In his article from the Public Discourse, JMC faculty partner Vincent Philip Muñoz argues that a secular account of the Founding’s teachings on natural rights does not entail moral obligations and thus may not sustain healthy family culture in a society.
Natural Rights, God, and Marriage in the American Founding
In my judgment, Thomas West has written the best book on the political theory of the American Founding published in recent memory. Though it is not West’s primary focus, his treatment of marriage and family in the Founding is particularly thought-provoking.
West persuasively demonstrates that the Founders held virtue and morality to be necessary conditions for freedom and self-government. A self-governing people must be able to govern itself—that is, citizens must have the moral character that predisposes them to use their freedom well both as individuals and as citizens who will select and hold responsible those who govern. Since virtue and morality are the necessary conditions of natural-rights republicanism, the Founders believed it legitimate that government foster virtue and morality.
One of West’s most important contributions is to correct the historical record on this exact point. A number of leading scholars assert that the Founders were unconcerned with virtue or, worse, that the Founders designed a system that encourages narrow self-interest and eschews virtue and morality. And West names names. The most influential scholar that got it wrong is Martin Diamond. Diamond got it wrong because he was too influenced by Leo Strauss and the Straussian distinction of ancients from moderns. To this list one might add Wilson Carey McWilliams and his student, Patrick Deneen.
West documents the Founders’ concern for virtue and morality by pointing to what they said in their authoritative documents and what they did in their public policy. The Founders attempted to cultivate virtue through public education, including university education, through the promotion of religion, and through other restrictions, such as laws against gambling.
But perhaps the most important institution for the cultivation of the character necessary for natural-rights republicanism is the family. And strong families are made possible by good marriages. West devotes a full chapter, accordingly, to the Founders’ political theory of the family, a topic that deserves more scholarly attention (though see this fine overview by Scott Yenor).
Vincent Phillip Muñoz is the Tocqueville Associate Professor of Political Science and Concurrent Associate Professor of Law at The University of Notre Dame. He also serves as Director of Notre Dame’s Tocqueville Program for Inquiry into Religion and Public Life and the Potenziani Program in Constitutional Studies.
Dr. Muñoz writes and teaches across the fields of political philosophy, constitutional studies, and American politics. His research has focused on the theme of religious liberty and the American Constitution. His first book, God and the Founders: Madison, Washington, and Jefferson (Cambridge University Press, 2009), won the Hubert Morken Award from the American Political Science Association for the best publication on religion and politics in 2009 and 2010. His First Amendment church-state casebook, Religious Liberty and the American Supreme Court: The Essential Cases and Documents, was published in 2013 (Rowman & Littlefield, revised edition 2015) and is being used at Notre Dame and other leading universities.
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