In Crisis of the House Divided (1959), Harry Jaffa read the Declaration of Independence as positing a unified supreme Good, with the nature of rights -- as with all else -- to be understood in light of this Good. This Straussian reading, as it happened, harmonized well with Thomist Roman Catholic theology. At various points, Jaffa drew the connection himself (as he does in his piece in the New York Times Book Review last week), drawing a close association between the thought of the Founders and that of St. Thomas Aquinas (and distinguishing both, sharply, from the thought of modern social scientists, secular liberals, and progressives). Both the Declaration’s author and Saint Thomas were committed to the position that there are objective standards of right and wrong. Both believed, moreover that democratic politics, properly understood, involved the advancement of the right, and the Good: the laws of nature mentioned in the Declaration.
A similar argument was advanced by John Courtney Murray, S.J., in his landmark book We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (1960). Murray (1904-1967), a Jesuit theologian at the now defunct Woodstock College, and frequent contributor to the Jesuit magazine America, was not easily classified politically in the early 1960s (just as he isn’t easily classified politically today). While Murray’s thought has many attractions for contemporary conservatives, in his own time Murray was far from conservative in challenging not only the Church hierarchy (which, for a period, silenced him), but also the core convictions of the nation’s most conservative lay Catholics, who were convinced that American democratic liberalism was hopelessly incompatible with Catholic teaching. As the first major Catholic theologian to argue aggressively for the virtues of religious liberty, pluralism, the “distinction” between church and state, and the secular state (all of which he celebrated through his extended reading of, and support for, the First Amendment (properly understood), Murray was celebrated in his day by liberals, and remains an important touchstone for Catholic liberals today. In time, despite earlier run-ins with the Church’s reactionary hierarchy, Murray played a pivotal role the Vatican II conclave that – in line with the views he had been advancing – modernized the Church’s teachings. At the very moment when the U.S. was electing its first Catholic President, Murray – who was prominent enough to have his picture grace the cover of Time Magazine – demonstrated through systematic philosophic argument starting with the principles articulated in the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence, that good Catholics could be good Americans.
The claim, indeed, went further – in a way that contemporary right-wing Catholics have picked up on aggressively. As Peter Lawler, a political scientist at Berry College, and influential contemporary Catholic conservative political theorist, has noted in his introduction to a recent re-issue of Murray’s book, it was Murray’s conviction that “only the Catholic community,” with its richer and deeper tradition and carefully cultivated systematic philosophy and theology, “could illuminate what was true and good about what our founders accomplished.” Who better then, than a Catholic theologian, trained in natural law – in the systematic exposition of the eternal Truths unearthed through Reason and Revelation -- to explain to Americans the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence, as elaborated by its most profound and fervent proponent, Abraham Lincoln, “our most ambitious and philosophic president.”? “If veneration for the true accomplishment of our political Fathers is the standard of citizenship,” Lawler argues, “those within the Catholic natural-law community of thought are the least alienated of Americans today.” “Only a Thomistic or natural-law understanding,” Murray had demonstrated, “can make sense of our framers’ accomplishment.” Lawler argued, moreover – and importantly – that, far from being divisive, the Thomist philosophical method provides a common ground for discussions (on the Right, perhaps initially, but, one would hope, eventually, even beyond) between Evangelical Protestants, with their emphasis on Revelation, and secular humanists, who prize Reason. Since its animating purpose is to synthesize Reason and Revelation (“Athens and Jerusalem,” in the Straussian idiom), Thomism is the best available framework for appreciating, understanding, and explicating the implications of the American Founding and the U.S. Constitution – or, indeed, of the meaning and creed of the American nation itself.
In We Hold These Truths, Murray described the Declaration of Independence’s statement that “all men are created equal” as “theorem” (or “proposition,” as was “immortally asserted by Abraham Lincoln.”). The book is a Thomist exegesis of the nature and implications of this theorem or proposition, which Murray pronounced to be – indisputably -- the rock upon which the nation was built. Universal objective truths exist. As Americans, we hold them. And these universal objective truths serve as the foundation for the American “constitutional commonwealth.” This foundational “American Proposition, first articulated in the Declaration, was re-affirmed by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address.
The next natural question for Murray – especially in a vibrant democracy, where all power tends to be claimed by the demos – was “Do we hold these truths because they are true, or are these truths true because we hold them?” Plainly, the former, Murray asserted: the truths are held because they are true, not simply because (in a democratic, majoritarian, consensus spirit) most people happened to believe them. That the American Proposition is true is a truth that lies beyond politics – it is the implication of God’s sovereignty over all. It is this understanding that distinguishes America’s Christian Revolution and Founding from the French Revolution, the latter of which (like the Bolshevik Revolution, which was its legacy) worshiped the presumed autonomy of man, and his all-powerful individual reason.
As a nation firmly anchored in a commitment to God’s sovereignty, the nation “was conceived [by its Founders] in the tradition of natural law.” This was the case whatever the actual religion (or lack of religion) of those Founders: as Murray explained, they built better than they knew. This made “St. Thomas Aquinas… [truly] the first Whig.” And natural law “became the first structural rib of American constitutionalism.” As a consequence, the American tradition of free government pivots on the “profound conviction that only a virtuous people can be free.” We know that people are virtuous only when they are “inwardly governed by the recognized imperatives of the universal moral law.”
While there is nothing inherently Catholic about the natural law, Murray explained, the natural law tradition – which is the American constitutional tradition – finds its “intellectual home within the Catholic Church.” “Catholic participation in the American consensus,” Murray observed proudly, “has been full and free, unreserved and unembarrassed, because the contents of that consensus – the ethical and political principles drawn from the tradition of natural law – approve themselves to the Catholic intelligence and conscience.” While mainline Protestantism (especially its left-wing), may have moved away from the old English and American tradition in this regard, its foundations are “native” to Catholics. On the fundamentals, the “Fathers of the Church and the Fathers of the American Republic” were of one mind.
Particularly in the modern context, Catholics thus have a special role to play as “guardians” of the foundations of the American Republic. No society without a substantive core can ever long survive, and, in the modern context of pluralism and democracy, the truths set out in the Declaration of Independence articulate that core. Catholic natural law philosophy helps us understand and appreciate that nature of that core, and its indispensability, in the deepest possible way.
Needless to say, this reading of the Declaration of Independence, while, when first advanced by Murray, was especially attractive to Catholic liberals (as it played a major role in reconciling the Church with liberal modernity), is today increasingly influential on the Catholic Right (and on the broader conservative movement). It ties the American Founding directly to Catholic teaching, and to the Catholic natural law tradition, especially (in practice, for the Right) on moral issues like abortion, stem cell research, and homosexuality.
[This post is adapted from my forthcoming Maryland Law Review piece: “Beyond Originalism: Conservative Declarationism and Constitutional Redemption,” Maryland Law Review 71 (2011-2012)].
Conservatives, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution, Part I