Theses against American Whig Catholicism, prompted by the atmosphere of 2012 and by the antiliberal writings of Deneen.
- American civilization was made possible by an astonishingly broad and effective extermination of cultures.
- One of the major motives of the fighters in the American Revolution was the fear that, after the Quebec Act, Romanism could happen here.
- Slavery, abortion, junk food, industrial capitalism, drones, mass culture, pornography.
- There are numerous other examples; it is a very easy thing to make this country look vile.
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But to what extent are we to view the American project as uniquely or especially defective? I’m as much of a lover of the Middle Ages as the next guy, but when you get beyond fantasies of the Shire and learn a little history, you start to wonder whether their age was in any real sense preferable to ours. If the so-called “age of faith” could be capable of such sordor, how can we assume that our current woes are due to some original sin of the American founding, rather than to the generally fallen state of man?
That’s a valuable objection; it serves as a corrective to the tendency of treatments of historical causes to ossify into statements about historical necessity — a tendency of which the original theses were not entirely innocent. Now while it is wrong to speak in terms of historical necessity, at least when speaking of so ultimately trivial a matter as the rise or fall of a state, it is an error into which we might well be tempted (if it’s not indecent for someone who has come so close to committing it to say so). The allure of this error, the secundum quid of its truth, is suggested by comments of De Koninck in which he contends that, from the perspective of the present, the past is in fact necessary: however contingent in themselves the events of the past may have been, once they come to be it is impossible that they should not have been. The analyticians may despair of an account that speaks of time in this way, but as soon as they let themselves adhere a little less chastely to their formalisms they may discover its appeal. When we study history, then, we discern the causal connections among events that from our perspective can only appear as necessary, and we can very readily make the error of thinking that what we have discerned is a necessary cause. This is a mistake, especially in the kind of reasoning I was trying to do in the theses above, for which the only useful knowledge of the principles of history would be knowledge of those principles as they are in themselves, i.e., as they are in the events unfolding today, to which the infallibility proper to past events has not yet accrued. And in themselves, of course, these principles are contingent.
But apart from these abstract considerations, let me explain more concretely why I don’t think we should view this country’s present cultural problems in terms of historical inevitability. There are two main reasons:
- The American state, despite the flaws in its founding and progress, is not tainted by some original, irredeemable sin (as discussed below in response to another objection)
- The technological and economic changes we associate with modern times, while by any account prodigious, and while certainly contributory factors to the dismal condition of modern morals, should not be prosecuted as the main culprits. Only in the most trivial of senses do we live in a brave new world. By this I mean only to advance some version of the well-known “stuck with virtue” thesis: cars and televisions and the internet and mass culture and synthetic hormones should only be thought of as secondary and instrumental causes of modern ills, while the virtues and vices that make for good people and cities are unchanged. New devices and techniques can increase human power, and make it easier for a man to commit adultery in bed or in front of a screen rather than in his heart, but (this line of argument goes) an increase in the frequency of temptations and the facility of realizing immoderate desires could not have led here except that vicious men made vicious use of the tools human ingenuity provided them. Technology may make a sin possible; human will alone can make it actual.
Now because the events of the past always appear to us with a sort of halo of necessity, and because the developments of these modern technologies was followed so immediately by the development of these modern vices, it’s easy to see this as a case of straight causation. But I’d rather say the true cause was a cultural weakness and tendency to vice that was lying impotently in wait until it might be enabled by modern technologies. And because I do not want my faith in humanity to be even slenderer than it is, I contend that this cultural weakness is not simply a human weakness, but could have been controlled by a more virtuous social order.
I’ll grant that a) the Lockean and Mandevillian philosophy informing our founding is desperately wrong and b) our culture, politics, and economics is in dismal condition. But I’m not convinced that (a) is the most important cause of (b). I think rather (b) has been brought about by technological changes that have made it easier for us to indulge desires or vices we already antecedently had. Pornography is in no way an invention of 20-21st century America. It’s just that the TV and the Internet have made it easier to consume and distribute, and increased the scope and kind that is possible. I think cars, TV, and the Internet have done more to destroy civil society than anything else, and probably would do so even in a society with a “Christian constitution.”
Technology makes the broad, efficient, and enormously profitable dissemination of smut possible, but it is culture that allows this to be conducted shamelessly and publicly. And our culture and our legal order (which after the twentieth century is really to say: the world’s culture and legal order) is uniquely vulnerable to this kind of vice. And why is this so? Well, if I thought I understood the causes of this problem perfectly, I’d be out there trying to fix it, but it seems to me that the reason is not unrelated to some of the theses advanced above about the American political order. The great commandment “An it harm none, do what ye will,” part of the liberal project from the beginning, and an almost inevitable corollary of a theory of government based on consent, has been inscribed on the banners under which almost every cultural cause we might wish had not triumphed has marched. It is closely connected to our economic-legal ideas about contracts, as well — ideas without which it seems that we would never have made such degraded use of the great technologies at our disposal.
How, then, ought we to proceed? I don’t think the day to day life we should lead in 21st century America is effected or changed by that, or would look different than the life we should live in a better regime. The best life might be easier in a better regime, but it would have the same contours. It’s still quite possible to do the work that needs to be done to build up community under our Constitution, and that’s the same work we would have to do even if the laws were more favorable. I think of Belloc’s Essay on the . Whether or not the details of the recommendations in that essay are the best solution to our problems, they are the kind of discrete policies that could be adopted in any politco-economic environment, including our own; and if you wanted Belloc’s kind of society you would have to do the work to develop them no matter what your regime.
You wrote: “If America had an Enlightenment constitution and a Christian culture, the government might be such as if America’s constitution were Christian.” But what would a Christian constitution look like? I’m not convinced there is such a thing. And furthermore: what, in particular, do you find defective about the American Constitution? Besides the preamble, which details the purposes of government, there’s very little philosophy in the document. I don’t think there is a Christian objection to the separation of powers as such. Perhaps the reasoning the founders used in the Federalist Papers to advocate for separation of powers is defective, but surely there are other ways to reach the conclusion that it is good to have separate branches of government.
I guess what I find implausible is the suggestion that no matter how good our discrete policy recommendations are, and how strong our culture and religion are, and how good we are at building up community through non-political methods, that there’s just something unique about the ideas embodied in our Constitution that will make all such efforts fruitless and inevitably thrust us back into some voluntarist hell.
When in the theses above I mentioned “an Enlightenment constitution” or “the American constitution,” I was equivocating quite freely between “constitution” = “document containing the fundamental law of a polity” and “constitution” = “the actual structure of a régime, including mores, legal traditions, and unwritten rules.” I agree that if we limit ourselves to the text of the American Constitution, we would not find the blueprint for an unusually bad polity (at least since it would seem like a cheap shot to point out the bits about servitude). What the Constitution [the text] describes is mostly legal procedure, not legal theory, and much of the procedure described in it is truly very prudent. A mixed constitution with separation of powers may not be the only good idea for how to construct a state, but it is a pretty good one, and can be so defended from any number of philosophical starting-points. But the problem with the Constitution [the text] is not that it commands any evils, but that it largely restricts itself to the realm of procedure. For the American Constitution [the text] to become the American constitution [the practices or legal habitûs of the state], more principles had to be provided — and these came, as given the historical circumstances of the American founding they could only have come, from the English common law and from the Enlightenment (as is adequately shown at nlnrac.org). Here it will not be necessary to issue a new critique of the Enlightenment, and the common law, an ad-hoc rationalization of the decisions of jurists unlinked by common philosophy or sympathies and of varying degrees of integrity, was not very helpful either.
Even so: as I said above, it would be going too far to assert that our Constitution or our constitution made our current problems inevitable. If we ended up here it was not because we were bound to, and by the same token there is no reason under such a constitution why we may not do better. If we had a strong, self-sustaining Christian culture — or for that matter a strong, self-sustaining moral culture of any kind, we would not have to worry about any indeterminacy of principle or voluntarist tendency in the law. A state that encourages its citizens to do whatever they will will be a beautiful, just, and orderly state, if its citizens are virtuous and wise. And so Tocqueville observes that America is sustained by its churches. Where the churches (or schools) are strong, people will know better than to take advantage of the weaknesses of the law. The magisterial power of the law is great, but not inexorable.
Nevertheless, this magisterial power is unlikely to be opposed except by an unusually robust culture. In telling us what we will and will not be punished for, the law ingrains in us ideas of what may and may not be done, and where the society is not united in the fear of a nomothete greater than the state (be this the Lord of Hosts or merely the principles of virtue) it will be difficult to argue that the city should forbid that which the city’s law permits. I can think of few proofs of the teaching power of law more convincing than the collapse in Chinese natality: in a generation or two, the law has reduced a civilization positively obsessed with procreation to a state where couples see little point in progeny, even as the state’s reproductive laws are relaxed.
An essential part of cultural struggle, then, ought to be the alignment of the laws with the cultural norms for which one fights. A strong, self-sustaining Christian culture does not require the support of the law — think only of all the places where it has thriven without such support — but it should not therefore scorn it. If we are trying to convert society, the magisterial power of a converted law would be a great help, and the power of an unconverted law would be a potential Achilles’ heel. If we want our community to acknowledge certain principles and truths, how better can we acknowledge them than in the law, our public articulation of what the common good requires?
And so I would answer the question about the practical tasks facing a cultural reformer by agreeing completely. If the régime is vicious, that changes not at all what it means for society to be virtuous; if a law is a good law we should not wait for a good constitution under which to promulgate it. If it is our mission to build Distributism, we ought to do it wherever we find ourselves. But we should do so in the knowledge that the goals we would like to achieve are not neutral with respect to the current constitution — that in pursuing virtue and the common good we may be brushing the fringes of subversion — that, when it is in our power to do so, we should not be embarrassed to change the law as a way of changing the way we live under the law.
This is not to say, of course, that it’s easy or straightforward for us to imagine what a “Christian constitution” would be — and it’s all the more difficult to imagine what a Christian constitution might be for us, who have known only this régime.
It seems, though, that a Christian constitution isn’t just something hard to imagine — it almost seems like a contradiction in terms. Won’t Christianity always have to be in some degree unpatriotic, no matter how good a country is from the standpoint of common good philosophy? America may be uniquely worth opposing, but the church’s prophetic role requires less than complete submission to any political entity.
In a sense, the proposition that to be Christian is to be unpatriotic is absolutely true. We have here no abiding homeland, we know that only a subset of our substance is to be rendered unto Caesar, we believe that all the powers of this world have already fallen under judgment. A Christian is first and foremost a citizen of Zion, and all allegiances beneath that are provisional. As far as the Church herself is concerned, subjugation to any state or incorporation into its apparatus is out of the question. By a Christian constitution I don’t mean a theocracy — even the Vatican is not a theocracy — but rather a secular body that plays the role and carries out the duties that in a Christian worldview belong to the secular body called the city.
And what are this role and these duties? This question can’t have a unique solution; the differing situations of peoples and states mean that they should not be held to a single standard. If I were to lay out a general principle, I would say that a Christian constitution should be just antiliberal enough to cause Damon Linker and Andrew Sullivan to panic.
It would, in the first place, be formally open to Christian principles about the ordering of human life — which in the case of a state, means ordering to the common good. This would require a defiantly anti-Rawlsian stance, and a certain degree of comfort with embracing a “vision of the good.” Obviously that doesn’t mean coming up with some combination of the Swiss Guards and the Red Guards: the business of the state is not to police thoughtcrime or ensure that no dissenters from its conception of the common good may be found within its borders. But a state that understood its mission as the furtherance of the common good would make decisions on very different grounds than those used in American law. It would hold that the state’s activities are not justified by its efficient cause of consent, but by its final cause of justice. The implications of this for public and for private life, for law and for commerce, are not hard to imagine.
Furthermore, a state with a Christian constitution would itself incorporate something of Christian unpatriotism; at the very least it would embody an understanding that the salvation of its citizens is also part of their common good, though a part that the state’s efforts will never bring about. Religion under a Christian constitution would not be a tolerated activity, but an actively promoted one: the state has a duty to promote justice, after all, and the virtue of religion is nothing more than the justice owed to God. Under such a government, the citizen will never be asked to render under Caesar anything but what is Caesar’s, and so the perennial (and in the final sense unresolvable) tension between worldly and spiritual loyalties could at least be somewhat slackened.
What else would a Christian constitution involve? You tell me. I’m desperate enough that I hardly know what I want; I’d settle for almost any constitution that didn’t include a right to abortion.
Well, come on, now; obviously I agree that abortion is a terrible crime. But let me make the case of a devil’s advocate: I actually think there are things that are positively good about our current arrangements that may, in some degree, be relatively historically unique. America culture is largely crap, but I think of this observation by Deresiewicz in his “The Disadvantages of An Elite Education:” “An elite education gives you the chance to be rich—which is, after all, what we’re talking about—but it takes away the chance not to be. Yet the opportunity not to be rich is one of the greatest opportunities with which young Americans have been blessed. We live in a society that is itself so wealthy that it can afford to provide a decent living to whole classes of people who in other countries exist (or in earlier times existed) on the brink of poverty or, at least, of indignity. You can live comfortably in the United States as a schoolteacher, or a community organizer, or a civil rights lawyer, or an artist—that is, by any reasonable definition of comfort.” This is not to mention that kickstarter and similar platforms give people chances to go all sorts of awesome things (including farms and actually good artistic endeavors) that would have otherwise been impossible, and probably would be impossible in other economies.
While it is not directly related to the question of the justice of the American constitution (since we will all admit that affairs can be arranged in a manner both profitable and wicked), Deresiewicz’s point about the opportunity not to be rich is also worth commenting on. For my part I agree absolutely that it is a good thing when those who are not in the upper echelon of a society are also able to live comfortably and enjoy the fruits of civilization. And I agree as well that in the case of America, this is largely due to political and economic conditions whose root causes we might criticize. I have trouble imagining that a civilization that had not gone mad on speculation could ever have invented Kickstarter. For that matter this blog and most of the means those who read it use to communicate with one another are also a result of that civilization. I can ride across the country in ease because coolies died laying the tracks; I can at will go enjoy humanity’s greatest works of art because I live in a city funded by usury; I can futz with my iPhone while at stool because of the unimaginable suffering of the slaves of Shenzhen.
I am able to enjoy these things on account of some evil that has been performed, but these things I enjoy are genuine goods. Material abundance, ease of communication with friends, adequate idleness to devote to the writing of online disquisitions, and so on, are all parts of the happy life. Now the goodness of these effects does not justify the evil of the cause, obviously — but I can enjoy peace for the fact that it is peace, even if I know I cannot endorse and could not have committed the war crimes by which peace was purchased. I think of these goods as the spolia aegyptiorum, the treasures of iniquitous Egypt that the children of Israel were enabled to take with them into the promised land.
And I would say that we can enjoy these even while arguing against the conditions that made them possible, and that this is both conceptually coherent and morally sound. Conceptually coherent: because we do not believe acts of evil are so powerful as to contaminate everything resulting from them. Morally sound: because our genuine enjoyment of a good that was too dearly purchased does not oblige us to continue paying that price.
If we are able to think about our way of life even a little bit radically, if we are willing to propose even moderate changes, we have to be aware that the improvements we hope for would not be unmixed blessings. Society is complex enough, and integrated enough, that what we rightly love about our civilization cannot be neatly untangled from what we rightly condemn in it. But if we are right in our condemnation, and right in our advocacy of alternatives, then of course it’s our obligation not only as Christians but as human beings to willingly part from some of the things we love. I am no kind of Luddite, but if a juster world were also a Facebookless world, I hope I would find a way of reconciling myself to it. And given that I am at least in principle committed to hating father and mother, this seems like an easy case.
And well-crafted propaganda can make it still easier. Even if many of the conveniences we enjoy — even the conveniences we take advantage of to formulate and advance our criticism — are neutral or good in themselves, it may nevertheless be a good idea for us to learn to dislike them for their origins. We are all products of our civilization: if there are errors integral to that civilization that need correction, then it is time for us to learn to bite the hand that feeds us.