Retrieving Our Common Wealth: A Manifesto

Nearly a year ago, during one of the periodic rounds of heated online controversy surrounding “Christian nationalism,” I published a piece here at Ad Fontes entitled “Christian Nationalism or Christian Commonwealth? A Call for Clarity.” This ponderous essay seemed to strike a chord with many who had wearied of these social media tumults, which seemed to be one part serious Protestant political theology, one part sinister race politics, and three parts Twitter LARPing. But while I expended considerable effort sorting through different senses of so-called “Christian nationalism,” I was decidedly coy on the subject of a “Christian commonwealth.” In a few short paragraphs I gestured at the outlines of this more capacious vision, insisting that “recovering the idea of a Christian commonwealth will have to begin with recovering the idea of a moral commonwealth, which will have to begin by recovering the very idea of a commonwealth at all—a society knit together by common ends and common objects of love.”

But this conclusion was, as my doctoral advisor Oliver O’Donovan remarked long ago in his scribbled comments on a half-baked paper of mine, “more a promissory note than a payoff—and I can’t tell quite what currency it is drawn on.” Today, we here at The Davenant Institute begin the work of redeeming that promissory note, seeking to offer an authentic political compass for our troubled times. Today, we are launching Commonwealth, a new wing of our journal Ad Fontes specifically devoted to Protestant retrieval and renewal in politics and law.

What then is a “commonwealth”? It is not a word we use often. A few US states—Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts come to mind—still use the term in their official state names, but it feels like little more than antique window-dressing, like the phrase “Ye Olde” on the signage of a faux-vintage shop in some touristy historic district. The word has its origins as an English rendering of res publica–a good Anglo-Saxon alternative to the Latinate “republic,” but with little discernible difference in meaning. For many in the early modern period, it stood as an alternative to monarchy, signifying a form of government in which power originated from and was in some sense exercised by the people as a whole. Accordingly, when Cromwell’s forces deposed and decapitated King Charles I, the ensuing form of government from 1649-1660 was styled “the Commonwealth.” When America achieved independence from King George III’s Britain, it too then might have called itself a “commonwealth,” were it not for the resurgent veneration for Rome in the meantime that led the Founders to prefer the Latinate “republic.”

Certainly, in calling for the recovery of a commonwealth today, we are not taking sides in this now obsolete battle between monarchists and republicans. Some of us, perhaps, may be closet monarchists (if indeed the American republic itself be not considered a constitutional monarchy, as Eric Nelson has argued), but this is not the world we live in, and there is no need to make it so. To be sure, our age of democratic dogmatism could use a bit of broadened imagination, a reminder that bygone political forms may sometimes serve admirably in sustaining effective political representation for a people and for defense of their common good. There is nothing sacrosanct about voting—as recent experience attests—or about bicameral legislatures, for all their demonstrated virtues. Still, for better or worse, we are all republicans, all commonwealthsmen, now—at least in theory—and the renewal of our nations today should begin by making our political practice conform more closely to our political theory. The early vision of republicanism was a deeply Christian vision: not a society in which kingship was abolished, but a society of kings all the way down, in which the lowest ploughman was ennobled by sharing in the political task.

This language of “sharing,” however, points to a deeper meaning of the word “commonwealth,” and highlights why perhaps the term now seems so quaint. We have long ago accepted a vision of political life modeled on economic competition. Within a politics conceived under the master metaphor of “contract,” rival interest groups spend enormous amounts of money jostling for political market share, apportioning public revenues to secure various private “rights,” treated as so many disputed property claims. The public sphere is little more than a great bourse which we enter to barter our various private goods, hoping to get an edge on the competition. But of course, this is neither the classical nor the Christian ideal of politics, which was framed instead around the ideal of a “common good.” Indeed, it is not hard to see that a “commonwealth” must logically be a society that is organized around the shared possession of some common good or common goods: of material resources and spiritual blessings held non-competitively for the interest of the whole.

There is no space here to elaborate on or defend the notion of the “common good”—a good that can be realized only by a community acting in concert, and a good that is not diminished by being shared among many hands and many minds. If you are a libertarian who does not believe such a thing exists, I can say only that I hope you never find yourself caring for a household! But while a common good can expand as it is distributed among more and more participants, like the loaves and fishes that fed the five thousand, it does not admit of indefinite extension. There comes, of course, a point of diminishing returns, a point at which the commonwealth has become too diffuse to see its goods as common. A commonwealth, then, must be particularized; its common good can only be the common good of a particular polity in a particular place in a particular time.

Too many calls for a “politics of the common good” turn out to be little more than misty-eyed visions of harmony, goodwill, and redistribution among peoples of every nation and tribe and tongue; or else stern visions of renewed moral order sustained by a robust application of the natural law. But no—the common good is not a template that can be downloaded from the heavens or replicated on demand. It must be nurtured and carefully tended from within the shared experience of a people and allowed to grow as that experience grows. The common good of twenty-first century America will have to be recognizably American, and, much as it may pain me to say it, recognizably twenty-first century. Models drawn from seventeenth century Holland, however instructive they may be, can be little more than stimuli for the imagination—they will not tell us how to realize the common good in our own time and place.

This leads me at last to consider the deepest reason why we have chosen to title this outlet Commonwealth.

What is a commonwealth if not a common wealth—a common treasury, a common store of value, a source of health and life and well-being to which a people can all turn for sustenance? And yet what treasure, what source of wealth can be shared fully without partition or diminution? The Federal Reserve may keep on printing, but the money supply can never furnish us a truly common wealth in this sense. And while we may like to extol our national parks, our mountains, and our waterways as shared national treasures, we know that they are a fragile and ultimately scarce treasure: if too many Americans try to enjoy them too often, they will be spoiled.

What, then, is our national treasure?

Our history.

There was once a time when nearly all private wealth came by inheritance; indeed, even today, in our economy of creative destruction, most wealth is the result of intergenerational transfers. And certainly most of what makes life worth living is received as a gift from our ancestors; even the child born in poverty may inherit a store of wisdom, a sense of his place in the world, and a fierce family pride from his parents and grandparents. So it is in the case of political society, where we as a people receive the common wealth that nurtures our moral imaginations as the inheritance of past ages. Edmund Burke, of course, gave famous voice to this intuition in his Reflections on the Revolution in France: “In this choice of inheritance we have given to our frame of polity the image of a relation in blood; binding up the constitution of our country with our dearest domestic ties; adopting our fundamental laws into the bosom of our family affections; keeping inseparable, and cherishing with the warmth of all their combined and mutually reflected charities, our state, our hearths, our sepulchres, and our altars.”

Here at Commonwealth, then, we are committed to retrieving the common wealth of our people, which is to say the riches of its cultural heritage and its political experience. What is this cultural heritage? Well “Western Civilization,” to be sure—a treasury worth defending all the more fiercely the more unfashionable it becomes. “Christendom” as well—the long, slow, incalculably rich harvest reaped from the seeds of the Gospel planted in the recalcitrant soil of the Mediterranean world. Three cheers for classical Christian education!

And yet all of this, let’s confess, is a bit abstract. It is too abstract to serve as the basis for the common good of a particular polity. We may get more concrete and speak of the Anglo-American cultural and political tradition, midwifed by the Protestant Reformation and growing to maturity in the forests of the New World. And indeed, the shared experience of the English-speaking peoples has sufficed as a foundation for what is the largest “commonwealth” in the world today, that pale ghost of the British Empire called “The Commonwealth of Nations.” But here in America, where I and most of our contributors write, this label will not quite suffice. For America is not just “Anglo” or even just “Western”; other cultures and peoples have contributed their own riches to our cultural DNA—and our literal DNA. This point may be overemphasized, to be sure, by modern multiculturalists, but it is surely under-emphasized by many resurgent nationalists. American nationhood really is a melting pot, and it must remain so. We can, if we want, grumble about the fact, yearning for the “purer” ethnicities and “undiluted” cultures of the Old World as we imagine it, but to do so would be to kick against the goads of Providence. For the melting pot is our common wealth, and we must embrace it if we desire to have a common future.

The worst feature of liberalism, that amorphous and much-maligned specter that haunts our political imaginations, is its tendency to destroy the possibility of any commonwealth by despising the legacy of our common wealth. Lacking any coherent telos of its own, liberalism has frequently found its raison d’etre in a war against piety, that great virtue of classical and Christian civilization. Piety, of course, does not mean simply a spirit of reverence toward God—although that is its highest expression. Piety was the essential virtue of citizenship, the virtue by which the individual learned to feel appropriate esteem and reverence for those people, places, and institutions in his life that were worthy of honor; it was the forming of the soul in a posture of gratitude and respect. Its chief classical image was of Aeneas carrying his father to safety out of the burning wreckage of Troy. Piety is in a sense the root of all virtue, for it is only by recognizing the reality of something older and bigger and nobler than himself that the individual is motivated toward the discipline and self-denial on which virtue depends. It is the common lament of today’s “post-liberals” that we live now in a world from which this spirit has been banished almost beyond recovery.

But herein arises a paradox. For what if liberalism, too, deserves our piety? What if the post-liberals too are among the impious? “Honor thy father and thy mother,” the great commandment reads—not “honor thy ancestors,” although that duty is included. For it is all too easy for rebellious sinners to adorn the graves of their great-grandparents, dead and gone, while coolly despising their parents, with whom they still have to live. Twitter today is full of self-styled authoritarians heaping scorn on the authorities actually appointed over them, or extolling the virtues of an earlier generation of filial piety while posting “OK, Boomer” memes. It turns out to be very convenient to preach piety only to an order that no longer exists, an order that is very unlikely to cramp your style.

Liberalism has indeed earned a right to our piety, as my colleague Onsi Kamel argues in one of our other Commonwealth launch essays. Not liberalism in every sense of the word, to be sure (and I hope that Commonwealth will be a place for sorting through the many senses of this much-disputed term). If liberalism means anomie and absolute autonomy, we want no part in it. If liberalism means a never-ending war on tradition, then Christians must oppose it. But what if liberalism is, in some sense, part of our tradition? A tradition of limited government, of separation of powers, of robust respect for the dignity of every human being, a tradition of vigorous bottom-up debate about the goods that should order our common life, a culture of persuasion that welcomes thoughtful dissent—all of this is a tradition worth sustaining. And even if we had our doubts about that, it is nonetheless a real tradition, of several centuries’ pedigree, and it is our tradition. The nostalgic post-liberal that longs for a return to a medieval guild-society must nonetheless begin with a piety toward his own people and place.

Obviously, the goods of liberalism can go too far, and have gone much too far in many ways over the past century. One cannot be reminded too often of C.S. Lewis’s invocation of the “Irishman’s two stoves” joke in Abolition of Man: “It is like the famous Irishman who found that a certain kind of stove reduced his fuel bill by half and thence concluded that two stoves of the same kind would enable him to warm his house with no fuel at all.” If some measure of liberalism reduced human misery by half, the twentieth century surmised that doubling the dose would do away with human suffering altogether. Far from it. Here at Commonwealth, we seek the renewal of an authentically Christian commonwealth, a notion almost unthinkable to later twentieth-century liberalism or twenty-first century progressivism. We believe that there can be no true justice, as Augustine observed, in a society that fails to give God his proper due. Our hearts will indeed be restless until our nations rest in the One who called them into being. We believe that the refusal to render public homage to God and honor to his name will very soon leave us unable to treat his image-bearers with dignity or respect. We refuse to accept that Christianity is incompatible with individual liberty; in fact, we argue that authentic liberty can only sustainably flourish within the soil of Christian political order. In all this, then, we fearlessly oppose the libertine perversions of the modern American political imagination.

Still, much of the Christian Right today is in danger of imitating the proverbial liberal humanitarian who loves humanity but can’t stand people. When I look around me today, I find too many conservative commentators, too many “nationalist” flag-wavers, who seem to say, “I love America—it’s Americans I can’t stand.” If love is merely a feeling, I can certainly sympathize. Our people have wandered so far from the common wealth that once sustained them, turning every one to his own way, or even uniting in a campaign to destroy and deface their heritage, that it is hard not to anger and despair. But love, as we Christians know, is a duty, not just a feeling, and this fact is explored further in our other Commonwealth launch essay by James R. Wood. The retrieval of a Christian commonwealth must begin with a renewed political commitment to the first great commandment: “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, mind, and strength.” But the retrieval of a Christian commonwealth certainly cannot neglect the second: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Like the scribe two thousand years ago, we are quick to ask, “And who is my neighbor?” hoping to narrow our sphere of obligation to our church, our Christian school, our political comrades. But our neighbors are the ones placed in our paths by providence, the ones united to us by a political order that none of us chose or created, but which we are called to gratefully receive and patiently renew.

This is the burden and promise of Commonwealth: to reflect together on our calling to patriotism and piety as heirs of the Christian revolution, the Protestant Reformation, and the rise of liberal constitutionalism. We hope you will join us.

Bradford Littlejohn is the founder and president of the Davenant Institute, and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, SC, with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

*Image Credit: “Winsted, Connecticut, 1877” by Sarah E. Harvey


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