Reviewing Kody Cooper and Justin Buckley Dyer’s The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics, Mark David Hall seeks to refute the common misconception that the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution were shaped by de-facto moral relativists who upheld freedom and procedure above all else:
Some conservatives lament—and many progressives celebrate—the myth that America’s founders were deists, theistic rationalists, or even atheists who were influenced by modern, secular ideas. They rejected the wisdom of their ancestors, and instead believed they could, in the words of Thomas Paine, “create the world anew.” Their new world had no place for the classical and Christian natural-law tradition, and instead privileged individualist natural rights that could be exercised with little concern for the common good.
Contrary to the many scholars who assert that “most” of America’s founders were deists, Cooper and Dyer recognize that only a few founders were deists, at least as the term is commonly defined. To be sure, a handful of important founders were not orthodox Christians—notably Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams—but the authors argue that their heterodox views did not include rejecting natural law.
Cooper and Dyer highlight appeals to natural law by James Otis, John Dickinson, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, and Thomas Jefferson. In their discussion of them, the authors dispel the common misconception that references to the state of nature or natural rights are evidence that the founders rejected classical and Christian metaphysics and ethics. Although such references could be evidence that an author is an individualistic, materialistic modern, they show that when the founders made them, they did so in a manner that was compatible with traditional Christian thought.
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