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There are times when one reads something that provides a moment of sudden illumination. I had that experience with Russell Hittinger’s contribution to this issue. In recent years, I have been struggling with the intuition that the political and social assumptions I’ve held for many years aren’t so much wrong as inadequate. As I wrote last month (“Return of the Strong Gods”), the twentieth century is finally ending. Hittinger may not agree with my assessment of the meaning of populism and what it foretells, but he’s helped me understand why 2017 feels so different from only a few years ago.
The great achievement of Leo XIII was to identify the ecology of a healthy society. It’s one that sustains the three “necessary” societies in harmonious and mutually reinforcing balance. The family or domestic society anchored in marriage answers to our needs as domestic creatures. The Church fulfills our religious end. Civic life engages us as political animals. Each has a distinct character. Marriage accords with a natural law of male and female complementarity. The Church has a supernatural constitution. Political affairs are more open-ended and variable, subject to prudential judgments about how best to organize civic life in order to promote the common good.
As Hittinger explains, modern Catholicism’s outlook developed as a response to the French Revolution. That event, which eventually implicated the entire West, exaggerated the importance of the political realm, deifying the modern nation-state. Pius IX began the work of articulating the Church’s objections to secular modernity’s all-absorbing sociopolitical project. It was Leo XIII, however, who laid down the foundations for modern Catholic social doctrine, urging strategic efforts to rebalance modern societies in ways that defend the proper rights of the domestic and ecclesial societies in an ideological atmosphere that subordinates everything to political and economic ideology. As Hittinger points out, many of the important battles in the early twentieth century concerned the state’s efforts to take control of the education of children away from both parents and the Church—a signal instance of the state’s usurpation of ancient roles of the domestic and ecclesial societies.
As a teen I read George Orwell and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, not Leo XIII. My first years of theological study focused on Karl Barth, whose outlook was profoundly influenced by his recognition that Christianity had to be defended against spiritual conquest by German nationalism. Although I started on the left, over time I came to see that progressivism, even the moderate progressivism of American liberalism, invariably seeks to increase the power of the state. The cultural wars of my lifetime—the war on racism, the war on sexual inequality, and the war on poverty—fell into the same pattern. The state needs to be empowered to make the world anew.
My observations of society reinforced my reading. As a young man, I could see that our social ecology was changing. For a long time, American liberalism had unwittingly operated with the framework developed by Leo XIII. Traditional assumptions about marriage and family sustained a pre-political domestic sphere, and mainline Protestantism maintained an atmosphere of religiosity. Something like the balance of the three societies obtained. Most liberals were committed to “social change” but presumed that a good life needs to be anchored in marriage and oriented toward the transcendent. By the time I reached the age of majority, those presumptions were on the way out. Feminism was turning every aspect of the male-female dance into a stark political question. The culture war for sexual freedom made religion, especially Christianity, into the archenemy of justice.
I was finishing graduate school when Richard John Neuhaus launched First Things. His outlook seemed right. Again, I wasn’t thinking in Leo XIII’s terms in those days. But I can now see that Neuhaus recognized that our society needed the renewal of the moral authority of traditional institutions, especially marriage and Church, in order to restore the Leonine balance. In the face of progressive attempts to displace family and Church with politically orchestrated cultural change, we needed to defend limited government and a free economy in order to restrain this tendency. This would restore the Leonine balance.
Hittinger observes that the popes in their “watchtower” failed to see that the challenges of the twenty-first century would be different than the twentieth. He could just as well have said the same about the editors of First Things, present company included. One of the most famous issues of this journal featured a symposium, “The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics.” In retrospect, the occasion was not decisive. (It concerned a lower court decision that “discovered” a right to doctor-assisted suicide that was later overturned.) More important was the larger assumption that progressives were once again ramping up the power of the state, in this case their favored instrument when they lack votes, the judiciary.
That analysis was not so much wrong as shortsighted. We failed to see that judicial usurpation is a symptom of something much more powerful. The real peril of our time does not rest in the fact that the state has become so powerful that it can “find” new rights and force us to acknowledge them. Instead, the danger comes from what Hittinger calls the “revolutions from below.” By this evocative term he means the multifaceted cultural, economic, and technological forces that encourage us to believe we don’t need any of the necessary societies. Or if we do need them, it’s only because they play a useful role in providing ever-greater utility to individuals. On such a view—and it’s now the dominant view in the West—society does not exist to sustain marriage, political community, and religion. Its purpose is plenary liberation (“negative anthropology”) and economic growth. The mutually reinforcing empires of desire and utility displace the three societies.
The “revolutions from below” do not render Leo XIII’s seminal analysis irrelevant. Our job remains the same—to renew the three necessary societies and bring them into a proper balance so that they reinforce each other in fitting ways. But the circumstances for doing that job have changed since I was first attracted to First Things in 1990. We would not be First Things were we not committed to renewing religious conviction. The most necessary of the three societies is the one ordered toward the worship of the one true God. We also have labored—and continue to labor—to defend marriage. This requires a broad effort to restore sanity to our thinking about what it means to be male and female.
Most of us recognize the importance of these tasks. To a degree unimaginable two or three generations ago, people in the West no longer assume that marriage and children are integral to what it means to be an adult. We see the same abandonment of religious faith. (Mary Eberstadt makes convincing arguments that these trends are related.) What we’ve failed to see—what I’ve failed to see—and what “The Three Necessary Societies” illuminates is an unexpected decline in civic society. Today’s “revolutions from below” threaten our political institutions and undermine collective sovereignty. Identity politics is an obvious example of communally destructive anti-politics, but we should not overlook the fact that childless adults lack the traditional basis for a long-term interest in the body politic. It’s our children that provide us with strong reasons to see the nation as an inheritance to pass along to the next generation. Then there’s the other “revolution from below,” the empire of utility that is given ideological form as a utopian globalism. It is widely championed and represents a post-political, technocratic outlook. Given these powerful trends, odds are good that we’re going to have to pivot from limiting government to defending our political communities against dissolution by an anarchic view of freedom and a global system that suborns entire nations.
For someone who calls himself conservative, this is disorienting. We have good reasons to criticize misuses of government power, including judicial usurpation. Government policies and regulations often create unnecessary inefficiencies and foster crony capitalism. There are still many areas where we will have to draw on the insights of limited-government conservatism. But our larger, strategic calculations must change. We need to stop thinking in twentieth-century terms. This means retiring the assumption that government is the decisive threat. We have to address the “revolutions from below,” which increasingly come in the name of the freedoms we once defended.
Faith and Politics
I’m betraying the legacy of Richard John Neuhaus. That’s what Alan Jacobs argues in the new issue of National Affairs (“When Character No Longer Counts,” Spring 2017). Neuhaus “deplored the existence of a ‘naked public square’ from which religious reasons are excluded,” and argued that our religious inheritance should inform our public debates and political judgments. By contrast, in my commentary on the electoral earthquakes of 2016, I “refrained from offering theological reflection on practical politics” and thus declined “a role which Neuhaus thought essential for the health of religious communities in America—and also for . . . the nation as a whole.” As usual, it’s all about Trump. Jacobs claims I supported Donald Trump “for purely pragmatic reasons.” This undermines the proper role of religion in public life.
Christians have theological reasons for not theologizing their political judgments. The Bible has a theology of history, but with all due respect to our civil religion, which tends to see America as God’s chosen nation, America has no unique role in that history. We are one polity among many that seeks the relative justice possible in the time of our longing for Christ’s return. We make a mistake when we expect the laws of our country to accord with the Sermon on the Mount. The latter provides the constitution for the Church—and the United States of America is not a church. Again, this is a fundamental theological principle, one too often ignored by earnest American Christians who want their politics to be pure and “biblical.” It is not a mere “pragmatic reason.”
We must, of course, draw upon Scripture and our theological traditions for wisdom. In the Catholic tradition, we have a body of teaching on social matters that provides principles for social analysis and political judgment. I used some of them to try to understand the meaning of Trump’s candidacy. I gathered up issues secular columnists were talking about in 2016—identity politics, immigration, and populism. These, I argued, reflect a deeper, spiritual worry that we will be homeless. The worry is acute. With the breakdown in marriage and decline of religion, many are without a father at home and a Father in heaven. Trump’s nationalism may be crude and deficient, but it’s an appeal to solidarity that answers to today’s need for home-talk.
And then there’s his defense of the “little guy.” During the various phases of Trump’s candidacy, I wrote about the way in which establishment commentators, left and right, were “punching down.” They derogated and denounced Trump supporters. I explained how this hauteur and disdain are symptomatic of an establishment in the thrall of economic, meritocratic, multicultural, and libertarian ideologies that divide our society into the righteous and productive and those who are guilty of various sins against political correctness or are too stupid and undisciplined and insufficiently “creative” to flourish in the new global system. Apparently, Jacobs thinks it’s “purely pragmatic” to support a political candidate who directly and self-consciously contradicts these ideologies.
Solidarity and defense of the weak—these principles and others require us to make all sorts of tacit judgments about our circumstances. What cultural and political trends in the West undermine our political communities and pose threats to the weak and vulnerable? There are many, of course. John Paul II identified the culture of death. Benedict XVI spoke of the dictatorship of relativism. In my view, a new and dangerous threat is globalism, one of the “revolutions from below” that Russell Hittinger identifies. This post-national ideology undermines the social forms and national solidarities that tie the interests and loyalties of the strong to those of the weak. For all his liabilities (and they are many), Trump was the only candidate who noticed this threat, much less promised to respond to it.
Of course, I may be wrong in my judgments about the challenges we face and the virtues (and vices) of political candidates. I’ve taken a largely positive view of populism. Perhaps it’s dominated by ugly racism and xenophobia. I’m not immune to mistakes. The same is true of my judgment that, all things considered, Donald Trump was a better choice than Hillary Clinton, though Jacobs says nothing that would lead me to think I was mistaken. Prudence in political judgment is not mere pragmatism.
And Alan Jacobs needs a bit more prudence. Writing in the American Conservative last summer, Jacobs ventured a prediction about the Trump presidency. “If anything is more ludicrous than the Republican Party it’s the idea that Trump can be relied upon to nominate a solid conservative to the Supreme Court. He is more likely to nominate his daughter. Or Corey Lewandowski. Or Bill Clinton. Or Incitatus.” He goes on to pronounce,
We all know what Trump is: so complete a narcissist that the concepts of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, are alien to him. He knows only the lust for power and the rage of being thwarted in his lust. In a sane society the highest position to which he could aspire is apprentice dogcatcher, and then only if no other candidates presented themselves.
He closes with a flourish: “The only living person I would readily choose Trump in preference to is Charles Manson.”
Denunciation relieves Jacobs of the work of political analysis. He need not make a careful, all-things-considered judgment. In fact, the anti-Trump hysteria prevents Jacobs from paying attention to political reality. He was entirely wrong about Trump’s commitment to appoint a conservative judge to the Supreme Court. Anyone with the slightest analytic sobriety could have predicted Trump would follow through with his promise, given the political incentives and extremely low costs of doing so. This is but an instance of the larger myopia caused by hysterical anti-Trumpism. Jacobs can’t see that Trump’s campaign came as close to the platform of European post–World War II Christian democracy as any American candidate for president has come in two generations.
Jacobs exemplifies the all-or-nothing approach to politics characteristic of Evangelicals. Seeking a theological voice in the public square, Evangelicals are tempted to discern direct divine warrants for their political judgments. This can lead someone to speak of God anointing Donald Trump to save our nation, and thus implying that no Christian in good conscience could have voted for anyone other than Trump. Alan Jacobs and other Evangelicals (Peter Wehner is a notable instance) are mirror images, describing Trump in ways approaching divine condemnation, implying that no Christian in good conscience could have voted for Trump.
Our political witness as Christians should not be like that. We need to avoid naive theological endorsement—and moralizing denunciations. Our primary citizenship is in the heavenly city where the Anointed One rules. But God has also caused us to be wayfarers in this country, where we are called to build houses, plant gardens, and seek to promote the weal of the city (Jer. 29:7). This requires us to draw upon the moral wisdom of Scripture and our traditions. And it demands that we develop the virtue of political prudence by applying that wisdom, as best we can, to the always imperfect choices that we confront.
Guilt’s Enduring Grip
Successful and well-trained college students, often children of prosperous parents, end up denouncing as racist, patriarchal, homophobic, and imperialist the very society that brought them to such happy circumstances. Middle-aged professionals insist that we’re ruining the planet. Global warming is sure to bring our civilization to an end, if not our species. The more advanced wring their hands and regret that Christopher Columbus ever sailed the shining sea. We’ve destroyed the indigenous people—genocide. As Wilfred McClay observes in “The Strange Persistence of Guilt” (Hedgehog Review, Spring 2017), our society risks being overwhelmed by guilt.
A sense of civilizational exhaustion is abroad in the West, and pervasive guilt is an important cause. We fear that the West doesn’t deserve to survive. It’s an attitude I sometimes sense in those who adopt the most drastic predictions of ecological catastrophe and pronounce them with a grim gleefulness. It’s as if they’re grateful that our hubris, negligence, indifference, and wanton waste will finally be punished.
McClay notes the irony of this burden of guilt. Isn’t the divine taskmaster guilt’s source? And once the secular West gets rid of God, won’t guilt melt away, allowing what Nietzsche called “a second innocence”? It hasn’t worked out that way.
Guilt persists, McClay argues, in part because of our “ceaselessly expanding capacity to comprehend and control the physical world.” This implicates us in evil. Just as my child’s well-being now depends on the human ingenuity of medical science, so does that of all children. If a child anywhere in the world starves or dies of a curable disease, humanity is at fault, and that means me. Secularism takes things out of God’s hands—and puts them in ours. What seems like freedom turns into universal responsibility. Instead of indicting God for the world’s evil, we must blame ourselves. Theodicy has given way to anthropodicy.
We have an innate desire for purity. There is a “powerful and inextinguishable need of human beings to feel morally justified, to feel themselves to be ‘right with the world.’” In a world without religious means for atonement, ersatz methods emerge. McClay points to the “extraordinary prestige of victims.” They’ve become valuable cultural assets, so much so that many morally sensitive people work very hard to ally themselves with victims. Sometimes this is a cynical way to manipulate political correctness, but more often than not, it’s a sincere effort to shed the burden of guilt.
In Christianity and Judaism (and other religions), people can atone for transgressions that give rise to guilt. In a world without God, the sources of guilt cannot be addressed. Our only option is to offload as much as possible onto others. Thus one’s status as a victim becomes precious, for a victim “can project onto another person, the victimizer or oppressor, any feelings of guilt he might harbor, and in projecting that guilt lift it from his own shoulders.” Without a workable religious mechanism for dealing with guilt, the victim cherishes his victimhood. This explains why so many embrace their identities as victims. It seems wrongheaded to many of us. Ongoing identification as a victim produces a harmful self-image that tends to reinforce one’s sense of powerlessness. But McClay shows that for those under the burden of guilt, victimhood may seem a small price to pay for a clean conscience.
Our public life is increasingly organized around grievances, assignments of collective responsibility, reparation, apology, and other ways to manage guilt. McClay points to Angela Merkel’s extraordinary decision to admit nearly one million migrants in 2015. It only made sense against the background of German guilt over the Holocaust, which continues to shape politics in that country. The same could be said about American guilt over slavery. Again, the paradox: Secularism has intensified the problem of guilt rather than diminishing it.
“The rituals of scapegoating, of public humiliation and shaming, of multiplying morally impermissible utterances and sentiments and punishing them with disproportionate severity, are visibly on the increase in our public life. They are not merely signs of intolerance or incivility, but of a deeper moral disorder,” McClay writes. Our moral economy is broken because we live “in an incoherent post-Christian moral economy that has not entirely abandoned the concept of sin but lacks the transactional power of absolution or expiation without which no moral system can be bearable.”
Too often, we think our secular culture doomed because it has become too permissive. It has been degraded by moral deregulation, and those who suffer most are the weak and vulnerable. But as McClay observes, strong strains of moral condemnation remain, much of it refracted through political categories, and a great deal of it self-imposed. Thus, the crisis may be that secular culture lacks what Philip Rieff called (following Nietzsche) the “tender yesses” of remission. We cannot make atonement and find forgiveness without putting sin before someone greater than ourselves.
WHILE WE’RE AT IT
Shelby Steele took up the theme of guilt in a recent op-ed (“The Exhaustion of American Liberalism,” Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2017). By his reckoning, post-1960s liberalism established itself as the dominant outlook by claiming the role of “keeper of America’s moral legitimacy.” This meant inculcating white guilt about our racist past and its enduring effects, which liberals then promised to mitigate through “political correctness” and “the diversity cult.” As a consequence, liberalism stopped being a coherent economic or political ideology and became an identity. “It offered Americans moral esteem against the specter of American shame.” This has led to an unworkable cycle of condemnation, which is necessary to gin up the desire for moral inoculation. “Without an ugly America to loathe, there is no automatic esteem to receive. Thus liberalism’s unrelenting current of anti-Americanism.” Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” was central to the liberal moral economy. It needs “deplorables” in order to ascend to the status of “America’s conscience.” In all of this, Steele recognizes that the needs of white liberals remain unspoken but dominant. “American liberalism never acknowledged that it was about white esteem rather than minority accomplishment. Four thousand shootings in Chicago last year, and the mayor announces that his will be a sanctuary city. This is moral esteem over reality; the self-congratulation of idealism.”
♦ In 1929, Benito Mussolini gave a speech to the Italian Chamber of Deputies. His purpose was to present the Lateran Accords that regulated relations between the Italian state and the Catholic Church. With Catholicism’s historic claim to ultimate spiritual authority in mind, Mussolini gave a fulsome account of the ideals of fascism:
The fully fascist State proclaims in its full ethical character: It is Catholic, but it is fascist; it is above all, exclusively, essentially Fascist. Catholicism integrates it; we declare this openly, but no-one dreams of us changing the cards on the table with philosophy and metaphysical claims. It is useless to deny the moral character of the fascist State. It would embarrass me to speak from this rostrum if I did not feel the representative of the moral and spiritual strength of the State. What would the State be if it did not have a spirit, its own morality, which gives strength to its laws and makes citizens obey them
Substitute “liberal” for “fascist” and one can imagine a devoted follower of John Rawls saying exactly the same thing. Liberalism alone constitutes the ethical character of society, which, if it wishes to be liberal, must be essentially and exclusively liberal. This is what Ryszard Legutko means when he says that liberal democracy is tempted by totalitarianism.