The American Founding As The Best Regime: The Bonding Of Civil And Religious Liberty, by Harry Jaffa
Harry Jaffa has long been one of my favorite authors, so long in fact that this blog has suffered a bit in not having his books reviewed here, something I hope to change in the near future. Harry Jaffa was a political philosopher who was strongly influenced by Leo Strauss as well as by the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, and he was a very close reader of Shakespeare as well as the political philosophy of the American founding through the Civil War. His own influence on my thinking has been deeply profound and this particular short book is an essay of his that was originally published as part of the Novus Ordo Seclorum collection from the Claremont Institute and is included here as a separate edition for those who want to read it. It certainly does present Jaffa’s thinking in a concise fashion (most of his books tend to be a little on the long side, not that this is a bad thing by any means), and presents a reflection on the relationship between civil and religious liberty that defends America’s constitutional order as being a good one in the eyes of both God and thinking mankind.
The relationship between religious and political freedom has always been of deep personal interest for me as someone who tends to be more than usually sensitive to both of those angles and as someone who comes from a religious background and culture that lives in the state of considerable anxiety about any government efforts to quash freedom of religion. Although the author does not appear to be from a pietist background himself, his discussion that political freedom ultimately depends on some aspect of religious freedom is a very welcome idea and an idea that I wholeheartedly endorse. The existence of free space to oppose the behavior of governments and their officers without being in fear of death, dungeons, or exile depends on the legitimacy of a view of there being a higher law than the laws of mankind, namely the laws of God, to which everyone (even civil authorities) can be held responsible to rhetorically in advance of God’s judgment. That authorities seldom like to be questioned has always been true and is certainly true now, but few regimes in history have done a good job at submitting themselves to criticism from the body politic without engaging in tyrannical repression because protest and disagreement strike at their fears and insecurities.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, this short pamphlet of about 30 pages begins with a quote from an early Abraham Lincoln speech and then discusses the goal of liberty proclaimed in the Preamble to the American constitution. The author’s praise of liberty is framed by a commitment to self-restraint and the philosophical view of the good life that depends on being well-ordered and moral in one’s conduct. The author is led by his moral constraints (constraints which I share) to oppose both mob rule as well as tyranny, given that both are immoral. The author discusses the question of how authority and freedom can both be justified and how natural theology is an important aspect of political philosophy. After spending the first half of the essay discussing American constitutionalism in ways that many people would praise, the author turns his attention to the universalism of the American patriots and the historical context of the squabble over political and religious liberty throughout Western civilization. The end result is a thoughtful essay that ought to greatly encourage those who have a high view of both moral law and the legitimacy of proper authority as well as a defense of liberty in the American political and religious tradition.