American and Christian Freedom: The Path Forward Starts by Acknowledging the Fall

By John Zmirak Published on March 20, 2018

On Monday I criticized as deeply misguided two modes of rejecting American freedom (“Liberalism”): the quietism and pessimism of Rod Dreher and Patrick Deneen, and the Inquisitorial nostalgia of “Catholic integralists.” Each is a road to nowhere.

Does that mean I think we’re doing fine at the moment? That current trends in culture and politics are either pleasing to God or even sustainable in the short term? Of course not. Something must be done to arrest our steep and escalating decline. I just don’t agree with Pinto of Animal House “that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part.”

It scratches one itch to dismiss our situation as hopeless. To write the American system off, and focus on growing kale and singing the Liturgy of the Hours till the state confiscates our kids. It scratches quite another to dream of infiltrating the system with enemies of liberty, till at a moment of crisis we can impose Catholic sharia. The first itch is Sloth, the second Wrath. I do feel that it’s my job to slather those clawing such itches with calamine lotion, and urge them toward the Golden Mean.

Reject both the Amish and al Qaeda options. What is left?

A Stern, But Hopeful Choice

But once we’ve dismissed both the Amish and al Qaeda options, what is left? I can see only one really viable option for redeeming American freedom, and preserving the Church’s role in it. Happily, my approach taps into some of the deepest American impulses. It also fits demographic and fiscal realities. It’s neither utopian nor Machiavellian. It won’t crush anyone’s freedom. We don’t need to wait to promote it until some Mad Max, post-apocalyptic future. We can start on it right now. In fact, we have to.

What it would do, if implemented, is urge a renewal of respect for natural law, localism, private initiative, and all the natural virtues — while leaving the churches free to preach and practice the theological ones. It wouldn’t create some ideal Christian society. But it would make room for millions of little such societies (in the forms of families and parishes) to grow spontaneously. That’s the only way they ever do, anyhow. We need grass roots, not Astroturf.

I suppose my plan needs a name. I refuse categorically to term it some kind of “option.” Because it’s not optional. It’s as urgent and mandatory as stopping a shooter inside a schoolhouse. And it’s not some private hobby we can undertake alone. This needs a political movement, and will call for a fight inside our churches.  

The Worst of Libertarianism

First the problem: Our current civic religion cherrypicks the worst of two political philosophies.

From individualism we select:

  • An adolescent rejection of tradition, authority, and inherited wisdom.
  • A sense that each of us created the universe ex nihilo when we sagely decided to get born.
  • A disinterest in our ancestors and disregard for our progeny.
  • A present-driven hedonism that goads us to live for the moment.

We pretend (as Justice Kennedy infamously said in Planned Parenthood v. Casey) that each of us has the right to invent his own moral code. That our “privacy” rights protect our every sexual whim. That we should pursue our own “truths” and pleasure without regard for anyone else.

But of course, each of these choices comes with a very high price. Promiscuity leads to pregnancy, and that means women and kids in poverty. Drug abuse leads to addiction, and renders millions unfit to support themselves. Consumerism means debt, and no cushion for retirement. Narcissism prevents people from forming stable families who will care for them when they are old.

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The Worst of Socialism

That’s where collectivism comes in. From it we cherrypick each of the following curious items:

  • The busybody insistence on supervising everyone’s life to ensure “compassionate” outcomes.
  • A deep suspicion of independent thinkers, zealous believers, and high achievers.
  • The idea that we’re entitled to seize other people’s stuff, or force them to work for our benefit.
  • Low standards for ourselves, but high expectations from others.
  • The fantasy that the government exists to rectify cosmic injustices.
  • The superstitious belief that though we low along with the herd, we are still unique and priceless.

Collectivism ensures that somebody else pays the price for our narcissistic choices. A welfare state will feed those kids we fathered and forgot. It will provide us rehab, when our hedonism hits bottom. When we can’t find a job it will take care of us. When we’re old it will give us a comfortable retirement. By promising all this, it renders economically superfluous the bonds of family, church, and community. Those are things that our souls deeply need. But it’s easy for us to miss that, until it’s too late.

Snowflake Solipsist Statism

So we pay for Randian individualism with other people’s money. We expect a functioning future based on other people’s children. But eventually you run out of other people’s money and children. Because the system you’ve imposed to enable your vices discourages each of the virtues. Who wants to be the “sucker” who works hard and sacrifices to fund other people’s hedonism? Not enough people, in the end. We imagine that we can siphon off enough immigrants, instead of bearing children. But the newcomers quickly catch on to the system, and milk it for all it’s worth.

What’s worse, such libertine socialism actually uses the government to repress those who dissent from it. Even if churchgoing, hard-working church schoolers or homeschoolers kept cropping up by the millions, the progressive state would repress them. And its culture would work overtime to corrupt or confiscate their children.

So the whole thing comes crashing down. Then you do get a Mad Max post-apocalyptic hellscape.

Unless you prudently choose to dismantle it first. And that’s what we need to do, while there’s still time.

Tear Down this Pleasure Dome

If we want the natural virtues to thrive, we have to stop using the government to enable and cushion the vices. Yes, on the most basic level, it means we won’t pay for sex change operations. Or abortions. (We must protect the unborn as widely and quickly as possible.) Or birth control. Or illegitimate children. But we need to go further than that. Much further.

It must become clear to people that if they don’t cultivate virtues and cling to their families they could be ruined. As in: Hungry. Childless. Desperate. With their kids off in orphanages run by religious groups, or adopted by generous couples.

That’s the real outcome of reckless narcissism and hedonism in our fallen world. Every generation knew that until the 1960s, when we decided that government and its non-judgmental entitlements would replace paternalistic private charities. Is it any surprise that sexual promiscuity and lazy bohemianism took root, when the massive force of the government promised to clean up everyone’s messes?

So we pay for Randian individualism with other people’s money. We expect a functioning future based on other people’s children. But eventually you run out of other people’s money and children. Because the system you’ve imposed to enable your vices discourages each of the virtues.

He Who Does Not Work, Nor Shall He Eat

My mother grew up malnourished in a rat-infested tenement with two alcoholic parents. Six of her ten siblings died before age four. Had the welfare state existed, I probably would have been born when she was 16, and out of wedlock. But she wasn’t offered that option. She didn’t face the bribe we now dangle before the children of the poor: Get pregnant, and the government will get you an apartment, free food, health care and monthly cash, far from your troubled parents. 

Since that wasn’t offered, she “waited” and got married to a man with a decent job, and the three of us grew up with two parents, from whom we learned a work ethic.

Things didn’t turn out this way because she was prudish, or even especially virtuous. She didn’t want to be “ruined,” disgraced, living from hand to mouth on the handouts from scolding nuns. Boys who urged her to take such a risk might get a beating from her brothers. She rejected such men with scorn. Young men got the message. No marriage meant little chance of sex.

And to get married they had to work. Consistently. At jobs that might not fit their private snowflake daydreams about their “infinite potential.” (My dad, a wannabe artist, hauled mail on his back for 40 years.) From doing this, they learned virtues, and taught them to their children. Thus human societies survived, and some even thrived, from Adam and Eve right up through the Great Society.

We must dismantle, brick by brick, the whole big government structure that exists to cushion people from reality. That includes massive student loans that let people major in useless or actively destructive disciplines. (See the social sciences and the humanities at most colleges.) It includes most of the wealth transfer and domestic spending of the U.S. federal government. (Much of that benefits the upper middle class, of course.) This will become not just a good idea but absolutely necessary as entitlements crash the budget in 20 years or so.

When we argue for freedom that also means freedom to fail. To face the consequences of our choices, however dire — or else to take help from churches and other voluntary groups that might prove paternalistic. Unlike a government “entitlement” they might sniff our breath, or tell us to stop sleeping around, as the price of their charity. That’s how the Church saved the Irish in New York City.

Churches will have to raise the funds to take up the slack. From tithes, not government contracts. Believers will need to volunteer. We’ll have to start acting like Christians again.

It’s only in such a world, where the state stops swathing every citizen’s self-indulgence in Nerf bought by others’ money, that the Church can do its job, or keep Her freedom. That the family can reassert itself as society’s basic unit. Otherwise, we are each an atom, circling around the vast nucleus of a central government, which itself will soon be split apart by its debts. For a detailed vision of how to survive such a storm as a family, see C.R. Wiley’s profound book, Man of the House.

And now I’ve got my moniker. Call this the Politics of the Fall. And dub me the first Lapsarian.

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