Learning Together Module 4

Our Fellows have now completed their fourth module—a critical one at this juncture of their experience—covering the founding of America and the United States Constitution.

This is an important time when John Jay Fellows are encouraged to pay particular attention to the intersection of Christianity and the formation of the American political order. This is because it is so common today for many to assume that the United States is a secular political order when the historical record begs to differ. Module 4 examines the views of the founders and framers on religion, especially Christianity, as it was mediated to them in their British cultural context.

Our Fellows contemplate foundational values of liberty, order, justice, virtue, and religion, and how they influenced the drafting of the American Constitution. 

In the following essay—the fourth in our Learning Together series—Janessa Blythe, current John Jay Fellow, offers a reflection on the necessity of understanding the past in order to address the present and impact the future.


 Janessa graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Baylor University in the Spring of 2018, where she studied great texts and political science as a University Scholar. Janessa hopes that her time as a John Jay Fellow will prepare her spiritually, intellectually, and professionally for a career in law and public policy.

Janessa graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Baylor University in the Spring of 2018, where she studied great texts and political science as a University Scholar. Janessa hopes that her time as a John Jay Fellow will prepare her spiritually, intellectually, and professionally for a career in law and public policy.

Examining the Roots of America
By Janessa Blythe

Over two hundred years after the birth of our nation, it seems that American society has become forgetful of its roots.

In public discourse, our system of government is frequently referred to as a democracy; no reference is made to its republican structure, the Electoral College, and the Senate. Furthermore, geographic representation is increasingly attacked, and the role of Christianity in forming our nation is regularly dismissed.
 
Children still study the founding in school, families take pilgrimages to Washington D.C. to view our monuments to liberty and justice, and citizens continue to participate in what has been called the “American experiment.”

But will these things be enough to preserve our nation if we lack a proper comprehension of the events that gave us our system of government?

Or do we need to understand the philosophies and ideas that prepared the delegates in Philadelphia to draft our Constitution?

Through our fourth module at the John Jay Institute we have studied the foundations of our society in an effort to not only understand our history, but to equip ourselves to be able to preserve it. Russell Kirk, in the final chapter of his book, The Roots of American Order, exhorts his reader to remember that our roots are strong and deep, but they must be watered now and again. The readings in this module have encouraged me as I have seen the strength of the roots, and have inspired me to be ever vigilant about their care.

This module has allowed us to survey and discuss the influence of enlightenment thought, the impact of Christianity upon the minds of the founders and the Constitution, the presuppositions the founders held about mankind, and the structure of our government.  

Our readings caused me to realize that I held some misconceptions about the American founding, particularly about the influence of Enlightenment thought. Gertrude Himmelfarb in her book, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments, makes a compelling argument that there was not one single Enlightenment, but three different Enlightenments—the British, the French, and the American.

Today, Americans tend to understand the Enlightenment to mean the French Enlightenment, but this is a misreading of history. The ideas that influenced America differed in key ways. For example, the French Enlightenment opposed reason and religion, which was not the case in the other two. Himmelfarb succinctly distinguishes between the three Enlightenments stating, “The British Enlightenment represents ‘the sociology of virtue,’ the French ‘the ideology of reason,’ and the American ‘the politics of liberty.’” If we fail to grasp the ideas that influenced our founders, we are in danger of misunderstanding our entire system of governance.

When we examined our founding documents, The Constitution, The Declaration of Independence, and The Bill of Rights, and their histories with the help of James McClellan, we also confronted a critique of the American system, made by Robert Dahl. In the light of his criticisms of Federalism, unequal representation, our bicameral legislature, and our winner takes all elections we assessed our roots. For instance, Dahl believes that the geographic representation of states produces unequal representation that is undemocratic in nature. He would prefer a unitary system with truly equal representation.

In reading about the Constitution debates, I saw that Dahl’s concern of unequal representation was present there too. The larger states favored representation based on population and were aware that it would favor their interests. However, the smaller states could see that their voice would easily be drowned out by a system like this. Because of the competing interests at stake, both types of equal representation, population and state, were included in our system. Understanding the roots of our bicameral legislature and our structure of representation allowed me to better understand the virtues of our system.

While critiques like Dahl’s are becoming more and more popular, this module has showed me the wisdom in the American founding. Understanding deeply the imperfectability of man, the delegates in Philadelphia built a system designed to preserve liberty and to secure the God-given rights of man. Despite the bitterness of politics, I believe that the American system of government is good and that our founding principles, adhered to properly, are good for society. I am so thankful for the opportunity to examine America’s roots and equip myself with the knowledge to preserve it.

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Learning Together Module 3

Building upon previous modules focused on Christian worldview and Christian engagement within the culture and the natural law, the John Jay Institute's third module begins with a question: "Is there a tradition of Christian political thought?"

In the following essay—the third in our Learning Together series—Connor Smith, current John Jay Fellow, offers a reflection on the life-giving pulse of historical Christianity as it relates to the Church and the State.


  Connor graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in Government and Economics. He plans to continue his studies in South Korea as he works toward a dual masters degree in International Relations and Public Policy. His goal is to obtain a Ph.D. in International Relations from a university in the U.S., then return to his great home state of Texas to teach at the university level.

Connor graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in Government and Economics. He plans to continue his studies in South Korea as he works toward a dual masters degree in International Relations and Public Policy. His goal is to obtain a Ph.D. in International Relations from a university in the U.S., then return to his great home state of Texas to teach at the university level.

The Beat of Historical Christianity
By Connor Smith

Christians can sometimes fall prey to the impression that they exist in this world as an isolated enclave of true faith.

Fortunately, participating in the John Jay Fellowship program has enabled me to tap into the pulse of western civilization and discover that Christianity has a consistent beat. The Body of the Church is not only a coherent, widely disseminated whole, but it finds within itself a true orthodoxy stretching back to the Church Fathers. 

The stream runs clearest at the source, as they say, and that stream is the first 400 years of Christianity known as the Patristic age...

Intellectual giant Augustine and brilliant orator John Chrysostom are dominant figures on the scene and began our discussion concerning Church and state relations. Rome at this time, to put it mildly, was apprehensive about Christians. Scratching their heads in confusion, the Romans threw the Christians to the lions, not knowing what else to do with these atheists who wouldn’t worship the gods. Christian political theology at this time was thus largely undeveloped and at times antagonistic against Church relations with the state, given that political science belonged to the realm of “satanology,” according to one Church Father. However, as Christianity began to spread and gain greater traction in the empire, Christian thinkers began to question how the Church should related to the state more seriously. John Chrysostom developed the idea that government as a whole is mandated by God, but not individual governments, which could be acting contrary to God’s will. This distinction was critical for the early development of the idea that Christians should not endorse a wholesale rejection of the state, but that they did not have to accept persecutions as mandates from God either.

The pulse of Christianity in western civilization would begin to beat a little louder in late antiquity. While the roar of the colosseum began to fade, choirs of hymns singing glory to God would crescendo. Roman emperors Constantine and Justinian came to power, resulting in a dynamic shift in Church-state relations. Constantine declared the Christian faith to be the faith of the empire and Justinian argued that the role of the state was under and in support of the Church itself. Christians who for hundreds of years were constantly being coerced to render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s, suddenly found Caesar genuflecting before Christ and wielding the sword in His name. 

Late antiquity decrescendoed into the dark ages obscured by a “double darkness…of sin and ignorance.” Yet a discernable bass of light and reason heralded by Thomas Aquinas rediscovered and completed Aristotle’s virtue ethics, which further informed Christian understanding of the telos of the state. Aquinas waged war on ignorance but Bonaventure built a bulwark for the Church, defending against sin spewing from the gates of hell. Mortified by the decadence of the Church, Bonaventure defended and expanded Francis of Assisi’s call to radical poverty to purify the Church of her decadence. 

The Reformation onward may convey the appearance of an ensemble suddenly diverging on what piece to play, but listen carefully. The Church may be fatigued but we can still trace notes of Augustine in Luther’s Two Kingdoms; Catholics and Protestants still hum a tune about a virtue inculcating state.

Why does Church history matter? The Christian people are part of the greatest ongoing story about love and redemption. It is critical that we understand ourselves in relation to one another and to God. We are not radically autonomous individuals; we “know that the LORD Himself is God; It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves.” The Church still has several more movements left before the coda, but we can know that the pieces will be in the same vein as the beat that flowed before. Orthodoxy then, is the recording the Church looks to to unite us in the present and points the way for our complete understanding of the role of the Church and state.

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Learning Together Module 2

We have asked our John Jay Fellows to assist us by writing reflections on each of the five courses covered during the John Jay Fellows program. Recently, we wrapped up our second module on Natural Law and Public Moral Discourse. The concept of the Natural Law has been a central component of western moral and political thought for over two millennia; from the classical Greek philosophers through Saint Thomas and up to the modern New Natural Law thinkers. Yet not all appeals to the Natural Law are equal, nor do they start from the same premises or arrive at the same conclusions. Our second module studies the development of the idea of Natural Law from the classical world up to contemporary scholarship that wrestles with this concept. 

Current John Jay Fellow, Timothy Russell, offers our first reflective essay on this module, the second in a series of five pieces in our Learning Together series.


 Timothy Russell, Fall 2018 John Jay Fellow, graduated from Northeast Catholic College with a degree in Philosophy. After completing the John Jay Fellows program, Tim plans to attend graduate school in Literature and Creative Writing, followed by a career in writing.

Timothy Russell, Fall 2018 John Jay Fellow, graduated from Northeast Catholic College with a degree in Philosophy. After completing the John Jay Fellows program, Tim plans to attend graduate school in Literature and Creative Writing, followed by a career in writing.

Natural Law & Public Moral Discourse
By Timothy Russell

Natural Law is a crucial topic of study at the John Jay Institute. Without Natural Law, society runs the risk of disintegrating and falling into chaos. This claim raises three important questions: 1) What is Natural Law? 2) How does it function? And 3) Why is it so significant?

1) What is Natural Law?
St. Thomas Aquinas, a 13th-Century Dominican scholar, writes in his “Treatise on Law” that there are four primary types of laws: Eternal, Divine, Natural, and Human. The Eternal Law is that which is inscribed into the very structure of the universe itself; all other forms of law originate from it. Divine Law consists of those commands given directly to humankind from God; these are specific elements of the Eternal Law that we would not know if God did not reveal them directly to us. Human Law comprises all laws made by human beings for the governing of society; unlike Divine Law, some human laws are good and just, while others are not. What makes a human law just or unjust?: Whether or not it is in accord with Eternal Law. But how do we know whether human laws accord with or contradict the Eternal Law? In some cases, we can tell by comparing them to the Divine Law. But this is not sufficient for all cases, as not every instance of right and wrong is directly addressed in Divine Revelation. Therefore, there must be another way that we can know the Eternal Law well enough to compare our human laws to it. That other way is called Natural Law.

2) How does Natural Law function?
Natural Law is that part of the Eternal Law that is, as St. Paul tells us, “written on the hearts” of human beings. It is the way we know that something is right or wrong without God telling us directly. In a sense, it is something that we already know or, as J. Budziszewski puts it, the Natural Law is “what we can’t not know.”

Of course, this does not mean that every person automatically knows what is right or wrong in every situation. Budziszewski goes into great detail concerning the various ways that the precepts of Natural Law can be overlooked, forgotten, buried, or misguided. That does not discredit the existence of the Natural Law. It remains a fact that there are certain fundamental rules about the universe that we can know without God revealing them to us directly.

3) Why is Natural Law significant?
This whole discussion may seem like so much heady intellectual jargon with no significance for real life, but nothing could be further from the truth. If we reject the concept of Natural Law, the world will quickly descend into chaos. The evidence is all around us, for we have rejected the idea of Natural Law, and the world has descended into chaos. It is nearly impossible to have a moral discussion with many people today, because they do not believe that there is such a thing as objective right and wrong. “What’s wrong for you might be right for me, or vice-versa,” they say. Why is this manner of thinking so prevalent today? Because, if we discard Natural Law, then Divine Law is the only way that we can tell right from wrong. Then what about those people who aren’t Christian? They have no way of telling right from wrong aside from their own thoughts and feelings, which often conflict with the thoughts and feelings of others. If there is no universal standard to measure against their thoughts and feelings, then morality becomes entirely subjective, entirely personal, and chaos ensues. That is exactly what has happened to our society. Until we can realize that some things are objectively good and objectively evil, then our descent into chaos will only intensify.

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Learning Together Module 1

We have asked our John Jay Fellows to assist us by writing reflections on each of the five courses covered during the John Jay Fellows program. Recently, we wrapped up our first module, which focused on the areas of Christian Worldview, Christian Engagement in the public square, and what our goals for engagement ultimately are. Central to our focus is a consideration of the creation, fall, and redemption/restoration themes and how they shape a Biblical worldview. 

Current John Jay Fellow, Garrett Bell, offers our first reflective essay on this module, the first in a series of five pieces in our Learning Together series.


 Garrett Bell, Fall 2018 John Jay Fellow, graduated from the University of Kentucky with degrees in Political Science and Sociology. He plans to attend law school in the Fall of 2019.

Garrett Bell, Fall 2018 John Jay Fellow, graduated from the University of Kentucky with degrees in Political Science and Sociology. He plans to attend law school in the Fall of 2019.

Christian Foundations for Culture, Society, and Politics
By Garrett Bell

As the first module of our semester comes to a close, I find myself reflecting on all we have read and my reason for being here at the John Jay Institute. Though my public education prepared me for a specialized career in Sociology, one that would aspire to the pursuit of the good of society and human flourishing, it was built on a foundation of sand – emphasizing only humanitarian efforts and the liberation of oppressed populations. While these ambitions were rightly aimed at engaging culture and rejecting the Durkheimian distinction of “sacred” and “profane” spheres of religious life (as detested by author Albert Wolters in Creation Regained), ultimately they committed the opposite fraud. That is, they denied the role of divine truth and the resurrected body of Christ in my attempts to love my neighbors and promote peace and order. There were no discussions as to why human suffering exists, nor why we are called to alleviate such suffering. Even in those classes which explicitly dealt with law, my professors and classmates rarely considered how justice ought to be defined. Instead, we settled for a surface-level awareness that certain human rights should be fought for, all the while maintaining that absolute truth is fleeting and malleable. Justice was considered relative, dependent on the culture and even on the individual.

Simply stated, this is the effect of a modern age that has tried to construct a civilization from valueless compromises and neutral processes. As Christopher Dawson states in his essay, Civilization in Crisis, “Custom and tradition and law and authority have lost their old sacredness and moral prestige,” and instead, “they have all become servants of public opinion and of the will of society.” What is thought to be good and worth pursuing is “floating on a tide of change.” My educational experience was indicative of that. The modern temptation to accept science, democracy, and humanitarianism as essential elements of civilization, while simultaneously discarding the importance of transcendental truth generally, and Christianity specifically, is tantamount to cultural suicide: sawing off the branch upon which we sit. To do so ignores the centuries of Christian thought that influenced democratic formulation. Consequently, the super-rational element of human psychology is ignored and the spiritual unity that bonds and regulates society is disintegrated.

For Dawson and J. Gresham Machen, the solution to this impending catastrophe is to be found in the reformation of higher education and the breaking down of intellectual barriers which prevent Christianity from getting its hearing. By reinstating a religious education, they argue, we can recover the lost channels of communication that have been choked out by secularism and restore contact between religion and modern society.

I believe that the vision of Dawson and Machen is manifesting itself at the John Jay Institute. As James K.A. Smith articulates in Awaiting the King, we are forming a Christian political theology that “is rooted in the substance of the gospel and the specific practices of the cruciform community that is the church. The public task… is not just to remind the world of what it already knows but to proclaim what it couldn’t otherwise know – and to do so as a public service for the sake of the common good.” On a daily basis, we are striving to recover our own cultural inheritance. We are learning to communicate this inheritance to a sub-religious and neo-pagan world through politics, law, literature, art, and education. We are striving to reunite the world of spiritual reality and the world of social experience, and ultimately, remind our neighbors what a redeemed human life looks like.

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Field Studies

This is the last in a series of five articles in our Life Together summer series. Alumni tell us that what makes the John Jay Institute so unique is the combination of five key components, the fifth of which are Field Studies.


 Gabriel Ozuna, Spring 2018 John Jay Fellow, graduated from Yale University with a degree in History.

Gabriel Ozuna, Spring 2018 John Jay Fellow, graduated from Yale University with a degree in History.

Field Studies
By Gabriel Ozuna

Field studies are among the most important part of the John Jay experience. Over the course of our fellowship, we have had the opportunity to visit such iconic places as Valley Forge, Gettysburg, and Washington, D.C., as well as explore the unique contributions that Philadelphia has borne out as the first great American city. The historical component to the John Jay curriculum would be far diminished without the very active nature of these weekly excursions. There’s something awe-inspiring about literally walking through history and forming tangible connections to the past. If the purpose of John Jay is to “prepare principled leaders for public service,” visiting these “thin places” of American history goes a long way towards stirring the patriotic spirit that propels men to proper stewardship of the American ideal.

One is reminded of a pivotal scene in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: “You see, boys forget what their country means by just reading The Land of the Free in history books. Then they get to be men they forget even more. Liberty's too precious a thing to be buried in books, Miss Saunders. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: ‘I'm free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn't, I can, and my children will.’ Boys ought to grow up remembering that.”

The Friday field study is an essential balance to the academic component we focus on Monday-Thursday, if only to remind us that ideas do have consequences, and that America, so far as it is a social contract, is a Burkean contract between the living, the dead, and the next generation. History, although without sides, is always unfolding before us. If we as an organization wish to continue to mold and influence the future of our nation’s culture and social fabric, it behooves us to study the past by paying homage to its venerable sites.

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