscript in the book where I suggest an answer to that. I think it is titled, “If the founding was so good, why did things go so bad?” And the abbreviated answer I give is the Germans.

Audience member:

It is always the Germans.

Robert R. Reilly:

No, well, German historicism, which was ingested in this country in the 19th century when, you know, German higher education was considered the sine qua non, the best you could do, and American students flooded to Germany to study there. And also, they had German professors come to the United States. And what they conveyed in their baggage was the teaching of historicism, which means that truth is relative to its time, and times change, and so does the truth, so that and all of the origins of moral relativism could do it.

But by the time of President Wilson, you could see this. He was a historicist. He gave a speech to the Los Angeles Thomas Jefferson Club in which he denigrated the opening of the Declaration of Independence and said, well, that was fine for its time and place in the 18th century, but that was a Newtonian world, and we live in a Darwinian world, and so we have to evolve our institutions to meet the needs of the moment, which would be what? More powers to the president to enhance and create the administrative state, which is, thank you, what we have now.

And there was also the unbelievably pernicious influence of John Dewey. He, too, was a historicist. No, wait, I think the quote I gave you about Darwinian may be from Dewey, so that was completely corrosive. There is a great quote in this book from Adams in which he said the Christian principles of freedom in which all the sex in the colonies were united are immutable, eternal, as nature itself, and nothing will be discovered in the future contrary to this.

Well, surprise! Darwin: there are no transcendent, immutable truths, right, so that collapsed a lot and it seeped in. And of course, Dewey’s effect on education in the public school system in this country is catastrophic. I do not know, does that help? But by the way, [it is] time for an advertisement. There are six copies of the book over there for anyone who wishes to buy one, which I would be happy to sign if you so like.

Audience member:

This may be a little provocative for a second. Somebody left a comment on Facebook. He said, I would not cross the street any more to hear what a Straussian or a Straussian-influenced Catholic has to say about the founding.

Robert R. Reilly:

What a Straussian Catholic has to say about the founding? I think that is very amusing. Yeah, I will tell you why, because I studied at the Claremont Graduate School, which of course, had a Straussian major presence there. And my fellow graduate students did not quite know what to make of me. Here I am this ultramontane Catholic. They keep talking about Athens and Jerusalem, and I keep saying Rome. Why don’t you talk about Rome? So they thought I was quite an oddball. And you know who Carnes Lord is.

Yeah, so he is a professor who has done some of what are considered the greatest translations of Aristotle. He is a scholar. He still is at the Naval War College. And I loved his response to the book. He sent me a note, saying this is very welcome because it is a good response to the Straussians.

Audience member:

But is that not what a Straussian would say?

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, the thing is that anyone who makes that accusation regarding me ought to read the book. They obviously have not read the book.

Now, I do not mean to in any way dismiss Leo Strauss, who was a 20th century philosopher of great profundity. I mean, I have known a lot of students of Strauss. I was not one, but I have read a number of his works, and he will lead you to an extremely deep understanding of the classics and also of ancient Jerusalem, not that it is not reflected in the remarks I made tonight.


You know, I cannot imagine any Straussian accusing me of being a Straussian, but I enjoy it. By the way, I will just say one last thing as part of the book advertisement. So I go through all of these arguments against the founding. The book came out right when COVID hit. I thought great, it sunk. You know, no one is going to buy it. Eventually, they did.

But then when there were riots in the streets the summer before [the release], I thought, you idiot, what is the issue that has the greatest purchase in the popular imagination against the American founding? Slavery, and you do not talk about slavery in the book. Well, I do not because Deneen and Hanby never talk about it, so I asked the publisher. We need a chapter on slavery. They said go ahead and write it, and it is in that new edition in which I address the 1619 Project from The New York Times. Twenty dollars, thank you. Appreciate it, thank you.