Conservatives think of themselves as defenders of the Western tradition. But they are particularly uneasy about one aspect of it: the insistence that political communities should seek to advance the common good, and indeed the highest good.
Augustine spoke of political communities as bound by common loves: “The better the objects of this agreement, the better the people; and the worse the objects, the worse the people.” Well before him, Aristotle said a community should aim at “the highest good.”
Many intellectual commentators now views these ideas as dangerous and foreign. This became obvious when Sohrab Ahmari (who happens to be an Iranian immigrant to America) recently stressed the importance of the common good – and the highest good. Critics compared him to ISIS and the Ayatollah. They called him un-American.
David French of National Review said that Ahmari was forsaking America’s historical commitment to “neutral principles” such as free speech and due process. By insisting that governments should re-order the public square towards the common good, Ahmari was “forsaking the framework for ordered liberty established by the Founders.”
But the idea that America was founded on “neutral principles” is a myth. From its beginnings, America has been characterized by what Tocqueville called the “intimate union of the spirit of religion with the spirit of liberty.” The Americans whose representatives drafted the Constitution did not seek to end this union, but to place it on a stable footing.
In 1813, John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson: “The general Principles, on which the Fathers Achieved Independence, were … the general Principles of Christianity … and the general Principles of English and American Liberty.” The former are not neutral principles.
Every early administration except Jefferson’s summoned America to days of humiliation, fasting, and prayer. Americans were urged to “confess and bewail [their] manifold sins and transgressions, and by a sincere repentance and amendment of life … and through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain pardon and forgiveness.” Is this neutrality?
As the political scientist Barry Shain has noted: “For Revolutionary-era Americans, the common or public good enjoyed preeminence over the immediate interests of individuals.” Americans “believed it was the legitimate and necessary role of local religious, familial, social, and governmental forces to limit, reform, and shape the sinful individual.”
John Barnard, a leading minister educated at Harvard, expressed this consensus: “The ultimate and supreme ends of government, are the same with the last end of all creatures, and all their actions; that God in all things may be glorified: but then the subordinate end, and that which is the main, as it respects man, is the common good.”
Lemuel Haynes, a Revolutionary War veteran and the first black man ordained in America, argued that “A republican government has its basis” in religion.
In the first years of the republic, the state legislators and governors would sit to hear “election day” sermons. In a 1792 election day sermon in Connecticut, Timothy Stone, a minister educated at Yale, said “The idea that there is, and ought to be, no connection between religion and civil policy, appears to rest upon this absurd supposition; that men by entering into society for mutual advantage, become quite a different class of beings from what they were before, that they cease to be moral beings; and consequently, loose their relation and obligations to God.” Stone told Connecticut’s political leaders that government should aim “at no less an object than the glory of Jehovah and the highest felicity of his unlimited and eternal kingdom.”
Preaching before the same assembly in 1799, Cyprian Strong, another Yale man, said “It is not pretended, that civil rulers and legislators have a right, absolutely and authoritatively to impose creeds and confessions of faith; yet, most certainly, it must be incumbent on them, in all the measures they adopt, to manifest a governing regard for God and the interests of his kingdom.”
As these men show, the belief that politics should be ordered to the common good and the highest good is not only classical and Christian, but American. We need to reinvigorate this tradition, not by going back to colonial arrangements, but by pioneering new ways to unite the spirits of Christianity and liberty.
We got a sense of what this might mean when Martin Luther King wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail. King noted that the Civil Rights movement’s demands accorded with “the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God.” King did not simply invoke principles of liberal neutrality. He appealed to a common belief that our politics must be ordered to the common good, and indeed the Highest Good.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things