Martin Scorsese’s recent film The Gangs of New York takes us back to a time when religion, not race, set the terms for ethno-cultural conflict in America. The film begins in the 1840s with a battle between rival gangs of native (Anglo) Americans and immigrants (largely Irish, even more largely Catholic); it ends with the Civil War draft riots of 1863. Following the received historical wisdom of our day, reviewers generally acknowledged the latter event, which featured Irish Americans assaulting African Americans, as a pivotal turning point in American history; the film’s main story of the conflict between Irish Catholic immigrants and Anglo-Protestant nativists appears as something of a historical oddity, incidental to the “broader” story of the birth of the modern city. The religious story simply has no meaning in our current political and cultural landscape. Perhaps this accounts for the film’s astonishing shutout at last year’s Academy Awards ceremony.
Catholics as individuals and as a social group certainly no longer face the overt and violent hostility of old-style nativism. Catholicism as a cultural orientation, a general attitude toward authority and community, however, remains beyond the pale of respectable American liberalism. Despite the Church’s (late) embrace of political democracy and the guardedly democratic “people of God” ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council, Catholicism remains a belief system that accepts hierarchy as good and affirms the primacy of the Church as authoritative community over any authority claims issuing from personal religious experience. These beliefs mark the outer limit of diversity in the generally antinomian culture of contemporary American liberalism.
The presence of a bias against traditional religion in contemporary liberal discourse should come as no surprise to readers of this journal. More surprising is the claim that secular liberalism still works within assumptions about community and authority that took shape in the early modern wars of religion. By the mid-twentieth century, explicitly religious language gave way to the more decorous social-scientific language of culture, but the battle lines remained much the same: culture as given (Catholicism) must give way to culture as choice (Protestantism). The cultural diversity celebrated by contemporary multiculturalism is less an affirmation of the survival of distinct authoritative cultural traditions within America than a celebration of the inalienable right of individuals to sample the world’s cultures as resources for individual self-development. Multiculturalism stands as the heir to nineteenth-century nativism not by any explicit hostility to Catholicism, but rather through its explicit, if sometimes obtuse, hostility to culture.
Conservatives have accused multiculturalism of many things, but hostility to culture is hardly the first charge that comes to mind. In his Disuniting of America, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. has provided one account of what may be the most recognizable story of the place of multiculturalism in contemporary political debate. Schlesinger, like many a Cold War liberal, now finds himself, on this issue at least, something of a cultural conservative without having substantially changed any of his views over the last fifty years. Criticizing current multiculturalists for their narrow understanding of culture in terms of exclusive membership in isolated, closed communities defined by ethnic or racial origin, he laments the passing of the glorious era of “consensus,” when Americans affirmed a tolerant pluralism within the context of a single, shared American culture. Leading figures from Schlesinger’s generational cohort more sympathetic to multiculturalism nonetheless accept his characterization of the generational divide. In We’re All Multiculturalists Now, sociologist Nathan Glazer accepts the cultural balkanization of contemporary multiculturalism as the price good liberals must pay for the failure of earlier attempts at racial and cultural integration. The cultural chauvinism of certain strains of multiculturalism is a necessary corrective to the historic demands for assimilation into a single Anglo-American cultural ideal. The future may allow for some more fruitful interaction between marginal and mainstream culture, but the present belongs to a kind of cultural separatism.
Were such separatism actually a contending ideological position, multiculturalism could at least claim the distinction of offering some real alternative to contemporary liberalism. Alas, as no less a figure than James Davison Hunter has pointed out, multiculturalism more often than not is little more than a new way of voicing a classically American individualism. In Before the Shooting Begins, a sequel to his influential Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, Hunter takes issue with multiculturalists’ claims regarding diversity. Surveying the literature on multicultural education, Hunter finds predictable appeals for tolerance often obscuring a more troubling message of seeming indifference.
Yes, the literature proceeds from a kind of commonsense cultural relativism that insists on the irreducible diversity of human cultures and the moral neutrality of all cultural beliefs and practices; predictably, suspension of judgment is prelude to acceptance and intercultural harmony. Hunter argues that this model of intercultural understanding ultimately glosses over important differences. Particular understandings of religion and family may differ across cultures, yet as one representative public school position paper asserts, these particular beliefs and practices are simply “different answers to basic human questions that confront all peoples of the world.” Retreating from a rigorous relativism, multicultural education ignores unsavory (to Westerners) cultural practices and insists that despite differences of food, dress, religion, etc., we are all deep down really the same. The implicit message that cultural differences in no way interfere with our common humanity ultimately trivializes culture and actually discourages children from taking their own culture seriously. Indeed, the same position paper explicitly states that the purpose of multicultural education is to “help children live in more than one culture.” Multiculturalism may help us understand where people are coming from, but it points all of us away from our own cultures to a life, in effect, beyond culture.
Hunter’s argument holds as we shift from popular to elite multiculturalism. The academic literature is endless, but I have found an early 1990s exchange in the American Quarterly, the official journal of the American Studies Association, to be the most instructive with respect to the internal contradictions of the celebration of cultural diversity. By granting the lead essay to the consensus-era historian John Higham, the editors clearly wished to structure their forum as a battle between old-guard liberal history and new, multicultural histories. Higham played his appointed role in part by offering a fairly standard liberal declension narrative. Anticipating Schlesinger, Higham tells the story of the long, hard struggle to achieve an inclusive society, a struggle that peaked with the civil rights movement and continued on with steady gains through the 1970s and early 1980s, only to be undermined by ethnic chauvinists—that is, radical multiculturalists—who seem to reject the possibility of a common American culture that transcends particular group identities. Predictably, the multiculturalist respondents participating in the forum attack Higham’s modest plea for common ground as an assimilationist assault on diversity. One scholar, Nancy Hewitt, dismisses Higham’s “unitary perspective” with the almost patriotic assertion that “we Americans have never held a single vision of what we want the country to become.” Another scholar, Vicki Ruiz, invokes the laundry list of “racism, sexism, imperialism, persecution, and social, political, and economic segmentation” to expose the blindness of Higham’s liberal narrative of steady progress.
More telling than this liberal/radical vituperation is the common ground, if you will, that unites the two sides. Ruiz invokes the specter of oppressive social forces less as a threat to culture than a threat to choice. Multiculturalism demands sensitivity to the ways in which people “navigate across cultural boundaries as well as make conscious decisions in the production of culture.” Ruiz understands culture as a resource in the struggle to achieve autonomy, and reminds us simply that people “have not had unlimited choice” in their use of culture. Racism, sexism, and so forth appear as constraints on “aspirations, expectations, and decision making,” not on culture. Ruiz and her fellow multiculturalist commentators reduce culture to the issue of human agency (individual or collective) and reduce power to the question of the number of choices and options people have in controlling their lives. Despite his rhetoric of common ground, Higham similarly locates his utopian ideal outside of culture. Rejecting both assimilation and separatism, Higham calls on multiculturalists to “find a center of gravity in a centerless space where outsiders resist and simultaneously enrich an overall national culture.” Ruiz’s cross-cultural navigation and Higham’s liminal, centerless space share a common vision of culture as process rather than substance, less a whole way of life than an instrumental way of living.
Well, all of this seems a long way from Catholicism, and an even longer way from The Gangs of New York. But perhaps not. In the exchange with Higham, one scholar proved sharp enough to detect an older religious narrative in the contemporary secular debate. Gerald Early rightly traced multiculturalism’s obsession with issues of personal identity back to the Puritan tradition of self-scrutiny; he would have done better had he also traced the metaphors of boundlessness that run through so much of multicultural (and liberal) rhetoric to their roots in the post-Puritan transcendentalism of nineteenth-century American literature. The multicultural attack on “structural barriers rooted in race, class, gender, sexuality, and citizenship” must be understood as a contemporary manifestation of the classic American antinomian rejection of all restrictive—or even defining—structures external to the self. Regrettably, even Early proved too dull to consider that American culture could ever possibly be anything else. That something else, the repressed story, if you will, simmering beneath the surface of the discourse of multiculturalism, is Catholicism.
The culture of Emerson has also been the culture of a romantic Catholicism that a significant number of Anglo-American intellectuals have looked to as the only viable alternative to the rootless autonomy still celebrated by many as the promise of American life. Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France inaugurated a modern intellectual tradition that has understood the democratic revolutions of Europe and America not simply as a change in political rule, but as the disruption of a timeless social order in which people were bound together in an organic unity on the model of the human body. Modern democracy replaced the traditional bonds of mutual affection and obligation with the abstract principles of consent and contract; freeing the individual from traditional constraints, modern society also denied him traditional supports and protections. The fragmentation of social life carried with it a corresponding fragmentation of cultural and moral life. Nineteenth-century intellectuals, first in the guise of Romantic poets and later as social scientists, gave themselves the task of reintegrating this fragmented world in a way that would both recapture and transcend the unity lost.
In England and America, this quest for reintegration presents us with the irony of largely Protestant or secular Protestant and Jewish intellectuals looking back to the Catholic Middle Ages as a model of social unity and organic wholeness. Charles Eliot Norton, the most significant American practitioner of this tradition of cultural criticism, may have preferred the Italian Renaissance to the Middle Ages, yet here again we have a case of a Protestant thinker looking to Catholic culture as an antidote to modern alienation. Norton is particularly important for his role in revamping the humanities curriculum at Harvard in the late-nineteenth century. As Harvard and similar institutions transformed themselves into modern research universities, they abandoned the classical curriculum of the antebellum college and adopted the disciplinary division of labor that we still suffer under today. Norton’s specialty was art history, and his survey courses in this field were central to the construction of what we think of today as Western Civilization. For Norton, Western Civilization reached its peak in the artistic productions of Dante, DaVinci, and Michaelangelo.
Norton’s love for Italian Catholic culture in no way diminished his contempt for the Church as an authoritarian institution and for actual living Catholics as ignorant peasants. This aestheticized Anglo-Catholicism found its most sophisticated American articulation in the work of Henry Adams. Scion of a founding family of America, Adams found himself a displaced person in a world in which science and industrial capitalism rendered the claims of family privilege obsolete. Adams found in the Marian symbolism of premodern Catholicism a redemptive, nurturing alternative to the rapacious, destructive ethos of modern machine civilization. As with Norton, Adams had no use for Catholicism as a living faith, and recoiled in horror at the immigrant Church overwhelming his beloved Yankee cities. Still, his writing sustained the image of Catholicism as the ultimate “other” to modernity.
During the 1920s, the search for an alternative to modern industrial society expanded its focus beyond the Catholic past to include the primitive present. Even as Eliot, Pound, and Hemingway continued the literary tradition of Anglo-Catholic romanticism, anthropology and sociology came into their own as purveyors of wholeness and unity. The key figures in this development are Columbia anthropologist Franz Boas and his two famous students, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. With Boas, we see the emergence of an intellectual vocabulary clearly recognizable as incipient multiculturalism. The father of modern anthropology, Boas made his mark by attacking two of the foundational principles of Victorian anthropology. First, against the tradition of scientific racism, Boas argued that culture, not biology, accounts for differences among human groups. Second, against the tradition of cultural evolutionism, which saw human culture as a single entity divisible into developmental stages, culminating in the civilization of modern Western Europe, Boas insisted that no culture is superior to any other and that each culture in the world had to be understood in its own terms. Each culture is unique in its content/substance, but shares with other cultures a general process/form of arranging values and practices into ordered, unified patterns.
Boas’ relativism suggested epistemological anarchy and the abolition of human nature, yet also affirmed that each culture possessed the order and unity of a great work of art. It led on the one hand toward nihilism, but on the other toward Catholicism.
In the middle decades of the twentieth century, it somehow managed to lead toward both at the same time. The positive evaluation of cultural diversity became a critical tool for attacking certain undesirable American cultural values and practices, while the idea of patterning held out the promise of integrating the new values into a coherent cultural whole. This tension between criticism and culture, if you will, runs throughout the work of Boas’ students, Mead and Benedict; it consistently resolves itself in favor of criticism over culture. Ethnographies that begin by revealing cultural patterns end by arguing for the necessity of cultural change.
Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) remains the clearest symptom of this contradictory cultural logic. A bestseller, it was the breakthrough book that helped to make Boasian anthropology the cultural common sense of educated middle-class readers. A study of adolescence among the simple, “primitive” people native to American-occupied Samoa, Mead’s book is best known for its advocacy of sexual liberation against the Victorian values of sexual repression that she believed still dominated American life. Sexual repression makes adolescence a turbulent time for American youth. In Samoa, teenagers are free to experiment with many sexual partners and adolescence is a generally conflict-free period of transition to adulthood. Mead’s conclusion: if American teenagers were free to experiment sexually, they too would experience a smooth transition to adulthood and America will have gone a long way toward solving its problem of juvenile delinquency.
Mead has been criticized for romanticizing and exoticizing Samoa as an island sexual paradise. One critic, the late Derek Freeman, made a career out of saying that Mead simply made it all up. More significant than the book’s accuracy is its logic. Historians and anthropologists who have emphasized Mead’s celebration of Samoan culture have generally neglected her criticisms of it, criticisms rooted in the Boasian notion of cultural patterning. True to her anthropological ideas, Mead understood Samoan sexual freedom in the context of a broader culture that has no place for the romantic love or emotional intimacy Westerners tend to associate with sex. In adopting Samoan sexual practices, must Americans adopt Samoan attitudes toward romantic love? Not at all. For Mead, it is a very simple matter of picking and choosing what you like and do not like in a particular culture.
The not-so-hidden agenda of Coming of Age in Samoa is less sexual liberation per se than a broader ideal that Mead calls “education for choice.” The ideal method of child rearing would expose children to as many alternative ways of living as possible and allow them as much real choice as possible in adopting those values and practices they find appealing. By this standard of choice, Samoan culture itself stands condemned, for it limits Samoans to only one way of life. Mead admires Samoan culture’s tolerance of adolescent sexual promiscuity but finds genuinely repellant its lack of respect for privacy and its social ethic of kinship obligation, which she describes as a system of “universal servitude.” At one point she even compares the lack of privacy to the social surveillance of small town America. In the age of Sinclair Lewis novels, she could make no more damning comparison.
Earlier Anglo-Protestant art critics came to appreciate the Catholic art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance by extracting it from the institutional authority of the Church. Mead follows in this tradition by coming to appreciate Samoan sexual practices only after she tears them out of the context of the authoritative cultural pattern of Samoan life. She explicitly places her vision of education for choice in a religious tradition rooted in the Protestant Reformation. For Mead, the Reformation broke the spiritual monopoly of the Catholic Church and introduced the principle of choice into religious life. Mead argues that the Protestant churches of her time have betrayed the legacy of the Reformation by continuing to pressure children to choose exclusive membership in one church; she further argues that her ideal of education for choice remains true to the original spirit of the Reformation by allowing people to keep their options open.
With the onset of the Great Depression, Boasian anthropology shifted from criticism to reconstruction. Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (1934) helped to popularize the idea of American culture as a whole way of life deeper than any discredited economic system of free enterprise; it also helped to convince many that the New Deal state stood as the objective manifestation of this newly found cultural unity.
Despite general support for the New Deal through four presidential elections, state centralization revived certain traditional American fears for personal liberty. Particularly when directed at parallel developments abroad, these fears were often couched in a traditional American idiom of anti-Catholicism. Even as many liberal intellectuals embraced a very Catholic ideal of cultural organicism, they saw in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union a kind of return of the Catholic repressed, a regression to the medieval authoritarianism responsible for the Crusades and the Inquisition.
The culture concept survived association with the dark side of integration largely through its ability to provide an alternative to what liberal intellectuals saw as the most pernicious ideal of integration at stake in the war: race. Hitler’s anti-Semitism transformed what had been an orthodox scientific category into an ideology of genocide. Repulsion at the racist doctrines of Nazi Germany brought more than a little shock of recognition on the part of Americans, most clearly in the domestic racism against African Americans, but also in the attitudes toward the Japanese expressed in the conduct of the Pacific War. Americans willing to distinguish Germans from Nazis tended to see all the Japanese as part of a single, undifferentiated barbaric yellow horde. Boasian anthropology performed yet anther major exercise in consciousness-raising through its postwar efforts to achieve intercultural understanding between the United States and Japan.
The key work here is Ruth Benedict’s 1946 study of Japanese culture, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Benedict began working on this book during World War II, while serving in the psychological warfare division of the Office of War Information (OWI). Despite its military origins, the book is nonetheless a sincere attempt to present Japanese culture as an integrated whole deserving of the utmost respect from Americans. Refusing to paper over cultural differences, Benedict contrasts Japan and America in a manner as predictable as it is extreme: the Japanese value order and hierarchy, while Americans value freedom and equality. Unlike Americans, the Japanese value fixed social stations over social mobility, the spiritual over the material, honor over profit, and the external constraints of shame over the internal sanctions of guilt. Through these oppositions, Benedict creates a picture of the Japanese as a people bound together by a complicated network of ordered, hierarchical, and personal obligations, which contrasts sharply with the easygoing individualism of American culture.
Benedict’s characterization of Japan and America draws on conventional oppositions between America and the rest of the world that go back at least to the writings of Crčvecoeur in the eighteenth century. Before anthropologists began to use them as a cultural narrative for contrasting East and West, they served Western intellectuals as a historical narrative through which to frame the passage from the medieval to the modern—or, in more specifically religious terms, from Catholicism to Protestantism. Much of the hostile criticism of Japan on the part of Western observers can be seen as an extension of the self-critique that drove the modern West to throw off its own primitive, barbaric Catholic past. No less a figure than General Douglas MacArthur spoke of the negative aspects of Japanese culture as residues of “feudalistic forms of oppression.” The anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, who like Benedict served in the OWI, explicitly compared Japanese support for the emperor with the attachment of medieval Catholics to the pope. In general, the degree of hostility expressed in wartime accounts of Japanese culture depended on the relative weight given to its premodern dimensions, as opposed to the more palatable modern aspects, such as its enthusiastic embrace of Western science and technology. This hostility often slid into racism when premodern traits came to be seen as rooted in the biological makeup of the Japanese people, but the demonizing of these traits themselves predates and transcends racial categories. In this sense, modern racism has its intellectual roots in anti-Catholicism.
Rejecting both tradition and modernity, Benedict argues for the adoption of a modern attitude toward tradition. Her vision of postwar Japan requires less that the Japanese accept any particular Western standard than that they adopt a general (Western) anthropological standard of critical cultural consciousness. It would be a shame if Japan were to become a carbon copy of America, but it would be a crime if the Japanese did not learn to see their culture as simply one among many, with no privileged status, entirely open to revision in the service of consciously chosen ends. Quoting from A Daughter of the Samurai, Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto’s account of her experiences in a mission school in Tokyo, Benedict presents a particularly striking example of this new cultural consciousness. In her memoir, Sugimoto recounts an incident in which each girl at the school received a plot of ground on which to plant anything she wanted. Sugimoto writes:
This plant-as-you-please garden gave me a wholly new feeling of personal right. . . . The very fact that such happiness could exist in the human heart was a surprise to me. . . . I, with no violation of tradition, no stain on the family name, no shock to parent, teacher, or townspeople, no harm to anything, was free to act.
This experience transforms Sugimoto’s understanding of her culture. She now realizes that although at her “home there was one part of the garden that was supposed to be wild . . . someone was always busy trimming the pines or cutting the hedge.” According to Benedict, Sugimoto’s realization of the “simulated” nature of the “wildness” and “freedom of will” allowed by Japanese culture initiated a “transition to a greater psychic freedom” through which she discovered the “pure joy in being natural.” Sugimoto’s detachment from tradition, family, teacher, and townspeople serves Benedict as a model of “natural” social relations for postwar Japan. What Benedict calls a “self-respecting Japan” will be a Japan that respects the self, or more precisely, the individual. To be a responsible member of the family of nations, Japan must “set up a way of life which does not demand the old requirements of individual restraint” and move toward a “dispensation which honors individual freedom.”
As a person caught between two worlds, Etsu Sugimoto serves as a model not simply for the Japanese, but for America as well. This ideal of what anthropologists call liminality—the condition of being in transition, caught between two worlds—provided the fundamental orienting ideal for the whole postwar American discourse of cultural diversity, structuring race, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality. Multiculturalists today still caution against stasis, and still counsel constant transition and interaction between cultures. Liminality—or in the tellingly biological metaphor favored these days, hybridity—must be a whole way of life. Anything less than constant movement would be stasis, and stasis would mean a regression to . . . Catholicism?
Benedict had no particular axe to grind against Catholicism, but the specter of authoritarian Catholicism continued to hang over the postwar discourse of democracy and cultural pluralism. In 1949, Paul Blanshard would score a best seller with his anti-Catholic polemic American Freedom and Catholic Power, while a year later Theodor Adorno would provide social-scientific sanction to the equation of tradition and fascism with his Authoritarian Personality, a work that has served liberals as a kind of all-purpose handbook for explaining Catholic intolerance from McCarthyism to school busing and abortion. Protestant and secular Americans turned to the idea of culture as a corrective to the excesses of American individualism, but insisted that culture must remain subordinate to the individual. Catholics, in turn, acknowledged the legitimacy of some of the critique of the Church’s traditional understanding of authority and sought to develop a richer language of personal freedom, yet insisted on the priority of culture to the individual. In 1946, the same year as Benedict published her Chrysanthemum and the Sword, the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain offered his The Person and the Common Good as a distinctly Catholic vision of the proper ordering of freedom and culture.
Like so many thinkers of his time, Maritain sought a third way between authoritarian statism and laissez-faire individualism. Rooted in Thomist philosophy, the category of the person provided Maritain with a language through which to refute Catholic supporters of fascism as well as secular liberal defenders of a purely instrumental social order. In The Person and the Common Good, Maritain writes of the human person as “a spiritual totality” that exists in relation to a “transcendent whole.” This relation renders the human person “superior to every value of mere social utility,” in dignity and worth “superior to all temporal societies.” In even stronger language, Maritain insists that “with respect to the eternal destiny of the soul, society exists for each person and is subordinated to it.”
Still, the person is not simply an individual with a spiritual dimension. The inviolability of the person does not make him the primary purpose or end of the social order. Maritain affirms the dignity of the person only in the context of a relation of mutual and reciprocal subordination. Though superior to mere utility,
a human life is less precious than the moral good and the duty of assuring the salvation of the community, is less precious than the human and moral patrimony of which the community is the repository, and is less precious also than the human and moral work which the community carries on from one century to the next.
I know of no clearer statement of the Catholic understanding of the place of the human person in society. I know of no clearer challenge to the expressive individualism propagated by contemporary multiculturalism. In Maritain’s time, and our own, Catholicism—not race, class, gender, ethnicity, or sexuality—has stood as the most serious Western cultural alternative to American individualism. A minority social ethic in the modern West, this Catholic communalism is, moreover, a particular instance of a majority ethic that has characterized most human societies throughout history. By the standards of world history and culture, the individual, not the community, is the category in need of justification.
Catholics are of course not the only Westerners to question the socially corrosive effects of individualism. My general thinking on these issues is deeply indebted to the work of Michael Sandel, particularly the powerful secular communitarian critique of liberal social contract theory he put forth in his book Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Sandel argues that liberal political theorists from Thomas Hobbes to John Rawls have proceeded from the fundamentally flawed assumption that people exist first of all as individuals, and as individuals they consciously decide to create society. In subsequent works, Sandel has looked to an indigenous, if somewhat neglected, American tradition of republicanism as a communal alternative to mainstream liberal political theory.
Sandel and many of his fellow communitarians draw heavily on the tradition of Alexis de Tocque-ville, who in his 1830s work Democracy in America argued that democracy would avoid anarchy and/or state regimentation only to the degree that it sustained the vitality of the small scale, mediating institutions of civil society. The most common Tocquevillian term for these institutions—voluntary associations—points to the clearest distinction between the secular and Catholic traditions. For Catholics, community, like the Church, is not voluntary but something into which you are born. It exists before you, will exist after you, and exists primarily to sustain truths and values that transcend the needs of any particular individual. The Catholic insistence on the priority of community to the individual has often been coded as authoritarianism; the secular alternatives have often reduced community to little more than a support group. The common enemy of individualism has not provided enough common ground to overcome the secular communitarian suspicion of Catholicism.
Anti-Catholicism has been called America’s oldest prejudice, the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals. Catholicism, at least as metaphor, still serves as the demonic “other” of secular modernity. When not preaching a quasi-New Age, communitarian gospel of globalization, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is one of the more perceptive commentators on Middle East politics. Before the shooting started in Iraq, Friedman wrote an article assessing the state of Arab democracy in the Middle East. Significantly, he titled his column “An Islamic Reformation.” Friedman’s article paid tribute to Hashem Aghajari, an Iranian intellectual sentenced to death by Muslim hard-liners for a speech he delivered on the need to rejuvenate Iran with what he called an “Islamic Protestantism.” In this speech, Aghajari appealed to the Reformation as a model for contemporary Islam. He stated that just as “the Protestant movement wanted to rescue Christianity from the clergy and the church hierarchy,” so Islam must throw off the domination of narrow-minded, fundamentalist clerics and embark on a new, more constructive engagement with Western modernity. He declared: “We need a religion that respects the rights of all—a progressive religion, rather than a traditional religion that tramples the people. . . .” Somewhat left of the current administration on issues regarding the Middle East, much further to the left on most everything else, Friedman shares with George W. Bush the basic assumption that the Aghajaris of Islam are the best hope for peace in the Middle East—and by extension, peace in the world.
Tradition/Catholicism oppresses, modernity/ Protestantism liberates: this simple opposition sets the limits of diversity in America for liberals and conservatives alike.
I should add for Catholics as well. My general sense is that if you were to ask most American Catholics what they consider to be the most pressing problem facing the Church today, they would think of sexually abusive priests, not the breakdown of neo-Thomist, personalist conceptions of community; I would like to think that the two are in some sense related, but I am not prepared to make such an argument. I suspect that few American Catholics would willingly accept the degree of communal constraint advocated by Maritain, were they even aware of it. Conservatives stress economic freedom, liberals cultural and sexual freedom, but it is the rhetoric of perpetual motion, not communal permanence, which speaks most powerfully to the experience of American Catholics today. The general assimilation of American Catholics to the secular Protestant norms of middle-class American consumerism should be of concern to all those who believe in the continuity of tradition and hope for some meaningful understanding of cultural diversity beyond multiculturalism.
Christopher Shannon is the author of Conspicuous Criticism (1996) and A World Made Safe for Differences (2001). He is currently a research associate at the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame. This article is a revised version of a talk originally delivered at the St. Anselm Institute at the University of Virginia.