The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics: Political Theology, Natural Law, and the American Founding
By Kody W. Cooper and Justin Buckley Dyer.
Cambridge University Press, 2022.
Paperback, 225 pages, $34.99.
Reviewed by Luke C. Sheahan.
Nearly a half century ago, Russell Kirk argued in The Roots of American Order that the American constitutional and social system owed much of its substance to the historical experience of Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London. Kirk spends much of the volume elaborating on the “Genius of Christianity” and its influence in European and especially English history to construct the constitutional and cultural backdrop of the American order. Core to the Christian and classical influence is natural law. Predicated upon ancient Israel’s devotion to the Law as the Way for the faithful, incorporating insights from the Stoics and other classical movements, and finally brought together in Christian theological, political, and legal thought, natural law influenced nearly all Western legal systems. It is inextricably entwined with the entire American constitutional and social edifice.
Kirk’s thesis had twentieth century precursors, perhaps most prominently Princeton University’s Edward Corwin who noted in The “Higher Law” Background of American Constitutional Law that the main presumption of natural law and Christianity in general is that all human law is ultimately under the judgment of natural and eternal law. Corwin argued that the American constitutional tradition takes as its basis the assumption of higher law, placing limits upon all actions of all authorities, elected and hereditary, popular and judicial. Donald Lutz’s subsequent empirical work (appearing in A Preface to American Political Theory and other places) on the American founding demonstrated definitively the influence of Jerusalem especially on the American framers. Deuteronomy, not Locke’s Second Treatise, was by far the most cited book among the founders. Scriptural passages were axiomatic, quoted frequently as a body of commonly accepted precepts for eighteenth century Americans. In short, no matter what debate or what position taken, nearly all parties through the revolutionary and constitution-making period of the late eighteenth century and beyond presupposed Christian natural law.
Amidst the confusion wrought by much modern scholarship, which characterizes the founding period from the pamphlet debates in the decade and a half before the Declaration of Independence up to the Constitutional Convention as secular to the core, The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics strikes an effective blow from the tradition of Corwin, Kirk, and Lutz. Scholars Kody W. Cooper and Justin Buckley Dyer illuminate the influence of this way of thinking upon the founding period and demonstrate to a great degree of empirical specificity that the American founders were steeped in a natural theology that presupposed Christian views of law and morality, especially the limits upon the sovereignty of both the king and the people. Even amidst disagreements and debates between Americans over the justification for Revolution and then the Constitution, all worked from shared theological premises. These may not have been explicitly Christian, for reasons the authors explain, but they were such that Thomas Aquinas would have had little objection.
Difficult to summarize concisely, natural law is a body of moral precepts that govern human action. Classical and Christian natural law emphasize the law-like nature of morality. Just as human law as we understand it is clear, promulgated, rational, “neutral” between parties, and the like, so natural law similarly is “self-evident,” promulgated in creation, rational (it can be discovered through reason), and applies to all in equal measure. Morality embedded in natural law is authoritative because it is law. Natural law is law because of the created condition of the world. “Natural law meets the conditions of being law in that it is something of reason, made by a proper authority, for the common good, and made known.” Human laws are by definition subject to divine laws established by the Creator in His Creation.
This understanding of classic natural law differs from modern natural law, which emphasizes the will of the sovereign as higher law. Theologically, in modern natural law, the will of the sovereign, whether monarchical or popular, is legitimate because it is the sovereign’s will. Put crudely—and a little too simply—might makes right. According to the theology of classical natural law, the will of the sovereign is not the legitimizing element of law. To be valid the actions and will of the sovereign are subject to the unchanging precepts of the natural law. Human sovereignty is always conditional, subject to the ultimate sovereignty of the natural law, which is the promulgation of the ultimate Lawgiver, God himself. The king is as much subject to the law as is the commoner. All alike are under the ultimate Sovereign and subject to His laws. This applies as readily in the democratic context, where elected representatives and even majorities of “the People” are subject to constitutional constraints. Such measure and procedures are more than prudential. They are predicated upon a Christian understanding of God’s ultimate sovereignty and the “higher law” nature of God’s laws.
Especially pernicious in modern scholarship is the “subversive theology” thesis, which posits that any appearance of theological orthodoxy among the founders or the founding documents is merely a gloss upon a secularism intended to co-opt popular theology to advance a new secular conception of politics. This interpretive theory attaches especially to Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. Reference to “Nature and Nature’s God,” it is claimed, is allusion to a non-orthodox God, a Prime Mover of Deism at best or a Metaphysical Necessity at worst. By definition, such a reference excludes the Christian God whose presence, according to modern natural law, must make nature unknowable or irrational, since His will and not reason governs.
Cooper and Dyer argue that this reading of the Declaration ignores historical context and the way in which “Nature” and its God were understood among those who signed and supported the Declaration. First, we must read the document all the way through (much scholarly mischief here and elsewhere is due to a simple failure to read to the end). The Declaration closes with an appeal to “the Supreme Judge of the World” and claims “reliance on the protection of divine Providence.” Both statements indicate an active theism and the language would be acceptable to orthodox believers from “Congregationalist, Episcopalian, Catholic, Quaker, and Presbyterian” traditions, all of whom signed the document. As Cooper and Dyer write, “The aim of the Declaration was to unite the colonists, and so we should expect any theological references to transverse the differences among major religious sects,” while finding common ground among them. These religious references are carefully crafted to do precisely that.
Jefferson did hold to religiously heterodox views, being very much a man unto himself among the founders, but in this case, he could write only that to which others would agree. What he wrote betrayed a theistic orientation that corresponded to widely held Christian understandings of politics and law. This makes the theological references in the Declaration especially poignant to the author’s thesis. Rather than evidence of secularism, they “are evidence of a broad public consensus among American colonists in the late eighteenth century that God is the creator of the cosmos, independent of nature, both moralistic and provident whose existence is profoundly relevant to the theoretical foundations of rightful political rule.” For classical theism, Nature’s God created a universe we can know through reason that is governed by physical as well as moral laws. Cooper and Dyer conclude, “[T]here is strong evidence that Jefferson shared in the general consensus of the colonists, that Nature’s God symbolically expressed providential, moralistic theism as the essential foundation of natural rights precisely in virtue of God’s creation of nature.” Jefferson certainly rejected orthodox Christian views, but kept intact some theistic beliefs that he shared with his Christian contemporaries.
Especially illuminating is Cooper and Dyer’s discussion of the pamphlet debates of the 1760s and 1770s, when Americans and British intellectuals exchanged salvos on the constitutionality of Parliament’s various taxation schemes in the American colonies. Americans advanced a number of arguments against Parliament’s authority to tax. One was that the King’s charters with each colony created a state not subject to Parliament. Another was that the traditional rights of Englishmen protected under the English constitution forbade Parliament’s imposition of taxes. Yet another appealed more explicitly to natural rights. English critics countered that any claim by the colonists to the traditional rights of Englishmen meant they were ipso facto under the authority of the English Parliament. Out of this debate emerged the “dominion thesis,” the argument that the colonial legislatures stood in relation to the king as sovereign in the same way that the English legislature, Parliament, stood in relation to him. Thus, American petitions and eventual war for independence were directed to the king because, the dominion thesis dictates, he is ultimately at fault for permitting Parliament’s overreach and for failing to respect the will of the colonial legislatures.
Behind all of these constitutional and legal arguments about the limits of both Parliament and king is a profound and widespread belief in natural law. When claiming the heritage of the traditional rights of Englishmen, Americans were not claiming mere privileges of political or national affiliation, but natural rights born of moral constraints upon the powers of the sovereign, no matter where that sovereignty resides. These arguments presupposed moral constraints derived from natural law on the power of King and Parliament that the traditional rights of Englishmen rightly recognized as essential to the English constitutional system.
Many other interesting arguments appear in the book. One especially surprising and relevant, and rather damning for the authors’ opponents, is the treatment of wartime correspondence. Sure, one could argue that in public debates those with a subversive theology would cloak their true intentions in arguments that bear a superficial resemblance to popular theology while undermining it. What about private correspondence when one’s life is on the line? Would not such circumstances beckon candid and sincere reflections? Here we see throughout the Continental Congress, the work of John Jay, the Culper Spy Ring, the diplomatic mission to establish the Franco-American alliance, and beyond, repeated assertions of the reality of providential interference, an active God affecting events to the benefit of the American cause. This is theism, not deism and certainly not atheism, and it is an element of Christian orthodoxy of every church and denomination. There is no public audience to win through this correspondence and it rings of “speaking from the heart.”
Like the seminal works of Corwin, Kirk, and Lutz, Cooper’s and Dyer’s book is testament to America’s deep roots in classical and Christian thinking. Let’s hope its publication is a catalyst to a broad renewal of a more historically grounded and philosophically accurate interpretation of the American founding and American politics.
Luke C. Sheahan is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Duquesne University, Nonresident Senior Affiliate at the Penn Partnership for Innovation, Cross-Sector Collaboration, Leadership, and Organization (PICCLO) at the University of Pennsylvania, Visiting Fellow in the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange at the Mercatus Center, and editor of The University Bookman. He is author of Why Associations Matter: The Case for First Amendment Pluralism (2020) and editor of International Comparative Approaches to Free Speech and Open Inquiry (2022).
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