America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding: A Review

Robert R. Reilly. America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2021. 408pp. $18.95.


A Genre Mash-Up?

At first glance, Robert Reilly’s America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding appears to be simply another installment in the “celebrating the intellectual roots of the American Founding” genre, in the venerable tradition of Russell Kirk’s Roots of American Order and similar studies. With its dual genuflections toward Athens and Jerusalem, and its eulogistic survey of the fruits of medieval civilization, ending with a hagiographic ascent into the temple of the American Founding, it reads almost like the Platonic form of the Hillsdale College curriculum (at least, as I imagine it to be)—and indeed, it is preceded by an enthusiastic foreword by Hillsdale President Larry P. Arnn.

Unlike Kirk’s work, however, Reilly’s has a polemical edge—or two polemical edges, to be precise. The first situates it in the genre of increasingly cliched modernity criticism, epitomized by Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation. Alongside Reilly’s narrative of the great ideas that gave us Western civilization, freedom, representative government, and finally, America, is a parallel narrative of the terrible ideas that have led to Western decadence, tyranny, arbitrary government, and the unraveling of America. In Chapter 3, a serpent invades the beautiful garden of medieval thought in the form of William of Ockham. The usual suspects are subsequently lined up and tied to their designated whipping posts for a good thrashing: Ockham, Martin Luther, Thomas Hobbes; nominalism, voluntarism, Protestantism. This constellation of ideas and thinkers supposedly shattered the medieval synthesis of faith and reason, and collapsed the dynamic medieval tension of Church and state, while opening the door to arbitrary government.

Reilly’s thesis can be summed up in these three quotations, from Chapters 3, 6, and 7 respectively:

“The nominalist view of morally indifferent acts was pregnant with two developments that occurred shortly afterward, within a few years of each other. The first was from Niccolo Machiavelli, who understood that, if nature no longer defines what is good for man (and there is no certain God to define it either), then man can. Man’s will fills the vacuum left by nature; he can define his own end. Nominalism’s moral indifference also provided a preview of Martin Luther’s belief that man’s actions are indifferent to his salvation because there is no necessary connection between moral goodness and redemption.” (120)

“Once divine voluntarism has been theologically posited, there is a very short bridge to cross to arrive at its human version in political absolutism, whether secular or royal.” (173)

“The Divine Right doctrine fits comfortably within the voluntarist perspective of the primacy of will. If God, as the primary cause, acts without intermediaries, then he may constitute political authority the same way. Kingship is the immediate and unmediated result of the Creator’s will. It is miraculous. No acts of rational free will or consent by the members of the political community are required for its institution or justification.” (196)

If, then, all that was good and holy was unraveling in early modernity, how is our world today not a much darker place than it seems to be? For our continued enjoyment of ordered liberty, Reilly argues, we have the American Founders to thank above all. They, channeling Anglican divine Richard Hooker (1554–1600) along with the rich legacy of Catholic political thought, represented the true reformation—a turning back of a decadent voluntarist and oppressive early modern political order to its authentic moral, spiritual, and philosophical roots in the rich soil of classical and Christian civilization.

This, then, represents the second polemical edge of Reilly’s book. While many of both his heroes and his villains may be familiar to readers of recent works of modernity criticism, Reilly positions himself firmly against many of his fellow Roman Catholic political philosophers and historians. Indeed, it is for this purpose that the book was written, as both the title and a pointed concluding chapter, “Critiquing the Critics,” make clear; America is “on trial” from Roman Catholics like Patrick Deneen and Michael Hanby.[1] These, seeking to account for the moral bankruptcy of late liberalism, are convinced that America itself is hopelessly infected with this disease, for it was written into our constitutional documents, and made up the worldview of leading Founders. The consequences of this reading, as Reilly notes, are grim:

“To the extent to which it is accepted, their misdiagnosis demoralizes our youth and disarms us in the face of our enemies, who are further empowered by the disavowal of the country’s Founding principles. This school of thought has penetrated higher education. Courses on American political thought at some Catholic and other universities are imbued with it, causing real, deleterious consequences” (317).

Reilly does not overstate his case here. I myself had the experience of teaching political theory at a (Protestant) liberal arts college just a few years back, and was shocked by the pessimism of the students: there was little to celebrate in the American Founding, they were convinced, because they had all read Deneen and knew it to be hopelessly infected with “liberalism.” The only solution—to the extent they had any notion of one—was to be found in some romantic leap back into the mists of medieval Christendom. This intramural quarrel amongst Roman Catholics about the viability of the American project, then, is in fact a matter of urgent interest and concern to Protestants as well—at least so long as we Protestants continue to forfeit the intellectual leadership of American public life to our Catholic counterparts. Is America a project worth celebrating and worth saving? Deneen says no; Reilly says yes. To this extent, I range myself with Reilly and applaud his effort.

It’s Not All Bad

And indeed, despite my somewhat caustic tone above and the somewhat absurd tenor of the quotations I supplied from Reilly, there is much to applaud in his book. Chapter 1, on the profound differences between the tribal worldview (almost universally ascendant until the sixth century BC) and the idea of human nature represented by biblical religion and Greek philosophy, I found to be richly insightful and instructive. Reilly celebrates the uniqueness of Christianity, whose transcendent God made limited government possible, and whose image-bearing creatures made the end of slavery imaginable, in terms reminiscent of Tom Holland’s recent masterpiece Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. I also deeply appreciated Reilly’s stress on the medieval roots of the basic ideas of constitutional government; drawing on the important work of Harold Berman and Brian Tierney, Reilly demolishes the idea that we are somehow dependent on the Enlightenment for the basic building blocks of modern liberty and representative government. I was also delighted to find that Reilly dedicates an entire (albeit short) chapter to the contribution of the judicious Richard Hooker, for whom Reilly shares my own veneration, and that the chapter presents a generally quite lucid and faithful summary of some of Hooker’s key ideas and contributions. Reilly also renders a service by his retrieval of the redoubtable Francisco Suarez (1548–1617), a massive and untapped resource for Christian political thought, Catholic or Protestant.

“The intramural quarrel amongst Roman Catholics about the viability of the American project is a matter of urgent interest and concern to Protestants.”

I appreciated, moreover, Reilly’s uncommonly nuanced treatment of John Locke (1632–1704), who for once is not tied to one of the whipping posts in the hall of shame. Reilly stresses that there were both profoundly conservative and profoundly radical elements in Locke’s thought, and does not attempt the easy Straussian solution of pretending that the former were all mere play-acting to disguise the latter. He makes the very important methodological point that if we are assessing the Founders based on the fact that they cited Locke favorably, what matters is not what we now think Locke said and meant, but what they then thought Locke said and meant. Reilly argues (and I generally concur) that the American Founders, rightly or wrongly, read Locke in a much more conservative way than we generally do today, and thus appropriated him to much more conservative purposes. Thus, I broadly agree with Reilly’s central thesis that the Founders were dependent for their basic categories more on the philosophia perennis of classical natural law and Christian political thought than on the philosophia nova of the radical Enlightenment—although, of course, it is more complicated than Reilly lets on, and many founding figures, like Jefferson, deserve the scorn heaped upon them by the likes of Deneen.

So much for the positives. But no one reads book reviews to hear about what the reviewer agrees with, do they? So, although I do genuinely want to stress the value of the points just noted, let me dedicate the remainder of this review to considering two rather profound flaws in Reilly’s analysis.

Herding Ideas through History

The first flaw is the rather curious role that ideas play in the narrative. Historians of ideas, to be sure, always find themselves in a tenuous position, awkwardly bestraddling the chasm that separates the temporal flux of history from the eternal verities of philosophy. They may write in a more strictly historical mode, by documenting direct and explicit dependence: if Thomas Jefferson, for instance, directly quotes John Locke in support of some preferred conclusion, and seems to have no other means of arriving at the conclusion, one may plausibly assert that Locke exerted some causal influence on the development in question. Or, historians may renounce all interest in such causal questions and simply concern themselves, as a philosopher might, with questions of truth and agreement. Thus, if Aquinas can be shown to have taught something about the nature of human equality, and Rousseau something different; and if, say, John Adams can be shown to hold a view more like that of Aquinas than Rousseau; well then, that may be an important and useful point to make, regardless of whether Adams ever read Aquinas. What the historian cannot responsibly do, however, is toggle vaguely back and forth between these two methods, as Reilly often does, suggesting that simply because Adams agreed with Aquinas means that the Angelic Doctor must in some way have helped cause the American Founding. Such cases may be built, to be sure, but construction projects of this sort require a lot more bricks and mortar than Reilly brings to the task.

“Those interested in grand narratives fall back on a kind of Hegelian determinism, asserting that ideas themselves have a kind of intrinsic causal power, regardless of who said what when.”

Too often, lacking the patience for the detailed work of large-scale historical reconstruction, those interested in such grand narratives fall back on a kind of Hegelian determinism, asserting that the ideas themselves have a kind of intrinsic causal power, regardless of who said what when. Reilly is alive to the dangers of such determinism, which he spots in the tendency of modernity-critics like Deneen and Hanby to suggest that the Founders were simply at the mercy of the logic of ideas, whatever their own conscious protestations against those ideas. But he seems oblivious to his own adoption of the same method—albeit in reverse. Instead of seeing the Founders as hopelessly chained to the disastrous logic of liberal ideas of which they themselves were unaware, he portrays them as happily channeling the beatific logic of Catholic ideas of which they themselves were unaware. Indeed, over and over, Reilly adopts a deterministic framework for thinking about the role of ideas; one of his favorite words is “ineluctably,” as in the sentence, “A voluntarist God ineluctably leads to voluntarist man. It is not so great a leap from the voluntarist exaltation of the will of God to the voluntarist exaltation of the will of man. If God is a voluntarist, we become voluntarists” (122). The dictionary defines “ineluctable” as “incapable of being evaded; inescapable.”

If, however, Luther was the ineluctable fruit of Ockham, and Hobbes of Luther, then how did Hooker and the Founders avoid this dark fate? No doubt Reilly would say because they freely chose to adopt other ideas—although inasmuch as they remained Protestant, it is unclear how they avoided the “ineluctable” fruits of Luther’s heresies (more on this in a moment). But what then may we say of Islam? Reilly himself notes that Ockham’s exaltation of an inscrutable divine will as the immediate cause of all things is almost indistinguishable from that of Al-Ghazali (1058–1111) in Islamic philosophy. But if the idolatrous humanism of Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494) and the technological dreams of Francis Bacon (1561–1626) are the “ineluctable” result of Ockhamism, as Reilly claims on page 124, how is it that Islam did not generate a Hobbes or a Hitler in short order? Reilly’s own narrative betrays the problems with the crude essentialism and determinism that he brings to the key ideas in his story; the centuries between 1500 and 1800 are populated with a topsy-turvy tug-of-war between good guys and bad guys, good ideas and bad ideas, alternating with one another in rapid succession, or often indeed co-existing in the same locations and individuals. History simply does not display evidence that a set of bad ideas, cooked up in an ivory tower around the year 1300, unleashed a baleful descent into tyranny like so many dominoes falling one after the other.

Protestantism as Whipping-Boy

The second grave flaw of the book is the villainous role of Protestantism in the story. Reilly and Deneen disagree deeply in their assessment of the American Founding, but they agree fundamentally in their diagnosis of the intellectual bogeymen lying behind our current predicament, Protestantism chief among them. The difference is simply that Deneen, sensibly enough, pegs the American Founding as Protestant, whereas Reilly insists, with an older generation of Catholic political philosophers like John Courtney Murray, that it was in fact profoundly Catholic. Prima facie, this is a curious claim, given that nearly all of the Founding Fathers were personally Protestants, were educated in a Protestant milieu, and were trained as statesmen within fundamentally Protestant legal regimes. Reilly is reduced to somewhat absurd special pleading, lining up various quotations from Bellarmine and Suarez alongside the Declaration of Independence and similar documents to insinuate the dependence of the latter on the former and then coyly denying that he is doing any such thing: “Citing Bellarmine and Suarez is not meant to insinuate that America’s origins were Catholic. Most of the Founders were Protestant, after all, but the provenance of their ideas was ultimately Catholic in that they invoked natural law and natural rights to justify their cause” (199).

“Perhaps the Founding really does deserve defending against the charge of being a revolutionary Enlightenment project—but by affirming rather than denying its deep Protestant roots.”

If by “Catholic” Reilly meant simply “catholic”—that is, that there was an immense domain of shared Christian principles between Romanists and Protestants, a genuinely catholic tradition to which the Founders were heirs—then I would warmly agree. But of course, he does not. He really seems to believe that all of the good, true, and beautiful ideas he surveys in the book belong distinctively to the Roman Catholic Church, and that any consistent Protestantism almost by definition must reject them. To be sure, he equivocates on this point, as indeed he must if he wishes to celebrate Richard Hooker, saying for instance, “The problem with Luther is not that he was a Protestant, but that he was a nominalist and a voluntarist” (128). However, given that he goes on to identify several of the fundamental pillars of Luther’s theology, pillars shared by all faithful Protestants, as irreducibly tinged by this nominalist/voluntarist heresy, it is hard to resist the conclusion that the only way Protestants can be philosophically and politically saved is by a wholesale borrowing of Catholic principles, held in contradiction to their theological principles.

 “Reilly really seems to believe that all of the good, true, and beautiful ideas he surveys belong distinctively to the Roman Catholic Church.”

To make these arguments, Reilly has not only to operate throughout with rather crude caricatures of “nominalism” and “voluntarism,” but to indulge in a really quite grotesque misreading of Luther’s thought, one worthy of Johann Emser or Thomas More. This misreading rests on at least three key methodological errors.

First, he makes almost zero allowance for Luther’s admittedly colorful and frequently hyperbolic rhetorical style, preferring to cherry-pick quotations, stripped of any context, from across Luther’s corpus to portray him as something of a fideistic madman, hell-bent on the repudiation of human reason and human will in any form. At one point, conscious of the objection that he is cherry-picking, Reilly amusingly protests that the fact that he can find “this many cherries indicates that there is a cherry-tree” (136), despite the fact that most of his quotations from Luther are accompanied by footnotes saying, “Cited in Maritain/Hahn/etc.” In other words, Reilly hasn’t even gone to the trouble of directly cherry-picking from Luther’s voluminous works to find the most incriminating quotes; rather, he has simply culled them from the writings of other Catholic polemicists. Needless to say, this is not a method calculated to maximize understanding.

Second, Reilly betrays almost no understanding of Luther’s two-kingdoms theology, which provides the crucial framework for making sense of his thought, including many of these quotations. Within the spiritual kingdom of faith, reason is indeed dead and deadly, and human volition is useless; within the temporal kingdom of society and politics, reason remains a valuable tool, and human volition is essential. Thus, Reilly’s attempt to show that Lutheran soteriology is necessarily mirrored in Lutheran politics runs into the flat contradiction of Luther’s own stated principles.

Third, Reilly makes no effort to interpret Luther with reference to his myriad friends, associates, and followers, men like Philipp Melanchthon, Johannes Eisermann, or Niels Hemmingsen, who were profoundly Aristotelian, deeply committed to natural law, and engaged in articulating theories of constitutionalism and just human law-making based on natural law—all things that Reilly pronounces all but impossible on Protestant assumptions. Even if Reilly were to back off, saying that he is interested only in Luther’s thought, not Protestantism as a whole, it would be very hard to explain why such a flatly anti-rational Luther positively endorsed Melanchthon’s work as a faithful expression of his own theology. In any case, while Reilly is perfectly within his rights to stress the rich tradition of constitutionalist thought in Bellarmine and Suarez, his attempt to portray early-modern Protestantism as somehow congenitally dedicated to the project of divine-right absolutism is laughable on almost any standard. The Whig theory of history, in which the Reformation led inexorably to resistance, revolution, and political freedom, clearly has its problems. But the solution is not to simply invert it and replace it with a mirror-image morality tale.

All of this suggests that neither Deneen nor Reilly has got their story of the Founding right. Perhaps there is a third alternative. Perhaps the Founding really does deserve defending against the charge of being a revolutionary Enlightenment project—but by affirming rather than denying its deep Protestant roots. Perhaps Richard Hooker was not, as Reilly implausibly suggests, a sort of deus ex machina who single-handedly sought to wrench a philosophically bankrupt Protestantism back onto the tried-and-true tracks of the medieval consensus, but on the contrary, simply a particularly lucid and profound exponent of a mainstream, reformed, catholic, magisterial Protestantism. Perhaps, rather than indulging in wild speculations about how Bellarmine’s resistance theory might have influenced the American Founders, we could stick to the sober historical facts of how Calvinist resistance theory influenced them.

Of course, we Protestants can hardly expect the Roman Catholics to do this work for us. So long as we continue to cede intellectual leadership of American public life to Roman Catholic thinkers and writers, we can hardly complain when Protestantism is reduced to little more than a football in an intramural Catholic scrimmage. It’s time for us to step forward and make the case for the essential catholicity—because of the essential Protestantism—of the American Founding.


Brad Littlejohn is the Founder and President of The Davenant Institute. He also works as a Fellow of 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.


[1] See Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018); and Michael Hanby, “The Civic Project of American Christianity,” First Things,February 2015, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/02/the-civic-project-of-american-christianity.

*Image Credit: Unsplash

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