Saturday, April 25, 2015

Critical Reviews of Matthew Stewart's "Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic"

In America's Founding May Not Have Been Christian, but It Sure Wasn't Anti-Christian, Robert Tracy McKenzie, chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College, reviews Matthew Stewart's Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. (Christianity Today 07/03/14):

... I'll leave it to the philosophers to evaluate whether Stewart has exaggerated the underlying atheism of this cast of characters. (His portrayal of Locke, at least, is sure to arouse controversy.) As a historian, I am more concerned by his utter failure to establish the influence of atheistic belief on America's founding. Historians believe that our most important task is to explain what we see, basing our statements of cause and effect on evidence. Stewart takes a different approach. He concludes that radical philosophy was widespread among common Americans after discovering it in the writings of two individuals, Vermont's backwoods leader Ethan Allen and a Boston physician named Thomas Young. In like manner, he finds that atheistic presuppositions determined the political philosophy of the most prominent Founders by ruthlessly disregarding all competing influences. This is pronouncement, not demonstration.
McKenzie comments further, on his own blog, Faith and American History:
Although Stewart cloaks his argument in a 400-page narrative, the heart of his reasoning boils down to a simple syllogism: The ideas that matter in history are the ones that are true. Religious beliefs are, by definition, false. Ergo (philosophers say ergo a lot), religious beliefs couldn’t have mattered in the American founding. If lots of colonists back in ’76 thought otherwise, that’s because they weren’t as enlightened as the author. Too bad for them.

The thrust of my review was to call attention to Stewart’s a priori assumptions and to remind readers of historians’ quaint belief that historical assertions should be grounded in historical evidence. Stewart is correct to point out that the religious beliefs of many of the leading Founders were unorthodox, David Barton’s wish-dreams to the contrary notwithstanding. But Stewart errs badly in equating the views of the leading Founders with atheism, and he provides almost no evidence at all for his insistence that radical philosophy was widespread among the rank and file of colonial patriots. In short, the emperor has no clothes.

Matthew Stewart, a self-identified atheist, professed in an interview with the Boston Globe that he'd "like the United States to become what it was always meant to be, which is a secular nation — more publicly committed to reason, to improving understanding, and promoting education", sans traditional orthodox religiosity of any kind. Curiously, notes McKenzie,
for a study that is so determined to discredit orthodox Christianity, the author is curiously averse to engaging Christian scholars, whether historians or theologians. When it comes to the religious beliefs of the revolutionary generation, quite a number of Christian historians have anticipated much of Stewart’s findings, albeit with vastly greater nuance and balance, but you’d never know it from his account.
Elsewhere, Baron Swaim (Wall Street Journal) deems that "Mr. Stewart's learning in philosophical radicalism is impressive; what undermines his work is his contempt for everyone but the few radicals he esteems." And Charles W. Cooke (National Review) corrects Stewart's mistaken charge that "the first Tea-Partier was an atheist."

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Update

Mark David Hall has published a rather devastating review of Nature's God for the Spring 2015 issue (pp. 285-291) Christian Scholars Review entitled "A Failed Attempt at Partisan Scholarship", which is reposted to the blog American Creation. He concludes:

... Stewart regularly makes sweeping statements that leave the impression America’s founders were radical deists who wanted to create a godless republic, but he occasionally offers the qualification that many Americans were traditional Christians and that intellectual traditions not antithetically opposed to Christianity may have had some influence as well (e.g. 32, 352). But these qualifications are too few, faint, and far between. By focusing on a handful of founders with radical religious views, some important—Franklin, Jefferson, and Paine—and others relatively unimportant—Allen and Young—he grossly distorts the founders’ religious views and political commitments. Even brief consideration of a wider range of founders reveals a very different picture.*

[...]

Nature’s God suffers from a number of serious flaws. Stewart virtually ignores the vast literature on the role of religion in the American founding and he utterly fails to engage scholars whose works challenge his thesis. He misuses and misconstrues primary sources and largely ignores founders (key and otherwise) who do not fit his thesis. Alan Ryan, in a friendly blurb, describes the book as “partisan scholarship.” It seems to me that Ryan is half right. Readers interested in a polemical account of religion in the American founding almost completely ungrounded in history may enjoy this book, but anyone interested in a serious treatment of religion in the era should look elsewhere.

See, for instance, the approximately thirty-three founders and traditions profiled in Dreisbach, Morrison, and Hall, eds., The Founders on God and Government (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), Dreisbach, Morrison, and Hall, The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, and Dreisbach and Hall, eds, Faith and the Founders of the American Republic (Oxford, 2014).
(Read the whole thing).


Saturday, May 24, 2014

Joseph Bottum's "An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America"


An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, by Joseph Bottum. Image Books (February 11, 2014)

We live in a profoundly spiritual age--but in a very strange way, different from every other moment of our history. Huge swaths of American culture are driven by manic spiritual anxiety and relentless supernatural worry. Radicals and traditionalists, liberals and conservatives, together with politicians, artists, environmentalists, followers of food fads, and the chattering classes of television commentators: America is filled with people frantically seeking confirmation of their own essential goodness. We are a nation desperate to stand on the side of morality--to know that we are righteous and dwell in the light.

Or so Joseph Bottum argues in An Anxious Age, an account of modern America as a morality tale, formed by its spiritual disturbances. And the cause, he claims, is the most significant and least noticed historical fact of the last fifty years: the collapse of the Mainline Protestant churches that were the source of social consensus and cultural unity. Our dangerous spiritual anxieties, broken loose from the churches that once contained them, now madden everything in American life.

Updating The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber's sociological classic, An Anxious Age undertakes two case studies in contemporary social class, adrift in a nation without the religious understandings that gave it meaning. Looking at the college-educated elite he calls "The Poster Children," Bottum sees the post-Protestant heirs of the old Mainline Protestant domination of culture: dutiful descendants who claim the high social position of their Christian ancestors even while they reject their ancestors' Christianity. Turning to "The Swallows of Capistrano," the Catholics formed by the pontificate of John Paul II, Bottum evaluates the early victories--and later defeats--of the attempt to substitute Catholicism for the dying Mainline voice in public life.

Sweeping across American intellectual and cultural history, An Anxious Age traces the course of national religion and warns about the strange angels and even stranger demons with which we now wrestle. Insightful and contrarian, wise and unexpected, An Anxious Age ranks among the great modern accounts of American culture.

Interviews and Presentations

Reviews and Discussion

  • The Puritans Among Us, by Mary Eberstadt. National Review 04/21/14:
    An Anxious Age abounds in logic and clarification (and for that reason among others, it was derelict of the book’s publisher to omit footnotes and an index, both of which would have helped to signal its scholarly nature). Even so, it is the book’s metaphors that will haunt the reader after he puts it down. Who else would describe Protestantism in the United States as “our cultural Mississippi, rolling through the center of the American landscape”? Likely no one — but the image brings to vivid and unexpected life a thousand Pew Research reports on declining attendance and the rise in “nones.” Similarly, the author’s unspooling of the story of the swallows of San Juan Capistrano as a metaphor for explaining what has happened to Catholicism in America is not only arresting but convincing, succeeding both as religious sociology and as literary trope.
  • Book Review: An Anxious Age by Geraldo Russo. Washington Times 04/01/14. "As Tocqueville and others have recognized, American religion and American exceptionalism have proceeded together. Now that they have been sundered, other choices present themselves. “An Anxious Age” explains how we can make the best of what confronts us."

  • The Rise of Secular Religion, by David P. Goldman. The American Interest 03/17/14:
    This is a work of deep pessimism, albeit mitigated by faith in divine intervention, and its author reveals his innermost thoughts only in parable. It is a work of great importance that should be read, re-read and debated by the literate public, believers and non-believers alike. It is to be hoped that its dark tone will not discourage those who are more likely to seek encouragement than instruction.
  • An Anxious Author, by Greg Forster. The Public Discourse 03/31/14:
    Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age is a bad book with a good book trapped inside it, struggling to get out. Bottum offers insightful observations that challenge prevailing assumptions about the nature and history of secular progressivism in America. Unfortunately, his main arguments are underdeveloped and disorganized, and the book’s appeal is limited by its prejudice against Protestantism. But the greatest disappointment is Bottum’s failure to practice the Christian virtue of hope.
    • American Hope: Don’t Conflate Political Culture and Christianity, by Joseph Bottum. [Reply to Greg Forster] The Public Discourse 04/10/14. "... a forced smile and a Mrs. Rogers optimism about Americanist politics: I just don’t feel enough anxiety to fake it. A calm hope in Christ Jesus and the intercession of the Blessed Virgin seems enough to be going on with."

  • Rise of the Poster Children, by Geoffrey Kabaservice. The University Bookman Spring 2014:
    An Anxious Age incorporates a number of separately published articles and essays, and sometimes the seams are visible. The reader most likely will not mind the digressions and set pieces that don’t relate to the overall argument, however, since the writing is so marvelous. Bottum’s chapter on John Paul II positively glitters, and his conclusion that the Pope was “the freest man in the twentieth century” is both satisfying and earned. His side-by-side profile of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and William F. Buckley Jr. says more about both men in a dozen pages than some books manage to convey, and effectively underscores Bottum’s argument that today’s Catholic intellectuals are at a disadvantage without the culture that could be taken for granted in the past. The book’s detours into figures such as Rauschenbusch, Max Weber, James Pike, and Avery Dulles are also fascinating.
  • An Anxious Age—and an Antagonistic Future?, by Christopher White. Catholic World Report April 13, 2014:
    Bottum’s work is primarily descriptive in nature and does not offer any hard predictions for what the future might hold from here. There is indeed the possibility that we might hope to begin toreintegrate the public square with a religious language where the poster children of post-Protestant America are convinced by the Catholic converts—or are at least hospitable to their convictions. But that remains unresolved. Considering the widespread skepticism and even hostility in which religious expression is viewed in America, it’s seemingly unlikely. And if this, indeed, the future that awaits us, it’s highly probably that this anxious age in which we live will give rise to an antagonistic one to follow.
  • The End of Exceptionalism, by Eric Jackson. Thoughts and Ideas 3/28/14:
    As his book makes clear, Protestantism is gone, and—at present at least—Catholicism cannot fill the gap. America may have been exceptional in her religious composition, but it takes a considerable act of faith to see how she can remain so. Bottum is to be commended for the gentle way he leads the reader to this regrettable realization.
  • The Social Gospel Paradox Divest This:
    for those who embraced the message of the Social Gospel, simply fighting against bigotry or corruption was not enough. Rather, one had to incorporate into one’s belief system the existence of superhuman evil in the universe organized around the six social sins ["bigotry, arrogance of power, corruption of justice for personal gain, mob madness and violence, militarism and class contempt"]. In other words, during an era when rationalism was banishing Satan from set of beliefs one could hold as a person of reason, the Social Gospel provided those same reasoned men and women a new set of spirits (really demons) in which to believe.

    Rauschenbusch’s critics pointed out that a world in which man was responsible for aligning his soul against supernatural evil left little room for God and Christ. And while the original Social Gospel followers (all pious men and women) were able to deflect this criticism, it turns out that their children found it a bit easier to orient their faith around the fight against the Social Devil rather than belief in more traditional deities. And for their grandchildren and great grandchildren, it became easier and easier to abandon this or that doctrine – even the foundational beliefs of Christianity – so long as churches remained dedicated to the battle against bigotry, militarism and the other “genuine” spiritual evils in the world.

    An irony that Bottum points out is that it was the very choice to put politics (or, more accurately, a human-based and ultimately politicized re-definition of religion) before doctrine that eliminated Mainliners role in both the religious and political realm. For as church leaders have themselves bemoaned in recent decades, when was the last time you heard a Presbyterian minister on the Sunday morning talk shows proving moral guidance on the issues of the day?

  • Reviewed by Matt McCullough 9Marks 3/25/14:
    Two lessons seem especially important. First, those of us who hold a traditional Christian view of human sexuality and marriage must get comfortable being dismissed as bigots. If Bottum is right about the post-Protestant “redeemed personality,” there is a tremendous psychological reward for identifying bigotry and very little social cost to condemning it. In this climate, there is no incentive to consider the nuance by which one can love a person and disapprove of their behavior, disapprove even because you love them and want to see them flourish.

    Second, we’ve got to be willing to accept our status as outcasts from the power centers of American society before we’ll be of any use to American society. According to Bottum, Protestant Christianity was most influential in public life when Protestants were more interested in theological faithfulness than public usefulness. As he puts it, “religion actually works to ground the American experiment because we take religion more seriously than the American experiment” (291). The decline of Mainline Protestantism is a powerful cautionary tale. If we assume the gospel while we aim for cultural renewal—if we redefine it in the name of cultural relevance—we’ll end up irrelevant anyway.

  • A conservative who was right about Occupy, by Nathan Schneider. WagingNonviolence.com. 02/15/14:
    That a critic like Bottum, most at home in conservative quarters, credits Occupy for inspiring his book is to me a reminder of why the movement caught hold of me and so many others so fiercely at the outset: it had the potential to recenter our politics and our discourse and our spectrum. Its failures were less failures of aspiration than of accomplishment — that it wasn’t diverse enough, or empowering enough, or transformative enough to live up to its own transcendental ambitions.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Recent Articles on Religion and Liberty, Catholicism and Liberalism

A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching, by Patrick J. Deneen. The American Conservative February 6, 2004. "The most interesting Roman split is over liberal democracy itself."

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Illiberal Catholicism, by John Zmirack. Aleteia. 12/31/13. "Catholics used to be open to the lessons of freedom from the American experience. Are we forgetting those lessons?"

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Unsustainable Liberalism, by Patrick J. Deneen. First Things

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Murry's Mistake, by Michael Baxter. America 09/23/13. "The political divisions a theologian failed to foresee."

Profiles and Critiques

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Catholic Prayer for Government

We pray, Thee O Almighty and Eternal God! Who through Jesus Christ hast revealed Thy glory to all nations, to preserve the works of Thy mercy, that Thy Church, being spread through the whole world, may continue with unchanging faith in the confession of Thy Name.

We pray Thee, who alone art good and holy, to endow with heavenly knowledge, sincere zeal, and sanctity of life, our chief bishop, Pope N., the Vicar of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the government of his Church; our own bishop, N., all other bishops, prelates, and pastors of the Church; and especially those who are appointed to exercise amongst us the functions of the holy ministry, and conduct Thy people into the ways of salvation.

We pray Thee O God of might, wisdom, and justice! Through whom authority is rightly administered, laws are enacted, and judgment decreed, assist with Thy Holy Spirit of counsel and fortitude the President of these United States, that his administration may be conducted in righteousness, and be eminently useful to Thy people over whom he presides; by encouraging due respect for virtue and religion; by a faithful execution of the laws in justice and mercy; and by restraining vice and immorality. Let the light of Thy divine wisdom direct the deliberations of Congress, and shine forth in all the proceedings and laws framed for our rule and government, so that they may tend to the preservation of peace, the promotion of national happiness, the increase of industry, sobriety, and useful knowledge; and may perpetuate to us the blessing of equal liberty.

We pray for his excellency, the governor of this state, for the members of the assembly, for all judges, magistrates, and other officers who are appointed to guard our political welfare, that they may be enabled, by Thy powerful protection, to discharge the duties of their respective stations with honesty and ability.

We recommend likewise, to Thy unbounded mercy, all our brethren and fellow citizens throughout the United States, that they may be blessed in the knowledge and sanctified in the observance of Thy most holy law; that they may be preserved in union, and in that peace which the world cannot give; and after enjoying the blessings of this life, be admitted to those which are eternal.

Finally, we pray to Thee, O Lord of mercy, to remember the souls of Thy servants departed who are gone before us with the sign of faith and repose in the sleep of peace; the souls of our parents, relatives, and friends; of those who, when living, were members of this congregation, and particularly of such as are lately deceased; of all benefactors who, by their donations or legacies to this Church, witnessed their zeal for the decency of divine worship and proved their claim to our grateful and charitable remembrance. To these, O Lord, and to all that rest in Christ, grant, we beseech Thee, a place of refreshment, light, and everlasting peace, through the same Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior. Amen.

Composed by John Carroll, Archbishop of Baltimore, in 1791. (Recommended by Ius Honorarium)

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Thaddeus J. Kozinski: "The Political Problem of Religious Pluralism: And Why Philosophers Can't Solve It"

The Political Problem of Religious Pluralism: And Why Philosophers Can't Solve It
by Thaddeus J. Kozinski. Lexington Books (August 16, 2010).

In contemporary political philosophy, there is much debate over how to maintain a public order in pluralistic democracies in which citizens hold radically different religious views. The Political Problem of Religious Pluralism deals with this theoretically and practically difficult issue by examining three of the most influential figures of religious pluralism theory: John Rawls, Jacques Maritain, and Alasdair MacIntyre. Drawing on a diverse number of sources, Kozinski addresses the flaws in each philosopher's views and shows that the only philosophically defensible end of any overlapping consensus political order must be the eradication of the ideological pluralism that makes it necessary. In other words, a pluralistic society should have as its primary political aim to create the political conditions for the communal discovery and political establishment of that unifying tradition within which political justice can most effectively be obtained. Kozinski's analysis, though exhaustive and rigorous, still remains accessible and engaging, even for a reader unversed in the works of Rawls, Maritain, and MacIntyre. Interdisciplinary and multi-thematic in nature, it will appeal to anyone interested in the intersection of religion, politics, and culture.

Reviews

Discussions

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Natural Law, Natural Rights and American Constitutionalism

Natural Law, Natural Rights and American Constitutionalism - brought to you by the Witherspoon Institute, "to create an online archive containing the seminal documents of these traditions with educational resources" -- made possible through the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities and with direction from scholars associated with the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Remembering John Courtney Murray, SJ

50 years ago on December 12th, Time magazine featured Fr. John Courtney Murray (1904-1967) on its cover. America's James Martin remembers the occasion with a roundup of recommended reading:

If you've not heard of this great American Jesuit theologian, who was for a time prevented from writing on issues of church and state (his primary field of interest and the subject of his book We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition whose ideas were eventually incorporated into the Second Vatican Council's "Declaration on Religious Liberty," and who was later officially "rehabilitated" by Pope Paul VI during his concelebration with the pope at a public Mass, here are pieces in America by the Msgr. Robert McElroy ("He Held These Truths"), Gregory Kalscheur, S.J. ("American Catholics and the State"), John Coleman, S.J. on what was at stake in the debates over religious liberty during Vatican II ("Religious Liberty") and Fr. Murray himself, in an article that concisely maps out his position in 1963 ("On Religious Liberty.") The time of his "silencing" is covered in Robert Nugent's new book Silence Speaks: Teilhard de Chardin, Yves Congar, John Courtney Murray, and Thomas Merton  As McElroy, Kalscheur, Coleman show, his far-ranging ideas on church and state are particularly applicable today.  And, as Nugent shows, the church often ends up incorporating into her teaching the very ideas that she rejected not long before.  Finally, an excellent bio of Fr. Murray is here at the Murray Collection at the Woodstock Center in Georgetown.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Guy Fawkes Day

Don McClarey (The American Catholic reminds us:

The idiotic anti-Catholic celebration of Guy Fawkes Day , observed each November fifth, was effectively ended in America during the Revolution in large part due to George Washington. ... Catholics always had a friend in the Father of Our Country.

Joe Hargrave: "How John Locke influenced Catholic Social Teaching"

How John Locke influenced Catholic Social Teaching (Joe Hargrave, InsideCatholic.com. November 5, 2010):

It isn't often that John Locke is mentioned in discussions of Catholic social teaching, unless it is to set him up as an example of all that the Church supposedly rejects. After all, Locke is considered one of the founders of a liberal and individualist political tradition that was rejected by the papacy in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, a closer examination of both Locke's Two Treatises on Civil Government and the papal encyclical that set modern Catholic social teaching in motion, Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum, reveals that Locke was not a pure "individualist" as many have assumed, nor was Rerum Novarum a categorical rejection of all things "individual." Rather, both Locke and Leo XIII craft their basic political arguments -- especially with respect to the right to private property -- based on the same assumptions about natural law, natural right, and Christian obligation.

Though it is evident from the texts themselves, the agreement between Locke and Leo is also a historical fact. In 2005, Manfred Spieker, a professor of Christian Social Thought at the Universität Osnabrück in Germany, cited the influence of Locke on three of the men who drafted the text of Rerum Novarum. ... [more]