America’s Classical and Christian Roots

A Common Denominator Christian Founding?

The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics: Political Theology, Natural Law, and the American Founding (Cambridge), co-authored by Kody Cooper (University of Tennessee Chattanooga) and Justin Dyer (University of Texas Austin) demonstrates that careful scholarship is being done on the American Founding by faithful scholars with prestigious academic appointments. Though the authors sometimes slip into familiar tropes, the book makes great strides in the right direction and should be taken seriously by American Reformer readers.

While Cooper and Dyer emphasize that this is a book about the Christian character of America’s Founding and not simply America, anyone familiar with academic and popular debates over the last several decades knows that the two are inexorably bound together. And why shouldn’t they be? Why else do Leftist revolutionaries seek so enthusiastically to erase the Founding or else slander its leaders? Why else do Cooper and Dyer feel obliged to defend the relevance of their thesis against today’s post-liberals in their last chapter? The answer is obvious enough.

Those familiar with the “academic literature,” especially history and politics, know that a steady drumbeat began a century ago to insist that America is a secular project. According to this now-dogmatic belief, nothing essentially or substantially Christian defined or sustained Founding ideas. Worse still, references to God (e.g. Providence) among the Founders should be read as cynical or subversive or both. According to this view, America was a Deist project at best, and more likely a product of that old chestnut, “the Enlightenment.” But Classical and Christian Origins is not your father’s “Christian America” project, as one might get from the old culture warriors like David Barton or Gary DeMar a few decades ago.  

Cooper and Dyer take their academic opponents head-on, beginning with apt references to Nietzsche and Epicurus, for example, and devoting several pages to refuting Straussian argle-bargle. By contrast, they argue that “the background assumptions of American public life during the American founding were derived from and compatible with the Christian natural-law tradition that developed from the long engagement of Christianity with classical political philosophy.” Evidence of Christian natural law’s influence, they insist, “has been hiding in plain sight.”

Cooper and Dyer provide a list of propositions constituting Christian natural law’s influence. This list serves as a field guide to identifying Christian thinking in the thick forests of the Founding: what is said about reason and revelation, the purpose and fulfillment of the natural law and that law’s lawgiver (God’s character and intent), and the roots and limits of sovereignty and law. They prudently eschew pronouncements about the personal religious piety or orthodoxy of the Founders and make no attempt to define what a purely Christian politics would look like. They are instead interested in finding a common denominator of ideas rooted substantially in Christian authors, Protestant or Medieval. Cooper and Dyer acknowledge that the humanist tradition undergirding the theology of this “classical natural law” will sometimes look more like classicism than biblicism. So while, for example, Thomas Paine appears to reason extensively from the Bible (something scholars would myopically call “religious” argumentation if not for Paine’s gross impieties), he arrives at conclusions very different from those rightly drawing holistically from the Christian natural law tradition.

The propositions Cooper and Dyer identify in multiple cases promote limited sovereignty, republican government, and the rule of law. Such institutions, Cooper and Dyer insist, are not “necessary deductions from Christian tradition or from classical natural-law principles.” In other words, however much the Christian tradition in the American case made it prudent and possible to have such (politically) nice things, they are not obliged or possible in every case. Appealing to both reason and circumstance (i.e., what was called prudence for generations) does not discount divine revelation or faith at all; rather, they reinforce it. For example, the authors point out in their chapter on the American Revolution that while consistent praise of civil obedience throughout Christian history might seem to overwhelm the more recent theories of resistance, Gregg Frazer’s asserted dichotomy between God’s judgment and the rational judgment of persons (his criticism of the Revolution as unchristian) is not an indictment of the War of Independence.

That’s right, folks: we’re finally getting scholarship that says, “Stop engaging reason or revelation without the other. That’s not how Christianity works.” If such projects press on, both pietistic biblicism and Straussianism will have to get their affairs in order. And it’s about time.

Though Cooper and Dyer want the book to serve primarily as a kind of intellectual history confined to the Founding era, they can’t help but provide some admittedly tentative and undeveloped defenses of what is necessary or sufficient for a polity to be in this Christian natural law tradition. The present flummoxes them as they wrap things up at the end of the book. One wonders what they would make of Evangelicals who will assert “intrinsic dignity and worth” or “flourishing” right along with them, but then condemn Christian natural law as a paternalistic relic. Cooper and Dyer also like neither Christian nationalism (which they characterize by its nuttiest elements), nor progressive liberalism (identity politics), and consider each an inappropriate sacralization of politics.

There are, for example, elements of the inherited tradition about which the authors have little to say (e.g. established state churches) beyond tentative criticism about “reintegrating spiritual and temporal authority.” They must know that longstanding institutions of religious establishment can’t be brushed aside that easily. And they must realize that what they implicitly defend as classical liberalism relied not so much on “religion” but on a particular kind of Protestantism. That said, the book offers neither a substantial criticism of establishment nor a substantial defense of what they call “religious pluralism” (better understood as denominational Protestant pluralism in the case of the Founding). We must be thankful for what Cooper and Dyer do very well. There’s a big elephant worth of books published about America’s supposedly secular character, so we have to eat that elephant one bite at a time.   

At the heart of the book’s argument is a definition of natural law familiar to anyone who has read Thomas Aquinas or Richard Hooker: the natural law does not express an arbitrary divine will (as Hobbes would have us believe) but expresses a Divine Character desiring our good. Thus, colonial graduates at what is today the University of Pennsylvania had to defend (in Latin, no less) this proposition: “Natural Law prescribes all things not by words but, with reason as a guide, in accord with the fair and good.”

For politics, this means that no good law is arbitrary or absolute, voluntarist or subjectivist, because none of those attributes reflect the character of God the lawgiver. It is this understanding of natural law (and natural rights), fortified by a common denominator of minimal Christian theology, that informed patriot protests beginning in the 1760s. Without understanding natural law correctly, we cannot make sense of James Wilson’s lectures on law, for example. Christian natural law also informed Founding debates about popular sovereignty, the authors argue, challenging what they call “voluntaristic originalism” in contemporary constitutional scholarship.

The first third of the book offers a close reading of the pamphlet debates with this in mind. Coverage of such extensive literature and particular authors (e.g. James Otis and John Dickinson) in such a short space is necessarily dense and will be more satisfying for scholars than general readers. The authors contend with readings of the Founders by academic legends such as Bernard Bailyn, Jack Green, Michael Zuckert, or John Phillip Reed along with younger scholars such as Lee Ward, Alan Gibson, or C. Bradley Thompson. Yes, Cooper and Dyer argue, the patriots did cite a host of modern natural law theorists, but not in ways that were “Hobbesist.” Rather, their use of Locke, Grotius, et. al. were in substantial agreement with the older natural law tradition. Sometimes the Americans disagreed with modern theorists altogether, whether by silence or by explicit criticism. Sometimes they deployed essentially Christian ideas to moderate opposing categories of ideas (Aristotelianism versus Lockeanism, for example).

Cooper and Dyer are able to rebut so many contemporary scholars at once because most of those scholars simply don’t know what the Christian tradition actually is. Some, for example, presumed it to be some kind of hermetically sealed biblicism. Others thought that any reference to “nature” was convicting evidence of lame Deism or atheism. It sometimes feels like Cooper and Dyer are shooting fish in a barrel. The authors’ rhetorical and argumentative strategy is admirably simple. For example, saying that “Otis does reference Locke— but Otis’ Locke is in substantial continuity with the metaphysic of the classical natural-law tradition” does not oblige them to demonstrate that Locke himself is on all points in agreement with the classical tradition. They only have to demonstrate that Otis’s use of him is. This unlocks the prison that has trapped a lot of political theorists over the years because dogmas about Locke and other moderns live loudly. Under this paradigm, Otis was also inhibited from becoming a political theorist in his own right but became rather a “Lockean one” with “Lockean” implying a set of axioms that neither Otis nor Locke actually subscribed to.

Cooper and Dyer devote an entire chapter to Thomas Jefferson, an alleged perpetrator of the “subversive theology thesis.” Jefferson did not, they insist, pour a new wine of natural-rights secular liberal individualism into old Christian wineskins. Rather, Jefferson theistically understood “Nature’s God” to be a moral governor. His ordering by both creation and providence directs us, through political rights of equality and property, toward happiness built into human inclinations and faculties (rightly understood). One clever move that Cooper and Dyer use is to quote Jefferson from his personal letters rather than his public pronouncements. By not focusing on public statements (e.g., the Declaration), one cannot charge Jefferson with cynicism or deception. In letters to his daughter on theological or moral matters, for example, we expect to discover what Jefferson really thought. Of course, the authors do not aim to make Jefferson consistent with the Christian natural law tradition at every point. It is enough, for example, to demonstrate that Jefferson believed humans’ orientation toward moral good and happiness is consistent with that tradition.

What is perhaps the most striking modern deviation (among Christians) from the tradition Cooper and Dyer identify in the Founding is providentialism. Providentialism does not oblige doctrinal orthodoxy. It does not even oblige a covenantal framework (something which, I have argued, Americans have struggled with) The authors call providentialism “a unifying public theology” and one that did not oblige the Christian God but was also not metaphysically incompatible with it. The authors again turn to private correspondence, this time from the Culper Spy Ring, to demonstrate how this providentialist lens was sincerely used. And though it brought consolation to know that God brought good out of evil, such beliefs reaffirmed the governing character of natural law. If one is going to demand a Christian polity, or Christian nationalism, today, he should start with providentialism not only in public conversations about politics but in private ones as well.  

Alas, I test drove Classical and Christian Origins with undergraduates, many of whom were political science majors at a Christian school. The layout of the argument is more episodic than progressive (as is often the case with books including previously published material), and the authors do not attempt to comprehensively present opposing views but instead presume the reader to already be familiar with many of them. This diminished the real value for my students. For someone already familiar with the literature, however, Cooper and Dyer have accomplished something quite impressive and ambitious. For general readers, their book will have real value as a kind of bibliography of scholarship on Founding era, but will often prove an arduous read.

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Glenn A. Moots

Glenn A. Moots is Professor at Northwood University and author of Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology and co-editor of Justifying Revolution: Law, Virtue, and Violence in the American War of Independence"

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