On June 5, 2015, the U.S. Postal Service published a commemorative stamp in honor of Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor is an anomalous candidate for such acclaim, since her work stands at a critical distance from the American project, both in its older and more recent iterations. Precisely in her refusal to assimilate her fiction to the national consensus, she made her most valuable gift to it.
The chief evidence for this claim is to be found in two 1963 issues of the Jesuit journal America that O’Connor read and marked only a few months before her all too early death at age thirty-nine in 1964. In one essay, John Courtney Murray, the leading Catholic theologian on matters of church and state at the time, expressed his hope that the Second Vatican Council’s forthcoming treatment of religious freedom would be in full accord with what he called “the true political tradition of the Christian West.” The American constitutional system, in Murray’s view, has served to recover the Catholic rejection of all absolutisms, both ecclesial and governmental. It does so by insisting that “political authority has no part whatsoever in the care of souls (cura animarum) or in the control of the minds of men (regimen animorum).” Hence Murray’s confidence that Dignitatis humanae (the declaration on human freedom) would call for governments to remain secular and neutral by not granting special privileges to any of the various religious traditions, granting them all freedom of both worship and belief.
Yet at the very end of his essay, Murray expressed a certain worry about this pristine separation of spheres, whereby church and state attend to their complementary and rarely contradictory affairs: “The question today is, whether the Church should extend her pastoral solicitude beyond her own boundaries and assume an active patronage of the freedom of the human person . . . who stands today under a massive threat to everything that human dignity and personal freedom mean.” Unlike Flannery O’Connor, Fr. Murray seemed impervious to the notion that such threats might come from the American system itself.
Emboldened perhaps by his newly minted doctorate from Brandeis, the young Jesuit theologian Bernard Coughlin argued a case much closer to O’Connor’s in another essay that O’Connor underlined and starred with asterisks. Coughlin, who would later become president and chancellor at Gonzaga, warned that the American principle separating church and state, when joined with our religious pluralism, becomes “a principle separating church and society.” It confines Christian faith to the private sphere, as if it were an inward and invisible thing. Christianity is an outward and public thing, as Chesterton called it, an unabashedly communal and thus an irreducibly political reality. The Church’s mission, therefore, is to worship the triune God and to practice its ethical life in full accord with its historic convictions. The Church is thus called to make prophetic witness against all pretensions to secular autonomy. When the nation-state pretends to such sovereignty, it is in fact no longer secular. It transforms itself into what Fr. Coughlin named as “an antireligious religion.” “To the Christian,” he cautioned in June of 1963, “secularism is a form of idolatry—the deification of man-made things.”
Flannery O’Connor resisted such idolatry. She would not be honored with a commemorative stamp if she had attuned her faith and her fiction to the national consensus. Her achievements would have been significant but not drastically important. Setting her loves in proper order, O’Connor gave her first and final loyalty, not to the United States of America, but to the incarnate and living God, the God under and to whom this nation putatively pledges its allegiance. She became the most important Christian author this nation has yet produced—T. S. Eliot the Christian poet being not an American but a British citizen—by becoming a radically unaccommodating Catholic writer.
For O’Connor, there was something ajar almost from the beginning of the American experiment. She famously complained that, in his 1832 refusal to celebrate communion at First Church Boston, without first removing the bread and wine, Emerson began the vaporization of religion in America. The anti-sacramental becomes the spiritual, the discarnate.
At about the same time, Will Herberg was observing the curious contradictions inherent in “the American way of life.” The consensus religion of the nation was not, Herberg insisted, a careful distillation of the deep theological commonalities lying at the heart of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faith. It was “a secularized Puritanism, a Puritanism without transcendence, without [a] sense of sin or judgment.” Yet there was a felt religious need to sanction American wealth and success. Hence the national recourse to such spiritual terms as “service” or “stewardship” or “general welfare.”
Nowhere did this spiritualizing of the material become more evident to Flannery O’Connor than in the civic boosterism of the 1950s. An editorial in Henry Luce's Life magazine angered her because it charged that the nation’s novelists, in their existentialist angst, were failing to celebrate their prosperous and optimistic country. Luce’s editorialists thus summoned American writers to exhibit “the joy of life” and “the redemptive quality of spiritual purpose.” Where was such joyful purpose to be found? For Luce and his barkers, it lay in the nation’s remarkable decade of success: its unprecedented wealth, its world-dominating military power, its virtual achievement of a classless society, at least in comparison with other nations. For Flannery O’Connor, joy and purpose found in such places are gossamer and ephemeral things indeed.
This is not to say that O’Connor was an ingrate concerning her American freedoms. She was critical of her country because she loved it. She regarded the threat of Soviet communism as serious, for instance, even constructing a bomb shelter on her Georgia property. The family of refugees from post-war Poland whom she and her mother welcomed as workers on their dairy farm became the occasion for one of her best stories, “The Displaced Person.” O’Connor also refused, in 1956, to sell her work to Czech and Polish publishers, lest they use it for anti-American propaganda, as they had done with Jack London’s fiction. O’Connor also admired Reinhold Niebuhr for his principled opposition to Stalin’s desire to remake the whole of humanity into homo Sovieticus. For all the limits of American self-congratulation, it was infinitely preferable to the mind-body-soul destroying politics of the Gulag Archipelago.
Even so, she sought an alternative to the vaporizing spirituality of her age. She found it chiefly in her own region. She both loved and criticized her native South, praising its transcendent virtues while lamenting its temporal evils. Chief among the Southern virtues that made O’Connor the Roman Catholic thoroughly at home among the folk Christians of the Protestant South was their saturation in Scripture. She shared their conviction that the biblical Story of the world’s creation and salvation is meant to master us rather than for us to master it. We have engaged Scripture aright, O’Connor declared, when, “like Jacob, we are marked.”
O’Connor admired the backwoods believers of the American South because they were thus “mastered,” thus “marked.” She was drawn to their self-blinding street prophets and baptizing river preachers. Despite their awful failings, they spoke the language and declared the message of Scripture. These economically poor and educationally uncouth believers possessed no cultural standing or political power; indeed, polite society had passed them by on the other side. Yet she makes them the focus of her fiction, not in scorn but sympathy. Their fierce and sweated Faith enabled them to feel “the hand of God and its descent,” she confessed. “We have trembled with Abraham as he held the knife over Isaac.”
Flannery O’Connor was far too troubled by the horrors that Southern whites have visited on Southern blacks ever to identify Jesus as the central figure of Southern history. Even so, the radically flawed Christians of her region prompted one of O’Connor’s most celebrated sayings: “While the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.”
Advocates of our “antireligious religion” of secular autonomy are not thus haunted. They do not fear the terrible descending hand of God. They do not walk, like Jacob, with a divinely inflicted limp. O’Connor’s characters, by contrast, are terribly afflicted, fearful, haunted. When asked why her fiction, like that of so many other Southern writers, is filled with freaks, O’Connor famously replied that Bible-drenched Southerners are still able to recognize a freak when they see one. They take the measure of themselves and others by the plumb line described by the prophet Amos. Its true Vertical exposes all deviations, whether left or right, religious or secular.
O’Connor’s kinfolk sometimes urged her to write about “wholesome” people. She replied that her outrageous characters are indeed “whole” because their peculiarity points, even if negatively, to the full, angular, thorny humanity that we are in danger of losing in our time. She likened the true grotesques of our age to chickens who have been genetically engineered so as to make them wingless, the better to produce an abundance of tender white meat. The denizens of our secular sovereignty are not so much a brood of vipers, she said, but “a generation of wingless chickens.” This, she surmised, “is what Nietzsche meant when he said God was dead.”
When God dies, as O’Connor learned from Nietzsche, “the last man” arrives. “‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink.” They blink because they no longer question or probe, because they refuse to take courageous risks or venture untrodden paths. The last men are shrunken creatures who make everything small, who live longest because they hop like fleas from one warm host to another, who no longer shoot the arrow of their longing beyond man, who want the same things as everyone else because everyone is the same. Unable even to despise themselves, they blink because they are satisfied with happiness as small-minded as themselves.
Flannery O’Connor’s synonym for such godless happiness is godless tenderness. Whether applied to chicken breasts or national character, tenderness was no virtue for her. She worried that ours is becoming an age wherein tender feelings overwhelm tough truth. Like C. S. Lewis, she feared that we are becoming people without chests—i.e., without the moral and religious sentiments of the heart and will that enable the mind rightly to rule the viscera. While earlier ages may have felt less, she said,
they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith. In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, the outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.
This is one of O’Connor’s most controverted pronouncements. Nothing could seem less tender or more flint-hearted than the Gulag, the Holocaust, and Mao’s compulsory re-education scheme. Nor does one need to be a Christian to abhor such terrors. Perhaps most objectionable is O’Connor’s stress on “unsentimental acceptance,” as if we must acquiesce to the world’s suffering and injustice without seeking to stop them.
O’Connor’s work answers these seemingly legitimate protests. Her characters learn to “see” by discerning the invisible realities that are both the cause and the cure of the world’s misery. They discover that, as O’Connor herself declared, evil is not a problem to be fixed but a mystery to be endured. Our great temptation, in an age of “antireligious religion,” is to believe that, because we can repair much of human pain by human measures, we can also mend the human soul. Thus do we also blink. We benignly yield to feelings that, at whatever cost, must not be “hurt.” We cancel our very humanity in conforming ourselves to a happiness that denies both our moral perversions and bodily limitations.
Flannery O’Connor’s characters do not blink. Like many biblical figures, her central characters are not good country people or just plain folks. They believe and they behave strangely. They often find what they are not looking for. They are put on the path toward something infinitely more important than social acceptance and cultural conformity. They are being burned clean and made whole—not by a soft-centered tenderness but by the purifying fire of divine mercy.
For example, there is Mrs. May, the self-justifying widow who owns her own dairy farm but who is gored to death by a neighbor’s stray bull. Yet this complacent woman fondly embraces the animal as he sinks his horns into her, whispering her final words in his ear. There is Rufus Johnson, a juvenile club-footed delinquent who lies and steals, not because he is “compensating” for his disfigurement, but because, as he says, “I’m good at it.” Yet this young thug helps launch the neglected son of a social worker into eternity.
There is Harry Ashfield, a four-year old child of cultured but uncaring parents who has been assured by a river preacher that, because he has been baptized, he eternally “counts.” The boy decides that, if he counts so much for going under the water so briefly, he would count completely if he stayed under the water completely. And so he drowns himself in search of his true Parent. There is also Asbury Fox, a failed white-liberal writer who embarks on the long road to holy health only after contracting a lifelong debilitating disease while seeking to celebrate a secular communion with black dairy workers.
Yet Flannery O’Connor was as much troubled by the death of God in the church as in the world. In a 1955 letter to an atheist friend, she confessed that, “If you live today you breathe in nihilism. In and out of the Church, it’s the gas you breathe.” In her fiction, she demonstrates—she shows rather than telling—the seemingly harmless nihilism at work in two self-satisfied middle-class Christian women. Ruby Turpin constantly thanks God for making her a prosperous and upstanding citizen, especially for making her neither black nor white trashy. Yet she is shocked into a saving self-awareness when a Wellesley student strikes her down with a psychology textbook hurled across a doctor’s waiting room, and then pounces on her while shouting, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog.”
There is also the nameless Grandmother who is willing to deny her faith in order to save her life, begging a mass-murdering Misfit not to kill her, while he complains that Jesus “thrown” everything off balance and shouldn’t have done it. Startled at last into the recognition that her wretched condition is the same as his, she reaches out to touch him in an act of true solidarity. Whereupon he recoils in horror, pumping her full of lead and then making one of the most indelible and instructive pronouncements in all of O’Connor’s fiction: “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every day of her life.”
It is altogether appropriate, at this particular crisis in our history, that Flannery O’Connor should be honored by a branch of our national government, the U.S. Postal Service. Her fiction serves as a warning sign, to the nation and to the world, against what Walker Percy called our “tempestuous restructuring of human consciousness.” She saw, almost from the start of her writing career, that we Americans have been undergoing a tectonic shift in our character. The legitimate and hard-won freedoms of the Enlightenment, beneficial to democratic states and confessing churches alike, are now being construed as a call to refashion ourselves into whatever creatures we feel ourselves to be, thus devising a species drastically unlike anything previously known. Yet she also provided, by the indirection of art rather than the diktat of propaganda, an answer to our pandemic. Over against our invertebrate tenderness, she creates characters who learn, after the fiercest struggles, to stand upright in the conviction that we are meant to participate in the very life of God. Our official authorities may stamp Flannery O’Connor’s image on its postage, but no one can cancel her witness to the Charity that burns with purifying fire.
Ralph C. Wood is professor of theology and literature at Baylor University.