The Heart of the Culture War: Who Founded America
by Dr. Robert Dickson Crane
Historical revisionists are attempting to impose a secular interpretation of the currents that shaped the American Revolution by heralding John Locke as America’s real godfather. One can easily support the view that Hume was more important, who was just as pragmatic as Locke but attuned more to a higher authority than the will of the people and their theoretical contract with government.
The development of the American political paradigm was addressed in my monograph, Projecting Islamic Vision for America, Center for Policy Research, Policy Paper no 1, January, 2000, which cited liberally the shelf of books written by the modern leader of the traditionalist movement, Russell Kirk. He was a grand master in what I call transcendent law. The major issue is whether positivism is the root of chaos, and whether, in contrast, traditionalism is the root of cosmos, and whether the difference between the two is at the root of the American culture war, which has now spread worldwide.
The inexorably conflicting visions of both the past and the future are reliance on man as the source of truth and justice, and reliance on God. Does man create meaning and law for the universe and everything in it or does God? Is there a transcendent law or is all meaning and law what the philosophers call positivist. Is justice the purpose of law or is its purpose only the stability of continuity in the sense of order for its own sake? Can one succeed in promoting the traditionalists’ tridium of order, justice, and freedom without a higher paradigm of coherence and mutual reinforcement among these three societal goals? Do all three of them have a still higher purpose?
Positivism as taught in American law schools is known as “the command theory of law.” It is the epitome of secular fundamentalism, and has destroyed every civilization in which it took root. This basically amoral approach, which in fact denies the very existence of right and wrong, came to dominate during the early twentieth century throughout the Muslim world under the influence of European colonialism, as well as in every American institution, ranging from the local school to the highest court in the land. The denial of any transcendent source of law constitutes a denial of the very roots of Western civilization, including Islam, and, indeed, of any true culture.
If positivism is the root of polytheism, what is its opposite? What are the roots of theocentric thought and society? Traditionalist thought, as well as Islam generally, are rooted in the self-evident truth that neither the individual person nor the collective of humankind is the ultimate sovereign in the universe, and in the corollary conviction that, without an objective right and wrong as the basis for law, cosmos must become chaos. The preeminent modern leader of this traditionalist movement throughout the last half of the twentieth century was Russell Kirk and his journal Modern Age. Since the first monthly issue in 1957, this has been by far the most profound Islamic journal in America, even though probably few if any of its writers have ever thought of themselves as Muslims. A task of modern research is to determine how the basic traditionalist approach has evolved to address the cutting issues of conscience in contemporary American life.
The overarching or paradigmatic background for this task is perhaps best provided in two of the library of books written by Russell Kirk. The first is The Conservative Mind, first published by Henry Regnery in 1953 and then republished as a seventh edition with the addition of an excellent index in 1985. The second is one of Kirk’s last books, published in 1990 under the title, The Conservative Constitution, and then thoroughly revised and expanded in 1997, shortly before his death, under the title Rights and Duties: Reflections on Our Conservative Constitution. The two most important chapters in this book for our purposes in addressing the perils of historical revisionism are entitled “Natural Law and the Constitution” and “The Christian Postulates of English and American Law.” These address the two sources of transcendent law.
Just as both judges and legislators in the American system are subordinate to a formal, written constitution, so the written constitution is subordinate to its origins. As Kirk comments, “A sound national constitution does not lay down some system of theology or moral philosophy, even though certain constitutions drawn up since the French Revolution have been attempts to do precisely that. A constitution is a design for government, a general plan for the political order of a state.” And he notes that, unlike the British Constitution, which “existed wholly at the will of Parliament,” the American constitution was designed, in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, to preserve America from “democratic despotism.” All of America’s founders condemned democracy as the most dangerous form of government, which is why they called their Great American Experiment a republic. By definition, a republic is both a paradigm of thought and an institutionalized political and economic structure based on the conviction that over and above the will of the people and their representatives rules the Sovereignty of God and the order, justice, and freedom that can result only from submission to it.
Several schools of thought have arisen to explain the motivations of the American republic’s founders. Their interaction has amounted to what may seem to some as a culture war. In mid-century, a school arose to claim that practically everybody of intellectual or political repute during the past two hundred years has been a disciple of John Locke and his “social contract theory.” This school, led by Louis Hartz of Harvard and Richard Hofstadter of Columbia, and later including John Rawl, author of A Theory of Justice, has been discredited by later students of history.
The continuing power of this school of thought over the American intellectual elite has been sustained by the Neo-Conservative movement, and especially by one of its three founding gurus, Leo Strauss of the University of Chicago. As Russell Kirk notes on page 97 of his book, Rights and Duties, “Many Straussians conform to a ‘Lockean interpretation’ of the Constitution and of American history and politics generally. That interpretation, though sometimes called ‘conservative,’ is bound up with secularist and egalitarian assumptions, … which is curious in view of Straus’s … argument in his book Natural Right and History that Locke was powerfully influenced by the thought of Thomas Hobbes [who taught that man is inherently evil and must be controlled by tyrants for his own good].
Far more popular than Locke among the early American intelligentsia was David Hume, known as an empiricist but whose publication in 1748 of Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding devastated the whole concept of pure rationality as the only guide to morals and politics. In a “what if” scenario, Kirk postulates that the Constitution and history of the United States would have been no different “had Locke in 1689 lost the manuscripts of his Two Treatises of Civil Government while crossing the narrow seas with the Princess Mary [to help complete the Glorious Revolution of 1688].”
Secular fundamentalists are now trying to control America’s past by rewriting American history. They are trying to eliminate the role of religion in the third millennium by eliminating or perverting its role in the past. How many children in the public schools know that George Washington read the Bible religiously every day, and that he arose every morning almost all his life for an hour of meditation, and that he set aside half an hour every afternoon to open his heart and mind to God, even if this required him to interrupt a cabinet meeting. He was profoundly convinced that his life and the life of the American republic had only one meaning, which is to fulfill its divinely determined destiny. Nowadays the secular humanists would brand him as a fanatic or as mentally disturbed.
It is inconceivable that the founders of America, who grew up within the paradigm of the Old and New Covenants with God, could ever accept the Lockean view that the ultimate standards of human life, political or otherwise, could originate in a contract among human beings. At bottom, according to contemporary students of American history, the thinking Americans of the last quarter of the eighteenth century found their principles of order in no single political philosopher but rather in their religion. They objected especially, according to Kirk, “that Locke does not take into account those operations of the mind that lie below the level of consciousness; nor those that lift man, by mystical means or by poetic and mathematical insights, to a condition transcending the limits of pure reason.”
The reality of natural law as one element of transcendent law was taken for granted by Americans of the early Republic. And this law was essentially the concept of the Medieval schoolmen combined with that of classical antiquity. Originating with the Greeks, especially Plato and Aristotle, if not much earlier in the history of humankind, the concept of natural law as an assertion that law is a part of ethics was passed through Cicero and other Roman jurisconsults to the Fathers of the Church. The great learning and insights of Thomas Aquinas passed into Anglican learning through Richard Hooker and other Anglican divines, and through them to pulpits throughout the American colonies.
Both the classical and the more secularized approaches to natural law were made familiar to virtually all of America’s early political leaders through Blackstone’s Commentaries. The three discrete approaches to natural law, which include these two, are beautifully described in Russell Hittinger’s magisterial book, The First Grace: Rediscovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World, ISI Books, 2003, 334 pages. The American Founders’ task was to shape positive law in conformity with natural law, which originated in Cicero’s words, “before any written law existed or any government had been established.”
The other source of transcendent law, other than classical natural law, is religion in the sense of an apprehension of the Divine Presence and Will. Russell Kirk remarks that the profound Anglican writer, C. S. Lewis, in his book The Abolition of Man, identifies a recognition of natural law in many religions and philosophies, including the Tao. The concept of transcendent law teaches that there is a common law not only of America but of all humankind, and probably of all sentient beings everywhere in the universe. There is also a common cult, in the sense of an awareness of the transcendent and of the responsibilities that this awareness entails. Therefore there is a common culture. This has been taught by all the great Western traditionalists, including Christopher Dawson, Eric Vogelin, and Arnold Toynbee. The leader of these Western traditionalists, Russell Kirk, explains their rationale: “At the dawn of civilization, people unite in search of communion with a transcendent power, and from that religious community all the other aspects of a culture flow – including, and indeed especially, a civilization’s laws.”
For most of the world’s peoples the twentieth century was a “dark ages,” when literally hundreds of millions of persons perished from the extremes of secular utopianism. The source of this chaos, in secular-humanist fundamentalism, continues into the third millennium, especially among the superficial adherents of religion with political agendas of violence or with counter agendas that resort to escalation dominance through unsurpassed violence in order to counter violence and “save civilization.” The great issue of the new century is whether or not transcendent justice will inform the peoples of the world so that they will be led by enlightened leaders who recognize the snares and limitations of material power and therefore can be led through their own humility by God.