America’s religious and political public forum is no longer confined to debates between liberals (be they Catholics or Protestants) and socially conservative evangelicals and traditional Catholics—with atheists condemning all of the above. There is now among some Catholic intellectuals and academics a movement called integralism that calls for the United States to move towards an integration of church (the Catholic Church) and state. This movement in turn, is opposed by other conservative Catholics who regard integralism as not only unworkable but also undesirable, especially in the robustly pluralistic America of our day.
Meanwhile, on both the Woke left and the alt-right there are essentially neo-Pagan movements which reject the American founding’s identification of ethical monotheism as the foundation of fundamental rights and political and personal moral obligations.
Enter scholars with a call to rediscover and revivify the classical and Christian sources of the founding. In The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics: Political Theology, Natural Law, and the American Founding (Cambridge UP, 2022), Justin Buckley Dyer and Kody W. Cooper argue that this political philosophy, pre-dating Aristotle and continuing through thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas to Lincoln to Martin Luther King to scholars of our own day, offers a way forward towards a just society built on a strong, rich, easily grasped moral framework.
The book we will discuss today with one of its coauthors, Professor Cooper, shows that many of the leaders of the American founding were steeped in the natural law tradition and that this tradition, while often developed and nurtured by Catholic thinkers, was also drawn upon and embodied by Protestants of the period of the American Revolution and the earliest days of the Republic such as John Jay, James Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, James Otis and John Dickinson.
The authors write that many of the founders, imbued with the tenets of classical and Christian natural law thinking, believed in, “a moralistic God of justice who favored the side of liberty such that the revolutionary actors saw themselves carrying out the divine will on the world historic stage in obedience to the dictates of right reason.” The emphasis on reason is a key component of natural law thinking of all types and Cooper and Dyer argue in their book that a reexamination of the writings and belief system of the founding generation shows that far from being religious skeptics bent on creating a new world order that discarded faith in God, many the founders were in fact motivated in their rebellion against the British by their belief that revolt was called for when their ability to move their society in a moral direction based on the idea of natural rights bestowed by God was being hampered by diktats of the British king and parliament.
Natural law thinking was not just in the air of the decades just before and during the American Revolution and in the first few decades thereafter. Rather, we learn from Cooper and Dyer that, “careful analysis of the founding period reveals that ideas central to American founding thought are not only compatible with but presuppose classical natural law and natural theology.”
Crucially and illuminatingly, the authors show that some of the earliest anti-slavery arguments were influenced heavily by natural law thinking, in both sentiment and wording, and that the Declaration of Independence shaped the thinking of Lincoln and King and provides common ground for those on both the left and the right on questions of equality and justice. They also show that with its emphasis on reason, derived though it is from a divine origin, the natural law tradition can be embraced by those of any faith or none who are eager to foster comity and rationality in a time of discord and, in some respects, even societal breakdown.
This book is a vigorous counterargument to those on the left who downplay the deeply religious character of the American Founding Era in order to create a false narrative of a gauzy deism among the founders that would lead to no-religion at all (the authors call this “the subversive theology thesis”) as well as to those on the right such as the scholar Patrick Deneen who argue that the founders were not religious enough and did in fact lay the foundations for the godless state of affairs we are increasingly in and that the right needs to, basically, get over the founders and move in the direction of integralism.
Importantly, this book shows that natural law is not just for Catholics but played a role in forming the principles that we all live by and need to preserve—a role well-understood by non-Catholics such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King.
Let’s hear from one of the two authors of this study, Kody W. Cooper.
Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher.
Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher in the biomedical sciences. She is particularly interested in the subjects of natural law, religious liberty and history generally.