The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

“Reason, Revelation and the American Regime”: Prof. Hadley Arkes in The Catholic Thing

by James Wilson Institute on December 3, 2020

In the latest article for The Catholic Thing, JWI Founder and Director Prof. Hadley Arkes writes about the nature and roots of the American Regime. Professor Arkes points out that the moral roots of the American Founding are in both reason and faith. The Founding Fathers invoked Natural Law to justify their cause because they knew that these ideas were grounded in what was universally accessible to all men. But they are also made clearer by the teachings of religion that are, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude and the love of man.” The faith of the Founders gives real resonance to truths such as “all men are created equal.”

Some excerpts from this article:

For Jefferson took for granted that, beneath the varieties of religion, there was a ground of natural law bearing moral truths.  But in our own time the passion to defend religious freedom in the most sweeping way has led to a willingness, in some quarters, to recede from those divisive moral judgments that would judge certain religions as illegitimate – as in the religions that practiced human sacrifice or suttee. Hence the willingness to accept Satanists in giving invocations at legislative assemblies.

But the affirmation of radical evil just cannot be reconciled with the God of the Declaration of Independence, the Author of the Laws of Nature, including the moral laws.  That understanding of God cannot be compatible even with a muted, stylish embrace of relativism. And so Harry Jaffa, reflecting back on that understanding of religion at the time of the Founding, touched the core of the matter when he remarked that “the dictates of right reason [were thought to be] the voice of God no less than sacred scripture.”

In our own time, we find conservative academics arguing that the truth of the Declaration of Independence on natural equality was really a “half-truth.”  What is clearly missing here, as Reilly shows, is that it is the Christian understanding that gives the real resonance to that truth.  And it comes with a line as simple as Abraham Lincoln’s:  that “nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.”

Where in all the world could we find a more compelling demonstration of this point than the scene recorded by Matthew:  “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least of the brothers of mine, you did for me.”  Where would we find a sense of natural equality running deeper?

Read the complete article here.

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Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.
— James Wilson, Lectures on Law, 1790