Theocratic Wishful Thinking

A reader responded to my most recent commentary at American Greatness with these critical comments:

The founders are partially at fault. They embraced democracy, despite all of Athens’ warnings. Classical liberalism, for all of its merits, was only ever an imperfect solution to the problem of Reformation and neo-Roman absolutism. The contract theory of legitimacy was borrowed from Catholic Scholastics by Locke and others, looking for a retort to the new ruling trend; and while ingenious, it overlooked the more ancient and proper rule of government—that of many sovereignties, decentralized with subsidiarity, limited power, and all knees bent to God (rulers foremost) and his Laws, and the Church as a mediator (and faith as a unifier).

Pace my critic, John Locke’s concept of the social contract was related to that of Thomas Hobbes and more distantly, to that of the Scottish Protestant political thinker George Buchanan (1506-1582). In Revolutionary Politics and Locke’s Two Treatises on Government, Richard Ashcraft documents the explosive character of Locke’s contractual theory of civil society and examines his attempt to reach English Levelers with ideas that would have been familiar to these Protestant readers.

Admittedly there were Catholic thinkers who labored with the same concept. Spanish Jesuit Juan de Mariana (1536-1624) called for government limited by popular consent, and in Mariana’s case and in that of his Protestant contemporaries, the goal was to restrict political power that could be used to oppress certain religious groups, whether Catholics or Protestants. Although Mariana and Buchanan had both studied medieval scholastics, their social contract theories were designed to deal with the exigencies of an age of overreaching monarchs.

I have no idea how the Protestant religiosity of America’s founders corrupted their work and caused them to stray into democracy. These figures succeeded in laying the groundwork for a constitutional republic, which in some of its features resembled two other Protestant governments, those of Great Britain and the Dutch Republic. What were the Catholic alternatives that America’s founding fathers were supposed to espouse? Perhaps the Spanish monarchy or the then-dissolving Kingdom of Poland? 

It might shock my critic to learn that the Anglo-Protestant political culture that influenced our founding was favorable to ensuring the ordered liberty that our constitutional government was intended to protect. This achievement incorporated some of the best aspects of medieval political and legal arrangements (e.g., the right of freemen to bear arms) but managed to avoid some of the less pleasant sides of medieval life, like widespread serfdom and papal interference in government. Although there were slaves in early America, most of the founders hoped these dependents eventually would be freed.

My critic’s view of the Middle Ages reminds me a bit of how my academic colleagues regarded life under socialism—that is, without the unsightly warts. This respondent manages conveniently to airbrush all the less attractive aspects of the medieval world out of his sketch, like the servile conditions of peasants, the persecution of religious heretics, and the turmoil caused by church-state strife. 

One might note these things while admiring much that came out of the Middle Ages, its law, philosophy, sense of the sacred, architecture, literature, and chivalric ideals. It is impossible to appreciate Euro-American civilization without paying homage to these enormous medieval contributions.  But I don’t see how the Middle Ages produced a better political regime than the supposedly defective work of the American founders.

It is also unclear how the Episcopal, Congregationalist, or Presbyterian authors of the Constitution were hampered in their work by having fallen prey to the Protestant Reformation that took place in the 16th century. The last time I checked, Locke, whom my critic seems to admire, was a low-church Anglican and opposed including Catholics as members of the social contract. Equally noteworthy, a renowned defender of the subsidiarity that my critic praises was the very orthodox Calvinist Johannes Althusius (1563-1638). 

My argument is not with religious Catholics or God-fearing people of other persuasions. I am questioning the view of America’s founding as a Protestant mistake, a notion that has become popular among some on the Right. This revisionist project usually entails taking huge liberties with historical facts and conjuring up imaginary pasts that bring pleasure to those indulging in wishful thinking. Certainly, things have gone wrong with our republic since the late 18th century, and I have no doubt that the founders would react to our present derailment with the same horror that I do. But it’s less clear that we would have done better if the Spanish Bourbons came here to rule us and made their church the only tolerated one.

Perhaps we should have attached the United States to the Papal States in the early 19th century, an act that my critic may believe would have preserved our individual freedoms. Please note that I am not against monarchies or established churches and think they sometimes work well in other countries. What I am challenging is the idea that the United States was illegitimately begotten because of its religious and cultural origins.

About Paul Gottfried

Paul Edward Gottfried is the editor of Chronicles. An American paleoconservative philosopher, historian, and columnist, Gottfried is a former Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, as well as a Guggenheim recipient.

Photo: "Allgemeine Weltgeschichte" (1898)/Grafissimo via Getty Images

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