Hard Liberalism, Soft Liberalism, and the American Founding

by Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist

1. Hard Liberalism: Patrick Deneen on Thomas Hobbes

In Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen identifies a double principle underlying the liberal conception of liberty: 1) an anthropological individualism and a voluntarist understanding of choice, and 2) a view of human beings as separate from and opposed to nature.[1] The two principles are intimately connected. Both are bound up with the Enlightenment’s rejection of the objectivity of the good, expressed with unrivalled clarity by the protoliberal Hobbes: “Good, and Evill, are names that signifie our Appetites, and Aversions.[2] Choice is therefore “voluntarist” in the sense that it is not elicited by the objective goodness of things, but is rather the arbitrary fixing of the will on some object. Such an anthropology is individualistic, since there is no common end uniting different human beings. Human life, under this conception, is indeed radically irrational: there is no final goal, and therefore no reason to do one thing rather than another:

For there is no such Finis Ultimus, (utmost ayme,) nor Summum Bonum, (greatest good,) as is spoken of in the Books of the old Morall Philosophers. Nor can a man any more live, whose Desires are at an end, than he, whose Senses and Imaginations are at a stand. Felicity is a continuall progresse of the desire, from one object to another; the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the later.[3]

This is a profoundly lonely and pessimistic view of human life, and an aimless hurrying from one object of desire to another, a being swept this way and that by irrational passion, unable to find rest or lasting happiness.

In a Hobbesian world, the older notion of nature as an intrinsic principle of motion toward the good and rest in the good as an end is mere nonsense. Human beings can not find their fulfillment in perfecting their nature through virtue and finding their place in the ordered hierarchy of natures that is the cosmos. Natures become merely the raw materials to be dominated by the human will through the process of technological progress sketched out by Hobbes’s employer Francis Bacon.

2. Soft Liberalism: Vincent P. Muñoz’s Objections to Deneen

A recent panel discussion between Vincent P. Muñoz and Adrian Vermeule raised the question as to what extent Deneen’s critique of liberalism applies to the understanding of political liberty articulated by the founders of the United States of America. Muñoz argued that Deneen’s critique is accurate enough as applied to the heirs of Hobbes, but that it misses the mark when it is thought of as applying to the American Declaration of Independence. Certainly, as Adrian Vermeule pointed out in his response, the American Founders do not belong to any of the recognizable current schools of liberalism— Millian, Rawlsian, Hayekian, etc. Nevertheless, I claim that in certain key respects the American Founders were indeed liberal. It is necessary to distinguish between a radical or (as I have called it in the past) hard liberalism, based on a Hobbesian denial of the supreme good, and a moderate or soft form of liberalism that does not necessarily deny the supreme good, but does deny that politics should directly order human life toward that good. Soft liberalism converges with hard liberalism in conceiving of rights primarily in terms of subjective power and in seeing political life as being primarily for the sake of protecting rights thus understood. It is a form of liberalism because it sees the end of politics as being liberty, rather than the common good of human life.

The bridge between the hard proto-liberalism of Hobbes and the soft-liberalism of the founders is of course John Locke, who gives a hard-liberal account of the good in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,[4] but who in the The Second Treatise of Civil Government often writes as though he were merely a soft-liberal.[5]

The American Founders were not all consistent soft liberals in my sense. There is a current of classical Republican thought in the American Founding that sees the purpose of government as being the res publica, the common good. But there is a significant admixture of soft liberalism in the American Republic, seen most clearly in the Declaration of Independence’s account of the reason for the establishment of government. And in fact, Muñoz himself seems to give primary importance to that current and to be himself a soft liberal.

Muñoz argues that the Declaration of Independence presupposes a non-Hobbesian understanding of the good. Good and evil are not merely names for the arbitrary objects of appetite, but rather there is a true good based on the order that God has placed in His creation. Thus, the Declaration begins with an assertion of truth: “We hold these truths.” The Declaration’s championship of a view of government as founded on the consent of the governed for the sake of the defence of their rights, as Muñoz argues, is based on an understanding of human equality and human rights as part of the natural order created by God. Because human beings are endowed with a rational and free nature, Muñoz understands the Declaration to be arguing that it is in accord with their nature that they be self-governed and that rulers rule only by the consent of their subjects. And such rule should be, on his view, ordered to defending the rights that flow from the possession of reason and free will. The infamous moral relativism propounded by the United States Supreme Court in Casey v. Planned Parenthood, Muñoz argues, is not the logical conclusion of the natural-rights liberalism of the American Founding, but rather the betrayal thereof.

Although Muñoz succeeds in showing that the Declaration is not hard, Hobbesian liberalism,  the soft-liberalism that he finds there instead is itself still a seriously erroneous and dangerous understanding of politics. Instead of seeing the legitimacy of political rule as flowing from the common good, as Thomas Aquinas had, this soft liberalism sees it as flowing from the consent of subjects. The end of political life is then seen as the liberty of those subjects to pursue their own ends with a minimum of interference. Thus, while the soft-liberal might still see a sovereign good to which human life is ordered, that sovereign good is separated from politics and thereby privatized. Moreover, this privatization of the sovereign good, and the structures that soft liberalism unites with hard liberalism in promoting, tend to dissolve the residual moral objectivity on which its softness rests, and thus the subjects of soft liberal regimes harden over time.[6] Soft liberalism, in other words, is not only bad in itself, it also leads to hard liberalism, which is much worse.

The first questioner in the Vermeule-Muñoz panel raises the objection that such a rights-based idea of government will only forbid the misuse of human nature when such misuse is seen as injuring the rights of others. However, this apparently soft-liberal line of reasoning has led to hard liberal decisions of the United States Supreme Court, such as Griswold v. Connecticut (striking down laws against contraception) and Lawrence v. Texas (striking down laws against acts of unnatural vice). In his response, Muñoz simply points out that the same line of reasoning leads to the right of religious liberty: “A man may use his freedom not to properly worship God, therefore do you take away his freedom to worship?” The question leads us to a crucial ambiguity in the notion of rights that shows why soft liberalism is indeed liberalism.

3. The Ambiguity of Rights

According to an influential view, liberalism simply is the doctrine that politics is ordered to the protection of rights. Thus Leo Strauss writes:

If we may call liberalism that political doctrine which regards as the fundamental political fact the rights as distinguished from the duties, of man and which identifies the function of the state with the protection or the safeguarding of those rights, we must say that the founder of liberalism was Hobbes.[7]

But this view of the matter is complicated by the role that the idea of rights plays in undoubtedly non-liberal or pre-liberal thinkers, such as Thomas Aquinas. Strauss of course recognized that there was a notion of “right” in pre-liberal thought, but he sees the moderns as having come up with a new notion of “right” based in a new primacy of self-preservation. Strauss’s account of how this came about is deeply suggestive, but not (to my mind) completely precise. Recent work by the likes of Dominic Legge, O.P. (at the same conference as the Vermeule-Muñoz panel[8]) and Pedro Izquierdo (on The Josias[9]), gives a slightly more precise account that shows the difference between the function that rights play in non-liberal and liberal thinkers. This fuller account does, however, support Strauss’s thesis—against critics such as Brian Tierney[10]— that a political philosophy that identifies the end of the state with the protection of those rights is essentially different from pre-modern political philosophy. The English word “right” is derived from the Indo-European root “reg,” meaning straight (and hence, to move in a straight line, to lead straight, to put right, to rule, etc.) “Right” is the etymological equivalent of the Latin rectitudo. But in legal usage “right” is used to translate another Latin word, namely ius. St. Thomas, following the Roman jurists, uses ius in the sense of the object of the virtue of justice. That is, most basically, the thing due to another. The just thing. For example, the bread that a baker owes someone who has paid him for bread. St. Thomas understanding of ius is thus bound up with his understanding of the whole order of justice. What is due to another will depend on the distribution of things that has been made with a view to the common good. This distribution of things is made in the first place by God’s eternal law with a view to the universal common good of all things—both the intrinsic common good of the harmonious order of the whole of creation, and the extrinsic common good of God Himself as the object of happiness. In the second place, the distribution of things is made by human custom and law for the sake of the common good of temporal happiness and peace. Law is the ratio iuris, it gives the reason why a particular thing is due to a particular person. And what law is is an ordinance of reason for the common good. Thus, in St. Thomas’s conception, everything goes back to deliberations of reason about the common good, and what serves it. So, for example, the distribution of private property will be regulated with a view to what serves the common good. Therefore, the law can put limits on the acquisition of wealth, if it judges that too great an acquisition damages social peace. Or it can forbid certain kinds of contracts or loans that are judged to be prejudicial to civic friendship.

Now, the modern sense of “right” as a moral power, that is what someone ought to be allowed to do without interference was originally an analogical extension (anticipated already by late medieval Schoolmen such as Ockham, but most clearly expounded by Baroque Schoolmen such as Suárez), and originally meant that if a thing is one’s right, then the power or licence that one has to do certain things to or with the thing is also due to one, i.e. one’s right. For example, if a piece of bread is someone’s ius, then eating the bread is also his ius. That is, he ought to be allowed to eat the bread.

This analogical extension would be unobjectionable in itself. Such moral powers do indeed have some foundation in reality, and it makes sense to extend the name ius to them. But in the course of the extension, a fatal reversal takes place. The analogical extension of ius, right as a power, comes to be seen as the prime analogate, and objective right, the object owed to the other, as an analogical extension. On the basis of this reversal, Suárez and his Enlightenment imitators hold that something is due to another, because of the inviolable moral power that he has of demanding it, rather than the power being an effect of his being owed something. Henri Grenier explains the consequences with his customary concision:

If objective right is understood as right in the strict sense, it follows that subjective right, i.e., right as a power, is measured by the just thing, according to conformity to law. Moreover, since law is an ordinance for the common good, it follows that the whole juridical order is directed to the common good. But, if subjective right is understood as right in the primary, strict, and formal meaning of the term, it follows that the juridical order consists in a certain autonomy, independence, and liberty. For subjective right is not measured by the just thing, but the just thing is measured by the inviolable faculty, which is a certain liberty. Therefore, according to moderns, the juridical order is directed to liberty rather than to the common good. This gives rise to errors among moderns, who speak of liberty of speech, liberty of worship, economic liberty, — economic liberalism, — without any consideration of their relation to the common good.[11]

Here we see why even a soft-liberal acceptance of the primacy of rights (understood as subjective powers) in political life will lead to hard liberalism. If the political order is seen as being primarily ordered to the defence of subjective rights, then the ordination of the juridical order to the common good will quickly be lost. The relation of law and right will be reversed. Law will more and more be seen as a limit on rights for the sake of preserving them. That is, it will come to be seen as a limit on the moral power to do things for the sake of preserving the maximum moral power of doing things in the greatest number of persons. Thus, for example, it limits the power of taking stuff away from others, in order to increase the power of amassing possessions. The end ultimately is for each person to be able to exercise their will (whatever its object) to the maximum extent compatible with others doing the same. This is liberal-ism, because liberty is seen as the primary aim of political life. It is only a small step from such a conception of law to the infamous dictum of the United States Supreme Court in Casey v. Planned Parenthood: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

When the Declaration of Independence laid down as a fundamental principle that governments are established among men to secure their natural rights, it was not laying down a hard-liberal, Hobbesian principle. But it was laying down a soft-liberal principle— a principle that tends to sever the juridical order from the common good, and that therefore has an inherent tendency toward hard-liberalism.

But the American founders were not consistent in seeing the aim of government in soft-liberal terms. There has long been a debate between interpreters of the American Founding, with one side following the mid-20th century consensus of scholars such as Louis Hartz and Martin Diamond in reading the Founders as Lockean liberals, while the other side follows scholars such as Bernard Bailyn and J.G.A. Pocock, who in the later part of the 20th century argued that in fact the Founders were classical republicans, seeing the end of government as being the common good. In his excellent dissertation, Matthew J. Peterson retraces the debate, and concludes that both sides are partly right.[12] The Founders saw the aim of government as being both the defence of individual rights (liberalism), and the public good (republicanism). Peterson warns, however, against concluding that the political thought of the founding was merely an incoherent melange. He suggests that with a deeper understanding of the common good, one will see that the defence of individual rights makes an integral contribution to the common good of political life itself, but that the common good of political life finally goes beyond individual rights. On my reading, Peterson essentially comes down on the republican side, albeit with an important qualifications. If one asks which the Founders saw as being ordered to which: the public good to individual rights, or individual rights to the public good? Peterson reads them as subordinating individual rights to the common good. He denies, however, that rights are seen as merely instrumental, rather they are integral to the common good.

Peterson’s reading seems to me a possible interpretation of the Founders. But I think that to some extent he underplays the tension between two ways of seeing the relation of rights and the common good. On the whole, I think that Charles Taylor is right to see a transformation going on during the American Revolution in which classical common good and natural law thinking is transformed by a liberal understanding of rights, so that the relation between the two is slowly reversed.[13]

4. Blackstone’s Account of Law and Rights

To a certain extent one can see the shift between a non-liberal and a liberal understanding of the relation of rights and the common good taking place already in an author whom the American Founders cited more often than any other, except Montesquieu: the English Tory jurist Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780).[14] Blackstone is rightly considered to be one of the main conduits of classical natural-law and common good thinking to the American Founders. And certainly, Blackstone has a strong doctrine of natural law, holding that any positive laws that go against the laws that God has inscribed into nature are invalid. And his Commentaries on the Laws of England are largely an admirable exposition of how the natural law is embodied in the common law of England. Yet, in his general remarks on the nature of law in the Introduction to the Commentaries, and on the nature of right in Book I, the Tory Jurist introduces some surprisingly Whiggish conceptions that would justify us in calling him a soft liberal.

Blackstone’s general definition of law is Suarézian in the sense that it omits any reference to the good: “Law in it’s most general and comprehensive sense, signifies […] that rule of action, which is prescribed by some superior, and which the inferior is bound to obey.”[15] In discussing natural law, Blackstone does indeed bring in order to the happiness, the human good, but to a Thomistic reader two features of his discussion appear strange. The first is that the relation of happiness and the natural law seems to be conceived of in a strangely extrinsic manner. The second is that happiness seems to be conceived of as a purely individual good, rather than as the attainment of the common good. It is worth quoting Blackstone at length:

For as God, when he created matter, and endued it with a principle of mobility, established certain rules for the perpetual direction of that motion; so, when he created man, and endued him with freewill to conduct himself in all parts of life, he laid down certain immutable laws of human nature, whereby that freewill is in some degree regulated and restrained, and gave him also the faculty of reason to discover the purport of those laws. […] These are the eternal, immutable laws of good and evil, to which the creator himself in all his dispensations conforms; and which he has enabled human reason to discover, so far as they are necessary for the conduct of human actions. […] But if the discovery of these first principles of the law of nature depended only upon the due exertion of right reason, and could not otherwise be attained than by a chain of metaphysical disquisitions, mankind would have wanted some inducement to have quickened their inquiries, and the greater part of the world would have rested content in mental indolence, and ignorance it’s [sic] inseparable companion. As therefore the creator is a being, not only of infinite power, and wisdom, but also of infinite goodness, he has been pleased so to contrive the constitution and frame of humanity, that we should want no other prompter to enquire after and pursue the rule of right, but only our own self-love, that universal principle of action. For he has so intimately connected, so inseparably interwoven the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by observing the former; and, if the former be punctually obeyed, it cannot but induce the latter. In consequence of which mutual connection of justice and human felicity, he has not perplexed the law of nature with a multitude of abstracted rules and precepts, referring merely to the fitness or unfitness of things, as some have vainly surmised; but has graciously reduced the rule of obedience to this one paternal precept, ‘that man should pursue his own happiness.’[16]

Blackstone’s notion of the connection of natural law and happiness as a sort of ingenious contrivance of the Creator seems to obscure the fact that law of its very essence is directed to the common good of creatures, in which their happiness consists. Indeed, Blackstone’s words would seem to imply an individualistic understanding of happiness, and therefore the “self-love” of which he speaks would not be the properly ordered love of the common good, in which the highest good of the individual is found, but rather in the love of a private good.[17] Such a conception will tend to destroy any notion of the subordination of the juridical order to the common good.

In his definition of civil (or municipal) law, Blackstone again manages to avoid any mention of the common good. Civil law is “a rule of civil conduct prescribed by the supreme power in a state, commanding what is right and prohibiting what is wrong.”[18] Right here should be taken as meaning rectitudo rather than ius. But in his general discussion of right, Blackstone shows how the two meanings are related. Again, I quote at length:

Now the rights of persons that are commanded to be observed by the municipal law are of two sorts; first, such as are due from every citizen, which are usually called civil duties; and, secondly, such as belong to him, which is the more popular acceptation of rights or jura. Both may indeed be comprized in this latter division; for, as all social duties are of a relative nature, at the same time that they are due from one man, or set of men, they must also be due to another. But I apprehend it will be more clear and easy, to consider many of them as duties required from, rather than as rights belonging to, particular persons. Thus, for instance, allegiance is usually, and therefore most easily, considered as the duty of the people, and protection as the duty of the magistrate; and yet they are, reciprocally, the rights as well as duties of each other. Allegiance is the right of the magistrate, and protection the right of the people.[19]

Here Blackstone has seemingly derived the classical notion of ius from the notion of rectitudo. Right is what is due to another, the object of justice. The right of the magistrate is the allegiance due to him from the people. But when Blackstone begins to explain what he calls the “absolute rights of persons” (that is rights that belong to them apart from any particular human community), he explains them in terms of subjective power or liberty:

The absolute rights of man, considered as a free agent, endowed with discernment to know good from evil, and with power of choosing those measures which appear to him to be most desirable, are usually summed up in one general appellation, and denominated the natural liberty of mankind. This natural liberty consists properly in a power of acting as one thinks fit, without any restraint or control, unless by the law of nature: being a right inherent in us by birth, and one of the gifts of God to man at his creation, when he endued him with the faculty of freewill.[20]

The laws of human society are seen as limiting these natural liberties or subjective powers, and here Blackstone does introduce something like the idea of the common good:

Political therefore, or civil, liberty, which is that of a member of society, is no other than natural liberty so far restrained by human laws (and no farther) as is necessary and expedient for the general advantage of the publick.[21]

But what is meant by the “advantage of the publick”? A little earlier in the discussion, Blackstone makes it clear that this public advantage is nothing other than the widest amplitude of subjective rights compatible with security:

For the principal aim of society is to protect individuals in the enjoyment of those absolute rights, which were vested in them by the immutable laws of nature; but which could not be preserved in peace without that mutual assistance and intercourse, which is gained by the institution of friendly and social communities. Hence it follows, that the first and primary end of human laws is to maintain and regulate these absolute rights of individuals.[22]

This is soft liberalism in a nutshell. There is much in the rest of Blackstone’s account of the common law that accords ill with this understanding of the end of law and politics. But this understanding does indeed colour some of his interpretations. Take, for example, the interpretation of compulsory purchase (i.e. eminent domain) in his discussion of the right of property:

So great moreover is the regard of the law for private property, that it will not authorize the least violation of it; no, not even for the general good of the whole community. If a new road, for instance, were to be made through the grounds of a private person, it might perhaps be extensively beneficial to the public; but the law permits no man, or set of men, to do this without consent of the owner of the land. In vain may it be urged, that the good of the individual ought to yield to that of the community; for it would be dangerous to allow any private man, or even any public tribunal, to be the judge of this common good, and to decide whether it be expedient or no. Besides, the public good is in nothing more essentially interested, than in the protection of every individual’s private rights, as modelled by the municipal law. In this, and similar cases the legislature alone can, and indeed frequently does, interpose, and compel the individual to acquiesce. But how does it interpose and compel? Not by absolutely stripping the subject of his property in an arbitrary manner; but by giving him a full indemnification and equivalent for the injury thereby sustained.[23]

There is something almost comical about this passage, since Blackstone in one breath denies and affirms the same thing. First, he denies that the law allows land to be taken from someone for the sake of the public good. But then he affirms that this is in fact what happens (although the person must be paid for his losses). But the problem is that the relation of the person’s ius and the common good is explicitly viewed upside-down and backwards, “the public good is in nothing more essentially interested, than in the protection of every individual’s private rights.” Similarly, with taxation:

Nor is this the only instance in which the law of the land has postponed even public necessity to the sacred and inviolable rights of private property. For no subject of England can be constrained to pay any aids or taxes, even for the defence of the realm or the support of government, but such as are imposed by his own consent, or that of his representatives in parliament.[24]

Here we have of course the principle of no taxation without representation, so central to the American Founding. And the way in which Blackstone expresses it shows how an originally pre-liberal understanding of rights as the object of the virtue of justice, arising from the division of things made with a view to the common good, was in the process of being colonized, corrupted and reversed by a liberal view of rights as subjective claims, liberties as ends in themselves, to which the whole legal and political order was to be subjected.

5. The Problem of Religious Liberty

If Blackstone was in some respects a soft liberal, one respect in which he was still free of liberalism was in his High Church Anglican view of the necessity of established religion. “Doubtless,” he writes, “the preservation of christianity, as a national religion, is, abstracted from its own intrinsic truth, of the utmost consequence to the civil state.”[25] Blackstone’s way of considering the question is somewhat backwards from a Catholic point of view— he considers the benefits that supernatural religion brings to the common good, rather than the order of the temporal to the spiritual. Moreover, as a good Anglican, he denies the superiority of spiritual to temporal authority.[26] But the juridical standing of religion that he defends is much closer to the traditional ideal than to liberalism. It was of men of Blackstone’s type that Blessed John Henry Newman was thinking in the “Biglietto Speech”  when he looked back at the place of religion in English life during his youth: “Even in countries separated from the Church, as in my own, the dictum was in force, when I was young, that: ‘Christianity was the law of the land’.”[27]

Newman begins the “Biglietto Speech” with a discussion of “the spirit of liberalism in religion,” against which he had striven all his life. This spirit denies the objective truth of religion: “Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.”[28] This can be seen as a form of hard-liberalism: there is no supreme good, but only subjective will which decides to consider the supreme good to be found in some religion. Hence, persons of different religious opinions my “fraternise together in spiritual thoughts and feelings” without sharing a common doctrine. The immediate result of this religious liberty is that religion becomes a private matter, and is separated from political life:

Since, then, religion is so personal a peculiarity and so private a possession, we must of necessity ignore it in the intercourse of man with man. If a man puts on a new religion every morning, what is that to you? It is as impertinent to think about a man’s religion as about his sources of income or his management of his family. Religion is in no sense the bond of society.[29]

Therefore, the dictum of his youth about Christianity being the law of the land is gone and “by the end of the century, unless the Almighty interferes, it will be forgotten.”[30] Newman recognizes that the same political conclusion can be derived from softer doctrines than that of liberal religion. In England, he explains, the doctrine that religion should be banished from public life has been promoted by the various non-conformist Protestant sects that arose after the Reformation. It is worth quoting him at length:

At first sight it might be thought that Englishmen are too religious for a movement which, on the Continent, seems to be founded on infidelity; but the misfortune with us is, that, though it ends in infidelity as in other places, it does not necessarily arise out of infidelity. It must be recollected that the religious sects, which sprang up in England three centuries ago, and which are so powerful now, have ever been fiercely opposed to the Union of Church and State, and would advocate the un-Christianising of the monarchy and all that belongs to it, under the notion that such a catastrophe would make Christianity much more pure and much more powerful. Next the liberal principle is forced on us from the necessity of the case. Consider what follows from the very fact of these many sects. They constitute the religion, it is supposed, of half the population; and, recollect, our mode of government is popular. Every dozen men taken at random whom you meet in the streets has a share in political power,— when you inquire into their forms of belief, perhaps they represent one or other of as many as seven religions; how can they possibly act together in municipal or in national matters, if each insists on the recognition of his own religious denomination? All action would be at a deadlock unless the subject of religion was ignored.[31]

Newman’s point here is extremely important. The disestablishment of religion need not necessarily proceed from the unbelief of hard liberalism, but it will tend toward such unbelief. When religion is bracketed out of deliberations about the common life of political animals, it will come to be seen as a matter of sentiment and opinion rather than of truth.

The situation of a multitude of Protestant sects that Newman describes in England was even more firmly established in her American colonies. And so it is not surprising that the American Constitution forbids the establishment of religion, at least at the federal level. As Matthew Peterson explains:

What both sides [i.e. Federalists and Anti-Federalists] explicitly eschew in the debate is the idea that the government should take a stance as to which denomination of Christianity, or even which religion more generally, at least at the federal level, best leads to man’s highest end. They indicate that this is consonant with Christianity itself. James Wilson and John Dickinson see the aims of the federal government as at least pointing towards and harmonious with religion. Dickinson asks whether any government could be “more conformed to the nature and understanding, to the best and the last end of man?” and Wilson sees “liberty, virtue, and religion go hand in hand, harmoniously, protecting, enlivening, and exalting all!”[32]

William Lee Miller has even argued that this view of religion is the most essential element of the liberalism of the American Constitution.[33] But what are we to make of the claim that this is “consonant with Christianity itself”? It is true that Christianity, in contrast to pagan religion, distinguishes between spiritual and temporal. Moreover, Christianity has always taught that Baptism must be accepted freely. Both points were reiterated with great force by the Second Vatican Council in Dignitatis Humanæ. But, as we have attempted to show on The Josias, this does not mean that religion ought to be banished to a private realm.[34] Rather, it means that it is under the authority of a higher power than temporal rulers: the spiritual authority of the Church. And it is the duty of temporal rulers to recognize the spiritual authority of the Church and order the temporal common good of this life to the eternal common good of the Heavenly City. Dignitatis Humanæ “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ” (§1). Including the duties laid out by Pope Leo XIII in Immortale Dei § 6:

Since, then, no one is allowed to be remiss in the service due to God, and since the chief duty of all men is to cling to religion in both its reaching and practice— not such religion as they may have a preference for, but the religion which God enjoins, and which certain and most clear marks show to be the only one true religion— it is a public crime to act as though there were no God. So, too, is it a sin for the State not to have care for religion as a something beyond its scope, or as of no practical benefit; or out of many forms of religion to adopt that one which chimes in with the fancy; for we are bound absolutely to worship God in that way which He has shown to be His will. All who rule, therefore, would hold in honour the holy name of God, and one of their chief duties must be to favour religion, to protect it, to shield it under the credit and sanction of the laws, and neither to organize nor enact any measure that may compromise its safety.

It would be unfair to blame the American Founders too much for not following the teaching that was to be enunciated in Immortale Dei. Inheriting, as they did, the religious disunity that followed in the wake of the Reformation, the tradition of aversion to established religion that had formed among non-conformists who left England to escape Anglicanism, and formed as they were in English legal and political tradition that was already in the process of being transformed and corrupted by liberalism, it is small wonder that the Founders made non-establishment of religion one of the pillars of the order that they founded. One can even be grateful that order they founded is not as hostile to religion as the totalitarian republic of the French Reign of Terror, or the totalitarian atheism of the Soviet Union, were later to be.[35] But one should not lose sight of the fact that America’s arrangement lacks something essential to the true common good, and that it has an inevitable tendency to bring forth other evils. Muñoz himself admits that the same liberal logic of rights grounds the American understanding of religious liberty, also grounds the moral insanity of Griswold v. Connecticut and Lawrence v. Texas.


[1] Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), p. 31.

[2] Leviathan, Part I, ch. 15.

[3] Ibid., ch. 11.

[4] In Book II, ch. 20, Locke defines good and evil with reference to pleasure and pain: “Things then are good or evil, only in reference to pleasure or pain. That we call GOOD, which is apt to cause or increase pleasure, or diminish pain in us.” And, since pleasure and pain are said relative to the subject (“For when a man declares in autumn when he is eating them, or in spring when there are none, that he loves grapes, it is no more but that the taste of grapes delights him: let an alteration of health or constitution destroy the delight of their taste, and he then can be said to love grapes no longer.”), the definition is practically the same as Hobbes’s definition in terms of appetite.

[5] My thanks to Felix de St. Vincent for this point.

[6] On the ways in which these structures tend to metastasize into hard liberalism, see, e.g., E. M. Milco, “On Liberal Democracy and the Perpetual Crisis of Pluralism,” The Josias (Feb. 4, 2016).

[7] Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1953), p. 181.

[8] Dominic Legge, O.P.’s talk “When Rights Go Wrong: Thomistic Reflections on Rights, Justice & the Common Good.”

[9] Pedro José Izquierdo, “Notes on Right and Law,” The Josias (May 16, 2017); cf. the conversation with Izquierdo in: The Josias Podcast, Episode III: Basic Concepts – Right, Rights, and the Law, and my reflections thereon in: “New Episode of The Josias Podcast on Rights,” Sancrucensis (November 22, 2017)— the following paragraphs are in part re-worked from that last blogpost.

[10] Tierney criticizes Strauss for exaggerating the discontinuity between ancient and modern conceptions of rights. See: Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law, 1150-1625 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), especially pp. 52, 208. For a lucid critique of Tierney’s theory of the continuity of premodern and modern natural rights theories see: Gladden Pappin, “Rights, Moral Theology and Politics in Jean Gerson,” in: History of Political Thought 36.2. (2015), pp. 234-261.

[11] Henri Grenier, Thomistic Philosophy, vol. 4, Moral Philosophy, trans. J.P.E. O’Hanley (Charlottetown: St. Dunstan’s University, 1950), § 950.

[12] Matthew J. Peterson, “The Meaning of the Public Good in the Rhetoric of Ratification,” (dissertation, Claremont Graduate University, 2013).

[13] See: Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist, “Against the American Revolution,” Sancrucensis, (January 16, 2012).

[14] The top-three most cited authors are in order: 1) Montesquieu, 2) Blackstone, 3) Locke; see: Donald S. Lutz, “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought,” in: The American Political Science Review, 78.1 (1984), pp. 189-197.

[15] William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book I, The Rights of Persons, ed. David Lemmings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 33. For Suárez’s similar definition see: Legge, “When Rights Go Wrong.”

[16] Blackstone, Commentaries, Bk. 1, p. 34.

[17] For the relation of happiness and the common good see: Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., “Eudaemonism and the Common Good: Martin Luther vs. Thomas Aquinas,” Lecture, International Theological Institute, Trumau, Austria, October 12, 2017.

[18] Blackstone, Commentaries, Bk. 1, p. 36.

[19] Blackstone, Commentaries, Bk. 1, pp. 83-84.

[20] Blackstone, Commentaries, Bk. 1, p. 85.

[21] Blackstone, Commentaries, Bk. 1, p. 85.

[22] Blackstone, Commentaries, Bk. 1, p. 84.

[23] Blackstone, Commentaries, Bk. 1, p. 94.

[24] Blackstone, Commentaries, Bk. 1, p. 94.

[25] William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book IV, Of Public Wrongs, ed. Ruth Paley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 28.

[26] In justifying the laws against “papists” Blackstone writes: “while they acknowlege a foreign power, superior to the sovereignty of the kingdom, they cannot complain if the laws of that kingdom will not treat them upon the footing of good subjects.” Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book IV, p. 36.

[27] John Henry Newman, “Biglietto Speech,” in: W. P. Neville (ed.), Addresses to Cardinal Newman with His Replies etc. 1879-81 (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1905) pp. 61-70, at p. 65.

[28] Newman, “Biglietto Speech,” p. 64.

[29] Newman, “Biglietto Speech,” p. 65.

[30] Newman, “Biglietto Speech,” pp. 65-66.

[31] Newman, “Biglietto Speech,” pp. 67-68 (emphasis added).

[32] Peterson, “The Meaning of the Public Good,” p. 347.

[33] William Lee Miller, The First Liberty: America’s Foundation in Religious Freedom, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2003).

[34] See: Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., “The City of God: An Introduction,” “Religious Liberty and Tradition,” and “Integralism and Gelasian Dyarchy;” Joel Augustine, “Dyarchy is Dyarchical: A Reply to Meador;” and Peter Kwasniewski, “The Catholic State: Anachronism, Arch-enemy, or Archetype?

[35] Pope Leo XIII himself says as much in Longinqua oceani: «For the Church amongst you, unopposed by the Constitution and government of your nation, fettered by no hostile legislation, protected against violence by the common laws and the impartiality of the tribunals, is free to live and act without hindrance. Yet, though all this is true, it would be very erroneous to draw the conclusion that in America is to be sought the type of the most desirable status of the Church, or that it would be universally lawful or expedient for State and Church to be, as in America, dissevered and divorced.»