Michael Anton on Behalf of the Thesis That Religion Is the Basis of Republican Government

1. No doubt because of the political circumstances in which the United States currently finds itself, I have in turn found myself wanting to know more about and better understand the political theory and philosophy of the nation’s founders, the “founding fathers.” So, coming upon Michael Anton’s “Founding philosophy. A review of The Political Theory of the American Founding by Thomas G. West” in The New Criterion and noting that Anton had served as Deputy Assistant to President [Trump] for Strategic Communications, I thought that the review might well be worth the reading.

2. It was, and for one reason because it contains a relatively explicit argument on behalf of the thesis that religion is the basis of republican government, a thesis that has considerable currency these days. Anton’s expression of the argument is concise, stated almost in passing.

In reality, West shows that Jefferson—like all the founders—well understood that republican government is impossible absent a strong moral foundation in the people, which in turn depends on religion, which government therefore has a duty to promote.

3. Before, however, entering upon the task of “regimenting” the argument, i.e., of so restating it that its logic is more fully explicit, it is worth noting that Anton, in stating that Jefferson “well understood” the sequence of thoughts expressed in the sentence just quoted, is both saying that that sequence of thoughts represents Jefferson’s view and that he, Anton, himself is in agreement with Jefferson on the matter.

That said, let’s observe that the one sentence quoted above actually gives expression to two arguments, the second of which is represented solely by the “which government therefore has a duty to promote,” i.e., the conclusion that:

Republican government has a duty to promote religion.

I’ll return to that argument below, if only briefly.

4. The first of the one sentence’s two arguments is expressed in the passage’s “republican government is impossible absent a strong moral foundation in the people, which in turn depends on religion.” Anton’s statement can be so reformulated that the argument’s validity is patently obvious.

As a first step, the “republican government is impossible absent a strong moral foundation in the people” can be restated as:

Only peoples having a strong moral foundation are peoples [capable of] having a republican government.

Similarly, the “which [strong moral foundation in the people] in turn depends on religion” can be restated as:

Only peoples having religion are peoples having a strong moral foundation.

Together the two propositions serve as the premises of the following argument:

Only peoples having a strong moral foundation are peoples [capable of] having a republican government.
Only peoples having religion are peoples having a strong moral foundation.
Therefore, only peoples having religion are peoples [capable of] having a republican government.

5. It is evident that the argument is perfectly valid, in that, if its two premises are true, then its conclusion is also, and necessarily, true. Perhaps, however, it will be worth taking the few simple steps needed to make its validity even more evident. First, then, the latter of the two propositions just spelled out is logically equivalent to the universal categorical proposition that:

All peoples having a strong moral foundation are peoples having religion.

The former of the two propositions just spelled out is logically equivalent to the universal categorical proposition that:

All peoples [capable of] having a republican government are peoples having a strong moral foundation.

Together the two propositions serve as the premises of the following argument:

All peoples having a strong moral foundation are peoples having religion.
All peoples [capable of] having a republican government are peoples having a strong moral foundation.
Therefore, all peoples [capable of] having a republican government are peoples having religion.

Students of traditional logic will recognize that this argument is a categorial syllogism of the form known as Barbara, all instances of which are valid.

6. Anton’s argument on behalf of the thesis that religion is the basis of republican government, i.e., that all peoples [capable of] having a republican government are peoples having religion, is, as I said above, a valid argument. That, however, tells us only that, if the two premises are true, the conclusion is also true; it does not tell us that the conclusion is true, tout court. The argument can tell us that the conclusion is true only if it, the argument, is sound, only, that is, if both the argument is valid and its premises are true.

7. Our question, then, is that of whether the premises of Anton’s argument are both true. Now, of course, they are not “self-evident,” as, say, “all bachelors are unmarried males” is self-evident. They therefore can only be known to be true if they are conclusions of sound arguments.

The argument on behalf of the conclusion that

All peoples having a strong moral foundation are peoples having religion.

would have to be an argument similar in form to Anton’s argument and so read like this:

All peoples [having some requisite characteristic] are peoples having religion.
All peoples having a strong moral foundation are peoples [having some requisite characteristic].
Therefore, all peoples having a strong moral foundation are peoples having religion.

8. I have invited, or perhaps challenged,** Mr. Anton to provide such an argument. I also invite any reader to provide one. And, while I was and am at it, I further invited him and now also invite the reader to provide the premises that would, in a valid argument, conclude to the aforenoted thesis that:

Republican government has a duty to promote religion.

The thesis that “all peoples having a strong moral foundation are peoples having religion” will undoubtedly be a premise of the argument, but not the only premise.

Until next time.

Richard

* Michael Anton’s “Founding philosophy. A review of The Political Theory of the American Founding by Thomas G. West” (The New Criterion, Vol. 36, No. 10, June 2018).

** Or tried to invite or challenge; finding a working email address for people as much in the public eye as Mr. Anton is difficult.

About Rchard E. Hennessey

See above, "About the Author/Editor."
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