The Easy Way Out for Religious Conservatives: Rejecting American Freedom

Conservatives who reject the Anglo-American heritage are digging themselves a comfy little ditch.

By John Zmirak Published on March 19, 2018

He’s trying. He really is. Rusty Reno, editor of First Things, seems eager to smooth over the storm he has helped whip up over recent years by shifting that magazine’s editorial policy. From a magazine founded to redeem American freedom, he’s recreated one which features writers who want to secede from it. A recent piece by Reno (I’ll analyze it at the bottom) tries to pour some oil on the waters. But as we will see, they just won’t mix.

That tempest almost shattered its teapot when Reno ran a piece by Fr. Romanus Cessario, O.P.  A book review, it defended one of the most shocking actions in papal history: the legal kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish child, from his parents by Pius IX. You see, a servant had secretly baptized the boy. So the pope said he deserved a Christian education, his parents’ wishes (and rights) be damned. Since Pius still ran the Papal States, his word was law. He raised the boy himself inside the Vatican. His parents only saw him once or twice again before they died.

They attack Anglo-American freedom as un- or anti-Christian “Liberalism.”

That action appalled most of the world. It helped turn even Catholic governments against Pius IX. It’s part of why they abandoned him when he needed their troops to cling to the Papal States. But the book and its friendly review in First Things asserted that Pius’ actions were heroic. He was obeying God, not man. (That begs the question: Was he?)

Coercing All the Baptized

In a previous piece Reno ran by Catholic scholar Thomas Pink, the author implied that the pope has the right to take this kind of action toward every baptized Christian. Including those in America. And those baptized as infants who wish to be Protestant or Orthodox. Pink bases this on a loophole he claims to have found in Vatican II. That Council only forbids the State from suppressing religious liberty. It leaves room for the Church to do it — presumably via some kind of church police. (The author wasn’t specific.) Such a claim of paramilitary jurisdiction over all the baptized (including their kids) strikes most Americans as totalitarian. Anyone who defends it has little grounds to criticize sharia. Apart from claiming that his religious group should wield the whip instead.

The First Things piece on the kidnapped Jewish boy caused a backlash, and Reno quickly issued a puzzling clarification, where he disclaimed any animus toward Jews. But that was never the crucial point. The claim that the Church can coerce all the baptized strikes much more at Christians, in any case. The review seems to have woken up some Christians to a years-long campaign which Reno has been overseeing in First Things. Its drift: to attack Anglo-American freedom (economic and religious) as un- or anti-Christian “Liberalism.”

Instead, this viewpoint claims, Christians ought to revert to some form of the illiberalism once shared by Catholics and Protestants. You know, back when these groups hunted heretics (and each other). Or else we should embrace some nebulous “post-liberal” communitarian political system-to-be-named-later.

Micromanaging the Economy

Another claim: We ought to reject the “anarchic” freedom of the market economy, and consider distributist or even socialist alternatives. That would grant the State micromanagement of our economic choices. You know, to match its control over our religious lives. Citing numerous pieces Reno published, I summed this campaign up here at The Stream in a piece entitled “Has First Things Given Up on Freedom?” One scholar at The Public Discourse, Robert T. Miller, agreed that it has. As he wrote:

First Things has been moving towards statism in economics, with R.R. Reno, the journal’s editor-in-chief, coming out against capitalism and in favor of more government control of the economy….

It is bad enough when First Things goes on a tear against capitalism; happily, no one really cares what the editors of that journal think about economic policy. Many people do care — and care a lot — what the editors of First Things think about Christian-Jewish relations, and this time the galloping statism of First Things is doing great damage in the real world.

It’s not just that Reno is running such pieces as part of a broad, wide-ranging debate. He’s actively favoring them. I have heard, in private, complaints by eminent Catholic authors who defended America’s founding or free market. They submitted replies to First Things’ arguments, only to have them rejected as tiresome. Their books go unreviewed, while tracts nostalgic for throne and altar monarchies that hunted heretics find praise in First Things’ pages.

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Wearing Fr. Neuhaus’ Skin

On the face of it Reno’s project is impious: Using a magazine founded to rescue Anglo-American freedom from its abusers to prove that it can’t and shouldn’t be saved. One founded on ecumenism to argue against the basic right of religious liberty. Imagine if William F. Buckley’s National Review fell into the hands of fundamentalists who thought the Catholic church the Antichrist. And that the South should have won the Civil War. Go found another magazine, if that’s what you want to promote. Don’t take a great one, skin it, and wear it as bad camouflage.

The ACLU Was Right, Scalia Was Wrong

As I was one of the first to notice, Reno has favored writers with this niche point of view. The most well-known is Patrick Deneen. His new book Why Liberalism Failed claims that the United States was badly founded. Evil practices such as abortion, same sex marriage, and aggressive secularism? They’re not bugs, but features. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the ACLU, and Planned Parenthood were right about the Constitution. Justice Scalia and the Becket Fund were wrong. If you want a society that allows Christians to live in peace and practice the virtues, give up on the American Constitution. You’re going to have to wait for this country to collapse. Then go found a new one among the ruins. (And presumably, fight it out over which church will control the church police.)

If this sounds a lot like Rod Dreher’s program in The Benedict Option, that’s no accident. Dreher cites Deneen frequently as a definitive authority on why our system is hopeless. Both Deneen and Dreher get extensive, respectful treatment in secular, liberal venues. Such praise few other pro-life or pro-family writers ever receive. Newsweek trumpeted Dreher’s call on Christians to give up on “voting Republican and other failed culture war strategies.” Yale University Press published Why Liberalism Failed, and reviews in progressive, typically anti-Christian magazines have been reverential.

Why Leftists Love These Books

And why not? Imagine some influential leftist Latino Democrat were to call on his fellow Hispanics to abandon the American system. It’s hopelessly xenophobic and Anglocentric. So they should give up voting for Democrats and other “failed culture war strategies.” Don’t you think Fox News would feature the heck out of that book? I’d buy hundreds of copies and hand them out at Latino churches.

Why on earth grant the Left the whole ground of the American founding and Constitutional tradition, when in fact we know — with intellectual certainty — that they betray it at every turn? And for what? For the frisson of feeling like a really “radical Catholic”?

Such a book might become a bestseller, as people like me purchased and praised it in the hope it might tip close elections. On a deeper level, we’d hope that it discredited the whole multiculturalist project. That it proved this view leads to a political dead end of ethnic separatism and futilitarianism. It’s nice when your opponents do the reductio ad absurdum on themselves. It saves you the trouble. Even better if insecure leftists took the fact that conservatives treated the book respectfully as proof that it was “deep” and “important.”

Today’s Intolerance

Back to Reno’s new column. In it, he bristles at the barbs he has taken for promoting this Illiberal project. (Just to annoy the reader, I’ll note that Reno calls the project “Integralism,” a term which I think it’s easiest to unpack as “Catholic sharia.”) He notes that American opinion and institutions are now deeply intolerant of basic Christian beliefs. That it’s hypocritical for liberals who won’t let potentially “transphobic” Christians adopt children to complain that Pius IX confiscated one. The left has its own sharia.

And all that is true. Hundreds of conservative Christians have been writing about leftist intolerance for decades. Many of them in the pages of First Things, under Fr. Neuhaus. Nothing Deneen or Dreher has said on that subject was particularly ground-breaking, brave, or incisive.

What was unique about them, and the others who reject Anglo-American freedom? That they argued that these abuses were inevitable, baked in the cake 350 years ago when John Locke wrote his treatises. That’s what’s distinctive about Deneen, as Marx was distinctive for claiming that Communism is unstoppable. It’s just how the iron laws of History play out. Take out this mix of determinism, pessimism, separatism and quietism, and both Deneen and Dreher would fade back into the pack of Christian conservatives. Neither Newsweek nor Yale would find them of interest.

More Than a Hunch. Try an Argument.

Reno admits that it’s by no means certain Deneen is right. He says:

For all our talk of freedom, we live in a claustrophobic, conformist society. Whether this means that liberalism has “failed,” as Deneen insists, is an open question. Perhaps liberalism has been perverted rather than brought to completion by the secularist zeal that turns its political modesty into an integralist doctrine. That’s my hunch.

Really? Fr. Neuhaus and those who carry on his legacy thought that it’s more than a hunch. They believed and in detail proved that the contemporary left has betrayed both the letter and spirit of “liberalism” (Anglo-American freedom).

This isn’t some nebulous mystery. We can demonstrate by specific historical references that the U.S. founders warned against liberty without the constraints of natural law and religion. And we can show by logical argument that the left’s aggressive attack on the churches violates both the free exercise of religion and freedom of association that this type of liberalism long cherished. We can prove that the left is radically inconsistent when it cherrypicks from our principles.

For instance, progressives assert radical autonomy on questions of sex, since it’s “your body, your choice.” But they won’t let you use that body to work for less than the minimum wage. They defend free speech for pornography. But not for political speech (see campaign finance reform), the very context which our founders specifically cited. And so on.

Don’t Hand them the Flag

Why on earth grant the left the whole ground of the American founding and Constitutional tradition, when in fact we know — with intellectual certainty — that they betray it at every turn? And for what? For the frisson of feeling like a really “radical Catholic”? Indeed, there’s an appeal to reckless young men in standing up to the modern world and crushing a grapefruit in its face. (I was a young hothead once.) Much of the Alt-Right is driven by this impulse. But we don’t need intellectual journals to indulge such jejune posturing. Their job is to help us grow out of that.


For John Zmirak’s positive alternative program for Christian political renewal, see this article.

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