Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — the most memorable phrase from the Declaration of Independence, arguably. So Father Dwight tries to instruct us on the proper meaning of happiness (which is not as bad as trying to find the true meaning of hedonism, but it still doesn’t go well). Of the four levels of happiness, the ultimate is the “transcendental”:
This highest level of happiness comes when we learn how to serve an even higher being than our neighbor. Our happiness is linked with our self-esteem, and our self-esteem is linked with whether we feel our life is being spent in a worthwhile manner. Those whose lives have a high level of meaning and purpose have high levels of happiness. Those who serve God feel they are living for values and meanings that are eternal in their scope. No matter how negative the circumstances, people who are at the transcendental level of happiness evidence extreme, even ecstatic, happiness. They are not just happy—they are joyful.
As I say, it doesn’t go well since at the end of the article Father Dwight, a regular apologist for Roman Catholicism who points out the foibles and liabilities of his former Protestant communion, tries to make his pitch for happiness sound generically religious. This is how we are supposed to pursue this ultimate form of happiness:
. . . conservatism has always had deep roots in the traditions of faith. Religious belief takes us into the depths of the human experience historically, psychologically, socially, and spiritually. The strength of conservatism is that it is a solid, stable, and secure philosophy. These deep roots are fed by the structures and systems of religion that open the individual to the transcendental dimension of happiness. Conservatism in religion connects the individual to the spiritual giants of the past, and the simple traditions of ancient religion open the individual to experience the true worship of God that experts tell us is the final stage of true happiness.
What about the sacraments, what about the death of Christ, what about sin and purgatory? “Religious belief” will do? Leo XIII would be appalled, but then he was the pope who condemned Americanism, a mild heresy that seems to be more prevalent now than it was 120 years ago.
The worry, though, has less to do with Protestant-Roman Catholic differences than it does with the conflation of “religion” and conservatism. That mix has produced a civil religion that leads many American believers to be very happy about the United States and its mission — except when they turn to despair because its officials have abandoned its religious ideals. Richard Gamble has a good antidote to such civil religion by showing (from a few years ago but recently republished) that even the sainted Abraham Lincoln was guilty of this dangerous conflation of piety and politics:
Such an appropriation of Christianity for politics dominates the Gettysburg Address, from its opening “four score” to its closing “shall not perish.” In the 1970s, literary scholar M.E. Bradford, in his essay, “The Rhetoric for Continuing Revolution,” identified the Gettysburg Address’s “biblical language” as the speech’s “most important formal property.” That is undoubtedly so. Lincoln drew from the King James Version’s archaic words and cadences, as he opened with the biblical-sounding “four score,” an echo of the Psalmist’s “three score and ten” years allotted to man on this earth. He continued with “brought forth,” the words in the Gospel of Luke that describe Mary’s delivery of Jesus—the first instance of what turns out to be a repeated image of conception, birth, life, death, and new birth, culminating in the promise of eternal life in the words “shall not perish”—a startling echo of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3:16 (“whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life”).
Lincoln’s speech also engages the other side of civil religion—not the appropriation of the sacred for the purposes of the state, but the elevation of the secular into a political religion. Early in his career, Lincoln had explicitly promoted this kind of civil religion. Again in his 1838 Lyceum address, he called for fidelity to “the blood of the Revolution” and the Declaration, the Constitution, and the laws to serve as America’s sustaining “political religion” now that the founding generation was passing away. In 1863, Lincoln filled the Gettysburg Address with the words “dedicated,” “consecrated,” and “hallow.” The cumulative effect of this sacred language was to set the American Founding, the suffering of the Civil War, and the national mission apart from the mundane world and to transport the war dead and their task into a transcendent realm.
Bellah, a defender of American civil religion who wanted to globalize it in the post-Kennedy years, claimed that Lincoln and the Civil War gave America a “New Testament” for its civic faith: “The Gettysburg symbolism (‘…those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live’) is Christian without having anything to do with the Christian church.”
The link between Gamble’s piece on Lincoln and Father Dwight’s on the Declaration is that both — aside from being alumi of Bob Jones University — are addressing, the former explicitly and the latter only implicitly, civil religion. Gamble is on the lookout. Father Dwight promotes it.
So what is the remedy? Maybe it is to abandon happiness. Life is hard, we seek to serve God in our callings, we die, and our remains await the resurrection. In other words, we await a better country. If we look for happiness in this one, we will “like” Father Dwight’s post and let President Lincoln inspire us.
So maybe the true conservative is the unhappy American. You may see him tonight at the fireworks display. He won’t be smiling. He’ll be fearful because of all the noise and explosions.