Up from the Liberal Founding: a review of The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics: Political Theology, Natural Law, and the American Founding By Kody W. Cooper and Justin Buckley Dyer (JAMES M. PATTERSON • DECEMBER 04, 2023, Religion & Liberty)

In recent decades, however, scholars have reconsidered this view of the American founding. The ground was first laid by the 1984 landmark content analysis of Donald S. Lutz in his American Political Science Review article “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought.” Here Lutz compiled revolutionary and founding literature—while intentionally excluding sermons for obvious reasons—from 1760 until 1805, and searched for references to authorities ancient and modern. He discovered that the so-called Lockean liberal founding was nothing of the sort. Rather, revolutionary literature contained more references to the Bible than to all other thinkers combined, and the most popular book was that of Deuteronomy. Locke appears somewhat often in the earliest years Lutz examined but rapidly tapers off in favor of appeals to Montesquieu, Blackstone, Hume, Pufendorf, Coke, and Cicero. Far from a Lockean liberal founding, Lutz concluded that “the debate surrounding the adoption of the U.S. Constitution reflected different patterns of influence than the debates surrounding the writing and adoption of the state constitutions, or the Revolutionary writing surrounding the Declaration of Independence.” In short, Lutz had proved that reducing the founding to liberalism badly oversimplified a complicated series of events with a wide array of influences and statesmen at work.

Lutz’s view remained something of a minority one; Michael Zuckert published The Natural Rights Republic in 1997 and Matthew Stewart Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic in 2015. By that year, however, the thesis of a “liberal founding” was already on shaky ground. A new generation of specialists in the field, like Daniel Dreisbach and Mark David Hall, had already labored to illustrate the significance of both Christian ideas and Christian interpretations of modern ideas during the founding era. Eric Nelson, David Bederman, Francis Oakley, Paul DeHart, and others have illustrated the significance of classical thought, medieval natural law theory, and “political Hebraism” as major intellectual contributions on the founding. Historians of Protestant political thought, such as Glenn Moots, have charted its significance as well. Joining political Hebraism and Protestant political thought, as I have shown, was a now mostly forgotten tradition of the “American Nehemiad,” or interpreting pious but tough patriotism in terms of the Jewish governor of Palestine under the Persian Empire, the biblical Nehemiah. None of this is to say that Locke did not play a role in the American founding but rather that he did not play a central role. The Founders simply were not captured by the Lockean imaginary.

Indeed, they rejected his political theorizing precisely because it was imaginary and their republicanism was practical and historical.