Now I’ve gotten several emails, two from leading Catholic American thinkers, telling me, in the words of one, that Patrick Deneen “hit me below the belt” in some essay at The American Conservative. I checked it out. I may have been hit below the belt, but it didn’t hurt. But I guess I can’t leave it at that, for fear you’d have the wrong idea about what I have or don’t have below the belt.
Patrick’s “real divide” essay is an earnest effort at “branding,” one that preaches well to the converted. All “real division” essays are meant to tell us who are real friends and real enemies are. Straussian Harry Jaffa excels in writing real division essays, ones that turned his fellow conservatives, such as Justice Scalia, Irving Kristol, and even fellow Straussian Harvey Mansfield, into his enemies. Real division essays that separate conservatives into opposing teams, I admit, almost always have the merit of clarifying issues with the teaching method of exaggerating differences. I’m not saying Patrick is trying to turn anyone into his enemy, of course. We’ve been friends for a long time, and I’m thinking through his real division for myself in order to advance the “dialogue,” which can be contentious without being full of real animosity.
Patrick puts me on the team with worthies such as Michael Novak, Robert Royal, George Weigel, Robert George, and Hadley Arkes. Friends they all are of mine. But studies show that I never actually cite any of them with approval in my writing. As much as I admire Robby and Hadley, for example, I have made a point of criticizing their tendency to say that Aristotle, Kant, the Declaration of Independence, Locke, and Thomas Aquinas are all on the same page when it comes to describing what’s right by nature, what our duties are as rational creatures. And Hadley’s interpretation of the Constitution, if actually implemented, would produce an activist jurisprudence that I think is largely unwarranted. Robby’s new or analytic natural law, in my view, isn’t really natural law. I could go on.
What unites “our” team is it’s both pro-Catholic and pro-American. It’s also united, I would suppose, by Father Neuhaus’ confidence that now might be the Catholic moment in American political thought. Patrick’s team, by contrast, thinks that now is the anti-American moment in American Catholic thought. His article should have been published in The Anti-American Conservative. I admit there should be a journal by that name, because there is a position there that’s worth thinking about. Anyone who’s read Tocqueville knows that any middle-class democracy can be justly criticized for being merely middle-class, for being deficient when it comes to intellectual, cultural, and spiritual excellence. Almost all Catholic culture, for example, didn’t originate in America. Still, we can’t forget that there has been plenty of space for it to flourish here. It’s American Catholics’ fault, not America’s fault, if that flourishing has been on the decline. For a long time (and even now here and there), American Catholic education, even for working class kids in South Philly or South Boston, was a lot more than middle class.
Patrick actually pays me the ambiguous compliment of saying that I’m distinguished on the pro-American team by my quirkiness. One reviewer of my book Postmodernism Rightly Understood called it quirky in the best sense. What Patrick seems to have meant is quirky in the quirky sense. But when he actually describes the intellectual debts of the pro-American team, it’s pretty much ME, that is, my singularly judicious mixture of John Courtney Murray and Orestes Brownson. My four devoted readers can attest to my effort to develop an indigenous American Thomism with the personal resources of Murray, Brownson, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor. My effort may have failed, but I still think I’m on to something, something not even quirky.
Murray and Brownson, as I have emphasized, are just as critical as Patrick and the other anti-Americans of the Lockean founding theory of our Founders. Murray and Brownson, just like Patrick, say that theory—all by itself—is a kind of political atheism that is destructive of all civilization. They also say, however, that our Founders built not as theorists, but statesmen. And so they compromised their theory with a kind of political realism, compromising, for example, that transformed the draft of the First Amendment protecting “the rights of conscience” to the final product protecting “the free exercise of religion.” Religion, as Murray explains, is an organized body of thought and action—an institutional church. So the First Amendment, contrary to the theoretical anti-ecclesiasticism of the Lockean Madison, protects, due to the legislative skill of Congressman Madison, freedom of the church.
So, as Murray says, our Fathers providentially (our constitution is more deeply providential than written, as Brownson explains) built better than they knew. That means their political institutions, for which we Catholics have every reason to be grateful, stand in need of a theory our political Fathers are incapable of providing. The high task of citizenship for American Catholics, Murray proclaimed, is to use their traditional, rational, personal, and relational account of natural law to provide their country such a self-understanding. Obviously American Catholics didn’t step up and do so in any significant enough way. But America can’t be blamed for that either.
Murray and Browson are pro-American in the sense that that they wanted to be of service, as Catholics, to their country. They wanted to make it an even better home for their church, but they were the very opposite of uncritical of dominant forms of American thought, both at the time of the Founding and in their own time. ME TOO, I might add.
We’re not “Americanists” if that means America in some sense the standard by which we judge the truth of what we think and believe. We certainly don’t think America is the “best regime.” Christians don’t think in terms of “regimes”; that term, drawn in its classical form from Plato’s dialogue called politeia, implies all sorts of false premises about the primacy of the political. All political arrangements, devised as they are by sinners, have within them the seeds of their own destruction. It’s the City of God, not the City of Man, that’s sustainable over the infinitely long term. Still, Christians have the duty not to be too alienated from their country, and to do what they can to be of service to their fellow citizens by loyally encouraging what’s good and could be better in the political place where they live. America, we southerners know especially well, is the easiest place in the world to be both at home and homeless, to enjoy the good things of the world without forgetting that our true home is somewhere else.
I only have time for three objections to Patrick’s anti-American Catholic team as he describes it. First, it is repulsively lacking in gratitude. We Catholics criticize Lockeans for not being grateful for what they’ve been given by nature and God. Well, we Catholics don’t want to be justly criticized for not being grateful for what we’ve been given by America. Not only has our church flourished in freedom in America—in some respects in unprecedented freedom, but we can’t forget what Chesterton says about America being a home for a homeless, including Catholics who had to flee from grinding poverty and oppression. Patrick’s great teacher, Carey McWilliams, was just as harsh as he is in criticizing America’s techno-indifference to virtue or genuinely dignified egalitarianism, but he also never failed to mention that he was grateful for American freedom, as well as for his country’s resolute defense of that freedom (in winning, as the French Catholic thinker Pierre Manent admits, the Cold War against repressively atheistic global communism fairly close to single-handed) throughout the world.
American freedom—American liberalism—has to be distinguished from the civil-religious statism of the Continental liberalism that originated with the French Revolution. It’s the latter that’s hostile to the Catholic Church as an institution as a matter of principle. If time permitted, I would go on to explain that the Locke’s hostility to civil theology—and so his separation of church from state—are his debts to Christianity. They, as Brownson explains, depend upon each person’s openness to a transpolitical God who knows him or her as essentially more than either a political or a material being. Locke, Patrick is right to say, is weak, from a Catholic view, on the relational dimension (the Trinitarian dimension) of being a person, but that doesn’t mean his anthropology is wholly opposed to the key Christian personal insight. Locke is closer to the truth than those (even MacIntyre) who point to the omnicompetent Greek polis as the model human community.
The Lockean personal insight into the equal freedom of us all from political domination, as Chesterton explains, can only be properly accounted for the Christian thought that there’s a center of significance to the universe that gives each of us unique and irreplaceable significance. That’s why our Declaration is grounded, with dogmatic lucidity, in the self-evidence of the proposition that all men are created equal. From the perspective of this egalitarian dogma about personal significance, American history is a narrative, in some ways, of decline, but in others of progress. The practical indifference of the Epicurean Mr. Jefferson to enslavement of particular persons and the “white moderate” described by Martin Luther King Jr. to segregation were overcome by the irreducible Christian devotion of American citizens. Our pro-American team, as Robby George and Walker Percy have written, doesn’t forget to affirm the good—including the personal, relational love—that has been our Civil Rights movement, which includes, properly understood, our resistance to both racism and communism. (An issue that I’ll pass over for now is that the anti-American team often writes as if American Protestants weren’t really Christians who practice the virtue of charity, of loving one another out of love of God.)
Second, if Patrick is right, and the core of America is nothing more than Lockean individualism working itself out by emptying us out over time, then he has to agree, as a matter of Constitutional law, with the opinions of the Court in Roe and Lawrence. As a Catholic he can object, but he can’t deny that the Court has grabbed on to the nerve of our Lockean Constitution in its doctrine of freedom as autonomy unfolding generation by generation.
For the pro-American team, that judicial interpretation of the Constitution according to theory extrinsic to its actual text, Justice Scalia and Hadley have shown in different but equally compelling ways, is an unconstitutional abuse of power. That’s because, for one thing, abortion and marriage are issues to be resolved by the people acting through legislatures, and Catholic Americans, as citizens, are perfectly free to convince their fellow citizens of the truth of their view of who we are as free and relational beings.
There is much more room for the Catholic view under our Constitution than Patrick supposes through his one-dimensional theorizing of American constitutionalism. (Here, I should mention in passing, how incredibly distant Patrick’s view of our constitutionalism is from that of American traditionalist conservatives such as Russell Kirk, who claim our constitutionalism owes little to nothing to Locke. Those conservatives, I thought, was for whom The American Conservative was founded.) Catholic citizens have every reason—including the truth of the matter—to argue that our Constitution is much more democratic that our Court now says it is, just as they have every reason to argue that our Framers never meant “liberty” to be used as a wrecking ball deployed against our indispensable relational “intermediary” institutions—beginning with the family and the church. It’s Continental liberalism that’s all about nothing standing between the isolated individual and the state.
Third, Patrick reasonably says that members of his team can’t be comfortable with either Democrats or Republicans. Who can? But there’s no denying that one party is much more open to influence and correction, not to mention much less hostile to the institutional church. Of course it’s true that evangelization and conversion are much more fundamental than political partisanship. Brownson says that America gives the church all it should ask for from government: The freedom to evangelize. There are unprecedented threats to that freedom today, I admit, even if they too are easy to exaggerate. Those threats are strong enough that political disengagement is a luxury we can’t afford. Even those who want to drop out, so to speak, and follow the rule of St. Benedict need the space to do so, as do our less “radical” but highly admirable home schoolers. There’s something—but not everything, of course—to the Tea Party insight that it’s genuinely American to use libertarian (or liberal in the old-fashioned sense) means to pursue non-libertarian (or social or relational) ends.
There’s a lot more, and I’m grateful for Patrick for hitting me and us all where it might well should have hurt. And there’s much I readily agree with in Patrick’s article, including his observation that the conservative narrative of “Founders good, progressives bad” was always somewhat misleading and has certainly become outmoded.