Reason, Revelation, and the American Regime

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Thomas Jefferson had no reason to think that he was saying anything at the time strange or jarring, in his first inaugural address, when he complimented his countrymen for their possession of a religion “practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude and the love of man.” And yet those lines touch a division that afflicts our own age now, even among some of our friends who have set out to defend religious freedom.

For Jefferson took for granted that, beneath the varieties of religion, there was a ground of natural law bearing moral truths.  But in our own time the passion to defend religious freedom in the most sweeping way has led to a willingness, in some quarters, to recede from those divisive moral judgments that would judge certain religions as illegitimate – as in the religions that practiced human sacrifice or suttee. Hence the willingness to accept Satanists in giving invocations at legislative assemblies.

But the affirmation of radical evil just cannot be reconciled with the God of the Declaration of Independence, the Author of the Laws of Nature, including the moral laws.  That understanding of God cannot be compatible even with a muted, stylish embrace of relativism. And so Harry Jaffa, reflecting back on that understanding of religion at the time of the Founding, touched the core of the matter when he remarked that “the dictates of right reason [were thought to be] the voice of God no less than sacred scripture.”


What raised this matter again was the earnest concern of a good friend who was trying to plead the case for reason to members of his own family.  Those relatives bore a lingering attachment to a certain Protestant dubiety about the claims of reason to discern real truths.  There was a curious want of noticing just how much our reading of Scripture was underlain by our sense of what was reasonable and defensible.

If Moses came down from Sinai and declared that the Lord, our God, has urged you not to worry overly much about lying with your neighbor’s wife, the Hebrews gathered round would probably have scratched their heads and asked, “Are you sure you got that right?”

But on this point, there surely couldn’t be a lesson more telling than that of Abraham negotiating with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, cities that were unseasonably early for cable television.  “Far be it from You,” said Abraham, “to do such a thing, to put to death the innocent and the guilty. . . .Will not the judge of all the earth do Justice?”  (Gn. 18:25)

If moral truth came solely from “revelation,” was Abraham suggesting to God that He had forgotten for a moment His own revelation?  Or does the encounter make sense only as it presupposes some standards of moral judgment, accessible to our reason, that God himself could have been expected to acknowledge?

But if that telling moment was not enough, I thought that the most moving and persuasive writing I could give my friend was the chapter on Richard Hooker in Robert Reilly’s masterful book, America on Trial:  A Defense of the American Founding.  Hooker (1554-1600) was a key figure in turning Protestants away from their rejection of reason.  In his classical work on The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594), Hooker defended the laws of the realm from a Puritan attack and insisted that “those laws are investigable by Reason, without the help of Revelation supernatural and divine.”

Even when we fall into dispute, Hooker pointed out “that there is as yet no way known how to determine things disputed without the use of natural reason”:

The rule to discern when the actions of men are good, when they are such as they ought to be, is more ample and large than the law which God hath set particular down in his holy word; the Scripture is but a part of that rule.


Hooker was drawing on Aristotle and Aquinas to argue that the natural law is grounded in the “Laws of reason,” and that “law is man’s reason on paper.”  Around the same period, as Reilly shows, the redoubtable Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), made the case for natural rights and government by the consent of the governed. Well before James Wilson and Thomas Jefferson came up with the phrase, Bellarmine wrote that “in the commonwealth, all men are born free and equal.” And “there was no reason why among the equals one should rule rather than another.”

By the time of the American Founding, the teaching was deeply planted:  that no man was by nature the ruler of others in the way that God is by nature the ruler of men, and men are by nature the rulers of dogs and horses.   Reilly had sought in this book to bring out the true character of the regime founded in America by showing how deeply the moral roots ran to the medieval period.   “Most of the Founders,” wrote Reilly, were  Protestant, after all, but the provenance of their idea was ultimately Catholic in that they invoked natural law and natural rights to justify their cause.”

In our own time, we find conservative academics arguing that the truth of the Declaration of Independence on natural equality was really a “half-truth.”  What is clearly missing here, as Reilly shows, is that it is the Christian understanding that gives the real resonance to that truth.  And it comes with a line as simple as Abraham Lincoln’s:  that “nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.”

Where in all the world could we find a more compelling demonstration of this point than the scene recorded by Matthew:  “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least of the brothers of mine, you did for me.”  Where would we find a sense of natural equality running deeper?


*Image: Unknown man (formerly known as Richard Hooker) by an unknown artist, late 16th century [National Portrait Gallery, London]. For centuries, the painting was assumed to be of Hooker, and may well be, in that it closely resembles every other portrait of him.

**Image: Portrait of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (Robertus Bellarminus) by an unknown artist, c. 1622-23[Plantin-Moretus Museum, Antwerp, Belgium]

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.