Christianity and American Political Thought


A new book examines the philosophical and religious roots of American government. Amid scholarly disagreement, one thing is clear: America is a nation founded upon the truth of human freedom and equality—whether one arrives at this truth by way of Calvin or Locke.

Print Friendly

The importance of John Rawls’s work to American political philosophy during the past fifty years has been immense. That importance is surpassed only, perhaps, by that of critiques of Rawls’s work. From Michael Sandel and Robert Nozick to David Lewis Schaefer and Robert Taylor, the critical responses to Rawls’s work have come to collectively eclipse the occasion for their existence in terms of cogency and profundity.

Now comes David Peddle’s The Religious Origins of American Freedom and Equality: A Response to John Rawls. Released earlier this year, it is admirably concise and extraordinarily thoughtful. The book challenges the reigning Rawlsian political liberal consensus regarding the relation of religion to politics, and it deserves a place on the shelf of anyone concerned with questions of faith in the public square.

Religion and Politics in American History

Although Peddle’s argument is built mainly from positions and accounts that will already be familiar to many of his readers, the way that he puts them together is illuminating. The overall thesis is a version of a very familiar position: that the American Founding was Christian in character, and thus that the United States is at root a Christian nation.

Peddle manages to revivify this familiar thesis, however, through the sparkling clarity of his writing, particularly in the introductory and concluding chapters. In his own words, Peddle’s thesis is this:

The Rawlsian view which emphasizes the subjective connection of comprehensive doctrine and liberal principle is an abstraction from the deeper unity on which the American state relies and, therefore, fails to grasp the objective connection between religion and state.

According to Peddle, this “objective connection” is forged by an “organic historical development through which individuals thoroughly immersed in Christianity developed a political theory that expressed in external form what is demanded by a Christian inwardness.”

Rawls’s idea of an “overlapping consensus” posits that individuals will agree on certain liberal principles because these principles are supported by their own particular “comprehensive doctrines” (whether religious belief or philosophical conviction). As Peddle rightly points out, this idea forms a “subjective” connection between religion and state, since the reconciliation between these realms occurs as a matter of particular individual perception rather than fundamental principle. In Rawls’s account, there is no reason why this “overlapping consensus” among comprehensive doctrines would be expected to occur—it appears as an almost coincidental agreement between individuals rather than a consequence of some underlying objective circumstance connecting the “comprehensive” to the political. For Rawls, comprehensive doctrines are private, and political doctrines (such as liberal principles) are public, and there is, one might say, a “wall of separation” between the two.

Peddle attempts to tear down this “wall” in three main steps: (1) an extended critique of the Supreme Court’s religious liberty jurisprudence since the Everson case as reliant upon grossly distorted historiography; (2) an argument for the connections between the thought of John Calvin and that of three founders of philosophical modernity—Descartes, Locke, and Kant; and (3) an argument for the “theological roots of American liberalism” as found in the pre-Revolutionary War American Puritans. The second and third steps provide the historical and intellectual background for the first. The correspondence between recent Supreme Court jurisprudence and Rawls’s theory of political liberalism—a correspondence pointed out by Rawls himself—provides the linkage necessary to frame the whole in terms of a response to Rawls.

Words and Ideas in Intellectual History

The impressive clarity of Peddle’s prose helps to reveal, by contrast, a potential vulnerability in Peddle’s overall argument. This vulnerability arises from a pervasive ambiguity in his use of the term “origins.” At the end of his Introduction, Peddle refers to “the historical and conceptual relationship that obtains between religious and liberal principles of freedom and equality” (my emphasis), and later asserts that “it is a matter of fundamental political philosophy to understand the historical origin and development of the concepts that form its basic vocabulary.” These and similar statements suggest a straightforward correspondence between historical proximity and conceptual or philosophical continuity that is far from self-evident.

In this way, Peddle’s approach is reminiscent of the approach taken by many historians of ideas who accept terminological or linguistic continuity (along with historical proximity) as sufficient evidence of conceptual continuity. As I argued in a recent exchange with the medieval historian Brian Tierney, however, identical language can be used to signify very different concepts even among close contemporaries. Even concepts that are similar in certain ways may be understood very differently within the constellations of other concepts surrounding them in the minds of different individuals. Even though you and I may agree that “freedom” is good, we may disagree dramatically on what the term “freedom” means; and even if we agree on what the term “freedom” means, we may still disagree dramatically on its importance relative to other concepts, on the reasons for its importance or goodness, or on its relations to a variety of other concepts.

To be fair, Peddle does provide some very good and intriguing arguments for the conceptual continuities between Calvin’s thought and that of Descartes, Locke, and Kant. This indicates that he does not simply equate historical/terminological continuity with conceptual continuity. But, as they appear in Peddle’s book, these arguments are far too brief and general. What is needed is a much more extended argument for these conceptual continuities—perhaps something along the lines of Peter Lawler’s contribution to Paul DeHart and Carson Holloway’s excellent recent collection on religion and political philosophy. Without this more specific and thorough treatment, Peddle’s argument ultimately places more weight on the correspondence between historical and conceptual continuity than it can bear.

Christianity and Liberalism

Even with such a treatment, however, it is far from clear that Peddle’s argument connecting American liberal political philosophy with Calvin’s theology would be persuasive. One could wholeheartedly agree—as I do—with Peddle’s excellent tracing of the resonances between Christianity and liberalism without affirming the conceptual or philosophical dependence of the latter upon the former.

In his discussion of Locke, for example, Peddle follows Jeremy Waldron’s interpretation, which argues for the reliance of Locke’s notion of equality upon his theology. As Michael Zuckert has persuasively argued, however, Locke provides a philosophical argument for equality and natural rights that may stand apart from his theological arguments. According to Zuckert, the two forms of argumentation proceed along parallel tracks in support of the same conclusion. Phillip Muñoz, in his treatment of religious liberty and the American Founding, finds a broadly similar approach operative in the thinking of Madison, Jefferson, and Washington—a philosophical natural-rights approach that stands alongside and complements their theologically based arguments without depending squarely upon them.

In both cases, liberal political philosophy appears capable of standing on its own ground apart from theology. In order to persuasively establish the conceptual, philosophical, or logical connection between American Christianity and American principles of freedom and equality, Peddle’s argument would need to address such competing and, to my mind, persuasive positions. The historical connection Peddle effectively explains is, however, of great importance in itself, and already gains important ground as a response to Rawls’s version of political liberalism. Taken purely historically, The Religious Origins of American Freedom and Equality provides an instructive and persuasive account. Taken philosophically, these religious origins are less clear and certainly more contestable.

Since faith and reason coincide in their ultimate object—the truth—right reason and true faith are often difficult to distinguish. Christianity’s affirmation of the dignity of the individual may be, and I would contend has indeed been, confirmed by reasoned arguments. The American Founders, aware of this dual justification for freedom and equality, freely drew on both in justifying and designing the American system of government. America is a nation founded upon the truth of human freedom and equality—whether one arrives at this truth by way of Calvin or Locke.

S. Adam Seagrave is an assistant professor of political science at Northern Illinois University and author of The Foundations of Natural Morality: On the Compatibility of Natural Rights and the Natural Law.

Print Friendly




Web Briefings

PD logo

Want more great articles?

Sign up for daily or weekly emails!

subscribe button