The Christian roots of Europe: The phrase puts me off. It points to something true, yes, and contemporary Europe remains profoundly indebted to its Christian past. Even the transnational ambition of the European Union reflects the desire for a secularized Christendom. Brussels builds on the memory of an older form of European unity, one wounded by the Reformation and then demolished by ideology and nationalism. But too often Christians speak about the Christian roots of Europe in a nostalgic, backward-looking way. They use it to evade a harder and more important topic: the Christian future of Europe.
My resistance to the phrase hardened when I made a trip to Germany in late February. I was invited to speak at the Rhein Meeting, a weekend gathering in Cologne organized by Communion and Liberation, the lay ecclesial movement founded by Luigi Giussani in Italy in the 1950s. I heard the lectures and conversations as an outsider (and non-native speaker with a tenuous grasp of German), and so familiar phrases struck me in unfamiliar ways. That was the case when various speakers mentioned “the Christian roots of Europe,” which in that context sounded too much like a plaintive cry: “Hey, don’t ignore us. We’re still relevant.”
I also soured on “dialogue.” It’s a Second Vatican Council word, and it remains popular. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, gave a strong speech that did not shy away from clear affirmations of now-controversial moral truths. But he also spoke of the need for dialogue with the modern world. Others at the Rhein Meeting used the word as well. With each hearing it rang more and more false. Let’s be honest: Crusaders for doctor-assisted suicide and gay rights are not interested in dialogue. Secular progressives demand unconditional surrender. “Dialogue” has become one of their many tactics for neutralizing opposition.
In my years as a theology professor, as a rare conservative in higher education, I became accustomed to calls for dialogue on this or that issue. In almost every instance, it was a set-up for mandatory public capitulation. If someone regards abortion as a moral evil and same-sex marriage as an oxymoron, as I do, he cannot say so in a public forum, for it amounts to a sin against dialogue. It “shuts down conversation,” I was told on many occasions. As I learned over the years, there’s dialogue—until there isn’t. Once homosexuality is affirmed on a Catholic university campus, there’s no more “dialogue.” Can you imagine “dialogue” on global climate change? The movement from dialogue to censure and then denunciation is often a smooth one.
Our moment calls for witness, not dialogue. This doesn’t mean an inwardly turned insularity (hardly a danger for Catholics in Europe or North America). But to speak of dialogue in 2016 risks baptizing our compromising complicity with the present age. We can too easily justify our easygoing, get-along approach as a commitment to dialogue. For that reason I grimace when I hear Pope Francis use the word. This way of talking often allows the world to dictate the terms of engagement. It’s telling that the spirit of dialogue has no role to play in the New Testament. Thus I make a pledge: First Things will never call for dialogue.
While I was in Germany, I also found myself harboring doubts about human rights. This sounds heretical. The last two generations of Catholic leaders, including popes, have identified human rights as vitally important for building a humane society. They also serve as a bridge language that allows Catholics to join forces with men and women of good will to protect and promote human dignity. Understandable, and perhaps quite effective in certain circumstances.
But the hour is now late. After World War II, human rights came to prominence in Europe as a way to protect the individual from the state. Again, understandable and fitting. In the early decades of the twentieth century, nations in the grip of ideological manias sacrificed millions of lives in the pursuit of their ambitions. The introduction of human rights into the basic law of European nations after the war, and as a core commitment of the fledgling United Nations, defined boundaries beyond which politics cannot go. It was a way of securing human dignity by limiting government. Well and good, but in the twenty-first century, human rights has changed its role, at least in the West. Today, it has become a powerful ideology that promises to relieve us of the burdens of political responsibility for the common good.
Case in point: Europeans today must face the very difficult task of determining whether and how to limit migration. Who shall be counted as part of the national community? This is a political question, perhaps the most fundamental one, and it remains our responsibility to answer it. Human rights, however, can become an ideology that rejects this political responsibility, saying that migrants who qualify as refugees must be accepted, regardless of circumstances. By this way of thinking, immigration is a matter of basic human rights and thus transcends the political.
It sounds noble, which is one reason why church leaders are attracted to human rights. They recognize that the Gospel transcends the always uncertain, always fallible political judgments that govern the city of man. But they wrongly think that because human rights also seek to transcend politics, this moralizing enterprise shares in the transcendence of theological truths. The difference is that while supernatural truths of faith leaven the political judgments of the city of man, human rights override and void those judgments. The Sermon on the Mount does not limit politics; in the best of circumstances, it transforms public life by inverting our preference for the powerful over the weak. By contrast, human rights specify what cannot be done or, in some circumstances, what must be done. They circumscribe political life. Thus the danger: What was once a noble venture has become a temptation to a false transcendence, one that involves a utopian dream of public life governed by moral universals rather than political wisdom. I fear the upshot will not be a more moral world, but a less responsible one.
Thus my heretical tendency: I’m increasingly against human rights. As an ideology, it has become a patron of negative freedom, pushing against demands and obligations arising from our shared culture. In the West, human rights now functions as an enemy of the responsible exercise of freedom. Exalting human rights as the epitome of social responsibility short-circuits collective judgment and stymies action for the sake of the common good.
The people with whom I talked while visiting Germany recognize the challenges posed by the migration crisis unfolding there. (Hans Feichtinger recently outlined those challenges in our pages in “Refugees in Germany,” February.) But they tended to speak as if such matters cannot be addressed in terms of what is best for their nation, or even for Europe as a whole. Human rights encourages a cosmopolitan outlook that transcends such questions. Again, it sounds noble, but this supersession of the political by a moral universalism diminishes the exercise of human freedom.
The West has entered a technocratic era. A great deal of our political life is now translated into economic terms. If GDP growth is the highest good, then we need expert management of monetary, trade, and tax policy, not collective deliberation about how, as a society, we are to order our common life. Globalization further encourages the diminishment of the political.
In this context—the present context in the West—the Catholic Church needs to rethink its enthusiasm for human rights. We are not living in 1945. We are not haunted by political fanaticisms. Our afflictions are atomistic individualism, apathy, and a frivolous public realm increasingly captive to celebrity. I returned from Cologne convinced that Catholicism needs to urge the West to take responsibility for its future—a necessarily political project. We cannot circle our wagons around human rights, a universalism that promises to keep our hands clean by denying we have hands.
Our Hyper-Individualistic Age
We suffer from political nostalgia, not political polarization. So argues Yuval Levin in an important new book, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. The last two decades have seen subpar economic growth, at least as compared to the strong growth in the decades after World War II. We’re increasingly divided over cultural and moral issues. Yet, for the most part, our political leaders see this as an aberration, a falling away from an earlier golden age. They counsel some version of return to the glorious postwar years.
The American left longs for the 1960s. They want to rekindle a spirit of rebellion against constricting moral norms and extend still further the cultural liberalization of that period. When faced with an unhappy sexual culture among the young, baby boomer liberals almost always urge greater openness about sex and a more affirming attitude. Our problems stem from the fact that the sexual revolution hasn’t gone far enough!
Meanwhile, today’s liberalism pines for a return to the regulated economic system of the sixties. They fondly recall Lyndon Johnson’s inauguration of the modern welfare state, often bitterly denouncing conservative resistance, arguing that our present political distempers flow from our failure to expand the scope and reach of the welfare state. The general sentiment is thus one of ever-greater cultural freedom against the background of a consolidated, steady, and unified economic system organized to promote solidarity. It’s a vision of cultural individualism married to economic consolidation.
The American right wants to return to the 1980s, the Reagan era of economic dynamism brought about by the liberalization of the quasi-monopolistic postwar system. They want to renew the “animal spirits” of entrepreneurial ambition, often denouncing liberalism for shackling enterprise with regulation, high taxes, and bloated government spending. Meanwhile, our present political unhappiness gets diagnosed as flowing from multiculturalism, identity politics, and the general demoralization of American society. Here the nostalgia of the right mirrors the left. To be conservative today means promoting an ever-greater economic freedom while calling for the restoration of a unified national culture that promotes solidarity—economic individualism in tandem with cultural consolidation.
Levin’s broad characterizations of today’s liberalism and conservatism strike me as astute. Both liberals and conservatives want to recover a balance of freedom and solidarity, with liberals emphasizing lifestyle freedom while wanting to recover economic solidarity, and conservatives pushing economic freedom while urging cultural solidarity. Many have criticized these combinations as incoherent. Levin wisely avoids this tack. Instead, he points out that our present social realities make both unrealistic. Our society has become far more disaggregated and fragmented over the last two generations. There’s less and less solidarity, economic or cultural, to provide ballast for the liberalizing projects of the left and right. As a consequence, the medicine of freedom, whether cultural or economic, has become increasingly homeopathic.
The first half of The Fractured Republic charts the rise and fall of solidarity in twentieth-century America. In a well-told sketch of our economic and political history, Levin outlines the ways in which our progressive tradition responded to the fragmentation brought on by rapid industrialization and mass immigration in the late nineteenth century. At every turn, the solutions to social stress and upheaval were consolidating ones. J. P. Morgan’s answer to ruinous competition was to organize industrial trusts, huge business conglomerates that, in turn, evoked a more activist government to control and regulate them.
As our economic system became more integrated and government grew in size and scope, our national culture entered into an extended period of consolidation. The Immigration Act of 1924 dramatically limited the flow of newcomers into American society. In 1910, nearly 15 percent of Americans were foreign-born. By 1950, the number had fallen to 7 percent, bottoming out at less than 5 percent in 1970. World War II required society-wide mobilization. The shared experience of military service unified a generation of young American men from diverse ethnic backgrounds. At the beginning of the postwar era, Americans were “exceptionally unified and cohesive, and possessed of an unusual confidence in large institutions.”
But the late 1940s turned out to be the high-water mark of twentieth-century solidarity, both economic and social. First came cultural liberalization. In the 1950s, social critics were already bemoaning a stultifying spirit of conformity. Books with titles like The Lonely Crowd and The Organization Man became bestsellers. Irving Howe published “This Age of Conformity” in 1954. A countercultural bohemianism emerged, made famous by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. All of this burst into prominence in the 1960s.
At the same time that we were experimenting with more freedom in the area of culture and morality, America remained economically consolidated. Government spending for the Vietnam War (and the Cold War more generally) served as a Keynesian stimulus for growth. The so-called Nifty Fifty, the largest American companies, propelled the stock market forward. Blue-collar America worked in unionized factories run by a few giant companies that made an implicit commitment of lifetime employment to their white-collar workers. Someone getting a job at AT&T—a government-protected monopoly—in 1960 presumed that he would retire from the same company. The mid-sixties also saw a dramatic expansion of social welfare at the federal level. Add to that the fact that the young students rebelling at the universities could go home during summer break to suburban homes with intact families and we can see, in retrospect, that the new freedoms so ardently desired were backstopped by a great deal of stability and security.
As Levin observes, the economic consolidation of that era could not last. World War II flattened the entire industrialized world—except America. In the late 1940s, our economy produced more than 60 percent of all manufactured goods in the world. But our success in sustaining peace after World War II, which involved rebuilding societies in decimated Europe and Japan and promoting global markets, meant our highly monopolized, government-controlled economy eventually had to face competition from abroad. By the 1970s, it was increasingly obvious that we needed economic liberalization, which began during that decade and continued apace in the 1980s and 1990s. Again, this new economic freedom was backstopped. The 1960s had liberalized culture, but there remained a strong middle-class consensus that Ronald Reagan was able to mobilize with his warm patriotism. A sense of common purpose and social unity provided a stable context for the “creative destruction” that is part of economic dynamism. It’s the combination of cultural reconsolidation with economic liberalization that makes conservatives today so nostalgic for the eighties.
This, then, is our deep political problem, as Levin sees it: We want to endorse various politics of freedom against a background of stability. We’re enamored of dynamism. It’s part of what we think of as our unique American genius. But we also desire stability and solidarity, which the postwar era provided (and we took for granted). So our political dreams seem always to circle back to the past, the era when we could emphasize freedom—lifestyle freedom for liberals, economic freedom for conservatives—while presuming stability. But the mid-twentieth-century circumstances, which made this freedom-with-stability possible, were unique. “No combination of public policies could recreate them. No amount of moral hectoring will, either.”
We need to face our present challenges without nostalgia. As we do, the insight to be drawn from Levin’s analysis is simple, but crucial: The backstops of solidarity that provided stability for both the liberal and conservative experiments in freedom have largely dissolved. We’re no longer liberalizing a stolid and inflexible culture, nor are we deregulating a cartelized, monopolistic economy. We’re living in a fluid, hyper-flexible world. Thus our political dysfunction. Both right and left in America imagine that today’s social distemper stems from too little freedom, when, in fact, what currently agitates society is the loss of stability, unity, and solidarity.
Consider the increasingly bizarre liberal fixation on transgender rights. As more and more commentators now recognize, our political crisis concerns the disintegration of the once expansive and solid middle class. People feel economically vulnerable, true, but they feel culturally vulnerable as well, something that politically volatile concerns about immigration indicate. In this context, “problematizing” male and female identity—a fundamental point of orientation for every young person trying to figure out where he stands in the world—exacerbates the disintegrating trends that make so much in their lives so liquid.
There’s a parallel myopia on the right. Without a doubt, economic vitality is hobbled by over-regulation in some areas, as well as ill-considered tax policies. But rather than addressing these problems as part of the ongoing, ordinary work of political prudence, American conservatism fixes on ever-lower tax rates and deregulation as singular imperatives. This is politically myopic. The struggling working class and disintegrating middle class yearn for a stable place to stand, not greater economic freedom. Again, the distemper of our political moment is caused by vulnerability, not constraint, something the conservative nostalgia for the 1980s obscures.
Levin wrote his book before Donald Trump exploded onto the national scene. But he helps us understand Trump’s appeal. Commentators mock Trump for his lack of clear policy proposals. But they fail to see that his message is quite clear: He promises to protect. Something similar is true for Bernie Sanders. Polling tells us that Americans’ trust in mainstream institutions, including government, is at a historic low. This suggests that enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders does not stem from a robust confidence that his retro-socialist ideas will work. Instead, the likely source of his unlikely success with Democratic voters is to be found in the message he shares with Trump: the promise to protect.
The popularity Sanders enjoys among young people indicates a troubling desire to expand government, something that should concern any conservative. As Levin points out, however, this danger flows from the now decades-long process of deconsolidation. The freedom agenda, whether the liberal one in culture or the conservative one in economics, has dissolved much of what gave the postwar era its stability. There’s “a prominent paradox of American life long noted by the keenest observers of our society; that administrative centralization often accompanies cultural and economic individualism.”
As has been the case from the French Revolution to the present, state power intervenes to guarantee our individual freedom. The redefinition of marriage in Obergefell is just one example. As encompassing and often constraining social forms recede, we feel freer. But without controlling norms, we are also more vulnerable. We turn to the state as the source of security. Government the liberator becomes government the protector, insuring us against the risks that a greater freedom brings. This dynamic holds true in economics as well. It is naive to imagine that liberalizing the postwar economic system will not both provide the greater choice and dynamism most Americans want and inspire calls for government to backstop us should our choices go sour.
This can lead to a vicious circle. “As the national government grows more centralized, and takes over the work otherwise performed by mediating institutions—from families and communities to local governments and charities—individuals become increasingly atomized; and as individuals grow apart from one another, the need for centralized government provision seems to grow.” The decline of the family provides the clearest example. As more children grow up without both a mother and father in the home, more end up in need or in trouble. The state must step in to remediate—or incarcerate. In a dissolving age, it’s impossible for us to avoid the growth of the tutelary power of government. Hillary Clinton once repeated the old saw, “It takes a village to raise a child.” But as Charles Murray has documented, for the bottom third of society, perhaps the bottom half, there are no villages, no functional social institutions. Government superintends by default.
We are well along in this process of centralization and atomization, and Levin thinks our options are limited. As a conservative, he instinctively favors reconsolidation. We need renewed solidarity in order to re-establish the stable basis for confident self-government. But by his reckoning, “the available signs all suggest we are not at the end of the age of diffusion.” Yes, we long “for a safe and stable backdrop for various forms of liberalization—be it toward a culture of expressive individualism or toward market economics.” That nostalgia reflects a healthy desire for solidarity. “But Americans have plainly valued these forms of liberalization more than we valued the backdrop, and it is folly now to wish we could recapture the circumstances that America has been systematically demolishing for six decades and more.”
Indeed, the demolition was often done with enthusiasm. When we’ve had to choose between dynamism and solidarity, it’s been the freedom side that has tended to win out. As a nation, we are committed “to individualism and to deconsolidation,” which is a nice way of saying that the majority of Americans don’t want the Moral Majority to oversee the reconstruction of a strong and binding cultural consensus. Nor do most Americans want to be hectored by the ersatz moralism of the secular left, which is why there’s a backlash against political correctness.
We must work within the limits of our times. Levin concludes The Fractured Republic with programmatic chapters outlining a political agenda for our atomized and hyper-individualistic era. He counsels against an economic nostalgia for the postwar system. We need to buttress the economic security of middle-class Americans in ways that encourage portable benefits appropriate to a fluid marketplace that emphasizes choice. Our goal should be to create more economic options for as many Americans as possible rather than trying to restore the consolidated economy of the postwar era.
Responding to our individualistic culture poses greater challenges. The most powerful experiences of solidarity are ones we do not choose. Family provides the clearest example, but for many, faith and citizenship are powerful givens, not choices. Our individualistic era places us in the paradoxical position of trying to encourage people to opt into communities of commitment that limit options—and thus provide a sense of solidarity. We’re not going to remediate today’s excessive individualism by regaining control over the mainstream institutions that once set the moral terms for the entire nation. Their authority is much diminished in our dissolving age. Instead, the way forward “requires attractive examples” and “living communities” of obligation and commitment. We need to provide atomized people with the options of non-optional solidarity, and in this way “mitigate both over-consolidation and hyper-individualism by revitalizing the mediating layers of society.” Encouraging people to choose something more than choice involves a paradox of sorts, as Levin recognizes. But he’s in good company. As Saint John Paul II said, “The Church never imposes. She only proposes.”
Levin sees that we need to break free from the politics of nostalgia that dominates public life not just in America, but throughout the West. We need to get our minds around the singular political reality of our time: The postwar era is over. The project that dominated that era—liberalizing against the background of a presumed stability—has reached its end. The future will be won by efforts to renew stability against the background of a presumed freedom.