Justin Dyer is executive director of the Civitas Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. This essay was adapted from his 2022 book, “The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics.”
The founders said no to the model of confessional monarchies then prevalent in Europe. Instead, they created a republic with a constitution that explicitly ruled out religious tests for public office, and they separated the offices of the church from the offices of the state. Surrounded by robust religious pluralism, the founders chose not to establish a national church. We can now be grateful that politicians are not picking our pastors, and our pastors are (mostly) not representing us in Congress.
That doesn’t mean we have a secular founding, however. America at its founding was far from secular, if we take that to mean a society in which the foundations of the political order are disconnected from an underlying religious tradition. Our Declaration of Independence begins with an invocation of the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” bases human equality on creation, defines rights as the endowment of our Creator, appeals to the “Supreme Judge of the world,” and declares the signers’ “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”
Such language points to a possible reconciliation of our familiar debates. The United States was founded by thinkers steeped in the Christian natural-law tradition, a rich and powerful stream of thought that is distinct from any institutional church. That tradition, developed during the long Christian engagement with classical philosophy, holds that reason can identify what is best for human beings by studying human nature. The good for human beings includes such things as life, health, knowledge and friendship. When we have good things in our lives, we flourish and are happy. When we fail to cultivate those goods, either individually or as a society, we sow the seeds of our own misery and ruin.
From that, it makes sense to say we have natural rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and the purpose of government is to secure those rights, as the Declaration proclaims.
Ancient pagan philosophers believed some of this, but Christians emphasized the divine source of the natural law and of human equality. The natural law, they claimed, implies a lawgiver who is the creator of the world and the author of human nature. Human nature is stamped with the image of God, the imago dei — a notion that undermined the ancient practice of slavery in spite of conditions at the founding. This idea impressed itself on Abraham Lincoln, who claimed of the founders during a debate in 1858 that “in their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.” The concepts of fundamental human dignity and moral equality are rooted, ultimately, in the book of Genesis.
The natural law emphasizes not only rights but also obligations — including the obligations of government to the governed. God, after all, unites power and goodness in his own nature; to paraphrase Mr. Beaver from C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia,” God is not safe, but he is good. His goodness is shown in his concern for our happiness reflected in the natural law. Human government requires this same unity of power and goodness. Might does not make right, and power is not the same as authority. As Americans have long held, there is a law higher even than the king or the Constitution.
These ideas were part of the intellectual air the founders breathed. They were affirmed by each of the dominant theological traditions in the colonies, appealed to in public life during the revolutionary and constitutional eras, and taught as part of the colleges’ moral philosophy curriculum. One study of the founders’ education notes that the recurring themes in their classrooms were “of the freedom of the will, of the natural law, of conscience, of happiness as man’s last end, of the necessity for revelation, the occurrences of miracles, and man’s rights and duties.”
In that light, a young Alexander Hamilton defended the American Revolution against the royalist Episcopalian Bishop Samuel Seabury Jr. (who, incidentally, makes a cameo in the “Hamilton” musical). Hamilton accused Seabury of being under the spell of a philosopher antithetical to natural law, the 17th-century English writer Thomas Hobbes. “There is so strong a similitude between your principles and those maintained by Mr. Hobb[e]s,” Hamilton told Seabury insultingly, “that, in judging from them, a person might, very easily mistake you for a disciple of his.” In 18th-century American political discourse, these were fighting words.
What the Americans objected to in Hobbes were the ways in which he drained the substance from the natural-law tradition. Reason was merely a tool that served human desires; ideas of what is good for human beings were completely subjective. There were no moral rules apart from the will of an overwhelmingly powerful sovereign who could lay down the law and keep the peace.
In contrast, Hamilton claimed: “Good and wise men in all ages” have taught that God had “created an eternal and immutable law, which is, indispensably, obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever.” The reason Hobbes believed such an “absurd and impious doctrine,” Hamilton concluded, is “that he disbelieved the existence of an intelligent superintending principle, who is the governor, and will be the final judge of the universe.”
Some of the founders expressed skepticism about the claims of Christianity, of course. With very few exceptions, however, they were not deists who thought God set the world in motion and left it to run on its own, and they certainly weren’t Hobbesians who thought morality was merely an invention of society or the state.
Their Christian-inflected philosophy has been a high ground on which Americans of all stripes have stood in claiming the mantle of justice. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put it in his celebrated “Letter from Birmingham Jail," "A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.” Though we are increasingly disconnected from our philosophical and theological foundations, whenever we speak of American ideals, we invoke the ideas and language of natural law.