America and American conservatism are at a crossroads. Conservatives are naturally the “patriotic party,” proud of their country and committed to defending it against its cultured despisers. Most of us, most of the time, remain confident that America is mankind’s “last best hope.” Yet many of us cannot help but acknowledge that our country is becoming less morally estimable, as human freedom is increasingly understood as limitless relativism and accompanied by totalitarian moralism on much of the left. Some conservatives, such as Patrick J. Deneen in his widely discussed book Why Liberalism Failed, are tempted to blame this state of affairs on the principles of the American Founding. Deneen and some other Catholic traditionalists chalk up our discontent to liberalism itself, which is said, in the long run, to corrode personal responsibility, civic spirit, and authentic culture. Deneen argues that the American Founding is complicit in the corruption of true democracy because it is ultimately rooted in the not-so-concealed nihilism at the heart of Enlightenment liberalism. In this view, liberalism inexorably gives rise to an unrelenting anti-culture, which, because it recognizes no authoritative institutions, is destructive of civilization as such.
In another sector of the American Right, perhaps even more influential, the threat to American liberty is identified as big-government progressivism. It is progressivism that has increasingly eroded the “natural rights” constitutionalism bequeathed to us by John Locke and the American Founders. This is the basic story told by the students of Harry V. Jaffa and, in a more libertarian form — one less friendly to religion and natural law — by George F. Will in his new book, The Conservative Sensibility. In this view, the secular contest between natural-rights republicanism and egalitarian progressivism is the great struggle of our time.
As Richard Reinsch and the late Peter Augustine Lawler, two remarkably talented students of American political thought and Western political philosophy, argue in their thoughtful and provocative new book, our country’s appeal to natural rights was indispensable in the effort to “discredit the communist or fascist reduction of the particular person to nothing but an expendable cog in a machine.” And rights are certainly not arbitrary or groundless, given to us capriciously by a state that can take them away at will. They do indeed have real roots in human nature and the order of things. The problem, as Lawler and Reinsch see it, is that these rights are increasingly disconnected from the traditions that gave rise to them and from the ends and purposes of human freedom. Many libertarians and soi-disant classical liberals, and almost all progressives, ignore or explain away the essentially relational character of human existence in the name of an ever more unconstricted view of personal liberty. This conception of liberty is severed from the moral foundations of democracy: loyalty to country; the love, support, and discipline of the family; and the eternal verities conveyed by traditional religion. These are among the precious “moral contents of life,” as the French political philosopher Pierre Manent calls them, without which liberty degenerates into a nihilistic form of self-assertion or, at best, an indifference to human excellence or to the primordial distinction between good and evil. Without its conservative foundations, liberty withers and turns against itself.
Lawler and Reinsch are fully committed to the dignity of the relational person and to the defense of the American republic. They believe that human beings should never be “civic fodder,” as was often the case in the classical republics; species fodder, as with the preferred understanding of our dogmatic Darwinians who subordinate the person to the “survival of the fittest”; or “History fodder,” as happened in the totalitarian democides of the 20th century. Following Alexis de Tocqueville and the great 19th-century American Catholic thinker Orestes Brownson, Lawler and Reinsch defend “liberty under God and the law” (the admirable locution is Tocqueville’s). For the authors, the Founders are best understood as wise and gifted statesman and not theorizing revolutionaries. They were “conservative revolutionaries,” men of principle and prudence, who appreciated, or at least took for granted, the moral and cultural inheritance, what the authors call the “providential constitution,” that made possible a humane and ordered liberty in the United States.
Lawler and Reinsch establish that, in the American tradition rightly understood, the free person is necessarily a relational person with obligations to others and to a common good made possible by the rule of law and the responsible exercise of personal and political liberty. Brownson is, in decisive respects, their guide. For Brownson, the American achievement in ordered liberty eschews both radical individualism, which is little more than moral anarchy, and an abstract and indiscriminate humanitarianism that forgets that true democracy is always “territorial democracy,” rooted in the mores, traditions, and inheritances of a specific people in a specific place. There can be no democracy without the framework provided by the nation, the only form of territorial democracy available in the late modern world. The nation thus provides a judicious mean between deracinated cosmopolitanism and a tribalism that succumbs to xenophobia.
There are other heroes in this book, among them the Catholic theologian John Courtney Murray and the conservative political theorist Willmoore Kendall (two eminent 20th-century thinkers well known to past readers of National Review). All of Lawler and Reinsch’s intellectual heroes were eloquent partisans of a virtuous and free people. None of them confused the exercise of natural rights with a solipsistic individualism that transforms free men and citizens into possessors of an unbounded “autonomy.” When liberty becomes a groundless, open-ended project, guided by nothing but self-creation, it ceases to be a form of political liberty in the service of the common good. The crucial nexus between liberty and law is severed.
Witness the Supreme Court’s declaration (in the 1992 Casey decision) that “the heart of liberty” is the right to “define one’s concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” As Lawler and Reinsch say, this nihilism masquerading as juvenile existentialism “warrants the power of government to secure its unbounded claims.” Liberalism then becomes an authoritarian demand for moral liberation and permissive egalitarianism, far from the dignified, humane, and self-limiting conception of human freedom held by the founding generation.
Between those who denounce America as ill-founded and those who confuse it with a project for government-sponsored liberation from natural moral constraints, Lawler and Reinsch outline a salutary via media. Instead of identifying America with abstract freedom, Tocqueville, Brownson, Kendall, and Murray appreciate that the notion of “consent,” qualified and within certain bounds, lies at the political heart of republican self-government. But it cannot be the criterion governing every aspect of life — in institutions such as the family, churches, and universities — without giving rise over time to an aggressive “political atheism,” a view of democracy that recognizes no law higher than human will and that erodes the crucial moral and cultural prerequisites of a free society. The “sovereign self,” man as god, replaces the moral superintendence that makes ordered liberty possible.
Brownson and Murray interpreted natural rights, and especially the profound truths of the Declaration of Independence, in the light of natural law: We have no right to own or oppress another human being, because ownership is a deeply flawed way of thinking about our relationship to ourselves and others. Strictly speaking, we do not own ourselves. As Lincoln reminded us in his second inaugural, we are all under the judgment of God, whose will is always informed by His reason and goodness. Brownson opposed the barbaric institution of slavery, on Christian and American grounds, and supported the preservation of the Union, but he did not support the more radical leveling goals of the abolitionists.
Willmoore Kendall argued persuasively that civil society, justice, and rights always presuppose the previous formation of government and society. Without a “preexisting ‘We,’” as Roger Scruton has called it, there can be no social contract worthy of the name. But law, and especially the sempiternal distinction between right and wrong, is never predicated on contracts or consent. Kendall put it succinctly and well: We discover the authority of law, civic and moral, through “reason or revelation.” We cannot just make it up as we go, or assert its existence: We are not autonomous beings, demiurges that create freedoms without boundaries. America was not founded ex nihilo in 1776 or 1787. Our “providential constitution,” rooted in territorial democracy, and in the moral, spiritual, and intellectual inheritance of Western civilization, is an essential part of our larger “constitution,” or politeia.
As in all great and suggestive books, Lawler and Reinsch get a few things wrong. They are too sanguine that religious liberty can be preserved in the face of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision mandating a right to same-sex marriage nationwide. They believe the case was wrongly decided but think it would be “judicial activism” to overturn it. But they understate the extent to which Obergefell subverts the very meaning of marriage. In the wake of that ill-considered decision, marriage no longer has any connection to the natural complementarity of men and women and to the education of future citizens. The decision did not expand the beneficiaries of an established institution; it put an end to public recognition of natural marriage by abolishing its natural as well as historical foundations. Marriage in the United States is now rooted in personal “autonomy” that knows no intrinsic limits (marital monogamy is at best a settled tradition — for now). Our authors do not wish to exacerbate civic divisions by overturning Obergefell, and so they hope against hope for the best. But in the name of prudence, they risk abandoning a sacred, non-negotiable principle.
This reservation aside, Reinsch and Lawler have written an extraordinary defense of conservative constitutionalism, one that speaks powerfully to our present discontent. In the manner of Brownson’s The American Republic (1865), an unjustly neglected political classic, they rebuke both Lockean individualists and humanitarian democrats for forgetting the civic virtues and patriotic attachments that allow Americans to display “love and loyalty to the social and political order of their birth.” They give a theoretical account of the practical achievements of the Founding and thereby show that this country of ours was in no way ill-founded. But they also show that the genius of America involves accepting our moral and political heritage in a spirit of gratitude. This gratitude is sorely lacking in those today, on the left and the right, who condemn the Founding tout court. Gratitude and loyalty are at the heart of our “constitution in full,” and of authentic conservatism.
One final word: This book is a lasting tribute to Peter Lawler, a true patriot, Christian, and conservative, and a political theorist of the first rank, who died unexpectedly in May 2017. Kudos to Richard Reinsch, a serious thinker in his own right, for bringing this joint work to completion.
This article appears as “Our Providential Constitution” in the July 8, 2019, print edition of National Review.