The recent passing of Michael Novak prompted me to take up his masterpiece once again. I first read The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism in the 1980s. At the time, I had no illusions about socialism. It was obviously a failure, economically, politically, and morally. But like so many of my peers, I assumed capitalism to be morally suspect as well. Michael’s book helped me, as it helped so many others, to see that a free market economy has distinctive moral and spiritual contributions to make to a healthy society. Rereading The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism today, however, my reaction is different. Capitalism is not a choice, as it seemed to me and many others when Michael wrote his book. It is our fate—and our problem.
The leitmotif of the book is that capitalism promotes (and is promoted by) a democratic culture. Both, he argued, seek to limit the power of the state and “liberate the energies of individuals and independently organized communities.” As he put it, “the natural logic of capitalism leads to democracy,” because “citizens economically free soon demand political freedoms.” This mutual dynamism toward freedom is not sufficient, however, and Michael identifies the “moral-cultural base” or “moral ecology” (as he later described it) that undergirds, sustains, and guides economic and democratic freedom. He doesn’t denominate it as such, but we can call it “Judeo-Christian” as long as we remember that both religious terms include the classical inheritance of Greco-Roman philosophy, law, and civic engagement. A healthy society thus stands on three sturdy legs: a free economy; liberal, democratic political institutions; and a Judeo-Christian moral ecology that prizes human dignity and encourages self-discipline, social trust, and individual initiative.
This analysis is elegant. It influenced John Paul II’s important statement of Catholic social doctrine, Centesimus Annus (1991), and played an important role in the outlook of First Things. We sought to keep the three legs in balance, which meant defending economic freedom and democratic institutions, while at the same time insisting on the importance of religious and moral substance in the public square. But we overestimated the stability of the three-legged system. We could not see how much it depended upon a historical moment that is now passing away.
The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism was gestated in the late 1970s. A classic of neoconservative thought, it is imbued with the sensibilities of the 1960s, a decade of liberation. Michael hymns the virtues of a less unitary and constrained conception of social life, which parallel those of a less regulated economic system. It was characteristic of Michael to frame the highest good as liberation from constraint. As he says at one point, “God did not make creation coercive, but designed it as an arena of liberty.” Thus, the great virtue of capitalism is not its ability to produce vast wealth, as so many have pointed out. Instead, he commends capitalism’s spiritual achievement. “The real world of democratic capitalism is demonstrably open.”
Michael emphasized “pluralism” as a key dimension of an open society, by which he meant social organisms without strong, commanding centers. Promoting pluralism is, he argued, one of the positive contributions that democratic capitalism makes to world history. It has a deconsolidating dynamic that weakens the old, unitary foci of social authority. In their place, Michael envisioned a new kind of organizing principle. “The order of democratic capitalism is not the order of a unitary society. It is not a commanded, overseen order.” The ideal society—Michael could never resist the lure of the ideal—will have a spontaneous order that “springs from a multiplicity of motives, incentives, presuppositions, and purposes.”
The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism is a multi-faceted book with many tensions. Toward the end, he warns that democratic capitalism requires “leadership which draws on the ideals of fraternity and community and inspires all to self-sacrifice for the common good.” That’s surely true, but there’s little in his analysis that helps to identify the consolidating dynamics that give focus and common purpose to the “open” system of democratic capitalism. More significantly, the ideal of a spontaneous, self-organizing social order works against formulations of the common good, for questions of the common good—what it is and how to promote it—shift attention away from individual freedom and initiative toward shared ends that entail obligations. In the end, and in spite of all his qualifications, the miracle of market coordination of supply and demand, and its dynamic openness to new initiatives, emerges as Michael’s dominant image of the flourishing society. The free market gives us a glimpse of the ideal society, one that features order without authority and purposeful freedom without the need for agreement about the common good beyond a procedural rule of law.
John Rawls thought that postwar political liberalism was the only way to govern a pluralistic society so as to guarantee liberty and guard human dignity. Although Michael does not engage Rawls explicitly, the genius of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism rests in the fact that he argues his case with the same attention to moral ideals. Democratic capitalism does a better job sustaining an open, pluralistic society than political liberalism, because capitalism, unlike political deliberation, guarantees freedom more jealously (and effectively).
In all likelihood, Michael was right, as the rise of an authoritarian liberalism keen to squelch dissent indicates. But therein rests the problem we face. The “new birth of freedom” that Michael championed largely came to pass. And it has tended to weaken the two other legs holding up society: democratic institutions and a vital religious and moral culture. Michael observes that “greater incentives will stimulate greater economic activism.” True, but he did not recognize that ever-greater economic activity can crowd out political engagement and sideline religious and moral authority. This is what has happened. Capitalism, now global in scope, is swallowing up more and more of civic life, so much so that in some contexts economists and policymakers present free market principles as ironclad laws about which we have no choice. Dwindling manufacturing jobs, technological displacement, global flows of labor and capital—we are told we have no alternative. This is a cruel reversal of what Michael commended as the source of freedom and openness.
Modern democracies ask most citizens for only occasional participation during election season. This is one of its benefits, for it allows ordinary people get on with their lives rather than focusing on politics all the time. The downside, however, is that episodic popular participation means that modern democracy tends toward oligarchy, a system in which the well-placed few govern the largely docile and easily manipulated many. This tendency has become very powerful recently. The Republican party has become a donorocracy. Libertarianism and rigorous free market economic principles have a vanishingly small constituency, and yet these notions dominate think tanks and journalists on the right. The Democratic party’s captivity to identity politics indicates a similar tilt to the interests of the upper reaches of society. LGBT rights and environmentalism are of greater concern to rich people than to middling voters. By the time Barack Obama was elected in 2008, our politics was increasingly a tussle between two sides in the upper quintile of society: one that tends to think entrepreneurial get-things-done pragmatism is best, and the other that prizes expert management and credentials. When Mitt Romney warned of the freeloading “47 percent” and Hillary Clinton identified the “deplorables,” both ill-fated politicians were expressing a common view among the well-educated and successful, left and right; the future of our country depends upon their ability to dominate and suppress the political influence of vast swaths of the American electorate.
This has not come about simply because of rising income inequality or the decline of labor unions in private industry. Since 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Union, the governing consensus has held that America’s interests lie in ever-greater economic globalization. We will flourish to the extent that we position ourselves at the center of the global economic system. This turns out to be true—for some, but not for all. Today, we’re seeing a growing divide in America between those who participate in the global economy and those who don’t. With that divide comes a political trend away from democratic politics, which focuses on promoting the common good of a sovereign nation, and toward the imperative of sustaining the “rules-based international order,” which is largely technocratic rather than political in any true sense.
Neither domestic oligarchy nor the “rules-based international order” is congenial to democratic institutions. The former suborns them; the latter supersedes them. First Things has always been opposed to the former. The judicial usurpation of democratic politics is an expression of oligarchy, and we have fought against it. We have urged the renewal of mediating institutions to restore civic ballast and provide ordinary citizens with a place to stand. But in retrospect, we underestimated the flesh-eating character of our free market economy, which now markets “community” and uses “social justice” as a way to sell products. Buy TOMS® shoes, and help someone in need! Today, large-scale global companies scramble to position themselves as agents of social change. The result is a political placebo, one that substitutes social-therapeutic gestures for genuine solidarity and civic engagement. The market is becoming the dominant mode of our social engagement, with social media leading the way. This diminishes democratic culture.
And what about the third leg, the Judeo-Christian religious and moral tradition? Here First Things has a long record of vigorous and unstinting advocacy. I can’t think of another significant journal that has been as relentless during the past generation in its warnings about the dangers of a naked public square. Yet we’ve seen setback after setback, and the corporate tsunami that recently swept through Indiana after it passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act made clear the link between global capitalism and progressive clear-cutting of traditional religious culture and morality. There are many business leaders, entrepreneurs, investors, and others who sympathize with our mission, of course. But they know they will be punished “by the market” if they speak up. “Bigotry is bad for business,” we’re told by management consultants and corporate gurus, and “diversity” brings greater innovation and success. As we know, “diversity” does not mean a richly textured and open society. It means agreeing with progressive cultural commitments to “openness,” which in turn means accepting the authority of a rigid, punitive ideological system.
Needless to say, Michael Novak did not foresee these outcomes when he wrote The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism any more than I did when I thrilled to his insights more than three decades ago. This should not surprise us. As Yuval Levin outlines in The Fractured Republic, America came out of the Great Depression and its mobilization for World War II with a consolidated economic, political, and social system. There was a closed, sealed quality to a great deal of social and economic life, which is why Michael and so many others were attracted to motifs of creativity and openness. Seventy years on, however, the project of deconsolidation has done its work. We now live in a fluid world in which the very idea of borders—between nations as well as between the sexes—seems more and more tenuous. In this context, which is our context, the genius of capitalism as Michael described it—creative, open, innovative, and dynamic—seems less benign. Those qualities liquefy our social relations, and even our sense of self.
In his last article for First Things (“The Future of Democratic Capitalism,” June/July 2015), Michael summed up his spiritual endorsement of capitalism: “Free markets are dynamic and creative because they are open to the dynamism and creativity intrinsic to our humanity.” This anthropological assessment of capitalism follows the lead of John Paul II, and it’s a profound reason to cherish economic liberty. But Michael did not give due emphasis to an equally important aspect of our humanity, which is our desire to give ourselves in loyalty to permanent things. As a man of faith, he certainly knew and affirmed this dimension: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. But in his enthusiasm for open, upward transcendence—a constant theme in his work—he lost sight of our need for anchors. As a consequence, he described the anthropology of capitalism in a one-sided way. Its fearsome dynamism speaks to part of our soul, but it neglects and even works against the part that cherishes permanence.
This one-sidedness needs to be corrected, for our challenges are quite different from the legacy of postwar consolidation that Michael responded to with such élan. We do not live in a closed, regulated, regimented world. Political correctness is a serious problem, and it has an authoritarian tendency. But it is not born of loyalty to permanent things. As an outgrowth of liberalism itself, this rigid ideology comes under the sign of choice. It is an obligatory, enforced participation in a fluid, liquefied moral world. We are told that we are not required to think or live in any particular way—except that we can’t think or live in ways that constrain, compromise, or even throw doubt on anyone else’s free decision to think or live differently. Taken to its logical extreme—everything is permitted as long as it permits everything—this becomes a paradoxical totalitarian toleration that is all the more dangerous because it deludes those who promote it into thinking that when they drive all dissent from the public square, they are “including.”
All of this dovetails frighteningly well with the dynamism and openness of capitalism, which is also presented as obligatory. And its partial anthropological resonance means that a part of our soul—the dimension that, taken in isolation, thrills to today’s gnosticism and its promise of freedom from all constraints, even those imposed by nature and our bodies—is given great encouragement. This antinomianism—which, again, is presented as “history’s” obligatory verdict—casts a dark shadow on the West in the twenty-first century, not the Soviet Union or older forms of centralized, totalitarian control.
Retro figures such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn gain traction, not because voters believe in socialism, but because they intuit that they cannot live in a world of pure dynamism and openness. We are drowning in freedom. To a degree unprecedented in human history, super-majorities in the West experience few impediments to earning and accumulating wealth—other than those they (or their parents) impose by ill-considered uses of their freedom (which turn out to be significant, often insuperable impediments). Age-old expectations of marriage and children have become choices. We can even choose to become male or female. In this context, voting for a “socialist” does not mean signaling a return of Marxism. It reflects the fact that, thirty years after the end of communism, some voters haltingly recognize that our freedom must be directed toward enduring ends if it is to serve something higher than itself. And in our age, which has taken economics to be the key to almost everything, that intuition naturally comes into focus with calls for limits on economic freedom.
Retro-socialism is a dead end. But in the absence of alternatives that promise stability and relief from the existential exhaustion of perpetual dynamism, Sanders, Corbyn, and others on the left are likely to garner support. The same can be said for populist sentiments that endorse nationalist economic policies of protectionism and subsidies that fly in the face of free market principles.
Michael was right in his time, but times have changed. The truth about the human person has a side other than the one that seeks dynamism and openness. This side requires permanence, not in the superficial form of a frozen status quo, but rather in ends, purposes, and projects to which we can entrust our loyalty. This side of the human person has gone unfulfilled in recent decades. Today’s crisis is one of reliable loves.
It is time, therefore, to set aside the notion that the problems we face in the West can be solved by stiffer doses of economic freedom. In parts of Asia, Africa, and other areas of the world, this prescription has merit. But here it’s pure homeopathy. What we need is quite different.
The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism was extraordinarily influential because Michael recognized that economic freedom is not an end in itself. It is to be prized because it promotes the cultural conditions that allow for greater human flourishing. Today we need clarity about the ends economic freedom should serve: the renewal of marital stability and fruitfulness, the restoration of democratic institutions, and the encouragement of the dynamism and openness that really counts—that which seeks higher things than can be had in any market.
We are created in the image of God. Our desire for dynamism and openness reflects the fact that we are made for something more, something greater. As St. Augustine put it, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God. Our civic life and economic system should give room and scope for that restlessness, as Michael so winsomely argued. But we are not made for endless seeking and striving. Our end is rest in God. In this life, we rightly cherish that which foreshadows this final rest: belonging to a family with its own home and heritage; being from a particular place and participating in a civic culture that has a noble inheritance to be cherished and sustained; being in solidarity as a distinct people that shares a common future, the most important of which is the Church, the people of God who seek to abide in him. What Michael Novak failed to recognize—what we must acknowledge—is that the dynamism of free market capitalism invades, overturns, refashions, and sometimes destroys these places of rest.
It is inhumane to forsake the dynamism of capitalism. But it is also inhumane to think that quality sufficient. In 2017, we need to think about how to direct economic freedom toward service of the common good.
In August, there was a torchlight march with men chanting ugly refrains: “The Jews will not replace us!” “Blood and Soil!” That these and other neo-Nazi slogans can be heard in America’s streets is depressing. There were also anti-fascist counter-marchers with their own abusive chants, eager to strike blows. Then a car plowed through a crowd, guided by the evil spirit of death that hovered over the events of that weekend in Charlottesville.
Charlottesville was not like the neo-Nazi march through Skokie, Illinois, in the late 1970s. In that era, vile prejudice could not steal its vocabulary from the liberalism that then predominated—aside from the right of free speech that allowed them to march. Today white supremacists and anti-Semites feed on the notions of racial and ethnic identity that play central roles in progressive politics. If you listen to interviews of leaders of the alt-right who organized the Charlottesville rally, you hear snippets of the sort of thinking one gets from Women’s Studies professors and critics of white heteronormative culture, repurposed to serve a white identity politics.
The essential premise of the extreme alt-right is that race, “blood,” is the most important aspect of our humanity. They divide the world up into racial and ethnic categories—white, Jewish, black, and so forth—claiming that America is a white nation and that they must defend the purity of their white inheritance against alien pollution. The sad truth of the matter is that this mirrors a great deal of contemporary thinking. Ta-Nehisi Coates, the celebrated black author, agrees with Richard Spencer, the dangerously articulate white nationalist. Both say that America is a “white nation” that has no place for a black man. Even liberals who regret Coates’s pessimism about the promise of a multicultural future endorse mainstream ideals of diversity that are race-based and identity-based. This approach was evident at Charlottesville on both sides. One counter-demonstration group chanted, “We’re here, we’re gay, we fight the KKK.” Others chanted, “Black lives matter,” to be met with the white nationalists chanting, “White lives matter.”
In a particularly striking interview, white nationalist Matthew Heimbach offers an analysis worthy of Herbert Marcuse. He describes the left as the “good boys of the capitalist class” and defenders of the status quo. He goes on to depict the anti-fascist counter-protesters as a paramilitary arm of the reigning capitalist elites that is deployed to defend their interests. It’s a fascinating, not implausible perspective on the relation of the so-called antifa, self-described anti-fascist activists, to the liberal establishment. I can imagine Heimbach’s glib use of Marxist categories eliciting approving nods from a professor running a graduate seminar in sociology at the New School. But then comes the crazy turn. He fuses his Marxist riff to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Heimbach sums up: “The radical left, the corporations, and the state are all on the same Jewish side.”
A vicious white identity politics may gain traction because it draws upon the categories and assumptions that dominate higher education and have a great deal of currency in the media and the business world. Richard Spencer sounds like someone who has read Mein Kampf and Queer Theory, studied intersectionality, and recently attended a conference of corporate diversity officers. He can frame his agenda in terms of our present politics of grievance and victimhood, casting “whites” as disenfranchised and scheduled for “replacement.” Given the way that so much of our public life has been colonized by identity politics, his white nationalism may end up having an appeal beyond the lunatic fringe.
The allure of something as perverse as white nationalism also grows as our culture becomes more post-Christian. Writing on the alt-right website Radix Journal, Alymer Fisher (a pseudonym that refers to a prominent twentieth-century proponent of eugenics) warns against “the pro-life temptation.” Abortion is among “the only things keeping our societies from falling into complete idiocracy.” Free contraception and easily available abortion lead to fewer births in the lower classes. And when “an intelligent, responsible woman does have an abortion, it is often because the baby has a disease or threatens her health.” Fisher touts Europe’s eugenic achievement. There, “90 percent of mothers who were told that their babies were going to have Down syndrome did not continue the pregnancy.” The disdain for the weak and vulnerable is chilling.
Secular progressivism is also enthusiastic about abortion and free contraception. It, too, reflects a post-Christian return to what Joshua Mitchell calls “aristocratic cruelty,” the growing unwillingness to allow the weak and vulnerable to limit the strong and powerful. Among secular progressives, this aristocratic cruelty is tempered by the ideals of empowerment and inclusion. Whatever one thinks of the abuse of these notions in today’s political climate, they are recognizable as residue of a Christian moral outlook. The alt-right gives us a much purer Nietzsche. What matters is power.
The ability of the alt-right to draw on the heroes of postmodernism should give us pause, not least because political correctness can make it seem “reasonable” by comparison. Google software engineer James Damore recently wrote a memo that appeals to basic principles of biology, in this case the differences between men and women. He pointed out that diversity ideology is often anti-science. Instead of engaging his arguments, Google management fired him for sinning against one of the orthodoxies of our time. In this surreal atmosphere, responsible people who want to think clearly about human nature and care about the moral duties we have to each other are disarmed. The difficult work of trying to formulate a responsible moral outlook gets shut down. Perverse voices have an open field in which to operate.
Readers need to know: Some of the leading figures of the alt-right are well educated, often very savvy about science, and quick to use it to support their positions. They are not in any sense traditional, nor are they “reactionary.” Modern racism has always been a materialist philosophy. Fine ideas of equality and notions of human dignity are dismissed as illusions. Our bodies define us, and society should be under the sway of the strong and powerful, not the weak and “degenerate.” This is their argument, and it dovetails all too well with the post-Christian, materialist assumptions that dominate higher education.
In one of the videos documenting the events in Charlottesville, a white nationalist describes the counter-protestors as “filth.” Later in the same video, we hear a counter-protestor screaming at James Kessler, the main organizer of the “Unite the Right” rally, calling him “filth.” Christianity teaches that we are made in the image of God, a truth this epithet contradicts. The fact that both sides use it epitomizes our problem.
In our post-Christian society, science and pseudo-science may provide a great deal of rhetoric, but as G. K. Chesterton warned, after faith comes credulity, not sober reason or cautious skepticism. We see that credulity at work today. Our politics has become infused with sacred themes from an earlier, more primitive era. As was the case with the original Nazis, today’s neo-Nazis frame the future in terms of purity and pollution. We recoil, rightly, when they target Jews, communists, and “degenerates” for elimination. But we’re foolish to ignore the fact that they mirror many on the left who have also developed a politics of purity. I can see the cogency of arguments for modifying and even removing Confederate monuments. But it is obvious that the real motives involve a quasi-religious impulse toward purification and the cleansing of pollution. And this is not limited to bronze statues. An antifa leader in Texas says, “We don’t believe fascists should be given a platform to spread their filth.” These are not empty words. Search “getting racists fired” on the Internet, and you’ll see many claiming scalps.
In the aftermath of Charlottesville, Trump said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence. It has no place in America.” This was deemed inadequate, and much has been made of Donald Trump’s tardiness in issuing this statement. He has also been criticized for his unwillingness to repeat with ritual regularity denunciations of the neo-Nazis and white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville. I must admit that these sins of omission do not trouble me. A generation ago, denunciations of racism sought to reinforce liberal norms of anti-discrimination. But identity politics has made a hash of those norms, and under its sway denunciations of racism now function to establish purity over and against the threat of pollution. Politicians, corporate leaders, and others strain to avoid being contaminated by the stain of “filth.”
I can’t see how this ritual pattern helps us restore civic life. What we need is a winsome account of our American inheritance, one in which we all share. Clarity about our true inheritance—the civic life we seek to nurture and pass on to our children—will triumph over the false, perverse, and wicked inheritance that the alt-right peddles. And clarity about our true inheritance will help us escape from our present captivity to a disabling identity politics, one that fixes on pollution and purity rather than advancing the common good.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ I’m delighted we’ve had the opportunity to publish Mark Regnerus. After releasing a thorough study of children raised in gay and lesbian households, he was attacked by colleagues at the University of Texas, where he has taught since 2002. Unable to get him fired, the academic mob has done its best to cripple Regnerus’s academic career and make his life miserable. Here’s the statement that the University of Texas now requires him to append to his publications and presentations: “A researcher who is involved in this study, Dr. Mark Regnerus, receives monetary payment for providing writing, editing, evaluation, and networking services to the Witherspoon Institute. The business interests of the Witherspoon Institute relate to the topic of this study.”
The whole thing would be ridiculous were it not so pernicious. The Witherspoon Institute is a non-profit educational 501(c)(3). Given the huge endowment at the University of Texas ($25 billion), it’s much more accurate to speak of its “business interests,” which are undoubtedly substantial and of deep concern to the university administration. And then there’s the selective targeting. The Witherspoon Institute’s stated mission is to promote a greater understanding of the moral foundations of free and democratic society. It has a politically conservative reputation, which is fair. Note, however, that faculty receiving funding from the Ford Foundation and from other decidedly left-leaning foundations are not required to make similar declarations. Only Regnerus is made to wear the scarlet “A.”
♦ The New York Daily News recently reported on a sex scandal in Rome. Police there raided a gay sex party at the apartment of the secretary to Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, an adviser to Pope Francis. The priest was arrested and then hospitalized due to a drug overdose. Apparently, this priest (not named by police) was being considered for appointment as a bishop. According to the Daily News, “His advancement in the church now seems less likely following the incident and two previous alleged drug overdoses.” Surely that should be entered in the understatement of the year competition.
♦ In June, Lizbeth Mateo was sworn in as a member of the California Bar. This involved taking an oath to uphold the Constitution. The event was presided over by Kevin de León, leader of the California State Senate. Notable fact: Mateo is an undocumented immigrant, a euphemism for someone living and working in the United States illegally. She is not the first. In 2014, the state of California decided to allow illegal immigrants to practice law. In 2015, the state of New York did the same. One has to wonder about a society in which those who swear to uphold the law give themselves such wide latitude to decide which laws count—and which don’t.
♦ Gallup reports that 73 percent of Americans deem divorce “morally acceptable,” up 14 percentage points since 2001. Meanwhile, the U.S. divorce rate has declined significantly over the same period. The Gallup pollsters don’t explain why. My speculation: In the Empire of Utility, we’re officially nonjudgmental, which explains the increase in those who say divorce is morally acceptable. It’s a personal choice. Meanwhile, the decline in divorce rates is being caused by two different factors. The bottom half of American society increasingly cohabitates rather than marrying. Therefore, even when households break up, there’s no divorce. In the upper half of American society, marriage has rebounded since the 1970s, and divorce rates tend to be low. The successful folks recognize the negative consequences of divorce, which tends to be bad for everyone involved, especially for children. In short, a permissive, nonjudgmental culture has opened up options for all. That freedom is used prudently by the successful and has shipwrecked the rest. All of this is obvious to anyone who opens his eyes, but it is masked by a topline trend of decline in divorce combined with a feel-good belief that we’re living in a more liberal and accepting society.
♦ I was taken aback by an effusion from papal favorite Antonio Spadaro, S.J., and his co-author, Presbyterian pastor Marcelo Figueroa. Published in the Jesuit Vatican newspaper, La Civiltà Cattolica, in July, “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A surprising ecumenism” offers readers a dog’s breakfast of assertions designed to smear American conservatism as inspired by fear, hate, and apocalyptic, anti-Christian will-to-power. The casual reader gets the impression that Rousas John Rushdoony was and remains a widely influential figure within American Evangelicalism—and that his writings guide the thinking of Steve Bannon, and thus the Trump White House. (Bannon’s recent ouster suggests otherwise.) They further imply that an obscure website, Church Militant, influences Catholic opinion. Lyman Stewart, the publisher of The Fundamentals in the early twentieth century, gained the admiration of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, they claim. Religious conservatives in America (including me, I assume) “stigmatize” and “demonize.” We engage in an “ecumenism of hate.” One relishes the irony of the way in which Spadaro and Figueroa combine ignorance with malice in equal proportion, all in the service of “the incisive look, full of love, of Jesus in the Gospels,” which, of course, is faithfully represented by Pope Francis, who urges “an ecumenism that moves under the urge of inclusion, peace, encounter and bridges.”
♦ “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism” gathers for its conclusion: The “spurious alliance between politics and religious fundamentalism” stems from “fear of the breakup of a constructed order.” In this situation, “the political strategy for success becomes that of raising the tones of the conflictual, exaggerating disorder, agitating the souls of the people by painting worrying scenarios beyond any realism.” And for this reason “Francis is carrying forward a systematic counter-narration with respect to the narrative of fear. There is a need to fight against the manipulation of this season of anxiety and insecurity.” Given the shrill, exaggerated, Manichean, and manipulative tone of the entire piece, I am tempted to think they meant this as a joke. Alas, no. It’s an all-too-familiar stance: the high-minded progressive serving the cause of love and inclusion by denouncing those who disagree.
♦ Fr. Spadaro is one the pope’s intimates, and this intervention reflects one of the least appealing traits of the Francis papacy. Instead of identifying serious positions held by serious people and asking for clarification, revision, or retraction, this papacy makes exaggerated denunciations of caricatures. In so doing, the Vatican impugns the orthodoxy and motives of others without taking responsibility for making particular theological judgments. Are we to think that the First Things initiative Evangelicals and Catholics Together engages in an illicit “ecumenism of hate”? Is the recent ECT statement on marriage, “The Two Shall Become One Flesh: Reclaiming Marriage,” a fear-driven effort to promote theocracy? Perhaps not—but maybe. That ambiguity is the goal, it seems, for it allows accusations when convenient and their denial when inconvenient. This is the form that papal authoritarianism tends to take in the Francis regime. Compare with methods of Pius X. The early-twentieth-century pope may have been misguided on matters of substance (though on the whole I think his judgments about modernism were correct), but he used his authority in clear, unequivocal, and accountable ways that did not mask power and discipline with the rhetoric of permission and inclusion.
♦ Madison, Wisconsin, mayor Paul Soglin ordered the removal of a Confederate monument from the city’s cemetery. His stated reason: “There should be no place in our country for bigotry, hatred or violence against those who seek to unite our communities and our country.” Is he concerned that the dead Confederates will rise from their graves and reignite their insurrection in deep-blue Madison?
♦ Removal of Confederate memorials and statues reflects a desire for a cleansed inheritance, one unpolluted by sin and fault. Given the tragic character of human existence, this amounts to a desire for a heavenly inheritance, which only God and no nation or human culture can provide. The upshot of zeal for civic perfection will be a denuded public square. These Confederate statues will not be replaced by meaningful monuments. Another Starbucks will fill the void. Instead of civic life haunted by our all-too-human past, we will enjoy “community,” brought to us by Facebook.
♦ The Babylon Bee, a reliable source of Christian news satire, “reported” the toppling of a statue of John Calvin. A “rowdy gang of angry, riled-up Arminian believers” that included a “band of Wesleyan troublemakers” yanked down the monument honoring the famous Reformer, shouting slogans: “Down with limited atonement!” and “You’ll never take our free will!” Police chief Ed Patterson encouraged local citizens to stay indoors. “When you get the Arminians going, there’s no extent to the depravity they can display.”
♦ Although unreported by the Babylon Bee, rumors are circulating that the Central Committee of Un-Reconstructed Calvinism has issued a statement condoning the removal of Calvin’s statue. It states (so I’m told): “The destruction of images is in the Reformed tradition, and we thank the Arminian heretics for recalling to us to the important work of purging the Christian life of all visual representations, tokens, and reminders that tempt us to worship false idols.”
♦ With his usual perceptiveness and erudition, Fr. George Rutler provides just the right quote for our present moment of iconoclastic self-righteousness: “In his novel Nineteen-Eighty Four, George Orwell described the sterile world of the New Man shorn of dignity conferred by God and natural law: ‘Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.’”
♦ In the aftermath of the Charlottesville episode and amid accusations that Trump has failed to denounce neo-Nazis and white supremacists with adequate vigor, Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier resigned from a business council formed by the Trump administration. He stated, “America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal.” It’s a true and noble sentiment. But he also said something nonsensical: “Our country’s strength stems from its diversity.” It’s obvious to anyone who thinks about it with a mind unclouded by ideology that our country’s strength stems from its unity. As St. Augustine observed, a conglomeration of peoples becomes a res publica, a commonwealth, when it is united by a shared love.
♦ A devoted reader recently passed along a provocative epigram penned by the Hungarian mathematician George Pólya: “A philosopher knows EVERYTHING, but nothing else.”
♦ As I reported in the last issue, regular contributor Brian Doyle passed away in May. There will be an evening of celebration of his life and work in Portland, Oregon, his hometown for more than twenty years. The event will be held on Thursday, September 21, at 7 p.m. Location: First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1126 SW Park Avenue, Portland.
♦ A new Readers of First Things (ROFTERS) group is up and running in Columbus, Ohio. If you’d like to join their vigorous monthly discussions of the latest articles, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A ROFTERS group has formed in Western Michigan in the Grand Haven, Spring Lake, and Ferrysburg area. If you would like to join, please get in touch with Bill Werner at email@example.com.
Mark and Claudia Henrie are organizing a ROFTERS group in Santa Barbara, California. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org or 805-770-3567.