Peter Augustine Lawler, who died five years ago next week, spent much of his career building a philosophical foundation for a school of thought he dubbed “Built Better Than They Knew Studies.” These studies center around the idea that, although America’s Founders knew their achievements to be remarkable, the philosophical sources of their political project were even greater and richer than they realized, as the studies’ name suggests.
Lawler derived this idea from a report by the American Catholic bishops issued in 1884. The report proclaimed: “We consider the establishment of our country’s independence, the shaping of its liberties and laws, as a work of special Providence, its framers ‘building better than they knew,’ the Almighty’s hand guiding them.” The report suggests that our Founders’ constitutional achievement—while incredibly significant in its own right—contained connections to the full legacy of the Western political heritage. To paraphrase Lawler, they weren’t fully aware of the real shape and meaning of their eighteenth-century constitutional glory.
Since the Founders (understandably) didn’t grasp the full meaning of their project, their descendants, “upon pain of decadence,” according to John Courtney Murray, must develop and bring out the full measure of the American founding as challenges and opportunities arise over time—which is exactly what Lawler’s work achieves. Lawler wrote in his Introduction to a new edition of John Courtney Murray, S.J.’s 1960 classic, We Hold These Truths: “Because they built better than they knew, they themselves could not be relied on to give an adequate account of what they had done. In order to defend our Constitution effectively today, our duty as citizens is to give it a better theoretical foundation than its framers did.”
Building the Right Theory
Three thinkers loom large in explaining the merits of American constitutionalism: Alexis de Tocqueville, Orestes A. Brownson, and John Courtney Murray, S.J. (for purposes of this essay I’ll focus mostly on Murray). They all point to the idea that, while the American founding was an incredible achievement, it was the handiwork of human beings. Like anything else manmade, it had certain problems and deficiencies. Perhaps the largest pitfall was the plausible notion that the Founding should be understood in exclusively Lockean social contract terms: the Lockean idea that government is an entity autonomous individuals create to secure property and protect individual rights.
Built Better Than They Knew Studies, however, corrects this narrow framing of America’s founding. America, Lawler is at pains to argue, is incompletely modern. As G. K. Chesterton put it, we’re a nation with the soul of a church, composed of intense religious faiths, courageous patriotism, a spirited sense of self-government, and jealous regard for liberty. Americans did not merely understand themselves as autonomous individuals contracting a new regime. We have, as it were, no working theory for how we are to be constitutional. But we have a series of practices and approaches to being republican and self-governing that issue from our founding. Along with both Brownson and Murray, Lawler stresses that we need to find a theory worthy of our great country. And this theory needs to fit Americans’ practices and settlements that have arisen amid profound disagreements.
This leaves us with the question that both John Courtney Murray and Lawler faced: Are we still capable of believing in the American Proposition? The phrase was Murray’s, and it builds not just on Lincoln’s use of the term proposition, but also on his innovative statesmanship. Lincoln’s statesmanship insisted on human equality under God as the architectonic truth of the American order. He changed our way of thinking about the constitutional order: he showed that, at its core, our tradition rested on the affirmation of the equality of human beings.
Murray faced a different set of political problems. These problems stemmed from both the skepticism that plagues the modern mind and, relatedly, its complacency with the truths on which republican government rests. Murray wonders “whether and to what extent this nation, now no longer new, still remains dedicated to the conception of itself that first constituted us as a people organized for action in history.” Lawler rephrases and enlarges his question: “Are his [the American citizen’s] people still a people properly speaking? Do they still have any common purpose that is the foundation for effective action? Does being an American citizen now mean anything at all?” In other words, have Americans succumbed to indifference about the foundational truths—the Lincolnian Proposition—on which their nation rests?
Murray answers these questions in the negative. We no longer believe that our Constitution “is founded on a certain body of objective truth . . . accessible to the reason of man.” To thwart modern relativism, Murray wants to rehabilitate the American Proposition. In America’s founding era, Murray explains, “the tradition of natural law and natural rights was still vigorous. Claiming no sanction other than its appeal to free minds, it still commanded universal acceptance. And it furnished the basic materials for the American consensus.”
Lawler restates Murray’s case for the natural law bedrock of the proposition as “the realistic view that the human mind is fitted to know the truth about human purposes and that what we know through revelation completes—not contradicts—what we know through reason.” Thanks to widespread acknowledgment of natural law, early Americans enjoyed a constitutional unity that produced the rule of law, the notion of sovereignty limited by law, and the consent of the governed. This thick constitutional unity is the proper source of pluralism, and makes fruitful cooperation possible—even among religious disputants.
But, despite the religious toleration built into our Constitution, Murray knew that our constitutional character wasn’t indifferent toward religion. There is a truth that lies beyond politics. And our American constitutional order embodies this view by placing our country under God. The Constitution’s silence about God perhaps seems to contradict this: this silence might appear to suggest that America is a secular, politically atheist country.
But Lawler, employing Murray’s reasoning, points to the counter-intuitive blessing that comes from not mentioning God: our Constitution was able to avoid establishing a civil religion. Thus, Americans are safe from a potential Enlightenment-style tyranny that enforces conformity to the then-popular, quasi-religious liberal faiths. Furthermore, the First Amendment’s defense of religious freedom really only makes sense if you make the implicit assumption that religion is good and that citizens’ exercise of it, most frequently in churches and other institutions, is worthy of protection.
Consider the bishops’ 1884 Report, which built on Orestes Brownson’s observation in his 1867 essay “Union of Church and State” that nowhere in the world was the Catholic Church freer than in America. Religious freedom had deep roots in the Western political tradition. But the religion clauses of the First Amendment achieved even more than the heritage on which they’re based: they are a building that surpasses the theoretical design. Brownson observed that this freedom of the church existed despite the United States’ being “a society founded by the most anti-papal people on earth, who held the church to be the Scarlet Lady of the Apocalypse. Surely, they builded [sic] better than they knew.”
Brownson noted that religious protections weren’t limited to the individual conscience, a trademark of the Enlightenment’s natural rights thinking. Rather, the First Amendment extended protection to religious institutions themselves. American religious freedom, therefore, can be traced all the way back to the medieval notion of freedom of the church. It also has roots in Pope Gelasius I’s two kingdoms doctrine, announced in 494, that separated the civil and ecclesiastical offices. Thus, our Constitution’s silence on religion ensures that we are, in fact, free to be loud and proud about our varied religious observances. Our framers built better than they knew.
Another way they built better than they knew, Lawler observes, is in our Constitution’s ability to produce better outcomes through legislative compromises. This happens because contending parties bring to bear their partial and incomplete understanding of political truth and compromise through a contest of argument and self-limitation. The results, Lawler stresses, are actually better than either side intends, and the compromises made are far superior to the outcome that each would have preferred given the choice. The Constitution itself—not just the lawmaking it facilitates—is one of these compromises. Its provisions are the result of clashing views worked out during the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
Lawler also made this point profoundly with his recovery of the scholarship of the French Catholic priest Father Raymond-Leopold Bruckberger (chaplain to the French Resistance in World War II). Bruckberger’s study of the American founding in his book Image of America (1959) revealed something promising, if somewhat forgotten, about the Declaration of Independence. Certain amendments made to the document by the Continental Congress were theological additions. Bruckberger observed, “Congress and Jefferson had different concepts of God” and they held to “two profoundly different philosophies.” Jefferson adhered to the reigning Lockean system of the day, which meant appealing to an impersonal and past tense God. But the Christian members of Congress thought of God as personal and relational and inserted this theological understanding in the Declaration. To Jefferson’s god of the philosophers (“Nature’s God”), they added God as a creator and as a judge—that is, a personal God.
Bruckberger wrote that “[t]he greatest luck of all for the Declaration” was its compromise between Puritan theology and Lockean liberalism. The result of this compromise is that it gave America a “philosophy that most manifests the equality of all men in their natural and supernatural dignity.” It relies on appeals to both Lockean and Christian anthropology, and serves as a mediating point for individual freedom, political and religious devotion, and personal sacrifice on behalf of our fellow citizens and creatures. Can this beginning serve as a guide for future political deliberation, one that develops a constitutional consensus from varied and opposing views?
The upshot of the Declaration’s compromise was that persons locked in argument (the members of the Continental Congress) had produced a compromise that both respected individual freedom and noted our freedom’s connection to a providential God. Obviously, there is no matrix or template for connecting this kind of political negotiation to contemporary debates. It does suggest that we are at our best constitutionally when we compromise legislatively somewhere between fundamentalism and liberalism. Regardless, the principle Lawler propounded is this: we don’t etch into law any singular understanding of the human person and liberty as final, definitive, or most comprehensive. Unfortunately, though, that is precisely what our courts have done in decisions on religion, abortion, sexuality and family, and speech. Doing so has led to a bottlenecked politics in which fundamental disagreements can never be suitably resolved, and it has stunted our ability to develop the American Proposition.
Contrast Lawler’s supple account of constitutional politics as the reconciliation of opposing conceptions of the good with the insistence on liberalism as our singular political doctrine. Patrick Deneen turns liberalism into the sole ideological account of American constitutionalism and deplores it. His progressive and libertarian interlocutors do likewise but applaud it and develop liberal ideology in different ways.
Built Better Than They Knew Studies endeavors to show that our practice of self-government rises above simplistic ideological reductions and achieves political equilibrium. From its beginnings, our country has been a blend of ideas, practices, and understandings of what it means to be a free and flourishing human person within community, local and national. That means that our theory must be sufficiently aware of a political practice that involves contrasting accounts of how Americans choose to be constitutional. If liberalism insists on dominating discourse with a dogma of absolute choice, it oversteps its own bounds and becomes a softly despotic intellectual tyranny. We should respond by calling for renewal of social, cultural, and political manifestations of relational personhood.
Our ongoing debates resemble early American debates over religion and government, individual freedom and regulation, and commercial freedom versus state interference. There is nothing completely new under our constitutional sun. The task of Built Better Than They Knew Studies is to give voice to the depth of America’s constitutional tradition that so many of its theorists fail to comprehend. And there is no better example of someone articulating this tradition with wisdom, suppleness, and erudition than Peter Augustine Lawler.
This piece originally appeared in The Public Discourse