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Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

American sources of truth?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 13, 2021

Bob Marshall’s latest article exposing the fallacies (and, yes, the malignant values) which underlie the Equality Act can also make the reader wonder why the American Bill of Rights ought to be considered a better guide to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (see Equality Act: Gnostic destruction of the First Amendment). Bob is a brilliant researcher whose arguments always contain useful nuggets of information and historical references which help build the case against politically-induced cultural suicide. As a political writer (and past office-holder), he is also very good at engaging the enemy on the present political system’s own terrain, and in that system’s own Constitutional terms.

As a non-political writer who has never held a political office, I am acutely aware that these excellent articles illuminate our contemporary political affairs very effectively while necessarily leaving certain deeper questions untouched. When you write in the American political context, there are great advantages to weighing claims for political legitimacy in the context of the purposes for which the United States was founded, the nature of its Constitution, and (as in the article cited above) the importance of securing a Bill of Rights, without which the United States would never have been politically established.

Nonetheless, the following question inescapably arises: Why should we prefer the vision of national polity adopted by our eighteenth-century founders to the dominant cultural vision of polity which is emerging today? Or, to put the question in somewhat broader but probably clearer terms, why should we think that the vision of the Common Good articulated by the American founders (who were the elites of their day) is superior to that represented by the proponents of the Equality Act (who are the elites of our day). This question cannot be answered by a simple appeal to the values and the intentions of the Founders, for it is precisely these values and intentions which are called into question by considering the issue in these terms.

To put it more succinctly, we might well ask (and our contemporary elites certainly do ask) why we should assume that the perceptions and goals of those who founded the United States of America are better than the perceptions and goals of our dominant American culture today.

The Natural Law and simple chronology

Marshall himself mentions the Natural Law from time to time, and in this we find an important clue. Europeans and Americans in the late eighteenth century were heir to a very strong natural law tradition which had been mediated from ancient Greece and Rome through Christianity into what we call the early modern period. There was already some tendency to rebel against that tradition, which appeared most notably in the French Revolution. This was essentially the first European totalitarian enterprise, characterized by substituting ideology for both long-established custom and the natural law. But the American founders, while bitten deeply by the bug of political independence, were not nearly so seriously infected by ideology.

The Western tradition was primarily a tradition shaped through Christianity in accordance with the natural law, and it is especially worth noting that the morality taught by the Catholic Church has always been the morality of the natural law. In fact, the Ten Commandments are, through Divine Revelation, as succinct a summary of the main points of the natural law as one could ever hope to find in all of human history—even though natural law theory is a philosophical achievement primarily of the Greeks and Romans.

The upshot of all this is the following somewhat odd chronological discovery: As a general rule, the ideas, goals, rights, freedoms, and political procedures advocated by the American Founders—including especially their grasp of the Common Good—is to be dramatically preferred over most ideas on offer by today’s elites precisely because the Founders were closer in time to, and so much more fully formed by, the full tradition of natural law as perfected by and mediated through Christianity—and particularly through the historical influence of the Catholic Church.

There is also the important question of human tradition, of course. Until the last hundred years or so, there was at least a much stronger grasp of the point that traditional perceptions and ways of doing things had a value which had developed under the pressure of the centuries and had stood the test of time. Therefore, one had no business breaking down the wall of tradition if one no longer understood why it was there. After all, the chief formator of the tradition in question was Catholicism, though Catholicism had already at America’s founding been in decline as a cultural influence for some 250 years.

Again, we come up against the inescapable conclusion: The dominant ideas of the American founders in the late eighteenth century and the political arrangements which they devised, while certainly imperfect, are preferable to the dominant ideas (ideologies?) of the twenty-first century primarily because the former were still far more firmly rooted in a superior intellectual and spiritual tradition.

Not a strong argument?

But this argument itself raises a great many far more important questions, questions which can for simplicity’s sake be resolved into one very vital question: Why was the Christian/natural law tradition a superior ground for the human quest for excellence? Or we might instead put this in terms of the transcendentals, asking why the Christian/natural law tradition was a superior ground of human fulfillment through its ability to connect the person with the true, the good and the beautiful?

Of course, it takes a good deal of work to answer this question now that we do not find it obvious. In the end it also demands conversion of heart. The answer requires a transfer of allegiance from a culture which glorifies evil to a culture which, though imperfect like all human cultures, goes a long way toward deliberately favoring the good. This good can be known through the natural law in hearts and minds instructed more thoroughly by Divine Revelation and strengthened by grace. But such notions are so completely foreign to our present culture as to render hopeless the efforts of our elites to turn themselves to any good without eviscerating it of its real substance—to the point that we end up significantly worse off than before.

The so-called Equality Act is a superb example of this conclusion. If it comes to pass, it will be one more in a long series of glistening ideological disasters. But we have a large task before us, if we are to actually understand how it was that, because of their sheer proximity to the Christian/natural law tradition, the cultural leaders of eighteenth century America were far more capable of architecting a fruitful civil order than are those who lead our dominant culture today. Indeed this is a tall order: The only way to succeed is to acquaint ourselves with Christ and the natural law once again today.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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