It’s not just statues and American history that are under attack. The most essential ideas from America’s founding are under siege and on trial.
Robert R. Reilly, the director of the Westminster Institute and widely published author, joined “The Right Side of History” podcast to discuss his new book “America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding.”
Reilly discusses the deeper origins of the American Revolution—rooted in Western thought, philosophy, and religion—and explains why America’s current success and survival depends on embracing those ideas rather than abandoning them. Listen to the interview on the podcast, or read a lightly edited transcript:
Jarrett Stepman: We are now joined by Robert R. Reilly, the director of the Westminster Institute and widely published author who has a new book, “America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding.” Thank you so much for joining us.
Robert Reilly: Delighted to be with you.
Stepman: Obviously, your book is quite timely right now, as we’ve seen so many attacks, I think, on America and what it stands for really coming from seemingly all sides. We’ve had a summer of attacks on statues and a lot of, I think, inability from especially America’s elite to really defend what this country is all about.
You really break down, in your book, in such a great job, what has made the United States good, great, and successful, and in a large part because of its connection to a larger Western tradition. And you define this Western tradition based on three cities: Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, which I thought was very interesting. Can you explain what exactly that means?
Reilly: Yeah, sure. I tried to examine what were the necessary presuppositions for there to be such a thing as the American founding. In other words, what was the lineage of the ideas that made such a thing conceivable in the first place? And that lineage took me back to ancient Athens, ancient Israel, and the dawn of Christianity, because each of them contributed something indispensable.
To date, monotheism was a startlingly unique revelation amidst the sea of polytheism and pantheism, simply extraordinary that the Jews said that their God was one, startling enough right there. No. 2, that their God was transcendent, that is outside the world, though through his providence, he could act in the world.
Second of all, that he was all good, that everything he made was good. And the one thing he made especially well was man who, as Genesis says, was made in God’s image and likeness.
Well, that was quite a revelation, again, unique in the ancient Middle East, and it imbued man with a certain dignity and an inviolability which is quite extraordinary. In fact, I think you could say any claim to human rights today, in some sense or another, is owing to that revelation in Genesis that people are made in God’s image and likeness.
From ancient Athens, you have philosophy, reason, the gifts of the Greeks, in that they thought that reason is capable of apprehending reality and its essence, of knowing what it really is. As distinct from simply having opinions about things you could know the truth of them. And this truth was not, let’s say, contingent. This is, you could come to know what’s true everywhere at all times for all people.
And one of those most important things you could come to know is, what is good and what is bad? What is just and what is unjust?
How could you come to know these things? Because you could apprehend the nature of man and what virtue is as opposed to vice, and how the end of man is in the perfection of his nature, which is rational, and therefore his apprehension of the good and of the ultimate good, which is God, defines the end of that nature.
That was, again, a startling contribution that broke the grip of tribal man on his conception of things.
If you want to know what tribal man looks like, look at what the United States is devolving in today with all of the identity politics that it’s based on race, or it’s based on gender, it’s based on anything but the common apprehension that we all are human beings and share the same nature, and also have within us the image and likeness of God, which is the source of the respect which we owe each other.
Anyway, that’s jumping ahead. And then, Christianity enters the picture, universalizes the truths of the Jewish religion because Judaism, let’s say, had a universal God, but in still a tribal religion. Christianity has a universal God and is a universal religion. Anyone can be a Christian.
It enhanced that understanding of the sanctity of man, due to the image and likeness of God in him, makes him the object of God’s infinite love, and states the ultimate end of man—which is to share in God’s life—is reached outside of the political order, that the political order does not contribute to man’s salvation.
Each person has an individual relationship with this transcendent God and is to reach his destiny through his faith in him and the gift of God’s grace.
The state is forever devalued after the advent of Christianity. The state can no longer subsume the total man. This, to say the least, was revolutionary.
The “Our Father” was a revolutionary prayer. For Christ to say, “My kingdom is not of this world,” was revolutionary. To say that, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar, and … to God what is God’s,” was also shocking.
It’s said the people who heard Christ say this were amazed by it, and well, they might have been, because no one had said it before. And it too, … once again, it meant there was a secular realm and there was the sacred realm. And it was on the basis of this teaching that eventually within the West, the notion of dual sovereignty grew up, or what was called the two swords, the secular sword and the spiritual sword.
And you had the same individual under these dual sovereignties. And this is what first created the space for the development of constitutional rule.
That’s probably too long an answer, but it’s such a profound subject. All of these ingredients had to be there for the development of democratic, constitutional government and all of the principles without which it won’t develop.
And that, of course, begins with the equality of mankind, the understanding that sovereignty is invested in the people, that God doesn’t directly appoint a king or a ruler of some kind. Rather, it is that that ruler is consented to by the people, if that ruler is to be legitimate.
Therefore, the requirement of consent is a natural development from the apprehension of the equality of all people and the notion of popular sovereignty. Out of this come the other things that what touches all must be approved by all. They must have the opportunity to consent in all the things which affect them.
This turns into the right to vote, the right to representation, and also, by the way, something that was universally accepted by the time of the Middle Ages was the right to revolution, should the ruler turn into a tyrant.
And you find then, in the, say, 12th century, early 13th century, the development of ecclesiastical corporations, church organizations, which are ruled by these principles, the religious orders, like the Dominicans, church councils, and the early development of parliaments, not only in England but on the Continent.
Stepman: That was great. I think what’s very interesting is how these ideas were coming together very much in the Middle Ages, that you actually had a degree of liberty and limitation on the power of secular authority, so to speak, that you do have that dual sovereignty.
But something that I think is very interesting that you bring up is the rise of absolutism, starting really in the 16th century. How a lot of monarchies and governments started to become unmoored, in a sense, even from the law, and how that influenced the mind and thought of the Founding Fathers when, of course, the United States was created.
Can you explain that transition and how that influenced the Founders?
Reilly: Yeah. I think that that was, of course, a very profound transformation that began in the late Middle Ages with, let’s call it a distorted theology, which led to a distorted metaphysics, which inevitably affected political order.
Now, let’s just quickly take that at the theological level.
Thomas Aquinas voiced what was the general opinion in the understanding of God, that in him the will follows upon the intellect. In other words, reason rules. God is, above all things logos, which means reason. So reason rules, and the will executes what the reason has conceived.
Now, William of Ockham famously flipped that relationship and said, “No, no, the will rules and reason follows.” So the traditional notion, the notion at the heart of the Middle Ages, was the intellect.
The intellect directs the will. The will then acts in accord with reason. When you get this down to the human level, it means that rational laws are first conceived and then enforced.
Now, when you flip that relationship and say, “No, God is pure will and power, unbound by anything, certainly unbound by any rational notion that man may have,” that he is not really understandable, because God can will anything, the result of this when it’s devoted to the human level is that … This is called, by the way, the technical name in theology is voluntourism.
So you have a voluntourist God, an imitation of a voluntourist God. Man’s reason then becomes the servant of the will rather than its director. So the will rules, the primacy of the will, not the primacy of reason. Now, that becomes the foundation for absolutism in the political realm.
First of all, in the divine right of kings, as expressed by Robert Filmer and James I in England, was that the sovereign is absolute, receives his powers from God alone, God directly appoints him. There is no popular sovereignty or consent of the people. The ruler is accountable to no one except God.
The ruler is above the laws he makes for his people. He is unaccountable. He cannot be held to account. There is no right to revolution. Of course, there’s no right to consent or representation. And therefore the ruler can rule arbitrarily according to his will. He is not held to reason. Law is no longer reason. It is simply the expression of the ruler’s will.
Now, this development was aided by the fracture of Christendom, when Martin Luther, who was under the profound influence of William of Ockham, decided to dissolve all the church corporations and left man at that time no longer under the dual sovereignty of both church and state.
The church was dissolved as an effective organization, so the prince became the head of the church. Understandably so, this considerably enhanced the power of the ruler.
It is to the prince that Luther turned for the reform of the church. Luther posited that the ruler was directly appointed by God. There was no right to revolution against the ruler, at least for a good deal of Luther’s teachings. He later changed his mind, but one can see how the rule of absolutism was enhanced by this.
You then have a secular form of absolutism proposed by Thomas Hobbes in England, who sort of dispensed with the religious side of it, except insofar as he made the head of the state the head of the church also.
He also made the ruler absolute on secular grounds, with his conception of the state of nature of man be a war of all against all. And the only way this war could be stopped is by having an absolute sovereign with absolute powers who also would rule without the consent of his subjects.
Now, these notions together were repugnant to the American colonists when they became subject to rule without their consent. At that time in the 18th century, starting in the 1760s, the British Parliament asserted in the Declaratory Act that they could rule the colonies in all matters whatsoever, unconstrained and without the consent of the colonists.
Those colonists understood themselves as possessing the rights of Englishmen, No. 1, when—through the royal charters—they had such rights.
But when there was no appeal on the grounds of English constitutionalism to some remedy, to the absolute rule under which they were placed by Parliament and George III, they saw that they had to make a higher appeal, and that higher appeal was to the rights of man based upon natural law, and that ruling them without their consent, it was offense against justice, and it defined tyrannical rule, against which they had the right to revolution, which they then exercised.
So to understand the colonists and the way they talked and the things to which they appealed, you have to see as they were reconnecting themselves with that ancient lineage, with that ancient heritage, and restoring the primacy of reason, restoring the rule of reason and the understanding of man as a rational creature whose consent in his rule was required by his very nature.
And therefore you find the magnificent articulation in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence that lays out those principles under the laws of nature and of nature’s God, and that man is endowed by his creator with certain inalienable rights. That’s very powerfully a natural law document.
So the American founding was a restoration. It required a revolution for that restoration to take place, and then they gained themselves the opportunity, for the first time in history, through reflection and choice, founding a regime based upon those principles. That’s the uniqueness of the American founding.
It was also unique in its constitutional makeup of the dual sovereignty of federalism, of the role of the federal government and the autonomy of the states in certain matters.
Stepman: Following up on that, I wanted to ask about, you talked about how the principle of constitutional rule sort of emerged in the Middle Ages, was rejected for a long time, up until the founding.
There were several times throughout the existence of the United States that there were factions who in some way rejected it, be that I guess maybe the Confederacy, maybe an emergence of the Communist Party, even in the 20th century.
I wonder if you could maybe reflect on how what we’re seeing today, not just with these massive demonstrations and rejection of history, but even this rejection of having a free flow of debate, how what we’re seeing today, is it unique from previous rejections of constitutional rule?
Reilly: Well, yes and no. Obviously, the principles of [the] United States as articulated in the declaration and instantiated for the most part in the Constitution were controversial from the beginning. That’s why there was a war.
They were generally accepted within the United States, but of course, within the United States, there was that sort of original sin of slavery. We make sure to say, however, that slavery existed everywhere. Slavery was the norm. In human history for millennia there was slavery.
So the existence of slavery was not unique. What was unique was the articulation of principles which led to the elimination of slavery. First and foremost, the statement that all men are created equal, which, by the way, though, it is an ancient principle. It’s not a new one.
So it was hoped that evil institution would slowly die out within the new United States. It was eliminated rather immediately. In the 10 years between the declaration and the Constitution, all of the states north of the Mason-Dixon line and north of the Ohio River either eliminated slavery outright or put in place measures that led to its elimination.
And of course the Northwest Ordinance, which set forth how the new territories would be ruled, that constituted a large part of the Midwest and the Upper Midwest, forever forbad slavery. And the Constitution provided for the opportunity to pass a law in 1807 or 1808 that would forbid the foreign slave trade. And indeed, when at that time, the United States Congress passed a law banning that trade, and 12 years later, they made it a capital offense.
So there was a general understanding. Certainly it was understood at the time of the founding that slavery was an evil, by almost everyone. The point was what to do.
Slavery was an institution that had existed from time and memorial. “How is it that we do get rid of it?” Unfortunately, that, of course, was a problem that was only finally resolved with a brutal Civil War, in which the founding principles of the United States were defended and finally applied universally. …
Again, that took considerable time through the civil rights movements and other things that black Americans could finally assume all of the rights which men by their nature have.
That’s not the only source of contestation over the principles. Certainly in the 20th century, we know rather dramatically that the equality of all men was explicitly rejected by Nazi Germany, which was based upon a race theory of history and the superiority of the Aryan race and the necessity to eliminate Jews and enslave Slavs and Gypsies and so forth. It couldn’t have been a more direct denial of principle of equality.
And the other expression of that, which turned out to be far more damaging because it lasted so much longer, was that of the Soviet Union and the communist assertion of a class theory of history, so all people were not created equal in the Soviet Union.
The proletariat was superior. And of course, the vanguard of the proletariat, which was the party, exercised absolute power and the kulaks and the bourgeoisie were physically eliminated, clergy was physically eliminated, etc. Excuse me.
By the way, you see an early premonition of these things in the French Revolution, which I, in one chapter of the book, compare to the American Revolution to show how different they were.
The French Revolution was the manifestation of the radical enlightenment principles that man could be perfected through his own means, and usually those means required the absolute power of the state and the elimination of Christianity.
The French Revolution undertook a brutal de-Christianization campaign in France through the confiscation of church properties, the exile of priests and nuns, the execution of priests and nuns, the elimination of crosses in graveyards, on church steeples, etc. The idea being that man, of course, was alienated from his own self by this religion, which made him a slave, you see, as Rousseau said, and therefore you’d be liberated if he could get rid of it, and get rid of it they tried to do.
… You invite the tremendous contrast between the American and French Revolution by simply asking, would such a de-Christianization campaign have been conceivable in the American colonies at the time? And the answer is of course not.
It was inconceivable. In fact, from most of the pulpits, the Revolution was preached. There was a tremendous compatibility … between reason and faith in the United States, as they were opponents in the French Revolution.
The American Revolution was not on the basis of a project to reach man’s perfection. It was a revolution made by almost a unanimously Christian population that knew that man was not perfectible through his own powers, that man is a sinner, that man must engage in contrition, that he must turn to God for forgiveness.
He doesn’t obtain any of these things through the state. Rather, the state must be kept on its own reservation to allow man’s religious life to be conducted freely. It wasn’t a project of self-perfection. Therefore, it didn’t make itself the enemy of Christianity or any other religion.
Therefore, you can look at such a simple thing as the dates on the American founding documents, 1789 for the Constitution, 1776 for the declaration. Not true in revolutionary France. They started with the year zero. You see, they were restarting history, or history was truly beginning with their secular project for man’s divinization.
Nothing could be more alien to the American Revolution, but you see in the French Revolution a foretaste of what would come later in the national socialist and the international socialist revolutions, which were in their different ways also secular projects for man’s perfection, but at least as man as they conceived him as the class man or the classless man, classless society, or the supremacy and universal rule of the Aryan race.
Stepman: Why do you think it is that the American Revolution was just a real exception among revolutions? Most revolutions ended in some sort despotism, the way the French Revolution did.
Reilly: Well, I think that’s because of the principles on which it was founded, which were anti-despotic, which did not allow for despotism.
The French Revolution, its principles more or less inevitably ended in despotism. It required despotism for its success. That was completely opposite to that of the United States.
And of course, you could point to the same thing in the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany or Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the communist revolution in China. The first thing they have to do is get rid of religion. The enemy is religion. Anything that points man to a transcendent, which means to a standard higher than that standard set by the state, is the enemy of the state and the state’s project cannot be reached or executed without the elimination of religion.
Again, the United States was quite the opposite. It was a founding by largely Christian people who wanted a state that was compatible with how they conceived their spiritual life to be and that they wanted a state that was constitutionally reigned in in terms of their free exercise of religion.
And today the United States is being transformed into a Leviathan, which is the name Thomas Hobbes gave to this absolute sovereign that he proposed, and that can be seen in the attempted restrictions on the exercise of religion in the United States by certain sectors of the American government, whether federal or state.
They think that the suppression of religion, or at least it’s restriction, is necessary for their progressivist view of the uses of government, because they’re more in tune with the French Revolution than the American one and they think the state should be the vehicle for the transformation of man into whatever view of man they have.
Just to give you a little taste of it, I live in the Commonwealth of Virginia and the COVID virus has been an interesting experience in what it has revealed about the character of certain of our rulers and how they use the close to absolute power they have assumed for themselves in light of this virus.
And here, I’m not speaking against any sensible precautions taken to deal with this virus, but the governor in this Commonwealth assumed upon himself the power to say what was an essential activity that would be allowed to continue and what were nonessential activities that wouldn’t be allowed to continue, at least for a period of time.
And quite surprisingly, the exercise of one’s religion was found nonessential, so close the churches, close the synagogues. However, abortion was found to be an essential service. That must be permitted, but the exercise of your religion wasn’t.
I think that reveals something special in the character of certain political rulers in the United States and what Leviathan will look more and more alike, the more powers that are assumed by the government.
Stepman: Absolutely. And that kind of leads to my final question here, which is, America really is on trial in many ways right now, maybe even Western civilization in general. It seems that the ideas that you’ve written about in this book really have few defenders in this country’s leading intellectual and academic institutions.
I think [in] many cases, quite shamefully, the American left appears to be going almost completely in this kind of 1619 Project route, defining America as fundamentally racist and rotten and going really full bore into the identity politics, really the almost tribal ideas that you define in your book that’s very pre-modern in a lot of ways, but it also seems that there are some on the right even who have gone after the founding.
I think, notably, Patrick Deneen at Notre Dame, criticizing the founding as being the basis for you see the modern radicalism today and maybe the individualism and liberalism in modern America.
Can you address that and talk about is there any validity to this and explain also why you say that ultimately the founding is where we need to get back to, not a rebuke of the founding?
Reilly: Yes. I think you hit the nail on the head there that the problem we are facing today in identity politics is the retribalization of people.
Retribalization means they no longer accept the principle that all people are created equal. It’s precisely a rejection of that, and they need to take a good hard look at what tribal life was like.
The 1619 Project is so suffused with ignorance that it is interesting, just for that fact. The claim that the English brought slavery to the United States is true insofar as they restrict it to black slavery.
True enough, they brought black slaves, which they obtained in Africa from other black tribes that had first enslaved the people whom they bought to bring to the American colonies, but there was already slavery here, widely practiced amongst the Native Americans. They led tribal lives.
And as was the practice in tribal life everywhere, it didn’t have to be on the American continent. You could find it in the ancient world. You can find it today in the Middle East, in remote parts of Africa and South America. Where there’s tribal life, there’s almost always slavery and wars with the opposing tribes, the victor takes the members of the other tribes as slaves and the American Indians practice slavery. Slavery was already here.
Quite amusingly, the Supreme Court made this recent decision that the eastern part of Oklahoma ought to be given back to the tribes of that area. According to some ancient treaty, the other side of the question was that at the time of the Civil War, those tribal areas sided with the Confederacy. Why? Because the tribes, they had slaves and they wanted to keep them.
Keep in mind that tribalism almost is always accompanied with slavery. Why? Because the tribal mentality has no means through which to apprehend that all people are created equal. For them, slavery is a perfectly natural development.
As these people in the United States embrace tribal identities, whether it’s based on race or it’s based on some kind of transgenderism or what, but whatever particular identity they think trumps everything else, they’re descending into tribal life.
Now, the fact is there’s very little opposition to this from the intelligentsia of the United States, whether it’s in the media or the academy or at the upper reaches of the business world, because all of these people’s minds have been corrupted for several generations of miseducation, in which theories supporting this kind of thing and denying the principles of the American founding have been taught.
Progressivism itself, from John Dewey, from President [Woodrow] Wilson, they’re all denials of the principles in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. They get in the way so they must be got rid of, you see.
One thing I want, I could quote and if you’ve looked at the book, you’ll see the incidences of the number of times the American Founders said the principles on which we are basing our enterprise have a transcendent source and they are immutable. Human nature is immutable. Therefore, these truths apply at all times to all people everywhere.
Now, if you believe that, if you accept that, you get to keep the republic, which the American Founders gave us. If you deny those principles, you don’t get to keep it because it can’t possibly survive in the absence of them. Those principles are denied in American progressivism. Obviously, they are denied in any form of moral relativism, of cultural relativism, and so forth.
I can just give one example that kind of helps make the whole thing clear. From President Barack Obama’s book “The Audacity of Hope,” let me read you this sentence: “Implicit in the Constitution structure, and the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth. The infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or -ism and any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single on alterable course.”
The truth does not set you free, the truth enslaves you. So you must deny this truth. There are no transcendent immutable truths. That’s exactly what President Obama is saying. The rejection of absolute truth. I mean, it’s stunning to see it sort of in naked type, a statement so antithetical to the founding principles of the United States. When it reaches the highest office of the land, you know that we’re in trouble.
Stepman: Absolutely. Well, Robert, thank you so much for joining us on “The Right Side of History.” This is incredibly enlightening and I think, also, incredibly important for Americans now who believe very strongly in what this country stands for but are faced with an incredible challenge that comes from some of the most powerful institutions in this country.
It seems that you’ve done a great service to the many Americans who right now are looking for information for better understanding when they see and hear these attacks occurring so often.
I do recommend to listeners in our audience to pick this book up and grapple with the philosophy and the ideas that have been passed down to them by the founding generation that we have inherited and to better be able to articulate to our friends, our neighbors, our colleagues what makes us special.
Again, thank you very much, Robert, for joining us and talking about these things.
Reilly: You’re very welcome. As dire as the situation is, as bleak as it looks, we do have a path forward, and that is to return to the founding principles of the United States, to recapture these immutable transcendent truths by which we ought to conduct our lives.
Thanks very much for the opportunity.
Stepman: You’re quite welcome. And again, the name of the book is “America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding.” Thank you so much.
Reilly: Thank you. God bless you.