The Current Challenge of American Public Philosophy

The conviction upon which this Institute is founded is that twenty-first century America faces a profound moral crisis, which manifests itself in a variety of deep social fissures (often referred to as “culture wars”) and public policy problems. We believe that the inability of our political system to deal with many of these problems is connected with a loss of understanding of the principles of the Constitution and, broadly, of the original “American public philosophy.”

This loss of understanding is most clearly seen in the more or less conscious choice of the most influential intellectuals in America (and those whose views they affect substantially, such as the media elite and many judges) to reject the political theory on which the United States was founded. In particular, they reject the more classical and Christian elements, especially from the “natural law” tradition, broadly conceived, of the original American public philosophy, which served to provide it with a solid moral grounding.

The Political Philosophy of the Founding

The public philosophy on which this nation was founded aimed at limited but effective government–effective not only in promoting freedom and prosperity, but also in helping to maintain the moral integrity of the culture and supporting the institutions (e.g., families and churches) which bear the primary responsibility for the inculcation of civic virtue, an essential condition for a healthy community.

Over time, this framework of government met, with a great deal of success, challenges such as:

• the elimination of slavery and, after long delays and intermittent efforts, the ultimate establishment of the principle of racial equality

• the integration of countless immigrants into our national life

• an expanding national economic life, through periods of industrialization and now a rising service and information economy

• the emergence of the nation as an international power, confronting its complex responsibilities in the world

The moderate liberalism of America’s public philosophy served the country well for many years of expanding freedom, decency, and prosperity.

The Contemporary Situation

American public philosophy has, at least since the 1960s, however, faced a significant challenge, from a competing set of ideas that claims (wrongly, we believe) to be rooted in the Constitution and our national life. Contemporary liberalism, in theory and practice, has more and more retreated from recognizing the obligation of the nation to protect “the moral ecology” and the mediating institutions on which it primarily depends.

•  It has undermined the family, by denying its special status in law and by frequently displacing it in its social welfare programs.

•  It has driven religion out of an expanding public sphere, denying in principle the legitimacy and wisdom of acknowledging God’s place in our public philosophy–a place universally acknowledged by those who founded our nation.

•  In its emphasis on personal autonomy, contemporary liberalism has fostered ever-expanding forms of rights and entitlements, while ignoring or downplaying the moral ideals and duties which give meaning and reasonable limits to those rights.

Far from representing our national ideals, this philosophy is antithetical to them. These changes gravely endanger the well-being of our nation.

Our Task

For us, then, the effort to understand and defend the principles of the American republic is crucial as a precondition for re-establishing them once more as the foundation of our national life.

At the same time, this project is not simply a “restorationist” one. Articulating a public philosophy is an on-going task. We do not pretend — any more than the founders themselves did — that the public philosophy embodied in the Constitution was perfect. Both its limitations and the changes of circumstances in the last two centuries require creative efforts to reformulate that original public philosophy, to improve it and render it adequate to the exigencies of our own time.

But that reformulation will have in common with the original American public philosophy the purpose of drawing on the broad natural law tradition to provide the best possible vision of civic purposes for our modern pluralist community.

One could legitimately say that this is no “mere academic task”. It will require statesmen capable of translating the essential elements of a renewed American public philosophy into terms that the American people can understand and will want to embrace.

At the same time, since a restoration of those principles requires that they be re-discovered, defended, corrected at times, and applied to modern circumstances, it is also fair to say that academic study and exposition are crucial elements of the project of restoring the American republic. The Institute hopes to make an important contribution to that intellectual task.

Our Activities

The Institute undertakes a variety of activities which help to foster a better understanding of American public philosophy, and especially of those elements of it which draw on the natural law. It sponsors lectures, seminars, and conferences – for scholars, students, and community leaders – on a wide variety of subjects at the intersection of natural law theory, legal philosophy, American political thought, liberal political and legal theory, and contemporary public philosophy.

From the interchange of opinion thereby fostered, the Institute hopes to contribute to a deeper understanding of the principles of the American constitutional order and to an elevation of political discourse in American life.