Roy Moore and the Horse He Rode in On: Revealed Religion and Natural Law in the Alabama Senate Race

The crudest presumptions of natural law theory still inform our political and cultural conflicts. In recent posts, I’ve focused on the logical and moral contortions a focus on creator worship as the ground of our being requires of revealed religions. Alabama’s Republican Party offers the most recent permutations of this bizarre fever dream.

On Tuesday, former (twice!) Alabama state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (with a rich symbolism perhaps not fully appreciated) rode his horse Sassy into the unincorporated town of Gallant (population 850, also known as Greasy Cove) to cast a ballot for himself as the Republican nominee for the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions.

In the wake of a backlash against “DC swamp” candidate Luther Strange, Moore coasted to a win over nine other candidates, and will once again face (the geographically vast, awesomely named) Strange in a late-September run-off primary. As Senator, Moore promises to restore Christianity to the Capitol and fight the rise of Islamic “Sharia law” in the United States, commitments presumably of little significance to Strange, a former oil industry lobbyist.

While it’s tempting to linger on the incredible Gothic theatricality of this event (for example, the mixed metaphors of “the swamp” as the habitation of the “silk-stockinged elite“), for our purposes, we need initially only pay attention to Moore’s deranged, megalomaniacal Constitutional rants, which begin with the Bible, linger around themes such as God’s desire for families to keep loaded guns at home to protect their children, and end with the natural law gymnastics of early 19th-century Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story.

Moore’s jurisprudence and politics fully conform to the conservative commitment to natural law as a gift and instrument of God via revelation. “I’m not a politician. I don’t like politics,” Moore told a gathering of elderly white folks at Mr. Fang’s Chinese Restaurant on the night before the primary vote. “It’s what God has done through me.”

In a conversation that evening with Jeff Stein of Vox, Moore emphasized, repeatedly, “You have to understand what religion is — the duties you owe to the creator.” According to Moore, Justice Story, one of the most highly regarded jurists of the early Republic who in recent years has become, somewhat surprisingly, a fan favorite of legal conservatives and natural law enthusiasts, supported and refined the view that the duty of the Constitution and the First Amendment was to “foster religion and foster Christianity.”

Here, Roy Moore parses a view of religious liberty consistent with the precepts of Robby George, the Acton Institute, and other conservative Christians for whom conscience becomes the principled basis for ignoring legislation, regulation, and court decisions of the federal government with which they disagree on the basis of the “self-evident” precepts of natural law. Of course, this parsing has long formed the hallmark of Roy Moore as a jurist, with his placement of the stone tablets of the Decalogue in the Alabama state courthouse and his refusal to enforce the marriage equality ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court (with helpful cover from Antonin Scalia’s high court dissent and full-throated support from Robby George).

Roy Moore, quoting from Joseph Story’s Commentaries on the Constitution, has for several decades been instructing us that “the rights of conscience are beyond the reach of any human power; they are given by God and cannot be encroached on by any human authority without a criminal disobedience of the precepts of natural or revealed religion.” On Senate primary election night, with a flourish characteristic of the natural law synthesis initially formulated by Aquinas, Moore concluded, “We need to go back to the recognition that God’s hand is still on this country and on this campaign. We must be good again before we can be great. And we will never be good without God.”

Christian-conservative jurists and philosophers will often invoke Abraham Lincoln’s response to the Dred Scott decision as the ultimate defense of conscience in response to judicial overreach. In reality, these appeals to conscience and religious liberty are, like patriotism, a last refuge of scoundrels. Arguments on behalf of conscience, natural law, and higher law – whether voiced by Antonin Scalia, Robby George, or Roy Moore – mask a theocratically minded support for states’ rights that both dissolves the foundations of nationhood and obliterates the rights of conscience when they fail the arbitrary test of Biblical authenticity.

Robby George’s Primer on Natural Law: Let’s Break It Down

In 2007, Professor Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, delivered the John Dewey Lecture in Philosophy at Harvard Law School. George himself received his legal education at Harvard, and was there introduced to ideas about the relationship between law and morality, the study of which, as he happily tells us, became his life’s vocation.

George’s 2007 lecture, entitled “Natural Law” (and subsequently published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy), for our purposes serves beautifully as a primer on the intellectual foundations of philosophies of natural law. The lecture is broad and basic enough to initiate the unwashed, yet sufficiently subtle and nuanced to entice those already fluent with natural law and other Western moral philosophical traditions (specifically, utilitarianism and deontology).

I hope to further distill from this natural law primer the ideas on which the logical coherence of natural law philosophy depends. From that foundation, I’ll launch an exploration of the political and moral challenges presented to us in the 21st century by natural law philosophy’s subordination, itself, to the precepts of revealed religion.

George’s language in this lecture/essay is probably more turgid and formal than it needs to be, even for an august institution such as Harvard, but as we shall see, this pontifical style conforms to the vaulted sense of purpose that generally characterizes Catholic moral philosophy (for other examples, read pretty much anything from First Things, the Catholic-inspired journal of religion and public affairs). One of the challenges in addressing this elaborate, high-sounding (almost Counter-Reformation Baroque) language is to avoid its seductions and attend to how easily its curlicues can blandish us into a kind of nodding, soporific submission that muffles some of the philosophy’s underlying nastiness. Anyway, let’s get into it.

[Note: Those who wish to probe a bit further into the political and legal meaning of natural law philosophy should review the article entitled “Natural Law Theories,” authored by Robby George’s Oxford University dissertation adviser, John Finnis, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The two essays track each other closely.]

Key Terms

Natural Law philosophy both absorbs (from revelation and scripture) and communicates (into public discourse and legal practice) a quite specific understanding of the human individual as the summit of God’s creation, shaped in the image of God himself. The vocabulary of natural law philosophy organizes itself around this concept of the imago Dei. Here are some key terms, all of which we’ll consider throughout this series of essays: Revelation, Creator, Creation, Nature, Imago Dei, Individuality, Reason, Freedom, Human Dignity, Character, Virtue, Self-Evidence.

Natural Law Defined

Human Flourishing. George associates rights and justice with an account of human flourishing that encompasses intrinsically (and presumably exclusively – an important point to which we shall later return) human goods. George’s stipulations affirm a concept of humanity – the flourishing – as a noble end in itself, to which both individualism and collectivism risk becoming dangerous subjunctives that reduce human individuals and human associations to merely instrumental currencies of value or exchange. In this balance between our inner life and individual fulfillment and our external relationships and social happiness, George locates an Aristotelian golden mean toward which we must constantly strive, with natural law the carpenter level that trues our behavior in relation to this moral constant.

Practical Reason. George emphasizes, repeatedly, that reason is the means by which humans can identify and pursue the goods that support the flourishing of the species (with the exercise of one’s rational faculties itself one of the highest types of flourishing). George specifically emphasizes the singular gift to humans of “practical reason”, the quality of mind that allows us to discern the goods humans all seek, as well as the virtues attached to this seeking, and the flexibility to accommodate and adapt to the diverse circumstances of our existence in order to pursue these goods. Fair enough. But natural law philosophy here pivots momentously, by conflating reason and nature.

Nature and Reason. The background to this conflation of reason and nature is the crazy-complicated intramural philosophical conversation about the naturalistic fallacy. For our purposes, we need only emphasize that within the tradition of natural law philosophy (following Aquinas), nature refers to the intrinsic essence of a living creature, generally associated with its capacities. In this sense, human nature refers to the rational capacities that we use to locate and pursue “intelligible, intrinsic” goods. So the term natural law itself might more accurately mean “the laws of reason”, or “the laws that direct and secure our pursuit, via reason, of intelligible, intrinsic human goods.” And the idea of natural rights (a concept that flows in and out of the conversation about natural law) refers to “the rights of reason”, or “our rights to the intelligible, intrinsic human goods toward which reason directs us.”

Imago Dei. Why does this conflation of nature and reason matter? Because for philosophers of natural law, reason is a highest-order capacity specific and unique to humans, one not possessed by other creatures, a capacity that we alone share with the God that created us. Robby George adds to our rational faculties an additional, distinctly human, attribute: the capacity for “freedom,” by which he means free will, freely choosing. Together, reason and freedom constitute our nature as humans. They grant to us capacities for deliberation, judgment, and choice. Both ontologically and epistemologically, we can imagine the operation of these capacities as pure mind apprehending itself and the world. And for George, this unique human potential to step outside of ourselves is what allows us to escape from the dependent status of other creatures enmeshed in the web of causation and to become ourselves, like God, uncaused causers. “These capacities are God-like [and] constitute a certain sharing – limited, to be sure, but real – in divine power. This is what is meant, I believe, by the otherwise extraordinarily puzzling Biblical teaching that man is made in the very image and likeness of God.” (NL, 176)

Creator. George takes pains to emphasize that the logic of natural law philosophy does not require a belief in a Creator God, but his own belief in such a God suffuses the Natural Law essay and, truly, imparts to this essay its most intellectually radical and significant moments, when George identifies the creative potential of practical reason and free will as a God-like, “awesome” power (a term he uses more than once, inadvertently summoning, in my mind, concepts of power associated with the Bush “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq in 2003).

Human Dignity. Consistent with Catholic theology, natural law moral philosophy cleaves mind from body, spirit from flesh, attaching mind/spirit to the Creator God and body/flesh to God’s Creation. The ultimate value emerging from this dichotomy is the Catholic trope of human dignity, most clearly enunciated during the Second Vatican Council, and at the heart of the New Natural Law postulated by Catholic philosophers in the aftermath of Vatican II. For Robby George, human dignity derives from the human capacity for rationally motivated action (based on deliberation, judgment, and choice) free from the influence of external forces (reasons) or internal emotions. The Catholic concept of human dignity specifically refers to “religious liberty” as free exercise of one’s conscience with regard to spiritual matters. From legal and political perspectives, however, just laws and virtuous behaviors generally acknowledge and support the objective reality and intrinsic dignity and value of each human person, and this more general sense of the term is mostly how George discusses human dignity in the Natural Law essay.

Character and Virtue. With free choice, we not only constitute/create a “reality” in the external world, we constitute/create ourselves as possessing a distinct, unique “character” we own and for which are responsible with reference to our words and deeds. As Robby George states, “morally significant choosing leads to a focus on virtues as habits born of upright choosing.” (NL, 186) The culminating evidence of human dignity and human flourishing, then, is the upright behavior of rational individuals, according to a catalog of virtues, freely understood and freely chosen. Everything else is a falling away.

Promethean Individuality. Robby George’s primer on natural law absorbs and reinforces conventional Western ideas about individuality that probably owe more to the Enlightenment project (and less to Aquinas and the teachings of the Catholic Church) than he would like to admit. By anchoring these ideas to the Biblical concept of Imago Dei, however, he apotheosizes the individual human as a freely choosing, creative, God-like power. An uncaused Causer. The promethean echoes here are notable, but for our purposes, the most important implication concerns how natural law sets humans, who alone share reason with God, in opposition to the natural world, which does not reason or possess consciousness as we ordinarily think about these ideas.

Creation. Three important points regarding Creation (or what we might otherwise call Nature), as distinct from Creator.

Capacities. The idea of capacities as the source of a creature’s nature (as in, it is the nature of a human to reason or a wildebeest to run in a herd) helps us to think about how we can imagine the created world itself, taking it in its own terms (without any reference to a Creator God), as the tablature for the inscription of the laws of nature.

Civil Society and Positive Law. Natural law, loosened from a necessary dependence on revealed religion in the past 500 years, may have provided the Christian West with an emergent flexibility that opened a space for civil society and positive law that still (despite the influence on Western thought of Averroes), remains unavailable to Islamic cultures.

Revelation and Common Goods. When framed in the context of a revelation-dependent philosophy of natural law, which in Genesis radically separates the Creator from the Creation, we can see how the natural world provides the stage on which God-like humans act to fulfill the mandate to subdue the earth. It is far less clear, indeed doubtful, that the concept of a common good, as Robby George describes it, entails the goods of natural world itself.

Self-Evidence and Causation

Robby George does not use the term self-evident in his Natural Law lecture. But the idea of self-evidence is central to natural law philosophy as conceived by Aquinas (and as expressed as a way of thinking about fundamental truths in the American Declaration of Independence).

If one thinks about natural law as the laws of nature inscribed upon the Creation, generally, without reference to the rational, free will of a Creator, one might be able to deduce quite a bit of existential truth from these inscriptions. But Robby George and other natural law philosophers remain Scripture-dependent for the ways in which they constitute self-evidence, and this entirely handicaps their enterprise.

The problem, ultimately, is the need to establish a ground of being, the Uncaused Cause, to which self-evident truths can appeal, and Scripture (along with the idea of a Creator God in whose image humans have been created, in opposition to the rest of Creation) is preposterously inadequate to provide this existential foundation. Not least because in a world governed by complexity (morally and biologically and otherwise), the idea of causation itself begins to break down.

Next: Thomist Antecedents of Natural Law Philosophy

Thinking Hard About Racism in the United States

Harriet Tubman Series, Panel #4 (Jacob Lawrence, 1940)

Casual Racism

Bill Maher’s comedic use of the term “house nigger” inspired another round of hand-wringing about casual racism. In the aftermath, Ice Cube showed up on Real Time and offered a clear-eyed perspective on the situation. This is what Ice Cube said to Bill Maher. “It’s a word that has been used against us; it’s like a knife, man. And you can use it as a weapon, or you can use it as a tool. It’s been used as a weapon against us by white people, and we’re not gonna let that happen again…. That’s our word now. And you can’t have it back.” Which is fair enough. But without defending the casual and gratuitous use of incendiary racial language, I’m also thinking online brush fires that ignite when someone uses racially (in)sensitive language don’t really help us to think properly about racism. Indeed, these brush fires can become smoke screens that misdirect our attention from racism’s enduring (and decidedly non-casual) psychological and institutional foundations. Racism is not really about language, and is certainly not caused by language (we should not confuse casual with causal).

Autonomous Individuality

The underlying emotional and psychological dynamics that do cause, institutionalize, and perpetuate racism are incredibly complicated (see, for example, Joel Kovel’s fascinating and disturbing White Racism: A Psychohistory, with its echoes of Norman O. Brown, first published in 1971). Owning up to and eradicating the racially disparate and unjust outcomes in our society requires honesty and introspection that is very difficult to summon. We are simply not used to thinking about the deeper psychological and broader social sources of inequity and injustice. Instead, we default to rote images of the individual as autonomous agent, actor, and author of her life’s drama (a foundation concept in natural law moral philosophy). We default to conflated behavioral-linguistic perspectives on social change. That our words constitute (cause / determine) reality. While heuristically satisfying, this default approach to understanding and addressing our most pervasive and deeply rooted social problems, almost by definition, will fail because the concept of autonomous individuality itself is deeply flawed.

Brownian Motion

We are not our own islands (as Melville would have it, isolatoes). We live in a Brownian world, energized and propelled by random, colliding interactions at every level of our existence – environmental, biological, social, and personal. This Brownian perspective applies no less to the specific behaviors and speech acts of individual humans than it does to the collisions of various populations. As Walt Whitman wrote, “I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” We all constantly iterate and endlessly revise ourselves. We are all rough drafts. Works in progress. We say and do stuff that we later regret, and while it’s entirely appropriate to call bullshit when someone with a public profile messes up, the important result is not the punishment inflicted, but the lesson learned. The arc of one’s life, the direction, matters far more than specific speech acts, which from a Brownian perspective, actually do mostly constitute “noise” and not “signal”. At the same time, a Brownian perspective on how order and structure emerges from randomness, flux, chaos, and messiness can tell us a lot about how emotional responses to racial difference become reflexes that cement racist instincts into rigid social and political habits and institutions.

Grasping Complexity

We intuitively grasp this truth, that we are, in a sense, both less and greater than the sum our parts as individuals. Which is why so many people who probably actually are racist by even the loosest personal definition of the term (they spew racial epithets, eye with suspicion those who possess different skin color, instinctively assume other races receive preferential treatment that harms them) will still vehemently deny they are racist. While these people may generally accept the “autonomous individual” premises of Western traditions, they resist the implication that “racism” defines their own individuality in some essential way (even while they might be happy to assume others, from other group identities, are “essentially” flawed or marred or defective). They appreciate their own complexity, even as they may deny this complexity to others.

Life Outcomes

If the goal, then, is to reduce the impact of racism, we need to focus less on specific behaviors of individuals and more on life outcomes of groups. How does racism influence these life outcomes – family stability, emotional health, higher education, professional success, stable income, community status? What would a world in which racism less directly affected life outcomes look like? What is the best way to remove barriers and create openings for populations most directly and persistently harmed by racism? How would these methods account for the more complex and messy roots of racism? One approach would be to adopt explicitly public health and “population health” lenses to help us think more deeply and creatively about what it would mean to stall vicious cycles that perpetuate racism and its effects and set in motion virtuous cycles that would loosen the grip of concepts and constructs of race on society.

Population Health

A population health perspective can more fully and cleanly account for and absorb both the external “motional” patterns of groups (as they slide, glide, and collide in relation to each other), along with the internal “emotional” patterns of individuals within groups, that benefit from and are harmed by racism. “Population health” refers to a shift in focus from individual health outcomes and personal health determinants (e.g., diet, exercise, genetics) to the social determinants of health. The population health perspective defines health not merely as the absence of disease or infirmity for an individual, but as the measurable, collective capacities of people to “adapt to, respond to, or control life’s challenges and changes.” A major challenge for population health advocates is to reduce inequities and gaps in the health of populations produced by environmental, economic, and cultural circumstances. Population-based health care would recognize gun violence, stop-and-frisk policing, incarceration, homelessness, dental insurance, and childcare all to be examples of social determinants of health. The data-driven Healthy People 2020 initiative of the Department of Health and Human Services nicely illustrates the conceptual framework for thinking about population health and public health.

Emotional Stress

A vast body of data illustrates the negative impacts of racism on physical and emotional health. Most profoundly (among the many ways we can document racial inequity), racism embeds and embodies disproportionate amounts of emotional stress within minority communities. By almost every measure, minorities, simply by virtue of their skin color, face obstacles in any particular moment of their day that will produce extra quantities of tension and pressure (measured by cortisol response). The negative impact of these moments is accretive and amounts to asking racial minorities to carry a backpack that becomes incrementally heavier each day during their journey through life. The cascading, flooding impact of this pervasive stress on life outcomes within minority communities is pernicious and extreme, with costs that extend well beyond these communities. And while we might also say that the history of the races in the United States has made all of us crazy, clearly our institutions and policies have perfected the art of burden-shifting so that the costs of this craziness are still borne by those among us whose ancestors were the initial victims of racial injustice.

Toward a (Partial, Halting, Tentative) Vision of Racial Equity

Because it rests on solid research and technical foundations, the population health approach offers robust tools for accelerating progress toward racial equity based on public health and social cost notions of the harms inflicted by racism. And because it steers clear of some of the more hot-button and easily exploited and abused impacts of individual behaviors and speech acts, the population health approach creates opportunities for building and sustaining broad foundations of public and political support for the goals of racial equity and racial justice. Finally, in helping us to escape from the heuristic trap of the autonomous individual, the population health approach frees us to consider the complex, shifting, and fractal nature of the interdependencies that characterize our relationship to ourselves and to the worlds we inhabit.

Casual Racism and Gratuitous Harm

As for Bill Maher’s linguistic gaffe, it seems fair to say that people should not use racial terms of abuse, simply because this language is gratuitously harmful. There are not circumstances one can easily imagine that justify the distress caused by the use of racial epithets (although ironically, controversial speech in the service of comedy may, sometimes, be one of those justifications). Language ownership and control may be contentious issues, but dignity and respect and memory are not.

Mike Lee: Stop Writing Terrible History and Go Back Just To Being a Terrible Senator

“Mine is an odd destiny. Perhaps no man in the United states has sacrificed or done more for the present Constitution than myself — and … I am still trying to prop the frail and worthless fabric. Yet I have the murmurs of its friends no less than the curses of its foes for my rewards. What can I do better than withdraw from the scene? Every day proves to me more and more that this American world was not made for me.”Alexander Hamilton (1802)

It’s understandable why progressives would imagine Hamilton as their partisan, Big Government comrade. But this understanding of Hamilton is based on a deeply distorted image of him.Call it the “Hamilton Effect”: Twisting history to suit one’s ends, willfully ignoring and ultimately erasing it when it stands in your way. If we knew our history—the true and complete stories of how our nation came to be—we’d know how to fight back against the progressive agenda. And we’d be a lot less likely to accept its overreach. – Senator Mike Lee (2017)

Utah Senator Mike Lee has a historical bone to pick with you. In a widely read article published in Politico Magazine, called How the “Hamilton Effect” Distorts the Founders, Mike Lee tells us that the Alexander Hamilton you swooned over in Hamilton the Musical was not, in fact, the sexy, passionate, loquacious, hard-working, pro-immigrant, nationalist visionary conjured by Lin-Manuel Miranda from Ron Chernow’s epic biography. If only we knew our history, Mike Lee writes (and, presumably, if only Ron Chernow knew his history), and weren’t weak suckers for liberal propaganda masking as history, well, then we would realize, truly, that Alexander Hamilton was actually a small government, state’s rights conservative. A principled, free-market, family values conservative perhaps not unlike Mike Lee himself!

Ordinarily, one might glissade past such silliness. But Mike Lee is not your garden-variety historian (he’s actually not a historian of any variety), and the intellectual and political legacy of Alexander Hamilton is these days a hot button proxy for a larger (increasingly tense and violent) struggle in the United States about the meaning and practice of democracy. Mike Lee certainly appreciates what is at stake, for the outcome of this existential struggle, in the shape and significance we attach to the national founding, and to its legendary icons such as Hamilton. He believes we all need to know what is at stake.

So let’s get to know Mike Lee and find out why he would want to take time off from the important duties of his day job as U.S. senator to give us a civics lesson about poor Alexander Hamilton, who suffered enough when he was alive more than 200 years ago, and who in death would no doubt prefer to participate in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s glorious shenanigans than Mike Lee’s soul-killing exercise in Constitution-worship.

Who Is Mike Lee?

Mike Lee may not be a familiar name to most Americans, but he will be. Like many members of the House Freedom Caucus, Mike Lee was elected to the US Senate in 2010 as part of the Tea Party revolt against the policies and persona of President Obama, and subsequently reelected in 2016. Lee’s father (Rex Lee) served as the government’s solicitor general during the Reagan administration. Mike Lee, a devout Mormon, received undergraduate and law degrees from Brigham Young University and worked on two different occasions as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.

A rising star on the Republican far right, Lee endorsed Ted Cruz, whom he calls his best friend (and we thought Ted Cruz had no friends) for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 (while also scorning unbridled hedonist and generally unhinged presidential candidate Donald Trump), and in most respects the two (both geeked-out lawyers) align intellectually, ideologically, and politically. Lee is one of only a handful of Senators who have consistently received nearly perfect ratings from the Club for Growth, the American Conservative Union, and the Heritage Foundation. His policy positions on tax and budget matters, the environment, public lands, separation of church and state, guns, abortion, education, and the social safety net are reliably off-the-charts conservative. On national security, surveillance, immigration, and some policing, criminal justice, and incarceration matters, Lee trends closer to libertarian positions of Rand Paul.

Why will Mike Lee at some point be a familiar name to most Americans? Because he is young and intelligent and likely immune from personal scandal. His family-friendly Mormon values and high-powered legal background make him (in many ways like Ted Cruz) a safe and compelling conservative option for higher office (an all the more appealing prospect as the Trump hangover intensifies for Republicans). Unfortunately, most of Lee’s conservative animus seems to coalesce around his hatred for the federal bureaucracy and contempt for federal bureaucrats, and it this distracting emotional fervor that drives him off the rails when it comes to Alexander Hamilton.

Why Does Mike Lee Care About Alexander Hamilton?

Mike Lee cares about Alexander Hamilton because he believes the “progressive left” has willfully misappropriated Hamilton’s nationalist ideas to sanctify their own vision for the “massive, intrusive, unaccountable federal government that today thrives in Washington, DC.” Taking aim at the remarkable cultural and political impact of Lin-Miranda Manuel’s Broadway musical, Lee terms this kind of calculated distortion the Hamilton effect.

Unfortunately, pretty much everything Mike Lee tells us about Alexander Hamilton is spurious and disingenuous. Which is perhaps not surprising given Lee’s political instincts, but nonetheless disappointing given his allegedly exciting bona fides as a constitutional lawyer. While Mike Lee proudly attests to a “nearly lifelong” study of the U.S. Constitution, evidence of these inquiries is sadly lacking in the Hamilton essay. But don’t believe me. Let’s allow Mike Lee to speak for himself.

Mike Lee’s argument (somewhat oddly) does not focus directly on Hamilton’s legal and political ideas, and instead mostly spotlights the limited-government position of Anti-Federalists, who opposed ratification of the Constitution from fears it would “vest too much power in the federal government and thereby imperil liberty.” Lee generally conflates the views of Federalists and Anti-Federalists, as different only by degree, which supports his objections to the modern idea that Federalist supporters of the Constitution were early standard-bearers for “progressive” ideas that justified the consolidation of power within the federal government and the executive bureaucracy, at the expense of state and individual liberty. “Those perpetuating this mischaracterization,” Lee writes, “have done so by erasing the essential truth that underlies a full understanding of the Constitution: the fact that nearly every founder shared a healthy skepticism of a large federal bureaucracy—which they feared might grow to include some of the worst features of the very government they had just fought a revolution to escape.”

This statement is simply incorrect. Lee tells us that “historians and politicians who consider themselves more enlightened than the founders have done special damage to the legacy of the founding generation, a legacy that warned against the dangers of a distant, centralized government.” But modern ideas about and experiences with what Lee calls a “large federal bureaucracy” were obviously unknown to the founders, a point Lee himself makes makes a few paragraphs later when he writes, “No one living in America in the late 18th century—certainly none of the brilliant minds who forged our founding documents, be they Federalists or Anti-Federalists—could have contemplated just how strong, or how large, the federal government would become.”

When Lee does invoke Hamilton, the vacuity of his analysis and insights is also striking. Lee mentions again what he presumably views as the fatal error of “the left”, which has been to assume that “Comrade” Hamilton could have both envisioned and favored “the sort of massive, intrusive, unaccountable federal government that today thrives in Washington, D.C.” Hamilton, he argues, “scoffed and ridiculed” any concept of government that strayed beyond the “modest, divided, and tightly constrained” outline in the Constitution.

And there Mike Lee basically calls a halt to his scorched earth patristic march on Washington. Subsequent (and quite limited) citations from The Federalist merely argue for Hamilton’s “modest” concept of federal power on the basis of Hamilton’s claims (in Federalist 17 and Federalist 32) that states would retain all rights of sovereignty in their possession prior to ratification and that, in any event, “it will always be far more easy for the State governments to encroach upon the national authorities than for the national government to encroach upon the State authorities.”

Mike Lee then delivers what he seems to believe is the crushing blow to the expansive government hopes of progressives on the left, which is that this Hamiltonian opinion about the ease with which state governments could steal power from national authorities “may come as a surprise to those who claim his support to do just the opposite today.” For the following reasons, this is definitely a where’s the beef moment.

(1) Hamilton here advances an empirical claim, not a normative preference, and so it is not clear how this statement represents his “support” for broad assertions of state sovereignty.

(2) If Hamilton believes the states possess inherently superior “encroaching” capabilities, why all the hand-wringing from conservatives such as Mike Lee about the enfeeblement of the Constitution?

(3) One can emphasize exclusive (and explicit) delegation of powers as a legal and constitutional limit on the sovereignty of the national government, but to infer from such an emphasis that Hamilton shared with other Federalists a “healthy skepticism of a large federal bureaucracy” requires a massive, ahistorical leap in logic.

How Is Mike Lee Wrong About Alexander Hamilton?

Oh Mike Lee, let me count the ways you are wrong about Alexander Hamilton, who was absolutely an architect of concentrated executive power, which he both theorized and implemented as superior, by necessity and by nature, to the power of Congress and of the state governments.

(1) Alexander Hamilton – Theorist of National Power and the Nation-State

Alexander Hamilton remains the most profound theorist of national power and the nation-state within the American political tradition. Among the founders, no one thought with greater depth and wrote with more eloquence about the presidency. Throughout the course of the nation-building period, Hamilton’s goals remained simple and clear. If the republican Jefferson wished to free each new generation from the world of its fathers, Hamilton sought to create strong and stable political institutions that would confirm for all time the authority of the fathers. As Ron Chernow and Lin-Manuel Miranda have vividly illustrated for us, Hamilton was incredibly ambitious and he projected on to the nation the great destiny he conceived for himself as a lawgiver.

Hamilton’s vision of politics and the state rested upon psychological and sociological principles. Like Hobbes, he was but half a Puritan. He possessed a profound sense of human depravity, unaccompanied by any corresponding hope for human redemption. Hamilton believed spiritual commitments might be put to advantageous political use, by reinforcing allegiance to state and family. Like John Adams, he greatly feared the political effects of atheism, of a world in which the government itself instructed its people in “the most disconsolate of all creeds, that men are but fireflies and that this all is without a father.” However, he repudiated the republican belief that moral virtue by itself could animate and sustain political institutions (Federalist 6). Neither God nor history promised salvation within an earthly dispensation.

Far from it. Politics was not “inherently redemptive” for Hamilton; it was inherently corrupt. He never doubted that aggressive and violent passions reigned within the human soul. The restless, insatiable ambition and avarice of the people fueled a primitive will to power (Federalist 6). Hamilton therefore recognized (with far more realism than Great Awakening evangelicals or radical natural rights pamphleteers or small-government Anti-Federalists), the fundamental dilemma of politics, that freedom for some has generally depended upon the absence of freedom for others. His pessimistic view of human nature, confirmed by the lessons of history, determined the need in America to separate politics from society and republicanism from democracy.

Strong and stable political institutions, rather than the virtue of the people, could provide the only bulwark against anarchy. The state did not exist to express the general will of the people or, as Madison suggested, to provide a forum within which factions might contend for mastery. Hamilton agreed with Paine that government existed instead to discipline and punish fallen humanity. Unlike Paine, however, Hamilton feared that this unpleasant, yet necessary, duty was in danger of being avoided because of the weakness of the central government under the Articles of Confederation.

Throughout the course of his career in public life, Hamilton’s aim was to obtain enduring political stability through as centralized and authoritarian a government “as republican principles will admit.” However, Hamilton also understood the state to be an active, creative, and autonomous force in its own right. He identified politics, not with widespread citizen participation, but with administration, with laws, and with power wielded through institutions and procedures.

(2) Alexander Hamilton – Legal Revolutionary

Hamilton participated in the revolution in American law that occurred late in the 18th and early in the 19th century. If, during the colonial period, the law provided “a paramount expression of the moral sense of the community,” by the 19th century, the legal community proclaimed that the law simply reflected “the existing organization of economic and political power.” During these years, however, it actually became increasingly clear that the law itself could be used to shape and transform society politically and economically. This possibility reinforced Hamilton’s natural inclination to vest enormous formal powers within the executive branch of the national government, at the expense of both state governments and of the national legislature.

History confirmed for Hamilton the inevitability of foreign conflict and domestic strife. Because the passions that lead to war or to domestic insurrection flamed within every human breast, the form taken by a government could provide no guarantee of prosperity and happiness within a nation. Hamilton’s point, of course, was that the small commercial republics glorified by Montesquieu were not intrinsically superior to monarchies. They were neither more peaceful nor more just.

In any event, Hamilton believed Americans did not have a choice with respect to the organization of their government. The individual states must relinquish their autonomy, and preferably even their identity. The nation could only survive in a consolidated form. And since, with Montesquieu, he believed that the vastness of the American empire would require an exceptionally vigorous central government to bind it together, Hamilton conveniently discovered a virtue in what he perceived to be the necessity of a strong and authoritative national executive (see Federalist 6, Federalist 9, Federalist 23).

Hamilton’s theory of power and the state did not simply rest upon the need for coercive laws and institutions to defend the nation against external insurrection and domestic factions. He imagined the state itself to be the dynamic source of strength and purpose for the nation. Unlike Americans who continued after the Revolution to subscribe to ancient, commonwealth, or evangelical understandings of republicanism, Hamilton did not identify freedom with the virtue of the people. Nor did he believe that concentrated state power inevitably posed a threat to the freedom of a people. Politics at its best concerned effective administration by a core of educated and responsible elites insulated from electoral politics and social turbulence.

Hamilton mistrusted legislatures, while also scorning the “mad Democrat [who] will have nothing republican which does not accord with his own mad theory — he rejects even representation.” Like John Adams and James Madison, he denied any necessary connection existed between republicanism and democracy. Instead, he identified republican principles with equality under the law and with some degree of commitment to the concept of popular sovereignty.

More even than other Federalists, however, Hamilton believed that creative founding acts and heroic leadership were necessary preconditions for national greatness. Unlike Madison, Hamilton did not understand concentrated power to be a danger equal to that of mob tyranny. He did not appreciate any need to parcelize and disperse power, and one can find in his contributions to The Federalist none of the elegant theorizing about federalism itself so characteristic of Madison’s contributions.

Hamilton simply did not believe that the effects of concentrated power were inevitably corrupting. To the contrary, he repeatedly affirmed that no nation could long survive without the energy — which he understood almost as a life-force — inherent in concentrated power. For this reason, Hamilton greatly admired Napoleon (see his reference to Napoleon while commenting on “the disgusting spectacle” of the French Revolution).  Power, he insisted, must be wielded. The energy and authority of the nation’s leaders must be sufficient to provide for the needs of the nation as a whole. Almost by definition, “parchment provisions” for the welfare of the nation could never adequately anticipate the exigencies of national survival. Successful crisis management — Hamilton never doubted that there would be crises aplenty – would ultimately depend solely upon the unconditional trust of the people in their leaders. (Federalist 23, Federalist 25).

Hamilton also believed unfettered leadership alone could provide the vision and the genius necessary to lift the people themselves to greatness. As Treasury Secretary, of course, Hamilton would find himself in a position to bring his own economic and political vision to life. As a result, there is a sense in which his defense of executive power at the constitutional Convention and in The Federalist provides the anticipatory prolegomenon of his own accession to power (Forrest McDonald emphasizes this point in his Hamilton biography).

(3) Alexander Hamilton – The Defense of Hereditary Monarchy

Hamilton did indeed work long and hard to gather the states together at the constitutional convention and then to obtain the ratification of the constitution itself. It is also true that he was not present for most of the Convention debate and that he never possessed much faith in the document produced by it. However, Forrest McDonald has argued that Hamilton’s efforts at the Convention, limited though they largely were to the famous six-hour speech he delivered on June 18, 1787, elevated the philosophical tone of the debate and focused its agenda more directly upon the issue of the relationship between the state governments and the national government. The editors of his papers referred to this speech as “perhaps the most important address ever made by Hamilton” and the unabashed McDonald – whose Hamilton is god-like – claimed that it “contained some of the most profound observations on government ever uttered by an American.”

In this address, Hamilton certainly spoke more openly and honestly than he would in The Federalist about his aspirations for the union. Hamilton specifically emphasized the need for a national government “with decisive powers, in short with complete sovereignty.” The nation could not be rescued from democracy by democratic means. Republican forms of government in general seemed to him to be overly susceptible to corruption and insufficiently vigorous. But Hamilton himself observed that in the aftermath of Shays’ Rebellion, even “those most tenacious of republicanism … were as loud as any in declaiming against democracy.” The nation appeared ready to acknowledge the need for a strong, hereditary executive at the national level, within which the “permanent will” of the nation might reside.

The notoriety that attended this speech concerned Hamilton’s praise for the British government against which the new American nation had warred, which he declared to be the best in the world. Only a government modeled on the British constitution, Hamilton said, could effectively unite public strength with private security. Hamilton doubted whether anything short of this arrangement would suffice for America.

More specifically, of course, Hamilton was attempting through his references to the British constitution to lead delegates to the inescapable conclusion that only a hereditary monarchy could stabilize and secure the interests of the nation as a whole. Only a hereditary monarchy could provide enough strength at the national level of government to detach the people from loyalties and commitments to particular states that promised, if unchallenged, to rend the union irreparably. And ultimately, Hamilton believed that only the influence available to a powerful, hereditary monarch, through the capacity to dispense patronage, honors, and emoluments, could harness and direct the popular passions of avarice and ambition toward the support of the national government.

(4) Alexander Hamilton – Acclamation for the National Executive

Hamilton’s reconstruction of the body politic repudiated the corporate sovereignty and the corporate mission of the states. The new government was to be at once more distant from and more closely tied to the individuals subjected to it than the state governments had been. However, the power of the presidency, the energy emanating from it, and its meaning for Americans as the public soul and will of the nation, all required the voluntary subjection and complicit self-alienation of the nation reduced, not to its states, but to its individuals. This subjection would guarantee the permanence of the government, and infuse it with vitality.

In The Federalist, Hamilton’s essays on the presidency differ dramatically in tone and substance from his address to the Convention. For tactical reasons, Hamilton did not argue with nearly as much force for a strong national executive. And because his efforts largely consisted of attempts to impugn the motives and deny the validity of Anti-Federalist criticisms of Article II of the Constitution, the essays tend generally to stress differences between the presidency and European monarchies.

Having already addressed the subordination of state governments to the national government, Hamilton focused in these essays upon the need for executive independence from the national legislature. He did not address in detail the relationship between the presidency and the people, perhaps because the indirect election of the president tended to mask its importance. No part of the proposed Constitution, Hamilton asserted, had been “inveighed against with less candor, or criticized with less judgment” than the executive. Its opponents played upon the popular aversion to monarchy by representing the president “not merely as the embryo but as the full-grown progeny of that detested parent.” (Federalist 67)

In fact, Hamilton argued, the presidency more closely resembled the office of the Governor of New York than it did the British monarchy. The presidency lacked an absolute veto, performed no ceremonial role, could not dispense honors, and contained no particle of spiritual jurisdiction. Hamilton also assured his readers that the election of the president every four years by people chosen from the nation at large, and his liability to impeachment, trial, and dismissal from office for high crimes and misdemeanors would adequately secure the nation from the depredations of an autonomous and irresponsible power. In “the republican sense” of the term, the executive was “safe” (Federalist 77).

The barely hidden premise behind Hamilton’s defense of the executive in The Federalist was that the national legislature, and the people themselves, posed far greater threats to the freedom and the security of the nation than did a vigorous and active executive. Because he considered both the legislature and the community at large to be ignorant and unreliable, he wished, at all costs, to avoid the “servile pliancy” of the executive upon either (Federalist 75, Federalist 77).

For Hamilton, the independent will of the executive constituted its very soul. While the indirect method of election promised to distance the presidency from popular “tumult and disorder,” he remained exceedingly wary of legislative bodies that directly represented the people (Federalist 68). Hamilton demonized legislatures because they inevitably attempted to “annihilate” the executive will. Specific presidential powers such as the veto he regarded almost literally as instruments of war. These the president would deploy, not so much to protect the nation from bad laws, as to “shield” the executive itself from the “depredations” of an “imperious” national legislature inflamed by the passions of the people (Federalist 71, Federalist 73, Federalist 74).

(5) Alexander Hamilton – Power, Art, and Creation

These concerns notwithstanding, Hamilton’s proposed reconstitution of public power did, in fact, amount to a resurrection of royal authority. Token references to accountability, popular sovereignty, and the republican spirit of executive authority could not disguise the fact that Hamilton’s president existed to provide both stability and leadership. Unlike theorists of federalism such as Madison, he did not really understand the constitution to be a mechanical device that would limit the concentration of power and thereby preserve the freedom of the people. To the contrary, he believed both the supremacy and the necessary and proper clauses of the constitution bestowed virtually unconditional grants of power upon the national government. And almost by definition, these powers devolved onto the branch of government responsible for their execution (see Hamilton’s report to Washington on the constitutionality of a national bank).

However, if good government consisted in the proper execution and steady administration of the laws, Hamilton did not simply conceive of the power of the presidency in these instrumental and technical terms (Federalist 68). The president would also perform a variety of other functions, all of which revealed the creative and artistic forms that power might take when shaped by a master spirit (kindred, one presumes, to Hamilton’s). The president would infuse the body politic with “vigor” and energy (Federalist 70). He would educate and discipline the nation’s citizens, thereby elevating them to a higher plane of political and moral awareness (Federalist 71). He would direct “the common strength” against foreign invaders and domestic insurgents (Federalist 73, Federalist 75). Finally, through his power to pardon all offenses short of treason, the president would provide absolution for his people. His would indeed be a saving grace (Federalist 74). And for these reasons, Hamilton did not wish to limit the horizons of those great leaders with vision by restricting their term in office. Those with the passion for power and preeminence would not be denied in any event. If stifled, their passion might assume a far more dangerous form (Federalist 72).

(6) Alexander Hamilton – Do Not “Remain Long at Table”

During and after the Revolution, it has been suggested, most Americans never really relinquished their desire to be ruled by a just and wise king, one who would secure the nation from the twin dangers of foreign aggression and domestic faction. Hamilton himself did not doubt the stability and security of the nation depended upon both the institutional and personal unassailability of presidential authority.  Using the British monarchy as his model, he therefore counseled President Washington to maintain his distance from other important political figures and to limit direct interaction with members of the House of Representatives and with ordinary citizens.

Presidential etiquette dictated that Washington accept no invitations and return no visits. When entertaining others, he must never “remain long at table.” In dispensing this advice to the great man, Hamilton recognized the need for the President always to control the terms of his engagement and discourse with others. Like Job’s God, Washington must reveal to no one his human face. This would preserve the respect and awe of others for his office and his person, and thereby establish the essential conditions for stable rule.

However, ceremony, ritual, distance, and dignity all served another purpose as well. They infused the presidency with the mystical meaning of the nation itself. The widespread understanding of the President Washington as a “patriot-king,” as the new agent of national redemption, liberated Hamilton — who played Prime Minister Walpole to Washington’s King George II — to pursue his own policy agenda.

(7) Alexander Hamilton – The Political Economy and the Masterless Man

Forrest McDonald emphasized Hamilton’s “detestation of dependency and servility,” his desire to be masterless. However, Hamilton did not seek to break ties of dependence, so much as he aimed to transfer them, from the provincial planter oligarchies that ruled at the state level to the national government and the presidency. Hamilton never abandoned his commitment to securing the allegiance of the American people to inherited forms of authority. While he could not expect to gain acceptance for hereditary personal authority, he worked diligently as Treasury Secretary to establish institutions, procedures, and behavioral norms that would bind citizens, and influence their behavior across the generations to come. He endeavored to establish a system (or regime) into which citizens would be born, the assumptions and practices of which would be as familiar and natural, and as necessary to their sense of well-being, as the air they breathed. In this manner, he hoped to narrow their political horizons, by limiting their ability to conceive a broad array of political alternatives, and to channel their turbulent energies into productive economic activity that would enhance the prestige and power of the state.

Hamilton imagined the most important task of the new government, after its vigorous provision for the external and internal security of the nation, to be the promotion among its citizens of something like the worldly asceticism described by Max Weber. He premised his vision upon the need to harness and set to work the naturally avaricious and covetous inclinations of the people. Hamilton believed that Americans “labour less now than any civilized nation of Europe,” and all of his major policy initiatives – the funding of the debt, the creation of the National Bank, and the promotion of manufacturing – aimed, ultimately, to eradicate the slothfulness of the idle and the burdensome (see Hamilton’s 1781 letter to Robert Morris).

The pre-capitalist moral economy, upon which the pastoral vision of the Jeffersonians rested, must give way to a market economy. All must be drawn into the market. The market itself must not be impeded by internal barriers to commercial and financial inter-course. The monetization of society would provide the means to accomplish both ends. Like Hobbes, Hamilton understood money to be “the vital principle of the body politic … that which sustains its life and motion, and enables it to perform its most essential functions.” (Federalist 30) Through measures that ranged from the assumption of the debt to the introduction of coins of small value, he hoped to induce people to work for less and to familiarize the entire nation with the principles of trade, commerce, and finance.

Supported and encouraged by strong government institutions such as the National Bank, the executive, and the courts, Hamilton was confident the population would grow accustomed to the market allocation of values and judgments. The political and moral implications of Hamilton’s economic policies derived from his understanding of all the founders (but especially of himself) as artists and creators, as well as from the harsh judgments that he rendered upon humans and upon history.

(8) Alexander Hamilton – Making History and Making Life

Unlike the evangelicals and the Jeffersonians, Hamilton denied the presence of any innate moral sensibility or divine spark within the human heart. However, his understanding of the “interested” inclinations of the people depended upon the retreat of the godhead, and upon the restless desire and emotional isolation of the self characteristic of a Hobbesian state of nature. Hamilton did not believe the founding act lifted citizens from this primeval condition. Instead, by separating cleanly the state from its social foundations, this founding alienated politics from labor and therefore from the body, separating the task of making history from that of making life.

By alienating from the natural bodies of citizens their souls to provide the nation with a “public soul”, the Constitution reduced citizens to preoccupations of the body, to an elemental economic competition upon the success of which, they were assured, their survival depended. In the nineteenth century, the apotheosis of the nation’s founding fathers trapped its children in this distance separating Creator from Created. The Hamiltonian vision promised economic mastery over this body and nature, at the price of imprisonment within the walls of the created body politic, within the world of the founding fathers.

Why Does It Matter What Mike Lee Thinks About Alexander Hamilton?

In 2015, Mike Lee appeared on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club to tout his new book, Our Lost Constitution, where he reported that specific “intervention from Almighty God”, invoked following a plea through prayer from (well-known Deist) Benjamin Franklin during the Constitutional Convention in 1787, made possible the Connecticut Compromise, which famously resolved differences between large states and small states (and slave states and free states) about the organization of the national government. This divine intervention, we learn, brought forth “the greatest governing document ever devised by human beings.”

Well … okay! We get it! Sounding a bit like Donald Trump, Mike Lee invokes superlatives to support his claims on behalf of the Constitution and other crucial founding documents – their transcendent “greatness”, the “brilliance” of the minds of those who “forged” these documents (I’m not sure if Mike Lee gets the subversive meaning of his use of the term “forged”, but no matter). And of course, all of this greatness and brilliance blessed, sanctified, and enabled by Almighty God.

And now, in Mike Lee’s most recent book, Written Out of History: The Forgotten Founders Who Fought Big Government (for which the Mike Lee Politico essay serves as free advertising), we also can revel in the contributions to this vision of the Constitution of Anti-Federalist women (Mercy Otis Warren) and Indians (Iroquois Chief Canasatego) and even villains of the Hamilton saga (Aaron Burr), further proof, if any were needed, that not merely Almighty God but the natural law, self-evident to every human, encodes within all of us the capacity to recognize and “strike a crippling blow” against the evils of the federal bureaucracy.

Ironies abound, of course (as they always do). To name just two, Hamilton’s expansive constitutional vision does much more to cement the allegiance of the nation to the “original authority” of the founders than the constrained conception of government Mike Lee imposes upon him. And as Hamilton’s letter to Gouvernour Morrisat the beginning of this essay indicates, Hamilton himself, reeling from the death of his son in a duel, came to doubt the value of the Constitution, this “frail and worthless fabric.”

From Steve Bannon to Robby George: The Catholic Foundations of American Conservative Thought

This essay traces the arc within movement conservatism in the United States from Steve Bannon, Chief Strategist to President Donald Trump (and arguably the most reviled and feared conservative political actor in American public life) to Robby George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University (and arguably the most respected and influential conservative political thinker in American public life).

Stylistic and intellectual differences between Bannon and George, real though they may be, cannot obscure the common ground they share regarding both the sources and the implications of their ideas, specifically those ideas pertaining to Catholic (or Thomist) natural law. While neither might relish the comparison, the relationship between Steve Bannon and Robby George is the relationship between messenger and message, between musical prelude and orchestral suite.

The Messenger and the Message

Irish-Catholic Steve Bannon embeds in the White House an emotionally manipulative, threat-driven sensibility, with methods and antics that echo the methods and antics of Irish-Catholic Senator Joseph McCarthy (and, more recently, two fellow Nixonians, Irish Catholic nationalist Pat Buchanan and Catholic agitprop maestro Roger Stone). A sensibility, and a set of methods that are politically effective and destructive, but inherently unstable and unsustainable. For this reason, Bannon’s intellectually suspect flirtations – with Catholic mystics, fringe historians, and prophets of apocalypse – probably also entomb him politically, alongside fellow Irish-Catholic street brawlers, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, for whom success is ultimately about insurgency, about blowing up things, which means, ultimately, that one blows up oneself.

Put another way, Steve Bannon is all about tactics. An architecture of assumptions scaled to the existential stakes of our current moment in time might therefore tell us that Bannon is epiphenomenal. He is only the messenger. He is not the message. Bannon’s talents for political mayhem have surfaced and brought into more clear relief the remarkable influence of idea-driven institutions such as the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society around and through which American political conservatism has built itself into the dominant force in contemporary American politics. Catholic-powered ideas about natural law provide the most enduring and consistent thread of thought at the most high-profile and well-funded conservative think tanks and foundations. As the leading philosopher of Thomist natural law on the American political scene, Robby George most clearly articulates and contains within himself the distilled message and the intellectual contradictions of these institutions.

The Catholic Moment

Roman Catholic influence in American politics has mushroomed in the past 40 years, specifically in response to the crisis engendered by the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, but more generally as an organizational and intellectual presence best evolved to exploit and respond the cultural uncertainty and flux of our times. The precepts of Roman Catholic theology – specifically (although not exclusively) with regard to the human life / human dignity issues associated with reproductive politics – now interpenetrate conservative American political thought and nearly every political institution of consequence, including the Republican PartyCongress, the White House, the military, and the media.

Five Catholics serve as justices on the Supreme Court. A sixth, Neil Gorsuch, is a formerly devout Catholic who now worships as an Episcopalian. Antonin Scalia, the justice Gorsuch replaced, was of course also Catholic. Which means seven of the most recent ten justices have a Catholic background (with Episcopalian identification one shade of gray removed from Catholicism). Prior to the appointment of Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court in 1986, only six of the previous 103 justices serving the previous 197 years of the Court’s history had been Catholic (the first being Roger Taney, appointed by Andrew Jackson in 1836).

None of this happened by accident. The hegemony of Puritan/Protestant ideas/ideals in American history always masked a specific organizational weakness. We can presume this organizational deficit is dispositionally endemic to fractional/fractious religious movements. In the case of American cultural formations associated with Protestantism, we can also speculate this institutional insufficiency was reinforced by the omnipresent option – dating back to the settlement patterns of 16th-century Protestant sects – to separate, to drift, to disperse, to migrate. Or as Albert Hirschman’s paradigm might suggest, to exit. This weakness the Articles of Confederation expressed politically and the Constitution and doctrines of federalism barely masked.

American Catholics lacked both the recursive instincts to fractionalize of post-Reformation Protestantism and many of the first mover settlement options of Protestant sects and communities that preceded the arrival to the United States of Catholic immigrants. But American Catholicism possessed a latent advantage that proved to be enormously functional in the decades following World War II, when economic growth and global reach allowed American Catholics to attain business and financial prominence and political influence that had previously eluded them. That latent advantage was organizational, a capacity integral to an enormously sophisticated, globally minded religious enterprise with centuries of experience building institutions and making theory practical via the law. And when theory – the systematic elaboration of ideas about cause and consequence – becomes practical and programmatic, it suddenly also becomes powerful.

Worship the Creation, Not the Creator: An Immodest Proposal for Immodest Times

Alternative Title

Worship the Creation, Not the Creator: An Immodest Challenge to Natural Law, Catholic Theology, the Intellectual Foundations of Conservative Politics in the United States (and Pretty Much Everything Else)


Writing about hunchbacked Nostradamus Steve Bannon, and other topics in the past year (mostly, but not all, Trump-related) creates the sensation that one is (metaphysically speaking) sitting on the shoulders of something, unformed and drenched in darkness, but real and mutable and worth exploring further, no matter what the risk.

Writing anything worthwhile is usually about this sort of exploration or quest to uncover the large, masked forms of our existence. This process requires commitment and trust, that we can figure out things as we go along, that creation (and storytelling) is an adventure of discovery, not the schematic unfurling of foreknowledge.

Existential Risk Requires Existential Thinking

Here’s the concern. When it comes to anthropogenic climate change, breaching inequality, toxically “illiberal” nationalism, and generational abandonment – we have unhinged ourselves and crossed a globally bro-bauched point of no return that half-measures (and quarter-measures,etc.) cannot address.

Of course it is tempting – given the scale of the problem and of the potential harm, and the general uncertainty of the causation – to minimize or dismiss these concerns. To wish them away, or to imagine the harm will come to others and not to oneself. But the direction is clear, and the wager is entirely on the order of Pascal’s.

And here’s the problem. For the most part, the scale of our thinking does not even approximately match the scale of our risk. We delude ourselves if we think it really matters whether today’s special election in Georgia delivers Tom Price’s seat to prepubescent Democrat Jon Ossoff. Or whether Donald Trump releases his tax returns. Or whether Bill O’Reilly returns to Fox.

Perhaps a better way to make this point is to say without a robust, coherent framework for assessing the meaning of these events or moments, we cannot assign any significance to them at all. In this sense, we need to avoid the temptation to take each event or moment on its own terms, especially those events and moments that spotlight the words or deeds of a single individual, and that are merely anecdotal and so almost by definition possess no meaning beyond themselves. We need to be clear about the architecture of assumptions that activates meaning for our actions.

Normal Times. This focus on an architecture of assumptions is to some degree a matter of historical perspective. In “normal” times (if such exist), we feel free to apply a pretty immediate temporal lens to the things that happen around us, a perspective that encompasses merely personal or generational memory. In these normal times, we scan the headlines and respond within a framework of familiar, morally comfortable, and largely programmed, biases and instincts and heuristics, in which events or people are summed into categories of “good” or “bad” associated with a scale of virtues.

Strenuous Times. In “strenuous” times, we might shift to an elongated temporal lens, that reaches back to foundation moments or ideas or claims in our history as a community, a state, or a nation. We need benchmarks for how things have changed, how they have remained the same, and what steps and adjustments we should take in relation to those historical patterns and dynamics. This is where data and metrics and precedent and research can help us, as with disruptive trends in the economy, health, education, culture, or religion that require active debate and appeals to traditional sources of authority and legitimacy, typically summoned by the actors in major court cases (Plessy, Brown) or political movements (Populism, Suffrage, Civil Rights).

Perilous Times. In yet more “perilous” times, we may need to think creatively and take intellectual or mental leaps to grapple with risks or opportunities that are beyond our experience and standard tables of knowledge. The film Hidden Figures instructs us on how both mathematical thinking and racial and gender biases needed to bend and reshape themselves to conform to the requirements of launching and landing a manned spacecraft. The demands and stresses of war are also sources of innovation and disruption, which typically lead to the shattering of conventions, the erosion of boundaries, and the emergence of new cognition maps.

Extinction Moments. Finally, there are “extinction” moments, when radical disruption on a scale outside of human time and memory requires us to peel back vast slices of the past, lay bare the ground of our being as a species, and rebuild upon that purled soil. Extinction moments are infrequent and can involve disease pandemics (such as the Black Death of the 14th century or, more recently, AIDS and Ebola) or extreme environmental events (earthquakes, tsunamis), but can also target specific populations in sustained acts of destruction ranging from ethnic cleansing to systematic genocide.

Extinction moments require us to consciously, with all of the mental strength we can muster, look past the emotionally comfortable and familiar rituals of our minds, past problem-solving heuristics that work well enough in “normal” times, past nearly everything we regard as a given in our lives. The most profound extinction moment, of course, is the extinction by our own hand of life on the planet as we know it.

The Big Think

Climbing around in the dark doesn’t lend itself particularly to systematic thinking, although eventually some full picture probably does emerge. For the next year, though, my intention is to do some extinction-appropriate purling, to appropriately scale my own thinking to the level of risk and challenge we face in the world.

This project will both explore and confront canonical ideas regarding Thomist natural law and Catholic human dignity theology; Western conceptions of individuality, selfhood, agency, rationality, causation, and morality; and the pretty stunning inadequacies of religious belief founded on revelation. My general assumption is that to one degree or another we accept most of these ideas as “self-evident” (including natural law ideas about “self-evidence” itself), but that they actually are not at all self-evident, and dismantling these ideas is akin to dismantling an atomic bomb, and no less urgent and important.

In this project, the most pivotal argument will be that peeling back our past tells us that revealed religion – specifically Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – is the big obstacle obscuring our ability to grasp basic realities of our existence and blocking our capacity to address challenges to our existence. The foundations of revealed religions tend to be textually arbitrary and fragmented and evanescent, and so in times of strife wholly inadequate as a basis for holding together societies under stress and at risk.

But even more damning, these religions promote and require their own form of idolatry, absolute submission to and worship of an inscrutable, capricious, human-seeming Creator – in whose image we are told we have been created – who uncannily reminds us of the sour-tempered, inebriate father from our childhoods, sullenly abusive and quick to unsheath his belt or unspool the flat of his hand (no wonder we all suffer from PTSD).

The alternative is simple enough. First, we do not need to worship an arbitrary, entirely preposterous concept of a Creator (who is actually created in our own inadequate human image). We need not base our thoughts and deeds on the flat, toneless, scriptural archaicisms we imagine to be representations of his will. Second, we can and must instead turn our attention to revealed truths that are far more “self-evident” and miraculous, the truths enfolded within the body of the earth, which is the Creation itself.

Who Cares

It’s possible a Big Think project of this sort should daunt, intimidate, or humble me, but it really doesn’t. I don’t harbor the illusion that I’m gifting the world with some gold-encrusted pearl of wisdom (after all, this essay starts by invoking David Letterman). But I do harbor the illusion that we – as a species – face an existentially significant moment and we don’t have a ton of time to sort things out. Pretty much an all hands on deck moment. Which is daunting, intimidating, and humbling.

Where do we look for strength? Perhaps, within the frame of reference of Catholic theology, caritas (loving care for the creation) is the enabling, empowering condition and state of mind toward which we must strive (and so the occasion for calling forth a theology rap battle between St. Thomas of Aquino and St. Francis of Assisi, refereed by St. Augustine of Hippo).

Also relevant: The Secret Mission (July 15, 2016)