I wanted to add a word or two to Fr. Neuhaus’s posting last week about the conference on religion and liberalism held at Columbia University on February 10. I was there, and the account of it presented in the New York Sun didn’t sound much like the event I attended. The papers were far more stimulating and varied than the Sun ‘s reporter has conveyed, and I was delighted to be there. Yes, there were some participants who expressed reflexive opposition to the participation of religion in public life, and there were some anodyne invocations of the naked public square, and some shrill denunciations of the usual suspects. But that was hardly the full extent of it, and the overall mood was, to my ears, more exploratory and tentative than dogmatic or partisan. And the very fact that such an event was organized by Columbia’s American Studies program is an encouraging sign of that program’s vitality under the leadership of Andrew Delbanco and Casey Nelson Blake. For those of us who’ve mourned the disintegration of this once-lively field, that is immensely good news.
Perhaps the best way to dispel the idea that this was merely a pep rally for liberals would be to present some of my own remarks for the occasion:
An earlier generation of liberals had more insight into these matters. Consider the treatment of William Jennings Bryan and his followers in John Dewey’s 1922 New Republic essay "The American Intellectual Frontier." As one might expect, the secular-minded Dewey started out making clear his misgivings about what he saw as Bryan’s "campaign against science and in favor of obscurantism and intolerance," and making a tip of the hat toward the mocking jibes of H. L. Mencken. Yet he soon tempered this with surprising respect for Bryan’s followers:
What we call the middle classes are for the most part the church-going classes, those who have come under the influence of evangelical Christianity. These persons form the backbone of philanthropic social interest, of social reform through political action, of pacifism, of popular education. They embody and express the spirit of kindly goodwill toward classes which are not at an economic disadvantage and toward other nations, especially when the latter show any disposition toward a republican form of government.
Dewey understood that no broad liberal movement in America could succeed without the enlistment of just such people. There is a message here for seriously reform-minded American intellectuals in today’s America, who ought to reconsider whether a political movement that has treated the great majority of religious Americans with disdain can ever hope to succeed. They should ask themselves which is more important—-the promotion of the greater social good, with as broad a democratic consensus as possible, or the stigmatization of religion as a form of "obscurantism and intolerance." It may not be possible to do both at once.
One of the most grievous blows to the cause of progressive reform was the loss of the Catholic intellectual and moral tradition as an influence on liberal politics. And it was a self-inflicted blow. Seventy years ago, when the New Deal coalition was in full flower, Catholics played an absolutely essential role in the Democratic Party. This was not merely because the Democratic Party had always been the party of immigrants. Social philosophers such as Father John Ryan brought into the Democratic Party mainstream a vision of the human person not as an isolated individual, but as part of an organic whole, a vision that dovetailed with many of the more communitarian elements in the New Deal. Notions of a just wage, critique of laissez-faire economics, insistence upon the vital importance of trade unions, and an abiding concern over issues of economic maldistribution—-these were part of an already well-established tradition of Catholic social thought, expressed in papal encyclicals such as Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno .
Such political views were further grounded in a particular view of the human person, not as an autonomous and self-determining being, but as a social and communal being, whose life is made meaningful by webs of dependency and mutuality. As John McGreevy has demonstrated in his outstanding book Catholicism and American Freedom , the struggle between Catholics and Protestants in American life had to do with the persistence of these differing moral templates¯the difference between a normative view of human beings as self-regulating individuals and one that embraced the inevitability of social connectedness and dependency.
We often fail to remember what a socially conservative coalition, by our standards today, the New Deal era Democratic Party was, with its essential contingents of Northern Catholics and Southern Protestants. In today’s Democratic Party, white Southern Protestants are largely gone, and the Catholic vote has split, and is trending more and more toward the Republicans. Much of the latter change can be attributed to rank-and-file Catholic disaffection with the Democratic party’s decision to give issues of cultural "values"¯and most particularly issues that relate to the individualistic concerns of sexuality and expressive freedom, and abortion rights in particular¯a prominence and energy that they felt it was no longer given to larger economic and political issues, and that offended them deeply. This emphasis has not yet cost the Democrats their entire Catholic constituency, but it has cost them a very large part of it, and perhaps the most commitedly Catholic part of it. The trend shows no sign of reversing in any decisive way. Many Catholics who now routinely vote Republican clearly still do not feel at ease about it. But with each passing election, they are less reluctant.
The loss of its morally and socially conservative but politically progressive Catholics has been a calamity, then, for the Democratic Party, and has seriously undermined its claim to be the vehicle of an effective and humane progressive politics. It is often argued that the socially conservative positions of Republicans are at odds with their support for unregulated capitalism, which serves as a ceaseless engine of social disruption, and a force perpetuating social inequality. But anyone putting forward that argument has to be willing to face up to an equally serious problem on the other side¯that the extreme individualism presumed by so many of the current Democratic social policies, with their disdain for tradition and their obsession with liberatory rights-talk and atomistic privacy, is at odds with any sustained effort to foster notions of mutuality, accountability, community, and social responsibility.
Christopher Lasch argued that one of the chief errors of the postwar left was its choice of cultural radicalism, which succeeded, over serious political and economic reform, which failed completely. I think he was right about that, and the loss of the socially and morally conservative Catholics, who were¯in a sense¯very much like the socially and morally conservative Protestants that John Dewey described, is one of the chief casualties of that error. Both groups had a religiously derived vision of the human person, a vision that is fruitfully at odds with our American liberal individualism, and that could yet enrich a progressive politics that concentrated on the right issues, and once again respected their moral outlook. Both are still available for that purpose, if progressives can to find a way back to them. And if they want to.
(Click here to email the author about this item. Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Chair of Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and is a member of the editorial board of F IRST T HINGS .)
In addition to which :
This evening (Tuesday) at 7:30, Father Neuhaus will be giving a public lecture at Harvard University on “The Radical Humanism of the Pro-Life Cause.” For information, contact Meghan Grizzle at (617) 803-2831.
This coming Sunday, Father Neuhaus will be saying Mass and preaching at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church at 230 East 90th St. in New York (between 2nd and 3rd avenues). Copies of his new book, Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth will be available at a discount price of $20. Signed copies of the book will be available following the 11:15am Mass and Father Neuhaus will be signing copies following the 12:30 Mass.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has this to say about the new book by Father Richard John Neuhaus:
"When it comes to ‘Catholic matters,’ Father Richard Neuhaus’ thoughts matter a lot. He unfailingly challenges, enlightens, fascinates, inspires, humors, and occasionally even vexes me. And I would not miss reading a word he writes."
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