Wednesday, September 06, 2006

There is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about the divine origin of man. That is a perfectly simple fact which the modern world will find out more and more to be a fact. Every other basis is a sort of sentimental confusion, full of merely verbal echoes of the older creeds. … Men will more and more realize that there is no meaning in democracy if there is no meaning in anything; and that there is no meaning in anything if the universe has not a center of significance and an authority that is the author of our rights.

-- G.K. Chesterton

Saturday, August 19, 2006

An "Idolization" of Democracy?

"I think that, on the whole, the faith that democratic capitalism is the Answer is one that tends to characterize the neocon project."
That's Mark Shea, circa 2006, summing up the "idolatry" of the neoconservative project in his latest post.

Methinks there is more to "neoconservatism" than meets the eye, or the curt dismissal of Mark Shea. For example, here is Irving Kristol, considered the "founder" of American neoconservatism:

Though the phrase "the quality of life" trips easily from so many lips these days, it tends to be one of those cliches with many trivial meanings and no large, serious one. Sometimes it merely refers to some externals as the enjoyment of cleaner air, cleaner water, cleaner streets. At other times it refers to the merely private enjoyment of music, painting and literature. Rarely does it have anything to do with the way the citizen in a democracy views himself -- his obligations, his intentions, his ultimate self-definition.

Instead, what I would call the "managerial" conception of democracy is the predominant opinion among political scientists, socialogists, economists, and has, through the untiring efforts of these scholars, become the conventional journalistic opinion as well. The root idea behind this managerial conception of democracy is 'a political system' (as they say) which can be adequately defined in terms of -- can be fully reduced to -- its mechanical arrangements. Democracy is then seen as a set of rules or procedures, and nothing but a set of rules and procedures, whereby majority rule and minority rights are reconciled in a state of equilibrium. If everyone follows these rules and procedures, then democracy is in good working order. I think this is a fair description of the democratic idea that currently prevails in academia. One can now say that it is the liberal idea of democracy par excellence.

I cannot help but feel there is something ridiculous about being this kind of a democrat, and I must confess to having a sneaking sympathy for those young radicals who also find it ridiculous. The absurdity is the absurdity of idolatry -- of taking the symbolic for the real, the means for the end. The purpose of democracy cannot possibly be the endless functioning of its own political machinery. The purpose of any political regime is to achieve some version of the good life and the good society. It is not at all difficult to imagine a perfectly functioning democracy which answers all questions except one -- namely, why should anyone of intelligence and spirit care a fig for it?

There is, however, an older idea of democracy - one which was fairly common until the beginning of this century - for which the conception of the quality of public life is absolutely crucial. The idea starts from the proposition that democracy is a form of self-government, and that if you want it to be a meritorious policy, you have to care about what kind of people govern it. Indeed, it puts the matter more strongly and declares that if you want self-government, you are only entitled to it if that "self" is worthy of governing. There is no inherent right to self-government if it means that such government is vicious, mean, squalid, and debased. Only a dogmatist and a fanatic, an idolater of the democratic machinery, could approve of self-government under such conditions.

And because the desirability of self-government depends on the character of the people who govern, the older idea of democracy was very solicitous of the condition of this character. It was solicitous of the individual self, and felt an obligation to educate it into what used to be called "republican virtue". And it was solicitous of that collective self which we called public opinion and which, in a democracy, governs us collectively. Perhaps in some respects it was never oversolictitous - that would not be suprising. But the main thing is that it cared, cared not merely about the machinery of democracy but about the quality of life that this machinery might generate.

Shea portrays neoconservatives as treating democracy as a panacea for troubles in the Middle East -- their fault in, quoting Shea, "predicated on a sincere religious faith in a false god and that god's power to redeem and heal": overthrow a tyranny, put in a "managerial" form of democracy, and things will right themselves as long as the machinery of democracy is in place.

I think the quote from Kristol -- a neoconservative if there ever was one -- demonstrates that Kristol possesses anything but a faith in democracy as a "cure-all," as "The Answer." Kristol in this case (if I read him correctly) argues against such an idolization of democracy, a concern for establishing the "machinery" of democracy without taking into consideration the development of character that is essential for its very survival.

So when Shea characterizes "the Neocon project" as an idolatry of democracy, I have to wonder how much he really knows of Irving Kristol, the founder of neoconservatism?

You can read more of Kristol's work in Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea. For a broader perspective on neoconservative thought, see The Neocon Reader (Grove Press, 2005).

At the same time, it was reading Mark's post that called to mind a passage from Building the Free Society: Democracy Capitalism and Catholic Social Teaching, edited by George Weigel, Robert Royal. (Eerdmans, 1994), a great compilation of essays -- not necessarily "neoconservative" -- on various encyclicals and conciliar documents. This from Kenneth Grasso:

There is no single notion of democracy. Rather, there are various theories, rooted in different understandings of politics and animated by divergent conceptions of nature and destiny of man. Although similar in their institutional and procedural frameworks, the democracies created by these conflicting philosophies differ greatly in their spirit and substance. In the face of the democratic revolution that is sweeping the world today, the key question becomes: Which conception of democracy is animating this revolution?

This is no academic question. History attests that democracy is a rare and delicate form of government that has eventuated more often in anarchy or tyranny than in the regime of ordered freedom it promises. Democratic institutions, as John H. Hallowell has warned, "are a means to freedom . . . but they are not identical with freedom itself." In the end, "it is the way in which they are conceived and the way in which they are used that will ultimately determine their efficacy as instruments of freedom." Not all versions of democracy are equally capable of advancing the cause of the freedom and dignity of the human person, or of providing a secure foundation for a vigorous democratic polity. "The fatality that has worked against . . . modern democracies," Maritain observed, is "the false philosophy of life" they have enshrined at the center of their public life. The direction taken by the democratic experiments of today will depend largely upon what philosophy undergirds them.

John Allen Jr. on "Mozart, Masonry and Catholicism"

Read this today and couldn't resist posting -- I expect it will only be a matter of time before it is picked up by our friend(s) at

Mozart, Masonry and Catholicism ("All Things Catholic" August 18, 2006):

In a 1996 interview, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger recalled that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart "thoroughly penetrated our souls" in rural Bavaria, in the shadow of Salzburg.

"His music is by no means just entertainment; it contains the whole tragedy of human existence," he said. As is well known, Benedict XVI tries to get in a few minutes at the keyboard every day, usually Mozart.

The pope is hardly alone in this passion.

Such disparate theological voices as Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Hans Küng and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini have all penned tributes. The Protestant Barth once wrote that when he arrived in Heaven he would seek out Mozart, a Catholic, ahead of Luther or Calvin. Barth even proposed a performance of Mozart's "Coronation Mass" at a meeting of the Protestant World Council of Churches in Evanston, Illinois, an ecumenical gesture that in 1954 proved too far ahead of its time.

On this 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, however, a nagging question concerns the extent to which Mozart's grasp of the "tragedy of human existence" was colored by the liberal and anti-clerical currents of his day, especially Freemasonry. . . .

Monday, July 31, 2006

Damon Linker v. Fr. Neuhaus - Response & Commentary

See also our compilation of reviews and discussion on Fr. Neuhaus' Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth (Basic Books. March 2006)]

  • "The Christianizing of America" - Without a Doubt, by Damon Linker. The New Republic March 24, 2006.
  • Response: The Dangerous Neuhaus, by James M. Kushiner. Mere Commments March 24, 2006.
  • Response: TNR on Fr. Neuhaus, by Rick Garnett. Mirror of Justice March 25, 2006.
  • Discussion of Fr. Neuhaus, Damon Linker, et al. @ Amy Welborn's Open Book March 29, 2006.
  • Joining the Conversation The American Scene March 30, 2006.
  • American Theocrat, by John Wilson. Christianity Today May / June 2006.
  • $160,000! - Rod Dreher muses on Damon Linker's hatchet job on Fr. Neuhaus. The number refers to the advance given to him by his publishers, as relayed by Fr. Neuhaus in the latest First Things "Public Square":
    A few weeks later, [Damon] told me he was thinking of writing a book about First Things and its editor in chief. He explained that the book would be a critical appreciation of the achievements of the magazine. I said I would be happy to cooperate with such a project but I didn't think there would be enough interest in the subject to elicit a large advance from a publisher. Moreover, this would be a first book by a relatively unknown writer. In early December, he told me that several publishers had indicated intense interest in the book he was proposing and that Doubleday had offered an advance of $160,000. He wanted to leave at the beginning of 2005 to start writing. Surprised but pleased by his good fortune, I congratulated him and renewed my offer to be of assistance wtih the book. I then said it might be helpful in that connection if I could see the proposal he had submitted to publishers. At this he blanched and, with obvious embarrassment, said that would not be possible. This was the first indication that he had agreed to write what in the publishing business is knowns as an "attack book," which, unfortunately, is the genre to which "The Theocons" belongs.
  • Theocracy, Theocracy, Theocracy, by Ross Douthat. First Things 165 (August/September 2006): 23-30. A review of American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century, by Kevin Phillips; The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us, by James Rudin; Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, by Michelle Goldberg, and Thy Kingdom Come: How The Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical’s Lament by Randall Balmer:
    This is a paranoid moment in American politics. A host of conspiracies haunt our national imagination, and apparent incompetence is assumed to be the consequence of a dark design: President Bush knew about the attacks of September 11 in advance, or else the Israelis did; the Straussians took us to war in Iraq, unless the oil companies did; the federal government let the levees break in New Orleans, unless it dynamited them itself.

    Perhaps the strangest of these strange stories, though, is the notion that twenty-first-century America is slouching toward theocracy. . . .

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Here and There . . .

An occasional roundup of links that may be of interest to our readers . . .

  • Separation of Church and State: Some Things Never Change - Reviewing a book by (Separation of Church and State Philip Hamburger. Harvard UP, 2004), Justin Dziowgo (Democracy of the Dead) provides a detailed history of the understanding of this term and the development of religious liberty in America.

  • Willmoore Kendall revisited. Enchiridion Militis June 29th, 2006. Paul J. Cella introduces us to one of his favorite conservatives.

  • Ten Years On: A Caelum et Terra Reader?. Featuring contributions by Thomas Storck, Maclin Horton, Dan Nichols and Robert Gotcher (among others), Caelum et Terra was born of a state of disattisfaction with the state of the Church, "the domination of faith by politics" (whether left or right), and the calumny of sectarian Catholic polemics. It is also known for its criticism of what they perceived to be a misinterpretation of Catholic social doctrine by Fr. Neuhaus, George Weigel and Michael Novak. Some of their articles are contained online here, along with their statement of purpose. The publication lasted from 1991-1996 -- Maclin Horton reflects on its history:
    Looking back, ten years on, from a somewhat altered perspective, having experienced marriage, fatherhood, and a brush with death, there are things I would do differently: a little more realism, perhaps, a bit less romanticism. And I certainly wish I'd paid more attention to the neoconservatives' global political agenda instead of focusing solely on their nefarious attempt to reorient Catholic social teaching, as crucial as that battle was and is.

    All in all, though, our effort was a worthy one, and I believe that Caelum et Terra has stood the test of time.

  • Dan Mitsui vs. Popular Culture - Responding to the release of The Da Vinci Code in American cinema, the blogger of The Lion and the Cardinal makes his case for a general abandonment of popular culture:
    He should not see it.
    He should not see another movie in its place.
    And he should never see another movie again for the rest of his life.
    And he should never watch television again, and he should never listen to popular music again.
    As best he can manage.
    It's really quite simple.
    Gee, you think? -- In part II of the post, Daniel tackles the question of engaging and evangelizing contemporary culture having taken this approach:
    We evangelize it by being a people set apart. By creating art and living lives that reflect the beauty and profundity of our faith. By making visible how much happier we are for having done so. Popular culture can warp minds, but it cannot kill the desire for truth and beauty and meaning inscribed on every human soul. Popular culture ultimately cannot satisfy - Catholicism can, but not only if it is authentic and not an imitation of something base.

    Evangelizing modernism is not like evangelizing paganism. Paganism is at least natural. It is at least sane. It is at least human. You can convert a barbarian, but you cannot convert a vampire. And you certainly cannot convert a vampire by drinking his blood.

    Stop drinking the vampire's blood.

  • Paul Zummo of The Political Spectrum -- "A thoughtful, intelligent, albeit somewhat snarky view of politics, law, and culture" -- offers a 7-Part Series on American Conservatism. (The link goes to the final discussion, on neoconservatism, with links to previous installments.

  • Logic, Natural Law, and Right Reason, a discussion by Jordan J. Ballor on the Acton Powerblog, with contributions by G.K. Chesterton and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

  • “The Eye of the Needle: Economic Lessons from the Parables" was the subject of the 2006 Lord Action Lecture, presented by the Rev. Robert A. Sirico. The Acton Institute has provided the lecture in MP3 format (10 mb mp3 file).

  • Would Adam Smith Approve? National Review's Larry Kudlow takes a look at the convicted Enron crooks Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling and asks the pertinent question: "Of course, we all knew they were crooks before this week’s verdict. But do they represent the moral core of American capitalism?"

  • Thoroughly Modern Mill - "A utilitarian who became a liberal--but never understood the limits of reason." British philosopher Roger Scruton takes a look at the 200th anniversary of the birth of John Stuart Mill, "the greatest exponent of 19th-century liberalism," and offers his usual insightful criticism of the consequences of his philosophy.

    Disagree with him or not, one can but only marvel at the quality of his education:

    "His home-schooling at the hands of his father, the economist and historian James Mill, was a model of rigor, causing him to read and write Greek aged 6, to master Latin aged 9, and to have acquired a thorough grounding in history and mathematics aged 10, when he began work on a history of Roman government. Mill later developed a taste for poetry, acquired a perfect knowledge of French, and, despite his agnostic upbringing, read deeply in the Bible, which he believed to be one of the two Great Books, the other being Homer.

  • Can, and Should, Constitutional Liberalism Survive?, by Maclin Horton Caelum Et Terra May 19, 2006:
    I can probably also assume that we all agree that liberalism in its pure philosophical sense is incompatible with Catholicism, because it (liberalism) is silent, or at least pretty quiet, about fundamental questions: what is life for? how do we know what's wrong and what's right? We can probably also agree that we're watching the collapse of philosophical liberalism into nihilism, because, as Chesterton warned long ago, it was living off the inherited capital of Christianity, which is now pretty much spent.

    The question, then, is whether the political apparatus produced by or at least associated with liberalism--self-government based on the rule of law--can and should survive.

  • Hammer & Tickle: "joke-as-resistance" to Communist nations, by Ben Lewis. Prospect May 2006: "Communism is the only political system to have created its own international brand of comedy. The standard interpretation is that communist jokes were a form of resistance. But they were also a safety valve for the regimes and jokes were told by the rulers as well as the ruled—even Stalin told some good ones."

  • Re-Examining Bonhoeffer "There have been few personalities throughout history who have encapsulated the theological tension within Christianity with reference to pacifism and war like Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer’s dilemma, as he watched his country descend into the horror and depravity of Naziism, speaks in a larger sense to all Christians who wrestle with matters of conscience, war, and civil resistance." Wolf offers his own theological analysis of Bonhoeffer's development from a pacifist (one completely opposed to any Chrisian involvement in politics whatsoever) to a minister in active opposition to National Socialism to the point of involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler, asking::
    Was this shift informed by a new theological understanding, or “merely” by a visceral carnal reaction to abhorrent government policies? And most important of all, who had the better of the theological question: the early Bonhoeffer (with [David] Lipscomb), or the later?

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

July 4th, 2006 - America's Independence Dayf

Readings for the 4th of July, as the United States of America celebrates its 230th birthday . . .

  • "Because It's Worth Reading" -- David Michael Phelps reminds us to read the founding document of our nation.
  • A magnificent reflection on the principles of the Declaration of Independence is offered by Fr. James V. Schall in Do We Deserve To Be Free? On The Fourth of July, 2006 (Ignatius Insight).

  • "That Honorable Determination", by Christopher Flannery [The Claremont Institute]:
    American children are not born understanding the principles of their country, and most American college students—if reports can be believed—are still largely unfamiliar with them when they graduate. So it is a useful tradition, as the Fourth of July comes around each year, to reflect again—and again—on the American political principles famously proclaimed on the original Independence Day, which, as many college graduates know, happened sometime in the past, possibly during summertime. Lest we seem to rest all our political expectations on the capacity of the next generation for self-government, let us admit that the grownups, as well, can benefit from an annual refresher. . . .
  • Citing some relevant texts from the Catechism, Joe at Deo Omnis Gloria reminds us of our obligations pertaining to Catholicism, Citizenship, & the Political Community.

  • Drawing from Abraham Lincoln's speech of July 10, 1858 (a rebuttal to his campaign rival Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas), and President Calvin Coolidge's 1926 address on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Indepence, Scott Johnson (Powerline) remarks on The eternal meaning of Independence Day.

  • Fourth of July weekend: assimilation at the park - observations by "Neo-Neocon":
    . . . If I were to have taken a poll of that group on the grass and under the tall shade trees at the park the other day, I wonder what I would have found. How many of the adults were in basic acceptance that their children would become part of American culture? How many were hoping--and taking strong steps to ensure--that their children would resist? How many of the adults were determined to learn English? How many were legal, how many illegal; how many expected a temporary stay, how many a permanent one? How many were happy to be here, how many not?

    I don't know the answers. What I do know is that they looked happy--but of course, it was a lovely day, and a vacation time at that--and the children were all speaking unaccented English. And I know that the vista, to me at least, was a pleasant one, and part of what I consider to be the age-old American dream, on this Fourth of July weekend.

  • Americans also have the freedom to dissent. Catholic Anarchist, finds himself
    "wishing customers a good holiday, consciously not saying “Happy Fourth of July.” It occurred to me later that the word holiday is, of course, shorthand for “holy day,” and I had to amend my well-wishing to “Have a good evening.” Alas, it is difficult to notice sometimes that we Christians take part in the empire’s subversion of our own theological language.
    Um, yeah.

  • Greg Mockeridge talks about Our Founding Fathers, Reluctant Revolutionaries: "Because it is called the American “Revolution,” some seize upon this opportunity to characterize our Founding Fathers as though they are the patron saints of those who look for any excuse to just buck the establishment. Does this description fit our Founding Fathers?"
  • Michelle Malkin kicks off her Independence Day 2006 News & Notes with Zel Miller's Republican National Convention speech ("Never in the history of the world has any soldier sacrificed more for the freedom and liberty of total strangers than the American soldier. And, our soldiers don't just give freedom abroad, they preserve it for us here at home. . . ."); and The Anchoress has rounded up more good reading (along with a tribute to Normal Rockwell) in Jonah to Hitchens to Betsy, a 4th Round-up from The Anchoress.
. . . and a few gems from the past:

Watching the historic July 4th launch of Space Shuttle Discovery was probably the highlight of today. Fireworks pale in comparison to the thrill of watching (even if on TV) of a man-made contraption hurtling toward the starts at five times the speed of sound. Details on Discovery's crew and their mission here [.pdf format].

It seems fitting to close this post with the following words from Pope John Paul II to the American Ambassador to the Vatican in 1998 (courtesy of Phil Dillon):

"The Founding Fathers of the United States asserted their claim to freedom and independence on the basis of certain “self-evident” truths about the human person: truths which could be discerned in human nature, built into it by “nature’s God.” Thus they meant to bring into being, not just an independent territory, but a great experiment in what George Washington called “ordered liberty.”…

“The American democratic experiment has been successful in many ways; millions of people around the world look to the United States as a model in their search for freedom, dignity, and prosperity. But the continuing success of American democracy depends on the degree to which each new generation, native-born and immigrant, makes its own moral truths on which the Founding Fathers staked the future of your Republic.”

“I am happy to take note of your words confirming the importance that your government attaches, in its relations with countries around the world, to the promotion of human rights and particularly to the fundamental human right of religious freedom, which is the guarantee of every other human right. Respect for religious convictions played no small part in the birth and early development of the United States. Thus John Dickinson, chairman of the Committee for the Declaration of Independence, said in 1776: “Our liberties do not come from the charters; for these are only declarations of preexisting rights. They do not depend on parchment or seals; but come from the King of Kings and the Lord of all the earth.” Indeed it may be asked whether the American experiment would have been possible, or how well it will succeed in the future, without a deeply rooted vision of divine Providence over the individual and over the fate of nations.”

Happy 4th of July!

G.K. Chesterton: "What I Saw in America"

The American Constitution does resemble the Spanish Inquisition in this: that it is founded on a creed. America is the only nation in the world that is founded on creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just. It certainly does condemn anarchism. and it does also by inference condemn atheism, since it clearly names the Creator as the ultimate authority from whom these equal rights are derived. Nobody expects a modern political system to proceed logically in the application of such dogmas, and in the matter of God and Government it is naturally God whose claim is taken more lightly. The point is that there is a creed, if not about divine, at least about human things.

G. K. Chesterton, What I Saw in America. (Via Eagle & Elephant).

Thursday, June 29, 2006

On a Plastic America and other Abstractions

Some early morning reflections in response to recent combox discussions on this blog

"America is a Plastic country. It is NOT a nation! America is a farrago. America is dysfunctional and is dying.

America was built on a "revolutionary" spirit!!! America is built on self-contradicting principles and some principles that are out-right lies. It is a dead country. Aristotle says that "A state does NOT consist of individuals that are all-a-like". Well, America is not even a state. It is a place---that is it."

W. Lindsay Wheeler, combox circa June 26, 2006.

The amusing thing about this tirade against America is that, in my own pseudo-revolutionary college years, I would have gotten such a thrill out of this manner of speaking. Wheeler may be on the opposite end of the political spectrum from William S. Burroughs, but his bitter, blatant cynicism towards America is of such a visceral nature that I confess I often have difficulty distinguishing him from those on the Left.

Now, the interesting thing is that Michael Novak -- yes, the dreaded neocon and object of vehement criticism from Wheeler, Jones, Hand and others -- once spoke himself of

". . . the hollowness of so much of American life; the vacant eyes watching television and drinking beer; the tired eyes of the men on the commuter train; the efficient eyes of the professor and manager, the sincere eyes of the television politician. Americans . . . do not know who they are, only what they are useful for; they are bored and apathetic because they are manipulated; they are violent because they secretly resent the lies they are forced to live. Unable to live with themselves, Americans level the earth, build and destroy, attempt to master matter and space and human history. Americans play God." ['A Theology for Radical Politics' 1969]

But, somewhere along the way, something happened to Michael Novak.

According to his memoirs ("Controversial Engagements" First Things April 1999) he became a neoconservative ("The term was invented as a sign of excommunication by the Catholic socialist (and my good friend) Michael Harrington"); to put it in the words of the Houston Catholic Worker, he joined Fr. Neuhaus and George Weigel in becoming advocates of "wage slavery" and "unbridled capitalism", preaching "a new gospel of wealth creation" in stubborn opposition to Catholic social teaching.

In any case, a little more than a decade after he penned his own tirade against Americans, Novak would come to reconsider his criticism, writing in 1982's The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism:

That this was a superficial, unfair, and ideological description of real Americans became clear to me when I looked more closely at my neighbors and companions, and less at literary conventions.

The headlines of the morning tabloid New York Post, for instance, might reveal signs of "materialism", the "emptiness," the "hollowness" of American life. The latest scandal of a movie star caught in an illicit affair, financial shadiness from a corporate executive on Wall Street; the faux-violent posturings of a rap star. But can I honestly take from this and extrapolate an indictment of Americans in general? How about just those I see on the subway? -- Or should we remember to locate blame within the individual subject?

From what I have observed, once you orient your posts in opposition to a stereotype, or rely on a sweeping generalization and indictment of the whole, it perverts the conversation in such a way that one is not actually engaging a person, or even his position, but a superficial caricature thereof.

I'm not asking for the cautious optimism of Alexis De Tocqueville (Democracy in America) or the appreciative reflections of Jacques Maritain (Reflections on America) -- disagree with Novak, Weigel, Neuhaus if you must. Point out the flaws of the Enlightenment pressupositions in the thought of our Founding Fathers, and the temptations of materialism, commercialism, and egalitarianism (and I will likely agree, up to a point). But is it possible to render your thoughts without succumbing to sweeping generalizations? to see beyond the portrayal of a "dead, plastic America," and recognize a nation of real people and individual citizens?

I had initially responded to Wheeler's comments with the observation that "obviously, he had not gone on a cross-country trip of America." If I may elaborate, what I had in mind was something along the lines of the book, A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins: the chronicles of a young, bitter, disillusioned college student who -- after proclaiming his desire to "abandon America" to an elder -- was challenged to discover the country he thought about leaving, and so embarked on a literal walk across the U.S.A., meeting and staying with American citizens of every color, class and stripe along the way.

Jenkins recorded his memories in 1979 -- 5 years after I was born. I was in elementary school when my father read it to my brothers and me, but the stories and the people and, most of all, the lesson of that book has remained -- and have never seem more pertinent than when I read the bitter tirades against an empty, abstract caricature of America from the ideological left (or the right).

  • Jacques Maritain on "The Old Tag of 'American Materialism'" -- a section from his Reflections on America, simply too good not to be read in its entirety.
  • Ten Commandments for Writing a History of America, by Paul Johnson. The American Enterprise May / June 1998. "Always remember America is about people. It is a land, of course—and what a land—but it is, above all, a people, the most varied amalgam of people of all races and cultures the world has ever seen."
  • A Writer Treks Across America, by Michelle York. New York Times February 13, 2005. "Then, he was a loner, a vegetarian and a pacifist. Today, he is the head of a large family, the owner of a cattle farm and a supporter of President Bush and the war in Iraq." I suppose this should be read as a disclaimer for those considering embarking on such a journey? ;-)

* * *

UPDATE! (July 6, 2006)

After some consideration and reflection over the conversations that have occured in our combox over the past week, I've decided to impose upon Mr. Wheeler an involuntary vacaton from the combox.

This blog was created to facilitate discussion of the issues which concern this particular website, namely, the interaction of the Catholic Church with the "American experiment" and the founding principles of our nation.

Witnessing the exchange between Mr. Wheeler and others, it seems that Wheeler has more than clarified his thought on this subject, making it plain that in all cases he firmly repudiates both parties involved in this debate: not only the Catholic Church, but also the philosophical foundations of the very country that he presently resides in.

Needless to say this manner of repudication already places him outside the discussion, and I wonder what we can benefit by engaging him further? -- Especially when it seems that, as a fellow commentator has noted:

You are so determined to be insulted that I don't think you're actually reading (in the sense of comprehension) anything anyone writes to you. Perhaps you should consider stepping back, taking a deep breath, and taking time to reflect a little. I haven't seen anyone here write anything calculated to call forth the stream of invective with which you have doused us. You seem to take descriptions as pejoratives, and explanations as the web equivalent of walking into a bar looking for a fight.
Wheeler has shown little interest in engaging the actual content of any post so much as commandeering the combox and hammering home his own furvent and repetitive denunciations in a barrage of post after post. (And in so doing, I suspect, driving away others who might be otherwise interested in engaging in a civil conversation -- I have seen this happen too many times, and it has been the ruin of many an email list or bulletin board).

My parting recommendation to Mr. Wheeler is that in my experience, there is no more suitable a vehicle for the presentation of his opinions than a blog -- and, thanks to the blessings of modern technology, American ingenuity and unbridled godless capitalism, he can now obtain one of these new-fangled contraptions for his very own right.

A brief summary of Mr. Wheeler's objections to America can be found here; my suggestion would be that he expound upon them on his own blog (rather than hijack a combox), and those interested in engaging him at length can do so.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Washington's God by Michael and Jana Novak - Reviews and Commentary

Acquired by way of a gift from a good friend, Michael and (daughter) Jana Novak's Washington's God, an investigation into the religious faith of the father of our country -- and, it would appear, that he was something more than a deist.

I have a number of books I am attempting to plow through at the moment, but expect I will not be able to resist cracking this open in the coming week. I have been anticipating this book ever since I heard about it. I expect it will be a compliment to Novak's excellent study of the religious faith and disposition of our founding fathers: On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (Encounter Books, April 2003).

From the publisher's description:

Washington has long been viewed as the patron saint of secular government, but in Washington's God, Michael Novak and his daughter, Jana, reveal that it was Washington's strong faith in divine Providence that gave meaning and force to his monumental life. Narrowly escaping a British trap during the Battle of Brooklyn, Washington didn't credit his survival to courage or tactical expertise; he blamed himself for marching his men into certain doom and marveled at the Providence that delivered them. Throughout his career, Washington held fast to the conviction that America's liberty was dependent on our faithfulness to God's will and our trust in Providence.

Washington's God shows Washington not only as a man of resource, strength, and virtue, but also as a man with deeply held religious values. This new presentation of Washington-as a man whose religion guided his governance-will bring him into today's debates about the role of faith in government and will challenge everything we thought we knew about the inner life of the father of our country.

Reviews Related Discussion
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Saturday, June 24, 2006

Pope Benedict on the pathology of "Western self-hatred"

The last element of the European identity is religion. I do not wish to enter into the complex discussion of recent years, but to highlight one issue that is fundamental to all cultures: respect for that which another group holds sacred, especially respect for the sacred in the highest sense, for God, which one can reasonably expect to find even among those who are not willing to believe in God. When this respect is violated in a society, something essential is lost. In European society today, thank goodness, anyone who dishonors the faith of Israel, its image of God, or its great figures must pay a fine. The same holds true for anyone who dishonors the Koran and the convictions of Islam. But when it comes to Jesus Christ and that which is sacred to Christians, freedom of speech becomes the supreme good.

This case illustrates a peculiar Western self-hatred that is nothing short of pathological. It is commendable that the West is trying to be more open, to be more understanding of the values of outsiders, but it has lost all capacity for self-love. All that it sees in its own history is the despicable and the destructive; it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure. What Europe needs is a new self-acceptance, a self-acceptance that is critical and humble, if it truly wishes to survive.

Multiculturalism, which is so passionately promoted, can sometimes amount to an abandonment and denial, a flight from one’s own things. Multiculturalism teaches us to approach the sacred things of others with respect, but we can do this only if we ourselves are not estranged from the sacred, from God. With regard to others, it is our duty to cultivate within ourselves respect for the sacred and to show the face of the revealed God—the God who has compassion for the poor and the weak, for widows and orphans, for the foreigner; the God who is so human that he himself became man, a man who suffered, and who by his suffering with us gave dignity and hope to our pain.

Unless we embrace our own heritage of the sacred, we will not only deny the identity of Europe. We will also fail in providing a service to others to which they are entitled. To the other cultures of the world, there is something deeply alien about the absolute secularism that is developing in the West. They are convinced that a world without God has no future. Multiculturalism itself thus demands that we return once again to ourselves.

Pope Benedict XVI - Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam (February 2006)

Friday, June 16, 2006

Our Forgotten Founder

Roger Kimball of the New Criterion has written a nice review essay on the Rev. John Witherspoon, a neglected force in the founding of the American experiment. Witherspoon also figures prominently in Michael Novak's study of the religious and metaphysical roots of the American experiment, On Two Wings. Kimball says just about the nicest thing you can say about an American figure: "He radiated what his contemporaries called 'presence': a personal dignity and charisma that transcended ideological differences and commanded respect." The only comparable figure I can think of in our own time is Billy Graham, who was a friend to every president no matter the party.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Fr. Neuhaus: Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth

Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth, by Richard J. Neuhaus. (Basic Books. March 2006)

Book Reviews & Blog Discussions

Thursday, May 18, 2006

TCR's Interview with Fr. Baxter

Fr. Michael Baxter gifts readers a valuable and simple insight in his recent interview with TCRNews:

Q: What about the bishops’ statements on economics?

A: Same problem: primarily a policymaking approach at the expense of concrete pastoral guidance. I don’t have anything against policy statements. I am all in favor of the recommendations spelled out in Economic Justice for All. But if that is all there is to say, ordinary Catholics won’t take anything away from it.

Q: What do you mean by "concrete pastoral guidance" when it comes to, say, economics?

A: Let me give some examples. They should urge people to keep the Lord’s Day. They should challenge families to stop watching so much television, and to pay closer attention to each other. They should declare that every diocese will tithe its budget and use the money to set up credit-unions, nursing homes, and the like. They should turn old, unused rectories into houses of hospitality for the poor and the homeless; as Peter Maurin said, “we need Parish Homes as well as Parish Domes.” They should commit themselves to moving out of their fancy homes and living more like ordinary folks. My point is that the bishops should be setting forth things that ordinary Catholics, and they themselves, can actually do.

As someone who is neither a policymaker nor a theologian (not even much of a student, on some days, heh heh), I second Fr. Baxter’s suggestion to the bishops. I have never seen in print an account of the feelings a young and impressionable college student experiences after having been given a long, systematic, philosophical account of THE CRISIS OF OUR TIME, whatever it may be. The student is left inspired, but with a sense of powerlessness. “I would change the world,” he or she may think, “if only I could change the world.” But the emphasis is always on power. Fr. Baxter, however, has it right: the most effective avenue for change is the “Little Way.” And he should be aware that he is not the only one who realizes this…

Monday, May 15, 2006

Why I am not. . . a 'pantagruellian', Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist April by David Koyzis. April 19, 2006:

Bertrand Russell once told the world why he was not a Christian. Now Daniel Knauss tells us why he is not a neocalvinist. Knauss is one of the angry young men at The New Pantagruel, a two-year-old web journal dedicated to the proposition that one can find one's place in the public square simply by moving to Kansas. . . .
LOL. My brother Jamie (of Ad Limina Apostolorum) just moved to Kansas, so perhaps he can put this proposition to the test.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Nature and Grace, Novak and Schindler

The mode of Dr. Schindler’s critique of the so-called Murray/Whig position is largely theological, and one of the key targets of criticism is the Whig understanding of nature and grace. Professor Joel Garver provides a succinct précis of Dr. Schindler’s critique as put forth in Heart of the World, Center of the Church:

According to Schindler, this is not an interpretation and political system that is empty of theological content--this very conception of religious liberty as immunity from coercion through legal procedure presupposes a certain openness to some religious worldviews and not others (e.g., theocratic Islam). Furthermore, the theological content it does presuppose is not distinctively Christian since it posits a society that is basically neutral or indifferent in regard to God and transcendent values--but that is to say that the realm of nature (culture, society, the civil order) stands in an extrinsic relation to grace, rather than being intrinsically ordered to grace at its proper end.But is this an accurate portrayal of the Whig understanding of nature and grace?
I don't pretend to offer here a comprehensive account of the Whig position, merely two articles in which Michael Novak explains his understanding of the way grace works in nature and in history. First, from an encomium to Bernard Lonergan in the magazine Crisis (Memories of Bernard Lonergan Crisis February 1, 2003):
Let me pause to point out here that neither Aquinas nor Lonergan was imagining that there is a two-tier world, nature below like the cake and grace on top of it like the icing, or anything like that. On the contrary, both imagined that there is in reality and history only one world, all of it conceived and created in, by, and through the Divine Word, Verbum, Logos, and all of it redeemed by Him. The theory of grace and nature is a theoretical construct, designed to make sense of human experience both among those, like Aristotle, who knew nothing of the Verbum, and those like St. Augustine, who did know and wrote especially well both about the fall of human beings into sin and their need for healing. Fallen man is like an athlete who breaks his ankle: It needs to heal before he walks again -- and he is always in greater danger of reinjuring himself than he had been before he broke it. The theoretical construct of grace and nature should not be reified in such a way as to lead us to imagine two separate realities, nature here, grace “up there.” As Georges Bernanos wrote, and Yeats suggested, “Everything is grace,” and yet grace works in and through nature, which it penetrates as yeast penetrates dough.
How does grace penetrate nature? How can we see evidence of this? One great strength in the writings of Novak and Weigel is their willingness to look for concrete manifestations of their ideas in history. In an article on Jacques Maritain, Novak adopts the French philosopher’s view of the work of grace in history through non-Christian agents:
Yet Maritain does not say that Christianity exists in the world solely as the Church or the body of believers. Rather, he sees “Christianity as historical energy at work in the world. It is not in the heights of theology, it is in the depths of the secular conscience and secular existence that Christianity works in this fashion.” He is equally far from asserting that Christians brought modern democratic institutions into existence: “It was not given to believers in Catholic dogma but to rationalists to proclaim in France the rights of man and of the citizen, to Puritans to strike the last blow at slavery in America.” He gives credit — by schematic suggestion, not comprehensive detail — where credit is due: “Neither Locke nor Jean-Jacques Rousseau nor the Encyclopedists can pass as thinkers faithful to the integrity of the Christian trust.”(A Salute to Jacques Maritain The Catholic Writer: The Proceedings of the Wethersfield Institute 2 (1989))
Grace thus works even outside the visible boundaries of the church, and so, institutions that arise in cultures alien to it can nevertheless be ordered towards truth and goodness:
It is clear that Maritain considers the Christian message about the cry of the poor for justice to be a motor of human temporal life. He holds simultaneously that existing democratic ideas, traditions, and institutions were often championed in actual history by those who were non-Christians or even anti-Christian; and yet that, in building better than they knew, such persons were often generating in human temporal life important constructs whose foundations were not only consistent with Jewish and Christian convictions about the realities of ethical and political life but, in a sense, dependent on them. Pull out from under genuine democratic principles the beliefs of Judaism and Christianity about the transcendent dignity of the person and the human propensity to sin, and the existing edifice of democratic thought is exposed to radical doubt.
This is a very optimistic view. At least in theory I think it meets the demands of what Dr. Garver describes as “Schindler’s alternative”: “If we see grace as directing nature from within and drawing it to its proper, grace-given end, then the realm of nature must be seen as distinct from grace, but nevertheless, while distinct, always already situated within grace.” It’s up to more educated minds than mine to parse the theology and see if Novak and Schindler are very far part, at least on a theoretical and theological level. At first glance it seems that they are closer to each other than is commonly thought, and Novak’s fondness for Bernanos (he quotes him in many writings) is something he has in common with Dr. Schindler, who edits the Ressourcement series at Eerdmans, a publisher which also carries a book by Bernanos. In any case, I think these quotations at least add nuance to the common (and inaccurate) simplification that the Whigs see grace as a condiment which Christianizes the nature of liberal institutions.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Pope Benedict XVI on 'Church and State'

The relationship between church and state and their proper jurisdictions have figured heavily in the remarks of Pope Benedict in the first year of his pontificate, as well as in his very first encyclical Deus Caritas Est. The Holy Father has advocated "a healthy secularism of the state," yet he has defended the legitimate role of religion in the moral and cultural development of the nation and the Church's role as a voice of moral conscience, reminding the state of its obligations to the common good.

Writing in his former capacity as Cardinal, the Pope has stated "the Christian is always Someone who seeks to maintain the state in the sense that he or she does the positive, the good, that holds states together." At the same time, in a lesson rooted in his childhood experience of National Socialism, he has commented on the dangers of a totalitarian state -- a state which presumes itself to be "the whole of human existence [and] the whole of human hope," insisting that "the first service that Christian faith performs for politics is that it liberates men and women from the irrationality of the political myths that are the real threat of our time."

What follows is a brief compilation of some of our Holy Father's remarks on this pertinent issue:

Pope Benedict and Alexis de Tocqueville

A Tocquevillian in the Vatican, by Dr. Samuel Gregg.* According to Dr. Gregg, the publication of Deus Caritas Est reveals not only the influence of St. Augustine upon Benedict, but that of the nineteenth-century French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville:

Upon being inducted into the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques of the Institut de France in 1992, then-Cardinal Ratzinger remarked that Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America has always made a strong impression on me.”

Describing Tocqueville as “le grand penseur politique,” the context of these remarks was Ratzinger’s insistence that free societies cannot sustain themselves, as Tocqueville observed, without widespread adherence to “des convictions éthiques communes.” Ratzinger then underlined Tocqueville’s appreciation of Protestant Christianity’s role in providing these underpinnings in the United States. In more recent years, Ratzinger expressed admiration for the manner in which church-state relations were arranged in America, using words suggesting he had absorbed Tocqueville’s insights into this matter.

What has this to do with Deus Caritas Est? The answer is that Benedict XVI has taken to heart Tocqueville’s warnings about “soft-despotism.”

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Recently added to the archives of Cardinal Ratzinger Fan Club we find two earlier writings of Cardinal Ratzinger:

  • Biblical Aspects of the Question of Faith and Politics A homily that was delivered on 26 November 1981 in the course of a service for Catholic members of the Bundestag in the church of St. Wynfrith (Boniface) in Bonn. (
    Christian faith has destroyed the myth of the divine state, the myth of the state as paradise and a society without domination. In its place it has put the objectivity of reason. But this does not mean that it has produced a value-free objectivity, the objectivity of statistics and a certain kind of sociology. To the true objectivity of men and women belongs humanity, and to humanity belongs God. To genuine human reason belongs the morality that is fed by God’s commandments. This morality is not some private affair; it has public significance. Without the good of being and doing good there can be no good politics. What the persecuted Church laid down for the Christian as the core of its political ethos must also be the core of any active Christian politics; it is only when good is done and recognized as good that a good human social existence can thrive. To bring to public acceptance as valid the standing of morality, the standing of God’s commandments, must be the core of responsible political activity.
  • Why Church and State Must Be Separate excerpt from "Theology and the Church’s Political Stance" in Church, Ecumenism and Politics (NY, Crossroads, 1987). Ratzinger notes that "the origin and the permanent foundation of the Western idea of freedom" lies in the "separation of the authority of the state and sacral authority":
    From now on there were two societies related to each other but not identical with each other, neither of which had this character of totality. The state is no longer itself the bearer of a religious authority that reaches into the ultimate depths of conscience, but for its moral basis refers beyond itself to another community. This community in its turn, the Church, understands itself as a final moral authority which however depends on voluntary adherence and is entitled only to spiritual but not to civil penalties, precisely because it does not have the status the state has of being accepted by all as something given in advance.

    Thus each of these communities is circumscribed in its radius, and on the balance of this relation depends freedom. . . .

    Benedict goes on to suggest something which might be brought to bear on the recent attempt to establish constitutional democracy in the Middle East and the necessity of preserving the Christian foundations of Europe:
    The modern idea of freedom is thus a legitimate product of the Christian environment; it could not have developed anywhere else. Indeed, one must add that it cannot be separated from this Christian environment and transplanted into any other system, as is shown very clearly today in the renaissance of Islam; the attempt to graft on to Islamic societies what are termed western standards cut loose from their Christian foundations misunderstands the internal logic of Islam as well as the historical logic to which these western standards belong, and hence this attempt was condemned to fail in this form. The construction of society in Islam is theocratic, and therefore monist and not dualist; dualism, which is the precondition for freedom, presupposes for its part the logic of the Christian thing. In practice this means that it is only where the duality of Church and state, of the sacral and the political authority, remains maintained in some form or another that the fundamental pre-condition exists for freedom.

    Where the Church itself becomes the state freedom becomes lost. But also when the Church is done away with as a public and publicly relevant authority, then too freedom is extinguished, because there the state once again claims completely for itself the justification of morality; in the profane post-Christian world it does not admittedly do this in the form of a sacral authority but as an ideological authority – that means that the state becomes the party, and since there can no longer be any other authority of the same rank it once again becomes total itself. The ideological state is totalitarian; it must become ideological if it is not balanced by a free but publicly recognized authority of conscience. When this kind of duality does not exist the totalitarian system is unavoidable.

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Some Remarks in the First Year of Pope Benedict XVI's Pontificate

  • Back in September 17, 2005, Zenit News Service published an article on Benedict XVI on Religion and Public Life, which included his June 2005 remarks to Italian President Carlo Ciampi on church-state relations.

  • On October 17, 2005, in a letter to the president of the Italian Senate, Marcello Pera (with whom he co-authored Without Roots: Europe, Relativism, Christianity, Islam), Pope Benedict expressed his support for a "healthy secularity of the state" -- or that which guarantees "to each citizen the right to live his own religious faith with genuine freedom, including in the public realm" and includes "a commitment to guarantee to all, individuals and groups, respect for the exigencies of the common good, [and] the possibility to live and to express one own religious convictions."

    The full text of the letter can be found here.

  • On November 19, 2005, Benedict XVI conveyed the Catholic Church's respect for civil authority:
    Benedict XVI explained to the bishops of the Czech Republic that in her work of evangelization, the Church doesn't seek to meddle in the sphere of public authority.

    "The Christian community is a grouping of people with their own rules, a living body that, in Jesus, exists in the world to bear witness to the strength of the Gospel," the Holy Father told the bishops in Rome for their five-yearly visit.

    "It is, therefore, a group of brothers and sisters who have no goals of power or selfish interest, but who joyfully live the charity of God, which is Love," he added.

    "In such a context, the state should have no difficulty in recognizing in the Church a counterpart that in no way prejudices its own function at the service of citizens."

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Director of Research at the Acton Institute and an Adjunct Professor at the John Paul II Pontifical Institute for Marriage and the Family within the Pontifical Lateran University. He is author of several books on Catholic social doctrine including Challenging the Modern World: Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II and the Development of Catholic Social Teaching (2003) and On Ordered Liberty (2003), a critique of 'the liberal tradition' in its many forms.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Does This Count As Irony?

In the Preface to Tan Publishers' edition of Don Felix Sarda y Salvany's Liberalism Is A Sin, a brief story is recounted about the reception that the book received upon its initial publication in Spain in 1886:

"A Spanish Bishop of a Liberal turn instigated an answer to Dr. Sarda's work by way of another Spanish priest. Both books were sent to Rome, praying the Sacred Congregation of the Index to put Dr. Sarda's work under the ban. "
Needless to say, the work was not banned. But is it ironic that self-styled liberals (if, indeed, this Bishop considered himself one) would ask that a book against liberalism be placed in the Index?

Then again, an appreciation of the virtues of certain liberal ideas and institutions does not mean that you are also automatically opposed to the CDF. For example. Fr. Neuhaus and George Weigel, two men often referred to as liberals of a "neo" variety, both defended Cardinal Ratzinger's work during his tenure at the CDF. The writers of Commonweal and the National Catholic Reporter are liberals too, though I guess of a different variety, and if I am not mistaken, they have made different assessments about the work of the CDF in the last few decades. But the question above is an interesting one.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Jeffrey Hart Debate - American Conservatism at a Crossroads?

Jeffrey Hart is an English professor at Dartmouth College. A speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan and an editor of the National Review (the longest serving NR editor after William F. Buckley), Hart is author of The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times, the authorized history of the National Review and the forthcoming "The American Conservative Mind Today."

On December 25, 2005, the Wall Street Journal published the final chapter of The American Conservative Mind Today, titled The Burke Habit: Prudence, skepticism and "unbought grace".

Hart presents an "assessment of the ideas held in balance in the American Conservative Mind today," -- "a synthesis . . . based on what American conservatism has achieved and left unachieved since [Russel Kirk's The Conservative Mind (1953)].

The synthesis, according to Hart, consists of a number of elements: resistance to "hard utopianism" (ex. communism's attempt to fashion "The Perfect Man and Perfect Society") and "soft utopianism" ("benevolent illusions, most abstractly stated in the proposition that all goals are reconcilable" -- ex. World Peace, multiculturalism, pacifism and Wilsonian global democracy); the validity of the nation state and the merits of constitutional government (aiming at government "not by majorities alone but by stable consensus," together with "mutual restraint among the branches").

Hart includes the advocacy of free market economics in his consensus, established by virtue of its supremacy over socialism. At the same time, however, he adds a word of caution:

the utopian temptation can turn such free-market thought into a utopianism of its own -- that is, free markets to be effected even while excluding every other value and purpose . . .
Hart mourns the neglect of Beauty ("Beauty has been clamorously present in the American Conservative Mind through its almost total absence") and the GOP's lack of concern for proper stewardship of the environment ("embarassingly . . . left mostly to liberal Democrats"), or, with regard to the role of religion, calling for "a recovery of the great structure of metaphysics, with the Resurrection as its fulcrum, established as history, and interpreted through Greek philosophy."

Hart also rails against the "Hard Wilsonianism" of the Republican Party, fueled by President Bush's desire to secure peace through the establishment of democracy:

No one has ever thought Wilsonianism to be conservative, ignoring as it does the intractability of culture and people's high valuation of a modus vivendi. Wilsonianism derives from Locke and Rousseau in their belief in the fundamental goodness of mankind and hence in a convergence of interests.

George W. Bush has firmly situated himself in this tradition, as in his 2003 pronouncement, "The human heart desires the same good things everywhere on earth." Welcome to Iraq. Whereas realism counsels great prudence in complex cultural situations, Wilsonianism rushes optimistically ahead.

The faux-"conservativism" of the GOP, says Hart, serves as "an example of Machiavelli's observation that institutions can retain the same outward name and aspect while transforming their substance entirely."

Hart's editorial strikes all the right notes (indeed, much of what he says has a certain affinity to Rod Dreher's crunchy-conservatism). I imagine his critique would likely warm the hearts of a few of our friends . . . if not for the fact that Hart's criticism of the Republicans extends to their defense of the "right to life":

[Abortion] has been a focus of conservative, and national, attention since Roe v. Wade. Yet abortion as an issue, its availability indeed as a widespread demand, did not arrive from nowhere. Burke had a sense of the great power and complexity of forces driving important social processes and changes. Nevertheless, most conservatives defend the "right to life," even of a single-cell embryo, and call for a total ban on abortion. To put it flatly, this is not going to happen. Too many powerful social forces are aligned against it, and it is therefore a utopian notion.

Roe relocated decision-making about abortion from state governments to the individual woman, and was thus a libertarian, not a liberal, ruling. Planned Parenthood v. Casey supported Roe, but gave it a social dimension, making the woman's choice a derivative of the women's revolution. This has been the result of many accumulating social facts, and its results already have been largely assimilated. Roe reflected, and reflects, a relentlessly changing social actuality. Simply to pull an abstract "right to life" out of the Declaration of Independence is not conservative but Jacobinical. To be sure, the Roe decision was certainly an example of judicial overreach. Combined with Casey, however, it did address the reality of the American social process.

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Needless to say, there have been a number of responses to Jeffrey Hart's editorial:

  • Jeffrey Hart on 'the conservative mind' The New Criterion: "Armavirumque" Dec. 27, 2005. James Panero provides some background on Hart and posts a link to an essay, Lessons from Jeffrey Hart, "on the Hart School [of Conservatism] and its influence on young staffers in the Reagan administration."

  • The American Mind Today, by Stephen Bainbridge. Dec. 27, 2005. Prof. Bainbridge has the interesting observation that "what Hart doesn't discuss here is the possibility that the United States is not a nation-state but rather a state-nation."

  • Jeffrey Hart on 'the conservative mind': the response The New Criterion: "Armavirumque" Dec. 28, 2005. James Panero rounds up responses to Hart's article from National Review's blog "The Corner" by Peter Robinson, Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru (start here and scroll up). While agreeing that "Hart is always worth reading," both Goldberg and Ponnuru find fault with Hart's curious take on abortion.

  • Also weighing in by email to the NRO is Fr. Gerry Murray , of New York city's St. Vincent de Paul parish and a former alumni of Dartmouth. Responding to Hart's criticism that "Simply to pull an abstract 'right to life' out of the Declaration of Independence is not conservative but Jacobinical," Murray counters
    There is nothing abstract about an unborn human being, and likewise the metaphysical laws that govern human life are not abstractions, but rather the solid ground that makes a just society possible. My right not to be killed, without justification, at the discretion of another person is no an abstraction, it is the fundamental condition of the existence of any justly ordered community of persons. What is an abstraction is Roe, in which unborn human are not persons, and the killing of such non-persons is legally sanctioned and protected by the state against any interference.

    Babies before birth are people, and to treat them in any other way requires entrance into the horrible world of evil ideas (lies) that result in evil (unjust) actions. The Roe justices that gave us abortion would have liked the country to march into that world with them; they have been and will be unsuccessful as long as we do not concede the fight.

    Fr. Murray's letter is reproduced in full here, together with a response Jeffrey Hart's response (New Criterion: "Armavirumque" Dec. 29, 2005).

    Resonding to Fr. Murray, Hart takes a cheap shot at Fr. Neuhaus and First Things critique of "judicial activism" (as documented in The End of Democracy Spence Publishing Company, 1997):

    Some years ago, as I recall, Father Richard Neuhaus asserted in his magazine First Things that because of legal abortion the United States "regime" is illegitimate. That's right, "illegitimate." Of course this easy chair insurrectionary, this Jacobinical priest, did not become a genuine insurrectionary such as John Brown. Neuhaus knew only too well that the real insurrectionary John Brown received justice at the end of a rope. Neuhaus did not even go to prison, for, say, refusing to pay taxes. Thoreau had gone to prison over the Mexican war.
  • Hart's comments drew a response from Fr. Neuhaus (First Things: On The Square, Dec. 30, 2005):
    Oh dear. “Easy chair insurrectionary,” “Jacobinical priest.” And here I always thought of Jeffrey as a friend. At least he has always been very cordial when we met in the company of friends. . . .

    What was thought to be a radical idea at the time–and what Jeffrey Hart apparently still thinks is an impermissibly radical idea–is that we could reach a point, if the judicial usurpation of politics continued unabated, at which the American political order would be morally illegitimate and democratic government effectively ended.

    To deny the possibility that the American polity could descend into a form of tyranny, in this case judicial tyranny, is, I believe, a form of national hubris, and precludes the possibility of any rational consideration of what is meant by the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate government.

  • (The New Criterion "Armavirumque" Dec. 30, 2005). Ryan M. Schwarz thinks that: "As a longtime admirer of both Hart and Neuhaus (and, in the spirit of full disclosure, a former parishioner of Neuhaus' in his Lutheran days), I've quite enjoyed reading this little dustup . . . It does appear, however, that the participants are talking past each other just a bit."

  • Hart responded yet again to Neuhaus, protesting that, with respect to abortion, he was conducting Analysis, not Advocacy (New Criterion: "Armavirumque" Dec. 31, 2005): "The demand [for a "right" to abortion] will probably increase as a result of the successful women's revolution. Again, that was analytical. No one has challenged that analysis." Hart also disputed Neuhaus' rendition of events:
    Richard Neuhaus understates what actually happened in his magazine First Things in 1999. First Things ran five (commissioned) articles under the overall heading "The End of Democracy?" (He now says that some people thought the question mark unjustified -- that is, they thought democracy in fact had ended with Roe vs. Wade!

    Walter Berns and Gertrude Himmelfarb removed their names from the masthead of First Things. Mr. Berns protested that the magazine was "close to advocating not only civil disobedience but armed revolution."

    The spirit of Che Guevara must have been near at hand.

    Robert Bork objected to Neuhaus's observation that we "have reached the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime."

    Yet Neuhaus nevertheless gave moral assent to the laws that protected his own rights and liberties.

  • Why Edmund Burke would have taken issue with Jeff Hart, by Roger Kimball. (New Criterion: "Armavirumque" Dec. 31, 2005). The managing editor of the Criterion responds to Hart's suggestion that the normalization of abortion reflects the achievement of "the women's movement":
    The "privatization" of abortion--that moral metamorphosis according to which abortion would henceforth be regarded not as an enormity but as liberating "choice"--was part of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. In this sense, I believe, the normalization of abortion represented not the fulfillment of the woman's movement but its most terrible subversion. It seduced many women--many men, too--into believing that ending a life was a legitimate, often a "courageous" expression of personal freedom.

    I was surprised--a little shocked, even--to find Jeff colluding with this idea by citing with apparent approval the Sixties euphemism according to which abortion is rebaptized as a woman's taking control of her "reproductive capability." What abortion really means is annulling reproductive capability in the name of a spurious notion of personal autonomy. There is something Orwellian about the fact that the slogan "reproductive freedom" has turned out so often to mean "freedom from reproducing." . . .

    Jeff stresses, with some exasperation, that he is offering a political analysis, not a blueprint for his ideal society. I do not see that that changes the fundamental issue, though. In a democratic polity, political power is (at least in theory) widely distributed. Political power is the power to determine to some extent the shape of society. It is not the power to define morality, which precedes and guides political power. If voters in some society voted to make murder legal, that would not mean that murder would henceforth be morally OK. The fact that Adolf Hitler was duly elected by democratic franchise in 1933 illustrates one of the limits of that emollient epithet, "democracy."

    as well as Hart's portrayal of Burke has having resigned himself to the consequences of the French Revolution (suggesting in like manner we make our peace with the new order lest we appear 'perverse and obstinate'"):
    Jeff attempts to enlist Burke in a policy of resignation. But few figures in the annals of conservative thought are less likely accomplices in such an enterprise. Jeff seems to argue that because Roe v. Wade enjoys the sanction of popular sentiment (if it does enjoy that sanction, which some would dispute), it therefore ought to be accepted. "Facts of the social reality have changed a great deal," Jeff reminds us, "and actual people make actual decisions within the actuality they inhabit." Well, does the fact that a certain practice is popular legitimate it? Burke had it right, I think, when he warned in An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791) that "the votes of a majority of the people, whatever their infamous flatterers may teach in order to corrupt their minds, cannot alter the moral any more than they can alter the physical essence of things."
  • On January 2, 2006, Fr. Neuhaus reponded further to Jeffrey Hart:
    Jeff writes: “Robert Bork objected to Neuhaus’s observation that we ‘have reached the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.’” Stubborn fact: I never said that, and I rather doubt that Robert Bork ever said that I said that. I said that, if the judicial usurpation of politics, as exemplified by Roe, continued unabated, we could reach a point at which the American polity would become an illegitimate regime. The manifest purpose of the symposium was to contribute to abating the judicial usurpation of politics. Those with a greater respect for facts than Jeffrey Hart has exhibited in these exchanges are invited to press the “Search” button above and read the entire symposium in order to find out who said what.
  • On January 3, 2006 Jody Bottum weighs in on Hart vs. Neuhaus, Kimball, et al. (First Things "On The Square"). Bottum notes that "The Republicans’ adoption of the pro-life cause was one of the great moves in American political history," howbeit an adoption that occured almost by default when the Democrats enthusiastically rushed headlong to become the political lobby of NOW and Planned Parenthood. "The day the party abandons its pro-life platform is the day the pro-lifers stay home on election day—and the Democrats start to win again," challenges Bottum, "Is this what Jeffrey Hart wants? The decadent luxury of a purer, though powerless, party?"

    At the same time, says Bottom, Hart's criticisms have provoked in their own way a necessary evaluation of the relationship between conservatism and the pro-life cause ("We seem to need to go through this kind of brouhaha every so often, if only to get the argument straight once again"):

    One of the primary works of the pro-life movement has been the long, slow assembling of the intellectual argument against the killing of the unborn (a point made well by’s William Saletan in his interesting 2003 book Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War). And these occasional outbreaks of conservative disenchantment with the pro-life movement help us remember the intricacies of that argument—and its relation to deep structures of politics. . . .

    Hart is surely right that [conservative opposition to abortion] shares little of the conservative temperament. Fortunately, the modern pro-life movement in the United States is not dominated by its sentiment, in the political sense of the word. Its commitments remain instead radically above and below all that: a philosophical belief in the dignity of the human person asserted by Western civilization and (very approximately) embodied in the American experiment, on the one hand, and a practical association with mostly Republican politicians, on the other hand.

    This looks like sufficient conservatism to me. But give Jeffrey Hart his due: If conservatism is fundamentally a political sentiment, a temperament that accepts and defends the world as given, then the pro-life position now, three decades after Roe v. Wade, is not conservative but radical.

Additional Commentary on the Jeffrey Hart Debate

  • Synthesizing a Running Debate: Hart's New Conservative Consensus, by Marc at Spinning Cleo Dec. 28, 2005: "What follows is an experiment in which I attempted to "liveblog" a running commentary and debate amongst different bloggers across different blogs about different aspects of the same topic. . . . This post encompasses comments made during the course of approximately 36 hours of blog debate and (due to sanity reasons!) was terminated at around 8pm, EST on 12/28/2005."

  • Con-fusion: Prudence and Principle in Contemporary Conservatism, by Joseph Knippenberg, professor of politics and blogger at No Left Turns. The American Enterprise. Knippenberg finds some disjuncture between Hart's call for "a recovery of the great structure of metaphysics, with the Resurrection as its fulcrum" and his pragmatic concession to the demand for abortion:
    While Hart hasn’t given us much to go on, there seems to be a tension between his religion, which is universal and metaphysical, and his politics, which is grounded in particularity and concrete social facts. If the former is not supposed to have any influence on the latter, if the sphere of religion is supposed simply to be separate from the sphere of politics, then why mention religion at all in an essay on the conservative movement?

    I assume that Hart is not a mere separationist, simple-mindedly insisting upon the privacy of religion and banishing it from the public square. Religion is necessary and important and perhaps even true, capturing something of the human condition, addressing some of our deepest needs. If that is the case, then it will inevitably affect our attitude toward political life, albeit not necessarily in a straightforward or predictable way. It will challenge our subjection to seemingly inexorable material forces. It will call us away from our interests to our principles, to “the better angels of our nature.” But if it potentially has this effect, then it might at some point militate against a regime that permits abortion on demand during the first trimester.

  • The Metaphysics of Conservatism TCS Daily. January 12, 2006. Edward Feser of Right Reason subjects Hart's article to philosophical analysis, finding him to be an example of Anti-Realist conservatism (one who "does not really oppose liberal measures per se, but only their overhasty and excessively disruptive implementation").

  • Hart to Hart, by Amy Welborn. Discussion of Hart's article by the readers of Amy Welborn's blog Open Book. (Rod Dreher, a frequent contributor and author of Crunchy Con, notes "I'm probably closer to Jeff Hart's view on the abortion question than my own side's," noticing as well Hart's criticism of contemporary conservatism "for making a fetish of the free market" and neglect of Beauty.