What’s Wrong with Rod Dreher’s Straussian Narrative of the American Constitution

Because he accepts a Straussian framework that sees modernity rather than Christianity as the major turning point of Western history, Rod Dreher underestimates the influence of Christian and classical thought on the American founding.

There is a line of argument increasingly prevalent in conservative circles that derives from an interpretation of the thought of the late Leo Strauss. According to this line of thought, the fundamental and decisive turn in Western history (or in the history of Western thought) is the modern turn—commencing with Machiavelli and the Reformation but executed preeminently in the long seventeenth century with thinkers like Hobbes and Locke. The appropriation of the Straussian history of thought in certain conservative circles emphasizes the continuity of Western thought from Greek antiquity (particularly in the thought of Aristotle) through the medieval period (especially in the thought of St. Thomas)—this notwithstanding the subtle equivocations of Strauss himself, on this matter, or Harry Jaffa’s explicit rejection of continuity between Aristotle and Aquinas; for I have in view the conservative appropriation of Strauss’s ancient-modern divide as the axis mundi. In this way of thinking, historical Christianity belongs on the premodern side of the divide. Modernity is a rupture with antiquity and classical thought and therefore with Christianity, which is an instance of ancient-classical thought.  

On this view, the political order established by America’s founders and framers stands on the modern side. The Constitution ratified in 1789 is considered the first modern Constitution. What matters most about it is that it stands downstream from the likes of Thomas Hobbes—downstream from the decisive rupture with classical western thought. 

For some influenced by Straussian history of thought (Patrick Deneen and perhaps Michael Hanby), to be on the ancient-classical side of the divide is good, whereas to be on the modern side of the divide is to be bad, allied with the unraveling of Western civilization. Since the American Constitution is a modern Constitution, it was conceived in sin; it is ultimately the progeny of the ultra-modernist theorist Thomas Hobbes, as mediated and moderated by John Locke.  

Rod Dreher’s Straussian History 

While Rod Dreher may not have read Strauss, he seems to have absorbed and adopted a broadly Straussian construction of the history of Western thought. I suspect Strauss’s influence on Dreher is mediated through Deneen’s work and perhaps also Hanby’s (I don’t know whether Hanby has ever read Strauss, but his analysis also seems to be built upon the Straussian frame). Wherever Dreher got it, what matters is that his argument concerning the American order is cast in broadly Straussian terms. 

Dreher’s version of the argument appears in The Benedict Option, a work I admire in many respects. It can be divided into five steps: 

(1) “At its core, the Enlightenment was an attempt by European intellectuals to find a common basis outside religion for determining moral truth. The success of science led moral philosophers to explore how disinterested reason, which was so successful in the realm of science, could show the West a nonsectarian way to live.” In other words, “The philosophers of the Enlightenment sought to use reason alone to establish a new basis for political and social life.”  

(2) The Enlightenment was a “decisive break with the Christian legacy of the West. God, if He was mentioned at all, was not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob but the nondescript divinity of the Deists.”  

(3) “Most American Founding Fathers were either confessed Desists like Benjamin Franklin (also a Freemason) or strongly influenced by Deism (e.g., Thomas Jefferson).” Relatedly, “John Locke, the English political philosopher whose teaching was a great influence on the American founding, was a technically not a Deist—his belief in miracles contradicted the Deists’ watchmaker God—but his philosophy was strongly consonant with Deist principles.”  

(4) “Locke believed that the autonomous individual, born as a blank slate with no innate nature, is the fundamental unit of society. The purpose of the government, according to Locke, is not to pursue virtue but rather to establish and guard a social order under which individuals can exercise their will within reason. Government exists to secure the rights of these individuals to life, liberty, and property. The authors of the Declaration of the Independence changed this formulation to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ a phrase every American schoolchild learns in his civic catechism.”  

(5) The US Constitution is “a Lockean document” that “privatizes religion, separating it from the state. Every American schoolchild learns to consider this a blessing, and perhaps it is. But segregating the sacred from the secular in this way profoundly shaped the American religious consciousness.” Indeed, “religious tolerance . . . laid the groundwork for excluding religion from the public square by making it a matter of private, individual choice. In the American order, the state’s role is simply to act as a referee among individuals and factions. The government has no ultimate conception of the good, and it regards its own role as limited to protecting the rights of individuals.” 

Over time, I want to take up some of the claims in Dreher’s argument that strike me as problematic. In today’s essay, I’ll focus on the first claim.  

Morality, Special Revelation, and Natural Law 

Dreher quite rightly holds that the Enlightenment sought to separate morality from theology and metaphysics. Even so, without significant qualification, Dreher’s point encompasses the denial not only of Enlightenment thought on morality and religion but of traditional Christian thought and classical philosophy as well.  

While it is certainly true that Christianity has moral implications and that the Christian revolution significantly altered the social, moral, and political topography of the ancient world (a point Dreher clearly grasps, given his appreciation of Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People), traditional Christianity does not hold that moral knowledge depends on special revelation. Indeed, insofar as religion pertains to special revelation, traditional Christianity rejects the claim that moral knowledge depends upon religion (which is quite different from holding that religion has nothing to say about moral knowledge).  

The great medieval theologian and classical Christian thinker Thomas Aquinas, for instance, famously held that the most fundamental precepts of the natural law are both right for all and known to all. They are the same in all as to both rectitude and knowledge, he wrote. The knowledge in question may not be formulated or conscious. It may be inchoate and latent. But Aquinas held that some moral knowledge is rationally accessible to all apart from and prior to special revelation.  

C.S. Lewis—a thoroughly classical and Christian thinker, though he lived in the twentieth century—held essentially the same position as the angelic doctor. As someone grounded in classical Christian thought, Lewis rejected the idea of a distinctively religious or Christian morality. In “On Ethics” he writes,  

The idea . . . that Christianity brought a new ethical code into the world is a grave error. If it had done so, then we would have to conclude that all who first preached it wholly misunderstood their own message: for all of them, its founder, His precursor, His apostles, came demanding repentance and offering forgiveness, a demand and an offer both meaningless except on the assumption of a moral law already known and already broken. 

Indeed, “Christianity is not the promulgation of a moral discovery. It is addressed only to penitents, only to those who admit disobedience to the known moral law. It offers forgiveness for having broken, and supernatural help towards keeping, that law, and by so doing re-affirms it.” Lewis, like Aquinas, affirmed the natural law as a moral law that in its most fundamental precepts is binding on all because it is rationally accessible to all. One finds this position articulated again and again in Christian thought from the patristics through the medieval period.  

The problem with the first premise in Dreher’s argument is that it appears to presuppose just the opposite relation of morality to religion or Christianity than what one finds in classical Christian thought. For classical Christian thought, knowledge of moral truth precedes special revelation and special revelation presupposes it. As noted above, there is some truth in Dreher’s claim: the Enlightenment did seek to sever moral truth from theology and metaphysics. And that Enlightenment move is certainly wrongheaded. Morality presupposes a metaphysical foundation, and sound theology illuminates, deepens, and corrects moral knowledge. Even so, premise (1), just as Dreher has it framed, seems to reject the natural law understanding of moral knowledge affirmed by traditional Christianity.  

The notion that moral knowledge is available to human beings as rational creatures is not idiosyncratic—not to the Enlightenment and not to classical Christian thought. Ancient and medieval Christian thought appropriated and built upon classical pagan philosophy. Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero all affirmed that there are moral truths ascertainable by human reason and quite apart from religion (see my argument here). Indeed, for Socrates and Plato, knowledge of the good apprehended by reason provided a basis for evaluating the truth of stories about the gods of Mount Olympus. Christianity revised and corrected the ethics of classical philosophers. But classical Christianity also affirmed that insofar as classical philosophers followed reason (which is to say, logos), they also followed Christ. According to Justin Martyr, Christ is the logos of God, and “every race of men have been partakers” of this logos. Consequently, “anyone who has lived by reason was really a Christian, even though he was called an atheist” (see Chapter 46 here). 

Now, one might be skeptical of natural law. But one cannot ignore the fact that tenets of natural law are fundamental to the moral reasoning of both classical pagan philosophy and classical Christian thought. One cannot make moral knowledge dependent on religion without flipping the moral epistemology of classical pagan philosophy or of classical Christian thought on its head.  

To underscore the point: the idea that some knowledge of right or of moral obligation can be apprehended by reason alone is not distinctive to the Enlightenment. Therefore, it cannot be used as part of an argument that the American Constitution is modernist and Enlightenment in origin rather than classical or Christian. 

The Turning Point of History Is Not Modernity—It’s Christianity 

Dreher’s argument about the nature of the American constitutional order assumes a narrative frame concerning antiquity and modernity that is misleading. When it comes to political order, the great divide is not between classical antiquity (or premodernity more broadly) and modernity, with Christianity on one side and the US Constitution on the other. In the history of Western thought, the most fundamental turn is not the modern turn. Rather, the primary hinge of Western thought is the Christian revolution. 

To be sure, Dreher seems quite aware that Christianity altered the social, moral, and political landscape of the Greco-Roman world. Indeed, in the Benedict Option he frames the unraveling of the West as the loss of Christianity (rather than as preeminently the loss of Greek or Roman antiquity). Yet Dreher’s argument seems primarily framed by the modern-premodern rupture. At any rate, the story he tells about the American political order and its founding appears unaffected by the Christian transformation of antiquity. Or, perhaps more aptly, Dreher’s account of the transition to modernity elides important ways in which Christianity introduced ideas concerning political order utterly foreign to the ancient world—ideas that grounded and shaped American constitutionalism. 

While Christianity appropriates ideas from classical antiquity, it also fundamentally transforms them. By contrast, even though modernity rejects classical Christianity, it does so by and large within a frame bequeathed to it by Christianity. Indeed, the notions that human beings are by nature equal, that by nature they are free from political subjection, that political order is created by human will and choice, that the community or commonwealth is authoritative or sovereign over government, that there are natural rights that government ought not infringe, that there should be separate jurisdictions of church and government and those who exercise political power should have no authority in religious matters, that human persons transcend and are not defined entirely by political association (be it the kingdom, the polis, or the empire) . . . These all are Christian ideas—or, at least, ideas that were first articulated by classical Christian thinkers.  

Some of these ideas—such as a natural right to religious worship or the natural moral equality of human persons—have roots in Patristic theology. Even that consummate modern, Thomas Jefferson, eventually realized that his own understanding of a natural right to religious liberty had been discovered by Tertullian 1,600 years earlier (see Chapters 1 and 2 here). Other of these ideas have some roots in Augustine and Gregory but receive further elaboration in the sixteenth and seventeenth revival of St. Thomas’s thought. For instance, in 1612 the Salamancan Thomist Francisco Suarez held that “in the nature of things all men are born free; so that, consequently, no person has political jurisdiction over another person.” And it was Pope Gelasius I in 499 who announced that Christ “distinguished between the offices of both [civil and spiritual/priestly] powers” and that secular rulers have no “jurisdiction” or “competence” in divine affairs, while simultaneously holding that bishops must obey the laws of the emperor in “temporal matters.” Of course, when it comes to the separation of church and state, architects of modernity like Hobbes and Rousseau rejected it completely, seeking instead to reunite what Christianity sundered. The contemporary narrative that the Enlightenment sought the separation of these where Christianity had fused them stands the actual history on its head. 

Christianity reshaped the moral, social, and political landscape of antiquity—especially when it comes to political order. At the same time, Christianity affirmed a moral knowledge rationally available to all apart from special revelation. 

Thus, any sound understanding of Christianity in relation to antiquity or to the American order must hold two distinct claims in view. First, with classical pagan thought, Christianity holds that there are moral truths available to reason and prior to special revelation. Second, while affirming a natural law rationally accessible to all, Christianity also introduced ideas that reshaped the moral, social, and political landscape of the Greco-Roman world. Modern ideas are often a secularization or distortion of Christian ideas or, at any rate, only intelligible in light of the Christian turn, as Etienne Gilson has argued. But then there are ideas in American constitutionalism that may owe more to the Christian turn than to modernity.  

Put another way, what may matter most about the American constitutional order is that it stands downstream from the Christian turn.

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