Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Liberal Democracy

I read with much interest Bruce D. Marshall’s “No Liberal Home” (­August/September). I applaud his invocation of St. Augustine’s doctrine of the two cities, reminding us that our heavenly home is not identical to any earthly regime—even one as relatively welcoming as our liberal democracy. Anyone who reads through the Pauline epistles will be aware that at no time in his Christian ministry did Paul enjoy protection from ­controversies surrounding the preaching of the gospel. The disputes over the true meaning of the faith he faced have their counterparts in our own time.

St. Augustine experienced, as we all must, that conversion does not mean that we are rescued from the contingencies of historical existence. We may understand them differently, and respond to their threats with a poise that comes from insight into the ways of the world, but the ordeal of living in the faith remains. Marshall rightly criticizes the urge to romanticize or sentimentalize Christian faith, ignoring the more difficult and demanding passages in the Gospels and Epistles. There is, in the modern situation, a powerful desire to eliminate the tragic sense of life in favor of a supposititious progression toward the end of history, strikingly imagined as perpetual peace and prosperity. This is not new, but it is particularly virulent in our time. The Christian faith transcends the tragic, but not by denying its reality. We are sojourners, not permanent residents, tempted to let the tragic incite despair on the one hand, or to imagine earthly triumph on the other. This is the human condition.

Marshall shows this in summarizing the ambiguous reception of the Catholic Church in America. Anti-Catholicism may recede, but its resurgence remains a possibility. When that comes to sight, Catholics will be challenged as to how to respond. As one who thinks of myself as an ­Augustinian, I see that circumstances may force me to test just how far I will act in accordance with that in the face of growing hostility. There is no guarantee that people will be reasonable.

Liberal democracy and Catholicism are not identical, but they can and should be friends. There are forces at work on both sides now that deny this possibility. I think Marshall is right to see hostility to Catholicism as an alternative theology—the displacement of religious faith into ideological programs that operate with religious intensity, recognizing that traditional Christianity will never define salvation in terms of humanly made policies and programs. Christians remain selective in what they support: From a purely political perspective, they will never be “true believers.” Marshall acknowledges that the state must intervene where the Church has signally failed to live up to its commitments; but he is also right in saying that, for some, this offers the chance to control or dismantle the Church. Legitimate demands for justice, which we must acknowledge, can mask a mixture of motives that have little to do with what justice requires.

No regime, not even liberal democracy, can be our final home. But liberal democracy is worth fighting for. Among the alternatives, it remains the better stopping place. We can be friends of liberal democracy, friendly critics, and we can be patient—but not subservient—in the face of unjustifiable provocation.

Timothy Fuller
colorado college
colorado springs, colorado

Although he offers a specifically Catholic perspective, Bruce D. ­Marshall describes a sequence that is not uncommon among religious and ethnic minorities in this country.

In the first phase, they are small and marginal. When not victims of outright bigotry, their ways are sufficiently different to keep them out of circles of influence and prestige. As a result, parallel institutions emerge to provide both the material and ­dignitary goods that the mainstream does not.

Over time, such particularities usually fade. No longer suspect outsiders, members of the minority enter the central current of American life. In personal affairs, becoming fully American means either abandoning traditional differences or transforming them into kitsch. For institutions, the alternatives are to become de facto independent of the community that produced them or to limit their activities to a dwindling population of old-timers and true believers.

Finally, disillusionment sets in. Was becoming “normal” worth the cost? Or did it amount to trading one’s birthright for a mess of liberal democratic pottage? Can America really accept erstwhile outsiders? Or does it still harbor the old prejudices, perhaps sublimated into a new idiom? At this stage, neo-traditionalist movements emerge to rebuild boundaries eroded through the generations.

My purpose in sketching this stylized history is not to challenge ­Marshall’s theological argument about the prospects for the Church in America. As a non-Christian, it would be inappropriate to comment on premises I do not share.

Yet perhaps it is reasonable to ask whether a theological explanation for the crisis of Catholic conscience is necessary. Aren’t Marshall’s concerns about public morality, religious freedom, and institutional autonomy a somewhat predictable version of the letdown Jews and others have also experienced? We all believed, for different reasons, that America was the long-awaited solution to ancient problems. We were all, of course, wrong.

It would be a mistake, though, to conclude from the fact that America is not the solution that it is in itself the problem. Although the rhetoric of civil war has become fashionable on both the right and the left, we remain a long way from the imposition of consensus by violent coercion. Catholic ideas, communities, and institutions are among the bulwarks against that nightmare. I hope Catholics will not follow the well-trodden path from disappointment to disdain.

Samuel Goldman
george washington university
washington, d.c.

I am grateful for Bruce Marshall’s excellent essay, “No Liberal Home.” I agree with Professor Marshall that liberalism is not our home. But Christians have, for more centuries than not, been involved in defending human dignity, and tending to the common good, through the building up of political and social order. This is not something ultimate for the Christian, but the Christian does have duties to his earthly home, city, and nation. I am sure Marshall agrees. But some readers might take political quietism to be a fair conclusion to draw from “No Liberal Home,” and I want to draw out the point that political quietism is as much a failure of Christian witness as its opposite.

Augustine would agree with Professor Marshall that the world hates us. And he would surely remind us that there is no political order that will ever put an end to Christian persecution. This was one of the conceits of liberalism itself—that its neutrality on religion would ensure that it would bring “religious peace” and put an end once and for all to religious violence. Marshall shows precisely how much of a conceit that was even in the first few centuries of our great country. For Augustine, too, the more realistic view is that the suffering of Christians will go on, not until the right political order comes along, but until Christ comes again.

Yet some Christians take from this excellent premise a quietistic ­conclusion utterly foreign to the public nature of Catholicism. Marshall rightly notes the way Catholics tend to build schools and hospitals, and take on charitable works that bring about a better ordering of souls, families, and polities. Christian faith is emphatically not “private.” It still scandalizes some of my Anabaptist friends to read Augustine praising Emperor Constantine for worshipping “only the true God,” and praising Emperor Theodosius for ruling in a fatherly way, as “a true Christian.” He praised him for casting down the images of Jupiter, and for helping the Church convert the ungodly “by just and compassionate legislation.”

The Augustine who saw that politics was nothing but a “passing mist” also saw that Christians had a responsibility to rule with justice for the common good. He affirmed ­Cicero’s demand that a republic stand on complete and supreme justice. He didn’t argue that Cicero’s view was Christian. He argued instead that such a natural virtue could only be truly right and truly just by way of a purifying principle—Jesus Christ—whose sacrifice cleanses and unites our natural good to the ­highest good, namely, friendship with God. Augustine insisted the Church is the tabernacle for this purifying principle on earth, redounding to the temporal and eternal benefit of all nations. Catholics especially need that special combination of transcendent detachment and transcendent vision for all our temporary homes.

C. C. Pecknold
the catholic university 
of america
washington, d.c.

Bruce D. Marshall replies:

I am grateful to Professors Fuller, Goldman, and Pecknold for their thoughtful comments on my article. We are largely in agreement. To some extent each of them worries, though, that I am too negative about liberal democracy, and may encourage ­needless pessimism about the future of religious liberty in America.

At present we are surely far from civil war, or from the brutal persecution experienced by millions of Christians under communist regimes past and present. To say that we are far from coercion aimed at a secular consensus, however, is simply false—unless projects like forcing (or trying to force) the Little Sisters of the Poor to finance abortions aren’t coercive. Francis Cardinal George of blessed memory provocatively suggested that he would die in his bed, his successor would die in jail, and the ­successor after that would die a martyr. It seems most ­unlikely that the current archbishop of Chicago will die in jail, but consider his Australian contemporary, Francis Cardinal Pell. Despite reasonable doubt about his guilt, he will probably die in solitary confinement, convicted of grotesque crimes by one of the world’s leading liberal democracies. One suspects that his real crime was, as one of his most vociferous media accusers put it, that he dared to tell other people how they should live their lives—that he dared to be, quite publicly, a Catholic. To suppose this could not happen here is deeply unrealistic, all the more so because of the undoubted crimes of some American priests and bishops.

Why my article moved Pecknold to warn of quietism I don’t know, since the terms in which he issues the warning—the common good and human dignity—are basic to the article itself. Catholics must pray and work for the good of all, including those who hate them. They also have to accept that their goodwill toward all in the name of Christ may make them more, not less, hated. In the end, the human heart knows only two loves. The future of religious liberty in America will depend not on the intrinsic merits of liberal democracy as a political system, but on whether it turns out to be an instrument mostly in the hands of those who love God, or in the hands of those who love themselves.


Anthropologists invented the concept of totemism in the 1860s, but lost interest in it after Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Le Totémisme aujourd' hui (1962). Lévi-Strauss argued that all people mark differences among social groups with animal or plant symbolism. The word “totem” appears to have been borrowed by the seventeenth-century French missionaries to the Ojibwa, but it proved useful as a way of talking about a wide variety of customs. ­Spencer and Gillen, the pioneering ethnographers of Australian ­aborigines, picked it up to characterize the cultic practices of the Arunta and other tribes they visited. Durkheim used Spencer and Gillen’s reports as the basis of The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912). Freud extended the imaginative history of the concept in Totem and Taboo (1913).

Durkheim’s work remains intellectually stimulating, but it is not an accurate depiction of aboriginal life—or any other tribal religion. Rather, Durkheim provided a brilliant theory of social dynamics that captures the interplay between secrecy, disclosure, myth, group solidarity, and the ritualization of antagonism within and among groups. An alternative reading of Australian aborigine religion is that it provided a tool by which a relatively small number of older men were able to dominate younger men and all women. Totemism—if we want to stick with the old word—was for aborigines probably as close as the world has ever come to what feminists call patriarchy.

It is doubtful that the customs of Australian aborigines provide much of a model for the angry left in contemporary America. Riley’s descriptions of that euphoric anger, however, are accurate and compelling (“Woke Totemism,” August/September). The desire among Trump-hating leftists to obliterate their MAGA hat–wearing foes is clear—whether it is expressed literally or metaphorically. The ­elevation of whole categories of people to the role of “Virtuous Victim” is also a fair characterization of descent into the multicultural maelstrom.

Riley’s invocation of Durkheim is clever, but it doesn’t clarify. ­Christianity provides much of the psychological power behind today’s multicultural left. The left has plundered Western religion for narrative tropes, including sacred symbols and redemptive figures. But plundering is opportunistic. Plunderers take what they want with no particular concern for how it will all fit together.

Riley sees a struggle between the aspects of Western religion borrowed by the “woke” left and the atavistic totemism of that movement, which he says follows a different logic aimed at “social equilibrium.” This is a mistake. The Church of Wokeness wants things both ways. It has its own ­end-times scenario of earth-purged-of-oppressors in an environmental utopia, as well as a model of perpetual redistribution from the privileged to the oppressed. Sure, these ideas are in conflict and lead to contradictions, but that’s not because it is totemistic. It’s because, like every religion, it operates on multiple levels. Or as the aborigines put it, Dreamtime and the here-and-now.

Peter Wood
national association
of scholars
new york, new york

Alexander Riley replies:

My esteemed colleague Peter Wood was trained as an anthropologist, so he is intimately familiar with that discipline’s literature on totemism. The goal of my essay, however, was not to insinuate that the woke religion is equivalent to Australian aboriginal religion, in either its classic Durkheimian interpretation or in the more contemporary cultural anthropological framework (itself largely enveloped by woke principles).

It is correct that the woke totemists are directly borrowing, however confusedly, from categories given them by the dominant religion in their culture. But, as Durkheim shows, with acknowledged historical limitations, the structural language of sacred and profane, pure and impure, which they have learned from the Christianity of their social world, is present in more primitive form in earlier religions, including that of the Australian aboriginals. The virtue of the totemist framework for understanding what they are up to is that it vibrantly brings out the rigor and totality of the structure of symbolic oppositions at work in woke totemism.

The test for the utility of my analysis is this: Does the method of categorizing things into pure objects of veneration and impure objects of fear and disgust, which Durkheim gives as the core of primitive religious life, help us understand what contemporary victim clan members do with their totems and anti-totems?

Christianity, like all religions, is fundamentally driven by concern for the sacred. But there is a crucial difference between its eschatology and that of woke totemism. In Christianity, resolution of the antagonism between pure and impure is understood as emerging only at the conclusion of historical time. It will take place when this world passes into the next, at the will not of men, but of God.

In woke totemism, as in the quasi-religion of Marxian communism that is its forebear, we find instead the fantasy of a perfectly multicultural and egalitarian paradise here and now, achievable only if the righteous can vanquish racists, sexists, homophobes, transphobes, and fascists of all stripes in an earthly war. The fallenness of this world is axiomatic in Christianity, made bearable by the promise of supernatural redemption. In woke totemism, that solution is closed, which is why worldly imperfection is a source of constant and unassuageable rage on the part of the cult members.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift