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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