This essay is part of a series on Liberalism. See the full collection here

The recent war of words between Patrick Deneen and Robert Reilly is illuminating and timely. Many serious Christians—Catholic and Protestant alike—have found themselves wondering lately whether American political society is salvageable. But is this American cultural and political decline the inevitable working out of American Founding principles, or the consequence of rejecting these principles? I would argue that it is in a way both, and therefore that both Deneen and Reilly are right.

Deneen is correct to note the emphasis on the protection of the individual in the dominant political philosophy of the Founding era. This emphasis does indeed tend to encourage the sort of unhealthy individualism, disregard of moral constraints, and inattention to the common good that Deneen bemoans. Reilly, on the other hand, is correct to insist that Founding-era political thinkers and statesmen such as Madison did not themselves contribute to or endorse this practical tendency of their political principles. In fact, they even articulated principles that would clearly reject this tendency.

Liberalism, Christianity, and the Individual

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Deneen rightly lays stress on the disparity between the premodern focus on “public-spiritedness, self-rule, concern for the common good, and cultivation of virtue” and the modern focus on “the protection of individual difference.” As Douglas Kries explains in a recent article, we live in “an age of natural rights,” not one of natural law. And as both Deneen and Kries argue, much has been lost in this transition. For Kries, a rights focus reduces our political society to “the bare minimum of morality.” For Deneen, this focus blinds us to moral reality and distorts our politics.

It is difficult to deny that modern political philosophy includes a genuinely new emphasis on the importance of the individual relative to the community. It is also difficult to deny that the American Revolution and Founding were to a large extent outgrowths of this new, modern political philosophy. Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and others at the time were thoroughly imbued with Enlightenment ideas heavily influenced by Locke and others following in his wake.

It is, further, difficult to deny that this modern political philosophy, with its emphasis on individual rights, encouraged the development of a political society obsessively concerned with the protection of private pursuits to the disregard of the common good or natural law limitations. What Tocqueville speaks of as “democracy” or “equality” is tightly bound up with this rights-focused modern political philosophy, and Tocqueville’s analysis of the dangerous tendency of these ideas over time was prescient. By relocating the center of the moral and political universe to individual activities and pursuits, the modern political philosophy reflected in the American Founding did enable more recent expressions of radical autonomy and excessive individualism.

All of this, however, does not necessarily speak against the truth of modern claims regarding natural rights and basic human equality. The special dignity, value, and inviolability of the human individual does not necessarily imply a warrant for autonomous self-actualization. There is a reason why American liberalism and Christianity—both Catholic and Protestant—have had important moments of agreement throughout American history. In colonial times, sermons frequently blended Lockean liberal ideas with Protestant Christian theology. In the antebellum period, the anti-slavery movement drew support both from Christianity and from Lincolnian invocations of liberal American Founding principles. And in the postwar twentieth century, Pope John Paul II and other Catholic intellectuals articulated an idea of Christian personalism that overlapped with secular liberal notions of human dignity.

Christianity has always, in fact, been fundamentally concerned with the infinite dignity and value of the human individual. Jesus Himself showed very little interest in the political common good, civic virtue, or the other tenets of classical republicanism. He healed, converted, and cared for the well-being and salvation of individuals, not earthly communities. In fact, as Machiavelli, Rousseau, and other good republicans have pointed out, Christianity’s emphasis on individual salvation is in profound tension with here-and-now republican citizenship.

As Jesus’ example suggests, the mystical, heavenly community to which Christianity leads—St. Augustine’s “City of God”—is premised on a belief in the transcendent value of the human individual. The value of the individual transcends time, place, and the political society of which one happens to be a part. Christianity anticipates and supports modern political philosophy in its emphasis on the value of the individual as superior to and constitutive of the value of political community.

The Modern Improvement

When this focus on the individual becomes detached both from religion and from the salutary balancing effects of premodern political philosophy, it becomes capable of producing the politically and culturally deleterious effects Deneen describes. On its own and untethered to these complementary principles, the American liberal emphasis on individual rights does indeed end up distorting moral reality and damaging political discourse. A focus on the individual leads in a way naturally to a disregard for important moral and religious principles.

But when the characteristically modern focus on the individual is balanced by and tethered to premodern and religious principles, this modern focus may be directed to the good as identified by these premodern principles—just as the focusing of light in a laser beam may be directed not only to the purpose of destruction but also to that of healing. It is in this way that modern political philosophy has improved on the medievals and ancients; not by supplanting or superseding them, but by providing an additional emphasis on certain truths relating to the dignity of the human individual.

We have seen this with respect to the issues of slavery and abortion. The philosophies of both Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas—to take the two canonical examples Deneen cites—weigh, I would argue, on the side of opposition to both of these practices. Neither of them, though, prioritizes these issues as being of grave moral concern. Aristotle doesn’t seem concerned even with infanticide, and though he may intend to argue against slavery in the Politics, he hardly provides a clear condemnation of it.

St. Thomas, for his part, follows Aristotle to some extent on both of these issues. His treatment of slavery is consistently matter-of-fact, neither clearly supportive nor explicitly condemning. And although his philosophy may indeed weigh in on the side of the pro-life cause, as John Haldane and Patrick Lee have ably argued, he only gives abortion a few passing mentions in the entirety of the Summa—as comprehensive a work as has ever been written in the history of moral and political philosophy.

It isn’t until the eighteenth century that we find a James Otis railing against slavery while asserting the natural rights of the British colonists in North America. And it isn’t until the nineteenth that we see Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass marshalling arguments from natural rights—as well as natural and divine law—in explicit and extended condemnation of the practice.

More recently, pro-life advocates have conceived of their cause in terms similar to those of the abolitionists: as fighting for the natural right to life of the unborn. In the American context, both intellectually and from the perspective of constitutional law, slavery and abortion have run parallel courses. The philosophy of St. Thomas may remain a primary support for the pro-life cause; but something has undoubtedly happened in the intervening centuries to turn the few passing references in the Summa into the focal point the issue is for Thomists today.

I would argue that one of the most important of these intervening factors consists in the additional emphasis on the individual provided by modern political philosophy. Hobbesian natural rights were a moral dead end, but Locke’s transformation of natural rights philosophy put them in a form that could be both reconciled to premodern ideas of natural law and virtue, and allied with Christian theological principles regarding the dignity of the human individual. It was this new Lockean articulation that, as Reilly argues, found expression in the American Founding.

Packaged in this manner—alongside and in addition to, rather than in place of, the premodern—modern Enlightenment political principles have indeed improved on their medieval and ancient predecessors. Reilly is right to insist that the American Founders, for the most part, did package them in this way, even if we have since abandoned the Founders’ efforts in this regard.

Dignity and Pride

It may seem paradoxical to suggest that the modern political philosophy reflected in the American Founding was both true and distorting, and has been both helpful and harmful. When considered in light of human nature and history, however, this is not really so strange.

The Book of Genesis tells us that Adam and Eve were created in the image and likeness of God. This bestowed on human beings an enormous value surpassing that of the rest of creation. Yet it also provided the basis for the serpent’s temptation that they make gods of themselves in spite of God’s command. In the Garden of Eden, the truth of human dignity fueled the vice of human pride.

Something similar has happened in American history. The genuine insight of natural rights and their importance as political principles has led, over time and in interaction with various other influences, to a distorted view of individual autonomy. The connection between American Founding principles and contemporary American maladies is more than coincidental, but it is not necessary, either. Truth, planted in fallen human history, can easily be twisted into falsehood.

So, in short, Deneen and Reilly are both right. Deneen is right that our contemporary individualistic autonomy was one possible development of the natural rights principles in Locke and the Declaration—and, indeed, the most likely one, given human nature and modern intellectual trends. Reilly is right that there are resources in American Founding thought to condemn and forestall this development. Christians should recognize the potential in these historical resources to reconnect with what’s good and true in the American political tradition, without forgetting the unbridgeable gap that will always remain between the City of Man and the City of God.