If You Go Back to 33, Why Bother with 1776?

While John Fea has tried to live tweet David Barton’s claims about America’s Christian founding, Roman Catholics in the U.S. also feel the need to make America safe for faith. Which allows a repetition of a point: not integralism but Americanism is the default setting for Roman Catholics in the U.S. That is, American Roman Catholics, contrary to the worst anti-Catholics like Paul Blanshard, were never ambivalent about American exceptionalism or the need to modify aspects of church life to assimilate the church to American ways.

And so, Roman Catholic defenders of America have come out parading once again for July 4th. A little early to the festivities was Matthew Schmitz who used the approaching national holiday to vindicate Sohrab Ahmari over against David French:

David French of National Review said that Ahmari was forsaking America’s historical commitment to “neutral principles” such as free speech and due process. By insisting that governments should re-order the public square towards the common good, Ahmari was “forsaking the framework for ordered liberty established by the Founders.”

But the idea that America was founded on “neutral principles” is a myth. From its beginnings, America has been characterized by what Tocqueville called the “intimate union of the spirit of religion with the spirit of liberty.” The Americans whose representatives drafted the Constitution did not seek to end this union, but to place it on a stable footing.

In 1813, John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson: “The general Principles, on which the Fathers Achieved Independence, were … the general Principles of Christianity … and the general Principles of English and American Liberty.” The former are not neutral principles.

Every early administration except Jefferson’s summoned America to days of humiliation, fasting, and prayer. Americans were urged to “confess and bewail [their] manifold sins and transgressions, and by a sincere repentance and amendment of life … and through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain pardon and forgiveness.” Is this neutrality?

…As these men show, the belief that politics should be ordered to the common good and the highest good is not only classical and Christian, but American. We need to reinvigorate this tradition, not by going back to colonial arrangements, but by pioneering new ways to unite the spirits of Christianity and liberty.

David Barton could not have said it better, though Schmitz’s praise may seem odd for a convert from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism if only because he fails to mention his examples all came from Protestants. Roman Catholics at the time (and down to Vatican II) were hostile to civil liberty, freedom of ideas, and free markets. That difference between medieval and modern is pesky for those who embrace one of the most modern nations on earth.

Then today at The American Conservative, the man who likely decided to run Schmitz’s piece, Michael Warren Davis, another convert, wrote positively about the Puritans’ settlement in North America and their influence on the founding. He quotes John Wintrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” and then writes:

This is the high ideal that lies at the heart of our nation’s founding: not wealth or strength or freedom, but charity. This is the divine purpose for which America was founded: that we might love as ought to love.

Love her, too, while you’re at it. Love America the way we mortals can only love when we’ve grown old enough to accept that our mother is flawed, as we are. Love her all the more because she won’t be around forever.

From the woodlands of Maine to the mountains of Virginia, from the golden shores of California to the black sands of Hawaii, from the lakes of Michigan to the endless ranges of Kansas—every last one of us has a chance to be as wise as Greeks, as virtuous as Romans, as cultured as Englishmen, and as loving as Christians. That’s worth celebrating.

Again, what a great development to have Roman Catholics praising — of all people — Puritans on the occasion of America’s birthday. Might they also recommend the Puritans’ teaching and worship to anyone struggling with the way the bishops have been conducting their affairs during abuse scandal? If not, if Protestants still need to get right with the Vatican to have an awesome Christianity, then Davis should add that the bishops were also wrong for a long time about political liberty (as in “error has no rights,” a phrase used by top Vatican officials against John Courtney Murray as late as the 1950s).

But then comes a mild corrective from yet another convert, Chad Pecknold, again from the webpages of the Catholic Herald where Davis works. Pecknold is not so convinced that Puritans were a healthy influence on the United States’ political culture of liberty:

[Tocqueville] cites approvingly Cotton Mather’s discussion of “holy liberty” in Magnalia Christi Americana. Tocqueville is struck by how this “holy liberty” is freedom for goodness, for truth, for justice, for God. In this sense, what makes Puritan liberty different from the liberty of 1789 is precisely that it is not liberty “for secular purpose,” but for holy purpose. Where France divorced liberty from religion, the Puritans united “the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty.”

This seed, this germ, Tocqueville writes, is “the key to nearly the whole book.” So the Puritan seed was dispersed, fragmented, and scattered. Its children could favor different aspects of the originating spirit. It could combine with other species, if you will, and yet American diversity would always have this common root. Yet Tocqueville also sees something profoundly unstable in the Puritan seed — it is sectarian, and not “the whole.” The Puritan seed lacks a unifying principle, and cannot supply the American people with a stable, common creed.

In one of his more Catholic insights, Tocqueville believes the Puritan seed is made to be divided, to be diversified through a great plurality — yet moving in two directions. Tocqueville writes, “our descendants will increasingly divide into only two parts, some leaving Christianity entirely and others embracing the Church of Rome.”

Tocqueville is no Augustine for America, but he does have an important insight into American polarization. In the end, he thinks one part of America will view liberty as the flight from Christianity, and the other will see that a culture of freedom requires its full embrace.

See what he did there? On the one hand, Pecknold thinks Tocqueville recognized that the Puritans provided an unstable foundation for a nation — to much sectarianism — though it is odd that when Puritans were more doctrinally sane as opposed to their Congregationalist successors, they supported the American founding with vigor. Of late, Congregationalists have been willing to live with Jeremiah Wright as one of their pastors in good standing.

On the other hand, Pecknold, by a magic trick only rivaled by Doug Henning, makes Roman Catholics, the ones with the “full embrace” of Christianity, as the true successors to the Puritans who united the “spirit of liberty with the spirit of religion.”

It seems fairly plausible to conclude that Roman Catholics ponder the American founding more than Matthew 16:18-19. On the upside, it sure beats running the Fourth of July through Abraham Lincoln.

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Same As It Ever Was

Alexis de Tocqueville on Roman Catholicism and the United States well before Bryan and the Jasons:

At the present time, more than in any previous age, we find Catholics turning into unbelievers and Protestants turning Catholic. Catholicism seen from the inside seems to be losing, but seen from the outside, to be gaining. There is a reason for this.

Our contemporaries are naturally little disposed to belief, but once they accept religion at all, there is a hidden instinct within them which unconsciously urges them toward Catholicsm. Many of the doctrines and customs of the Roman Chuch astonish them, but they feel a secret admiration for its discipline, and its extraordinary unity attracts them.

If Catholicism could ultimately escape from the political animosities to which it has given rise, I am almost certain that that same spirit of the age which now seems so contrary to it would turn into a powerful ally and it would suddenly make great conquests.

George Will on Pope Francis:

Francis’s fact-free flamboyance reduces him to a shepherd whose selectively reverent flock, genuflecting only at green altars, is tiny relative to the publicity it receives from media otherwise disdainful of his church. Secular people with anti-Catholic agendas drain his prestige, a dwindling asset, into promotion of policies inimical to the most vulnerable people and unrelated to what once was the papacy’s very different salvific mission.

He stands against modernity, rationality, science and, ultimately, the spontaneous creativity of open societies in which people and their desires are not problems but precious resources. Americans cannot simultaneously honor him and celebrate their nation’s premises.

I know lots of apologists are upset with Will. But when you think how archly conservative the papacy was at the time of the Syllabus of Errors (1864) and how much the bishops at Vatican 2 wanted to open up the church to the modern world, Will has a point. Maybe Pope Francis is right about modernity. But that’s not what Vatican 2 set out to do.

#nocherrypicking

Church-State Separation Is Good for the Church

Even Roman Catholics agree:

The danger in democracy is that Christian churches lose their capacity to be genuinely countercultural—or teach the truth that will be neglected “on the street” in middle-class democracy. And so the separation of church and state is to keep the church from being corrupted by excessive concern with endlessly egalitarian justice and the logic of the market. The separation is for the integrity of the church by limiting the claims for truth and morality of the democratic “social state,” which includes the democratic state.

But it’s both futile and even un-Christian to think that there could be, in the modern world, a state that favors or properly appreciates the church. Orestes Brownson, the greatest American Catholic thinker ever, said all the church should need and want from America is freedom to pursue its evangelical mission. That means, of course, that Americans should understand political freedom to be freedom for the church, for an organized body of thought and action. And we can see that the church flourished in America in the relative absence of politicized intrusion or corruption for a very long time.

The danger now, as always, is that the individualistic yet highly judgmental democracy—our creeping and creepy mixture of progressivism and libertarianism—will seek to impose its standards on our countercultural churches. Tocqueville was alive—although maybe not alive enough—to that danger. Who can deny that that the danger is greater now than ever? Today’s issues, Tocqueville would probably say, have their origins in the surrender of our contemplative Sunday to commerce and “seventh-day recreationalists.”

But anyone who thinks today’s remedy would be an established church would do well to remember how the establishments in Spain, Ireland, and Quebec worked out, the hyper-secularist and sometimes nihilistic countermovements in the name of democracy they generated. Those attempts to wield fundamental political influence produced clericalism and a kind of intrusiveness we Americans associate with the Puritans.

Of course, this outlook was not always so agreeable to Rome:

There being, then, an obligation upon the State as such, arising out of the Natural and the Divine Positive Law, to render public Divine worship in accordance with the guidance of the Church, in whose charge Christ has placed the worship due in the present order of things, an obligation also to protect the Church and to promote her interests, the Church clearly has a perfect right to demand the fulfilment of these duties, since their neglect would infringe her right to the benefit proceeding from the fulfilment. To have the further right to command the State in their regard implies that the Church has a right to impose the obligations of her authority in their regard, to exact them authoritatively from the State. Now in purely temporal matters, while they remain such, the Church cannot command the State any more than she can command the subjects of the State, even though these are at the same time her own subjects. But in spiritual and mixed matters calling for corporate action of the State, the question depends upon whether the physical persons who make up the moral personality of the State are themselves subjects of the Church. In case they are, then the Church has in consequence jurisdiction therein over the State. The reason is that owing to the supremacy in man’s life purposes of his eternal happiness, man in all his capacities, even of a civil nature, must direct his activities so that they shall not hinder this end, and where action even in his official or civil capacity is necessary for this ultimate purpose he is bound to place the action: moreover, in all these activities so bearing on this end, since they are thereby spiritual matter, every subject of the Church is under the jurisdiction of the Church. If, then, the physical persons constituting the moral person of the State are the subjects of the Church, they are still, in this joint capacity, subject to her in like matters, namely, in the fulfilment of all civil duties of the State towards religion and the Church. The Church, because of the uselessness of her insistence, or because of greater evils to be so avoided, may waive the exercise of this jurisdiction; but in principle it is hers.

Overreach

Peter Leithart is reading about the French Enlightenment and Revolution and comments on Tocqueville‘s observations:

The root of the hatred was not dogma but the church’s role as a “political institution.” Because of the church’s role in the old society, it too had to be “dashed to pieces” to make way for the new society.

Rome had been overreaching for some time and no matter how Brad Gregory romanticized the medieval world, a plausible reading of the West is that if the Vatican had not been so caught up in its own prerogatives — spiritual and temporal, the Reformation and Enlightenment may have had different outcomes.

Leithart continues:

What catches Tocqueville’s eye, though, is that it didn’t work: “As the ancient political institutions that the Revolution attacked were utterly destroyed; as the powers, influences, and classes that were particularly odious to it were progressively crushed; and– ultimate sign of their defeat– as even the hatreds they had once inspired withered and the clergy separated itself from everything that had fallen along with it, one began to see a gradual restoration of the power of the Church and a reaffirmation of its influence over the minds of men.”

He finds the same pattern everywhere: “There is scarcely a Christian church anywhere in Europe that has not undergone a revival since the French Revolution,” and this, prescient as ever, he thinks is due to the compatibility of democracy with Christianity and Catholicism.

Well, popes from Pius IX to Pius XII didn’t get the memo about democracy and Roman Catholicism. But that aside notwithstanding, the French Republic overreached against the overreach of the church and crown (the French monarchs made the English kings and queens look like pikers). People don’t like to be coerced, whether by the church or the state. And the reason for the American people’s support for gay marriage, I believe, has less to do with rational public policy or fairness and more with pushing back the “family values” that religious conservatives incautiously pushed for three decades. At the same time, if this push back pushes too hard (which it may be doing between the Affordable Care Act and Duck Dynasty), Americans will find their underdog inner selves and rally to beleaguered religious conservatives.