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The Truths They Held: The Christian and Natural Law Background to the American Constitution
Robert R. Reilly
While Enlightenment ideas influenced our Founding, they were by no means predominant. Our Founding principles were shaped primarily by the heritage of the ancient Jews, Greeks, and Romans, and of Christianity. In the final analysis, the most central parts of this heritage for us are the belief in the Judeo-Christian God and the acceptance of the proper role of reason, which enables man to distinguish good from evil.
Was the Founding of America rooted in the Christian heritage and natural law? Or, is it a product of the Enlightenment, infused with the idea of the perfectibility of man, and therefore inimical to the Christian conception of reality and to world view that natural law implies? Was the Founding fatally flawed in its origins? If so, are present day evils simply a logical working-out of this fatal flaw? Or do current maladies result from a fundamentally sound proposition gone awry? The answers to these questions determine whether America is founded on basic principles that are true or just — ones which we can unqualifiedly support — or whether republic is based on ideas that are false and unavoidably lead corporate and individual evil. If the United States is, as I believe it is, founded on the highest moral principles of any government that ever existed, then we owe her and the principles on which she was founded our grateful support. If, on the other hand, America is founded on principles that are malign, then we are actually complicitous in anything we do to advance America's two hundred-year-old experiment in democracy.
So, where does the truth lie? There is no denying that the Enlightenment influenced the Founders, but does a partial influence make American political origins solely a product of the Enlightenment? To answer this and other questions we have asked, we must grapple with yet another: How much of the Constitution is derived from concepts of the Enlightenment and how much implies the Christian world view and a respect for natural law? A close reading of the Constitution lends any fair-minded reader to the inescapable conclusion: divorced from natural law and Christian principles, the Constitution would be utterly incomprehensible — a philosophical mish-mash devoid of cogent argument, compelling moral vision, or unifying principles.
However, the proof for this thesis is somewhat indirect because there are no Christian principles per se embedded in the Constitution: rather, the Constitution is embedded in Christianity. The Constitution does not declare principles, it provides for their implementation. It considers the principles on which America is founded so self-evident it does not even name much less defend them. In its short Preamble the Constitution briefly mentions, without defining, justice, general welfare and the blessings of liberty, clearly indicating that these are commonly accepted ends.
In fact, what is not in the Constitution is, in some ways, more interesting than what is. More interesting still are the presuppositions that these omissions suggest. I do not mean things already contained in the Declaration of Independence, but those that are not mentioned at all, things that might be considered truisms. But the problem with isms, as G.K. Chesterton once said, is that people forget that they are true. So, the truisms that the Constitution omits because it takes them for granted, can tell us much more about what the Founding Fathers intended than we might think. Indeed, the Constitution is implicitly Christian — in fact, I will argue — so deeply Christian — taking its Christianity so much for granted — that its framers felt no need to make their reliance on Christian tenets explicit.
The unstated premises, without which the Constitution is incomprehensible, derive respectively from Jerusalem, Athens and Rome. From Jerusalem: monotheism; the fundamental goodness and reliability of creation; and a rational universe created by a rational God. From Athens: the immutability of nature; the existence of human nature; and the existence and immortality of the human soul. From Rome: the de-divinization of the world, salvation history, and a personal God. It is beyond the scope of this essay to substantiate these sweeping claims. One can only briefly outline the support for them in the history of Western thought. One can also point to the fact that nothing similar to the U.S. Constitution has ever arisen where these premises are lacking.
To grasp these fundamental concepts which the Constitution presupposes, one must look back to the distant past, to ancient Greece, to the pre-philosophical world, to the cosmological empires of the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians and other ancients. For instance, in the ancient pre-philosophical world, when a dog wagged it's tail, one simply said “That is the way of a dog.” When the Egyptians buried their dead in brightly painted caskets, one said, “That is the way of the Egyptians.” The ancients did not discriminate between nature and convention. They did not have the means even of distinguishing that what the dog does grows out of its nature, whereas the Egyptians buried their dead in painted boxes because that is simply a convention they made up.
Another related distinction was also missing in the ancient world. There was no demarcation between the civic order and religious life. In the cosmological empires of, for example, the Pharaohs, the empire was supposedly an analog of the divine order. This was replicated, point by point, by the divinity of the Pharaohs and then, in rippling concentric circles, by the order of society and the political schema, which derived their importance from their proximity to the Pharaoh. Since there was no distinction between the political and the religious, participating in religious life was essentially a civic duty. The local gods upheld the city and the ruler ruled because he had a special relationship with them. In other words, in cosmological empires, a personal relationship with God was not possible. One participated in the divine scheme of things by fulfilling one's role in the empire, centered on the person of the semi-divine ruler.
Therefore, in the ancient world, the worst possible punishment was exile. It was worse than death because it meant banishment from the source of order and meaning. Worse still, by being separated from participation in the empire one was automatically cut off from the ruler and the order he had established-thus, one was cut off from the gods as well. Exile was, in esse, existential, as well as physical banishment. Perhaps this is one reason that Socrates chose hemlock rather than exile.
The importance of the gods was by no means merely cosmetic. For example when the Egyptians sallied forth to conquer another city, they would also defeat the gods of that city. After all, the Egyptians reasoned, what are the local gods for if not to protect their votaries? If a city lost at war, the ancients assumed that its gods had been defeated and subjugated by the greater powers of the gods worshipped by the victor.
The gods also played a crucial role in what we would think of as history-a concept that was far from the modern meaning of the term. How did the ancients define history? For them, history was simply the cyclical repetition of events. Empires rose and fell repeatedly-all empires were fated to end, but once all possibilities had been exhausted, others were fated to take their place: endless cycles of rise and fall. Creation, in the sense in which they understood it, resulted from a battle between the gods. This creation was neither ex nihilo nor entirely good; a god of light and a god of darkness struggled for supremacy, and the resultant chaos erupting in life and nature manifested the struggle of these demiurges. Consequently, instability constantly threatened to overwhelm the very tentative order of things with the chaos from which it came. Matter was often identified with evil itself in battle with the principle of light or goodness. Far from transcending the universe, the divine order was part of it: literally the heavens themselves.
In the ancient world, one tribe, the Jews, located in the Middle East, regularly beaten by other tribes, formulated a far different cosmogeny. Even when the Jews were defeated in battle, they did not consider their God defeated. The Israelites' developing consciousness of their God, revealed throughout the Old Testament, implies a God who is transcendent, omniscient-moreover one who creates ex nihilo and creates what is always good. “He Who Is,” Yahweh, is not just a tribal god. He is the God of all people and all things. Genesis makes it clear that Yahweh is a sovereign Creator who makes everything and makes it well: Nothing exists which He did not make and all of it is good. Yahweh's creation is not threatened by some evil demiurge who is equal with Him.
Also, God's handiwork is so well made that man can come to know the Creator by studying His works. The Book of Wisdom called “naturally stupid” those men, who “from the good things that are seen, have not been able to discover Him-who-is, or who, although studying those works, fail to recognize the Artificer” (Wis. 13:1-2). So this well-made creation offers an invitation to natural theology, (an invitation later taken up by the Declaration of Independence). The Book of Wisdom also makes it clear that the Creator who reveals Himself in His works has called His creatures and works into being Out of love. The Scripture says of God: “You love all that exists, you hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrence, for had you hated anything, you would not have formed it. And how, had you not willed it, could a thing persist, how be conserved if not called forth by you? You spare all things because all things are yours, Lord, lover of life, you whose imperishable spirit is in all” (Wis. 11:24-27).
Our familiarity with these texts, or at least with their assertions, has robbed us of the astonishing uniqueness of the biblical idea that creation is good. Since all that exists is good because it was made by God, creation is stable and reliable. Man can count on it.
The absolute supremacy of the God of the Israelites, in short monotheism, provided an assurance against the Manichean bifurcation of creation into coequal forces of good and evil. A good and stable creation can be confidently built upon. It provides the necessary requisite for man's enterprise and exploration. It is impossible to find a comparable vision of creation expressed in the Assyrian, Babylonian, or in any other ancient creation myth. In contrast, all of them invoke the principle of evil, often considering it as the Manicheans do, matter itself. Moreover, in such creation myths, this evil threatens to overwhelm the universe which would then dissolve into primeval chaos. Genesis, on the other hand, makes it very clear that evil is derived not from God, but from man. Therefore, according to the Judeo-Christian vision of being, man himself is responsible for disorder in creation, which originally resulted from his disobedience which, in turn, was caused by disordered will. Naturally, such a situation called for response by a Creator who is all good and so, as the Bible tells us, God undertook to “re-create” man and to remedy his disordered will by promising to send a Savior to restore creation and redeem man. The promise of the redemption created salvation history, which is the foundation of all modern history. For the first time, history became linear instead of cyclical. It moved with purpose toward a consummation.
The Athenian vision of man, his nature, and how he came to be was starkly different from that enclosed in Judaic culture. In a sense, it is true to say that the ancient Greeks discovered the idea of the human soul as well as the concept of human nature. They recognized that human nature enables man to recognize another person as a human being. In most of the ancient world, there was no sense of man's common humanity. When one people conquered another, the typical modus operandi was mass execution or enslavement. It was the most natural thing in the world for the victors to enslave or slaughter everyone in an enemy city. They were not killed because they were human beings, but because they were simply members of an opposing tribe. Significantly, there was no word for human being, no concept of personhood.
This situation still exists today in certain tribes in Africa, or in specific regions in South America. Such tribes define themselves in terms of their gods, not in terms of their own common personhood. These tribes name themselves, and other tribes, but they have no term to refer to human beings. Consequently, they cannot recognize themselves or other people as human beings. Indeed, their own wives are often slaves.
We owe the extraordinary discovery of personhood to the Greek philosophers. They were the philosophical pioneers who first announced that there is such a thing as human nature. Even more impressive than the discovery of human nature and personhood was the Greeks' recognition that man alone in all creation is endowed with an immortal soul. In Socrates, moreover, we read that the human soul has a typical order. What does human nature mean? It means that human beings are fundamentally the same in their very essence. Socrates and Aristotle said that men's souls are ordered to the good and that there is a single standard of justice which transcends the political standards of the city. There should not be one standard of justice for Athenians and another for Spartans. There is only one justice and this justice is above the political order. It is the same at all times, everywhere. Socrates was executed for this impiety — for suggesting that there could be a standard of justice independent of the city's gods. The Athenians considered this idea blasphemous, and, according to their understanding of the world, it was an impious affront to the gods and the old order.
Socrates' great discovery was that man's soul cannot be satisfied through political means. Politics cannot meet the needs of the human soul, for it cannot achieve perfect justice. Therefore, the Greek philosophers realized that one must look beyond politics for the fulfillment for which man hungers. Socrates showed that any attempt to fulfill the soul's ultimate desires through politics-by trying to achieve perfect justice-would transform the state into a totalitarian enterprise engaged in eugenics. Such a state would destroy the family, militarize its citizens, and do away with privacy. Socrates' discovery was that the soul may not be subsumed by political ends. The soul is inviolate and supersedes the political order. There is something essential in man's makeup that finds its end outside of politics and that can only be reached by the divine or the transcendent.
Therefore, Socrates argues for the immortality of the soul. He believes that justice requires the immortality of the soul since the demands of justice cannot be met in this life. In one of the most moving passages of political philosophy ever written, Socrates says: “In heaven there is laid up a pattern of it (the ideal city) methinks, which he who desires may behold, and beholding may set his own house it order. But whether such a one exists, or ever will exist in fact, does not matter; for he will live after the manner of that city, having nothing to do with any other” (The Republic, 592B). In other words, the good and the wise will live according to a spiritual order that transcends the actual order as well as the particular in which the individual lives. Indeed, Socrates' transcendent view beautifully adumbrates St. Paul's prophecy: “As you well know, we have our true citizenship in heaven.”
I do not mention either St. Paul or heaven adventitiously, for the idea of heaven — or the city of God — is the ultimate, yet transcendent political order because it is so ordered by God Himself who is (among many other things) Order itself. Moreover, He is, according to the Christian view, not only ultimate order but also the ultimate Ruler and His kingdom (heaven) the perfect polis or city. Thus, the great Christian contribution to the question of man's nature and his ultimate end is the revelation that man's soul is not only, as Socrates said, drawn to the good but to goodness itself which is God.
Of course, the Christian revelation only begins there, unfolding like Dante's multifoliate verse, into further revelations connected not only with God's goodness but with His triune nature. The coming of Christ, the second person of the Trinity, totally revolutionized the ancient world. In fact, in the West, we consider the Incarnation that event that decisively divides time: cutting ancient times from our own Christian era-designated as A.D., Anno Domini, in the year of our Lord. The Incarnation was an earth-shaking event in an ancient world diffused with pantheism, divine energy, with spirits inhabiting trees and groves and grottos. Everything was animated by spirit, its own god. But, as Father Stanley Jaki so brilliantly points out, St. John testifies that Christ is the “only-begotten” of the Father, only-begotten. God did not beget anything, but Christ. He did not beget the world. The world is not made up of God, but made by Him and is separate from Him. The universe itself cannot be divine. Thus, the Incarnation makes pantheism impossible. Matter is not eternal. This doctrine delivered the coup de grace to the ancient world. The world owes its existence to a free act of God but is not a necessary part of Him. As a result, Pan was dead and the world de-divinized.
An infinite distance opened between God and His creation, because this God is an infinite God. But at the same time man became infinitely distant from God, he grew intimately close, because across this infinite distance came Christ Himself, God incarnate, through whom contingent creation, flawed through man's sin, is saved. Since Christ is a personal savior, interested in each individual soul, in love with each human being, each person could participate in the divine order of salvation as an individual, not through his participation as a citizen of his state, not through the mediation of a semi-divine ruler, but through union with Christ. As the Romans implicitly recognized when they sentenced to death Christians who would not sacrifice to the emperor as a god, Christ's identity as a personal savior was totally incompatible with the ancient cosmological view of the universe. The vision out of which our Founding Fathers operated was based on the discoveries and revelations that we have just mentioned that grew out of the cultures of Jerusalem, Athens and Rome-to wit, the world was created ex nihilo by a good God and this world is in esse good. Moreover, each soul created by God is uniquely dear to Him. So dear, in fact, that when man, as a result of cunningly misusing his free will, fell, thereby ushering evil into the world, God sent Christ, His only-begotten Son, to save man. That salvation not only redeems man and creation, but also offers each individual salvation through personal union with Christ. Jerusalem revealed the name of the one God to whom all are ordered. Athens discovered the nature of man's immortal soul that directs him to a transcendent God. Rome was when the identity of the God sought and the seeker meet in the person of Christ.
Ironically, by offering a vision that transcends politics, Christianity enabled politics to focus on its proper study-how best to govern man in this world. As Fr. James Schall writes in The Politics of Heaven and Hell, “Christianity was vital to the very structure of classical political thought because it was able to give a reason why politics did not have to be concerned with man's highest destiny or virtue. Resurrection and the Kingdom of God suggested both that man's deepest desires would be fulfilled and that politics could, consequently, pursue a temporal good in a human, finite fashion.” Since man's ultimate human happiness lies in God, and a transcendent God is, by definition, outside of history, man cannot make his home in this world. Thus, politics is not the salvific engine for the transformation of mankind and the elimination of evil. Christ is. This is what ultimately limits (and therefore makes possible) politics. Without this limiting view of politics, constitutional thinking is not possible. Only such a vision as this gives impetus to the effort to restrain political power.
The Founders were deeply grounded in these beliefs. They proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that American independence is based upon total dependence on God. This is why the Constitution contains no solution to the problem of evil. The Constitution implicitly recognizes that politics cannot, and should not, attempt to spiritually transform man or turn the world into a terrestrial paradise. The more limited goal of politics is to arrange the material circumstances of man's life to mitigate the effects of evil so that he can pursue virtue and, in so doing, achieve the ultimate happiness which lies beyond politics. The primacy of the person, unthinkable without the foundation of Christian truth, defines the very order of the Constitution. T
he American Constitution makes no sense divorced from these presuppositions. If man lives in a world of which he can make no sense, a world that is a plaything of the gods, an irrational world, he can choose only to surrender to fate or to despair. In such a state and such circumstances, he will not go about writing constitutions, for constitutions by their very nature imply a belief in order, in man's reasonability, and in his ability to formulate and establish a rational mode of government, grounded in a rational creation. Law is reason, as John Courtney Murray said, which is why we discuss reasons for laws. Ultimately, law is reason because God is Nus.
If man is not a political creature endowed with reason in a world accessible to his mind, why attempt to order political life based upon deliberation and representation? If man does not have free will, deliberating over what he ought to do is superfluous. If reason is simply an excrescence of material or physiological forces, then deliberations are meaningless. Freedom. obviously, is a hollow idea if free will and reason do not exist. These faculties themselves only make sense in an order of nature which directs man toward ends that make him fully human. This is the perspective that formed our Founders, and that infuses the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Founding Fathers' ancillary writings.
Of course, this view of the Founders has not gone unchallenged in the world of constitutional scholarship. In that forum, it is the fashion to present the American Founding as an outgrowth of the Enlightenment, as a Hobbesian or as a Lockean enterprise, that somehow co-opts the American experiment into the ideological endeavor to transform man. This interpretation, which, I believe, is politically motivated, cannot be historically substantiated or even philosophically justified.
A study, done by Lutz and Hyneman, supports this case. They examined the references cited by our Founding Fathers from 1760 to 1805. Of 3,154 items cited by the Founding Fathers, 34% came from the Bible. Nine percent were from classical authors like Cicero, Plutarch, Livy, and Plato. Thus, 1,356 citations came from the Bible and the classics, making up forty-three percent of the citations. Eighteen percent were from Whig writers, 11% derived from English common law, and 18% from so-called Enlightenment thinkers. Significantly, Montesquieu, the author of The Spirit of the Laws, was most frequently cited, three times as often as John Locke.
John Adams' habit of annotating the books he read, making his reading like a living dialogue, offers interesting insight as to how he reacted as he read various texts. The margins are full of his comments on and to the authors. One of the books Adams read in this manner was The Progress of the Human Mind by the Marquis de Condorcet, one of the leading lights of the French Enlightenment. One of the Marquis' sentences epitomizes the spirit of the Enlightenment: “The results of my work will be to show from reasoning and from facts, that no bounds have been fixed to the improvement of the human faculties, that the perfectibility of man is absolutely indefinite.” Condorcet goes on to argue that the state provides the vehicle for organizing and implementing man's self-perfection.
As one would expect, Condorcet attacked organized religion, claiming that priests had become dupes of their own fables and that kings and priests waged a continual war against the truth. In the margin by that statement, Adams wrote, “Just as you and yours have become the dupes of your own atheism and profligacy, your nonsensical notions of liberty, equality, and fraternity.... Your philosophy, Condorcet, has waged a more cruel war against truth than was ever attempted by king or priest.” When the Marquis complained that true genius had been suppressed by organized religion, Adams retorted “But was there no genius among the Hebrews, none among the Christians? I understand you, Condorcet, it is atheistical genius alone that you would honor or tolerate.” And when the Marquis insisted on the natural equality of mankind as the foundation of morality, Adams wrote, “There is no such thing without a supposition of a God. There is no right or wrong in the universe without the supposition of a moral government and an intellectual and moral governor”.
Clearly, Condorcet's views and those of his Enlightenment confreres were inimical to those of Adams and most of the other Founding Fathers. These distinguished men had a keen appreciation of the ill effects of original sin both in individuals and in groups. Moreover, they realized that any document describing how men should govern and be governed must make ample provision for man's basically flawed nature and his unfortunate propensities. The Constitution implicitly recognizes this nature and these propensities when it advocates the separation of powers. Furthermore, the Constitution implicitly acknowledges original sin and its baneful effects when it insists on a wise system of checks and balances. This is why, as we have already mentioned, the Constitution does not offer any solution to the problem of evil. Our Founding Fathers clearly considered this solution beyond the realm of politics and beyond their own individual competence. But this does not mean that they did not think that a solution had been provided. Indeed, they believed that the “solution”-in the form of Christianity-was so widely known and accepted by them and their fellow countrymen that there was no need to make it explicit. It is telling that they dated the Constitution “Anno Domini” in light of the later French Revolution which presumed to date its inception as the year zero,” thus constituting a completely new beginning for man in time.
Lest one think that Adams and the other Founding Fathers objected exclusively to Condorcet rather than the ideas he and other figures of the “Enlightenment” endorsed, I would like to mention Adams' rather sharp marginalia addressed to David Hume. As is well known, this British philosopher is often credited with having had a decisive impact on the American Founding. Reading a book which praised Hume, Adams wrote that the famous Englishman “was a greater blockhead than he pronounced Mr. Locke to be. If ever there existed a wise fool, learned idiot, a profound deep thinking coxcomb, it was David Hume....
As interesting as these marginalia are, Adams did not confine himself to mute debate with figures of the Enlightenment. In his intriguing correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, Adams specified what he believed were the ideas that those who drafted our foundational documents took for granted. Writing about the basic concepts on which the Fathers achieved independence, Adams asked:
And what were these principles? I answer, the general principles of Christianity in which all those sects were united and the general principles of English and American liberty in which all these young men united. Now I will avow that I then believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God. And that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature. ...I could, therefore, safely say consistently with all my then and present information, that I believe they would never make discoveries in contradiction to these general principles.
In this remarkable passage Adams implicitly acknowledges the various presuppositions from the ancient past that we have mentioned: the immutability of human nature; the constancy of the universe; the basic goodness of creation; the existence of a good God; the divinity of Christ; and His identity as man's savior.
The fact that the American Revolution was not an exclusive product of the Enlightenment is even clearer in contrast to the real revolution of the Enlightenment — the French Revolution. In one great act of Enlightenment in 1789, the French revolutionaries broke into the Church of St. Etienne du Mont near the Pantheon, the burial site of St. Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris. The revolutionaries desecrated St. Genevieve's grave, took the remains into the square and burned them. Later they proceeded to Notre Dame where they overthrew the main altar and constructed a huge mound of earth on which they enthroned the Goddess of Reason, a naked woman, who happened also to be a whore. This was their Goddess of Reason.
Proposed laws in the French Assembly would have made all buildings in France equal. No building could be taller than another. This would have required the leveling of every steeple in France. Other laws advocated a national uniform for everyone and a calendar to begin anew in 1793 as the first year of the new era.
Although many of these laws were not put into practice in eighteenth-century France, many of them bore weird fruit in our own in places like China, the Soviet Union, and Cambodia. All of them consider or have considered the state the secular vehicle of salvation. In these countries, the whole burden of salvation falls on politics. As a result, politics becomes the engine of salvation. Happily, the United States has been protected from such a situation by the Constitution, as well as by the vision of which the Constitution is a part. If we lose that vision we will lose our communities, we will lose our families, we will lose our unborn children, and eventually, we will lose ourselves.
That vision is already under attack and seriously eroded by Roe v. Wade. This Supreme Court decision challenges ideas on which the Constitution and Western civilization itself are based. Making it legal to kill unborn children in the name of freedom challenges the idea that each of us as a human being has a fundamental duty and responsibility to all other human beings. Ironically, by legalizing the slaughter of infants who happen to be unwanted, we throw into question not only the humanity of those destroyed but also that of those who allow that destruction. Furthermore, such wanton destruction threatens our very understanding of human nature. As we have said earlier, the discovery of human nature gave man the ability to recognize another person as a human being. Ironically, we, the most modern of modern countries and certainly the most sophisticated and richest, are in danger of losing sight of that ancient discovery. Roe v Wade suggests either that the unborn person is not a human being, or that if he or she is, he or she is not as human as his or her mother. In other words, the Court has basically admitted that it cannot distinguish between the human and the nonhuman. Ironically, however, the very authority of the Court is based upon the distinction between the human and the nonhuman, for it is impossible to adjudicate human rights if one cannot tell what a I human being is.
With Roe v Wade, the members of the Court have declared that: by the power invested in us by the virtue of our humanity, we do not know what a human being is. In taking this absurd position, the Court not only opened the gate to the massacre of the innocents, it undermined the most fundamental basis of constitutional government. The Roe v Wade decision has given impetus to the process of the rebarbarization of man in the twentieth century, because it has the effect of impairing our ability to recognize each other as human beings.
Earlier stages of this process were clear enough in the writings of Marx and Lenin. One is not a human being, but a member of the working class. It is clear enough in Mein Kampf that one is not a human being, but a Caucasian. It is only our Declaration of Independence that appeals to all men everywhere in the same way because it appeals to he principles of truth which transcend history. Calvin Coolidge aptly expressed this idea in relation to our Founding documents. He observed:
It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning cannot be applied to (the Declaration of Independence).If all men are created equal, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in this direction cannot claim to progress, they are reactionary.
Coolidge's words obviously counter the theory that everything needs to be updated and implicitly suggests that cultural relativism can be a menace. Unfortunately, the brightest students in U.S. universities have been thoroughly infected with this notion. Frequently they are incapable of defending anything about the Western civilization that they have been trained to denigrate. “On what grounds could one possibly advance the notion of the superiority of Western civilization?” they ask. Even asking such a question is ridiculed as ethnocentric hubris. I once asked a student who held this view how he felt about the human sacrifices of the Aztecs, who sometimes slaughtered tens of thousands of slaves on special occasions. The student uncomfortably complained that he was being forced into being a relativist. In fact, he was being shown that he wasn't, for if he objected to human sacrifice, he clearly had some idea of the sanctity of human life. The Aztecs probably did not have a word for human being, because they had no concept of human beings as persons. They did not have the means to recognize another person as a human being.
To me, at least, it does not seem chauvinistic to assert that a civilization that has a word for “human being” is likely to be better than one that does not.
A case can and should be made for Western civilization. In British. ruled India, for example, the British governor was confronted with Indian elders who protested violently against the government's order outlawing the burning of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. The elders came to the British governor and said, “How dare you invade and desecrate our culture by banning the burning of widows. This happens to be our way.” And the British governor replied, “Well, if you put it like that, it's our way to hang people who burn widows on funeral pyres.”
If everything is reduced to cultural relativism, and there is no appeal to principles which transcend this cultural relativism; there can be no truth, and where there is no truth, force rather than right reason rules. The relativists do not realize — when they celebrate the multi-cultural milieu they favor and deride Western civilization as the source of all evil — that they are unwittingly advocating force when they deny the possibility of appealing through reason to truths that transcend history and culture.
These truths alone are universally relevant and in respect to them all else is relative. Cardinal Biffi put this pithily: “That which is eternal is not only more important, but is, in fact, more incisively contemporary than that which is merely contemporary, and that which is substantial and absolute is capable of influencing history more effectively than that which is above all relative to present circumstances.”
The Cardinal's words accurately describe the greatness of the gift that we have inherited. The Constitution takes it for granted that the verities on which it is based are immutable, transcendent, and eternal. Moreover, our Founding Fathers believed that God Himself was the Author of these truths and that He had written them in the hearts of all man as natural law. We will keep that great gift only if we maintain that enormous vision of which it is a part.
Reilly, Robert R. “The Truths They Held: The Christian and Natural Law Background to the American Constitution.” Chap. 6 of We Hold These Truths and More: Further Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition. The Thought of Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J. and its Relevance Today. Edited by J. D'Elia & Stephen M. Krason. Steubenville, OH: Franciscan University Press, 1993.
Published by permission of Franciscan University Press. To order books from Franciscan University Press call 1-800-783-6357
Roberty R. Reilly has held a number of posts in the federal government, but is currently with the Voice of America. He previously served as President and National Director of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
Copyright © 1993 Franciscan University Press