Patrick Deneen is right to have raised questions over several years about whether American liberal democracy is sustainable. He’s not, of course, the first to do so. Conservatives, maybe beginning with Edmund Burke, have often understood liberalism as a kind of self-obsessive individualism that has the potential to consume the social and relational institutions that make human life worth living. Liberalism contains the seeds of its own destruction.
The most persuasive thinker to deny the sustainability of liberalism was Karl Marx. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx deliberately exaggerates the ability of liberal ideology or “capitalism” to dissolve every form of human self-understanding that contradicts the imperatives of maximum feasible productivity. For Marx, “capitalism” either does or will soon explain everything about the modern world. “All that is solid” has or will soon “melt into thin air,” and each of us will be reduced to nothing. Freedom has or will soon become just another word for nothing left to lose. The ultimate emptiness of liberal individualism will produce a revolution against individualism as such.
Deneen is not a Marxist. His vision of post-individualism, for one thing, is radically different from the unalienated play of Marxian communism. He’s for a return to tradition, virtue, religion, agriculture, and even some form of the localized polis. Unlike the historicist progressivist Marx, he doesn’t believe what capitalism destroys necessarily stays destroyed. He has a truncated but real Aristotelian faith in the perennial truth about our natural longings, and of course he is guided by the enduring truth about the relational personal God believed in by Christians.
But Deneen sometimes does write as if the deliberate exaggerations of The Communist Manifesto were descriptive social science. He often uses “liberalism” and “capitalism” as synonyms.
Deneen’s able critics, such as Dan Mahoney, Philip Muñoz, and Nathan Schlueter, know that Deneen exaggerates when he so simply identifies American liberalism with the nihilism of capitalism unbound. They with considerable justice view these exaggerations as pernicious, because they keep Americans from being patriotic and from loving their country as a beneficial condition of their personal beings and as a force for good in the world. So Muñoz and Schlueter appeal to the “natural law” teaching of the American founders, as embodied in the Declaration of Independence, as the properly American antidote to today’s nihilism.
Deneen’s response to this “wishful thinking” is to say that the Declaration is the Lockean version of natural rights. The Declaration is socially and relationally destructive capitalist ideology. Our founding is the problem and so hardly the place to look for a solution. From this view, to be an American is unsustainable. We Catholics—and we Aristotelians—have to look beyond our country to find out the truth about who we are. Genuinely self-aware American Catholics can’t really be good American citizens if to be an American means to embrace as true the lucid principles of our Declaration, our dogmatic proposition about who we are, and what we, as persons and as a people, are supposed to do.
Deneen does refer to a different Catholic view of our founding put forward by Orestes Brownson, John Courtney Murray, and me. Our political fathers, so Murray said, built better than they knew. Not only were their practical accomplishments better than the Lockean theory they often affirmed, they didn’t really build as theorists, but as statesmen. Deneen dismisses this theory as the ridiculous view that our founders were superior instinctively to who they were consciously. My view (and, for that matter, Brownson’s) is that, as statesmen, they consciously engaged in legislative compromise. And their compromises can be understood in terms of a theory better than their own.
America at its best is a kind of genuine compromise between wholly Lockean and Christian (meaning Puritan, Calvinist, Augustinian, Protestant) views of who we are. We can find one account of the magnificence of the American spirit of compromise in Tocqueville. Both the North and the South—New England and Virginia—began with extreme views of what human liberty is. Tocqueville could affirm neither as what’s “true and just,” although both have elements of truth and justice. America at its political best is a compromise between colonial North and South, between New England and Virginia, between meddlesome political idealists and vulgarly self-indulgent, morally indifferent pirates.
Virginia, Tocqueville reports, was founded by “gold seekers,” “restless and turbulent spirits,” solitary adventurers out to get rich quick. They weren’t even ennobled by any bourgeois devotion to the virtue of worthwhile work well done. They, like the middle-class Americans Tocqueville elsewhere describes, loved money, but, unlike the properly middle class, they weren’t at all devoted to the just principle that it should be the reward of one’s own honest industry. The Virginians were in every crucial respect uncivilized.
Tocqueville goes on to observe that the Puritans established colonies without lords or masters—without, in fact, economic classes. They weren’t out to get rich or even improve their economic condition; they were in no way driven by material necessity. Their lives were structured by resources and by morality; they came to America as family men, bringing their wives and children. They were models of social virtue. They were also extremely educated men—on the cutting edge, in many ways, of European enlightenment. They were, Tocqueville observes, animated by “a purely intellectual need.” They aimed “to make an idea triumph” in this world. The Puritans were as civilized as the Virginians were not, and they devoted themselves to a kind of egalitarian idealism aimed at educating or elevating free beings with souls.
What was wrong with the Puritans, from Tocqueville’s view, is that they weren’t civilized enough. A Puritan enigma is how “the legislation of a rude and half-civilized people,” that is, the people portrayed in “the texts of Deuteronomy, Exodus, and Leviticus,” could have found its way “into the heart of a society whose spirit was enlightened and mores mild.” The people of those books weren’t much like the highly educated and civilized Puritans. That contradiction resulted in laws full of death as the penalty for violating all sorts of moral lapses, and severe penalties even for kissing, laziness, and the use of tobacco. But those barbarous penalties were, in fact, rarely enforced against the guilty, and the truth is that such legislation couldn’t hope to be made effective for long among an enlightened and peaceful people.
The Puritans could have learned even from the Virginians and the Europeans of their time a lot about respecting the liberty of conscience. They eventually learned that respect, in part, from Locke, as Michael Zuckert explains. But, for Tocqueville, they could have also learned it by being more consistently Christian. Jesus, in Tocqueville’s view, showed little interest in enforcing religious morality through political legislation.
The truth, from both a Tocquevillian and a Christian view, is somewhere between Virginia and New England: The Virginians were uncivilized criminals; there was no order or direction to their freedom. But the Puritans criminalized sin. They didn’t see the limits of political life as a source of civilization and personal elevation. But they were right to say that equality in freedom must be civilized, aiming to elevate every soul.
We see this spirit of compromise between Virginia and New England in our Declaration, in which the influence of the Virginian Jefferson was as much as prudent statesmen as principled theorist. The Lockean theoretical core of the Declaration is all about inalienable rights and not about the personal God of the Bible. “Nature’s God” is a past-tense Creator, and the guidance he provides men now is questionable. But thanks to the insistence of members of Congress who were more under the influence of Christian Calvinism than Jefferson and Franklin, God also became, near the Declaration’s end, providential and judgmental, or present tense and personal.
Zuckert acknowledges that the “appeals to God” found “at the very end of the Declaration . . . appear much closer to the biblical religions than to the natural theology dominant elsewhere in the document.” And he acknowledges that “it is no accident” that these changes came from Congress, not the Lockean Jefferson or Franklin. They were part of a legislative compromise. Zuckert dismisses any claim that this compromise changed the essential teaching of the Declaration; the providential and judgmental God, after all, “acts to enforce the very order of the ‘God of nature’ affirmed in the Declaration.”
But someone might respond that God coming to life as a personal being has to have huge consequences for understanding who we are. That change in our Declaration might even be thought of as removing a contradiction in Jefferson’s Lockean draft: He incoherently attempts to ground personal identity in an impersonal or absent God. Chesterton, for one, was inspired by our Declaration precisely because it secures the equal personal significance of us all with a center of personal significance.
Probably the most nuanced or balanced judgment on the significance of our Declaration comes from R. L. Bruckberger in Images of America. Bruckberger, another of our friendly French critics, took what Tocqueville said about our Puritans about as seriously as anyone, and maybe surpassed Tocqueville in seeing more clearly the connection between the Puritans and the Calvinist believers who helped to shape our founding documents. “The greatest luck of all for the Declaration,” Bruckberger explains, “was precisely the divergence and the compromise between the Puritan tradition and what Jefferson wrote.” A “strictly Puritan” Declaration, of course, “would probably not have managed to avoid an aftertaste of theocracy and religious fanaticism.” But if it had “been written from the standpoint of the . . . philosophy of that day, it would have been a-religious, if not actually offensive to Christians.”
The Declaration as a whole, Bruckberger concludes, might even be viewed “as a more profound accomplishment,” one of “the great masterpieces of art, in which luck is strangely fused with genius.” The combination of American Lockeanism and American Puritanism/Calvinism produced something like an accidental American Thomism. It’s that fact that led the American Catholic John Courtney Murray in We Hold These Truths to praise our political fathers for building better than they knew, although even Murray didn’t acknowledge properly the Puritan contribution to what our political fathers built.
Arguably the Declaration as compromise is a better guide for Americans than the intentions of either of the parties to the compromise. God is personal, but that fact supports rather than negates the equal right to freedom all human beings have. Properly understood, in Tocqueville’s eyes, that understanding of equality unites the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of Locke, while both Locke and Jesus distance religious idealism from the requirements of good government. But it’s still the idealism of Jesus that turns equality into more than a principle of calculation or self-interested consent, into the Puritans’ beautiful idea, or an undeniable moral proposition that leads us to do good even at the risk of our lives. We can speculate that one reason Tocqueville doesn’t discuss the Declaration as America’s “creed” is that he regarded it as more Lockean and less Christian than it really is.
Surely the Declaration as legislative compromise might be a model for many of our deliberations over seemingly intractably divisive issues today. When we admire and appeal to the singular profundity of its principled accomplishment, we shouldn’t forget it was the product of our first Congress and not our first Court.
Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College.
Patrick Deneen, “Unsustainable Liberalism”
Daniel Mahoney, “The Art of Liberty”
Vincent Phillip Muñoz, “Why Social Conservatives Should Be Patriotic Americans: A Critique of Patrick Deneen,” Public Discourse
Nathan Schlueter, “Sustainable Liberalism,” Public Discourse
Patrick Deneen, “Beyond Wishful Thinking: A Reply to Schlueter,” Public Discourse
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