Must Christians Reject America? Some Think So.

Some teachers and authors say the U.S. is founded on relativism. But they're resting on sloppy scholarship.

By John Zmirak Published on August 8, 2017

In my last piece, I worried that some Catholics reject the American heritage of religious freedom out of a misplaced concern for consistency. Yes, the Church once (speaking fallibly, and starting not with the Apostles but only in the 4th century) rejected religious liberty. So they feel driven to “prove” that she still does. To this end, they look for loopholes in the text of Vatican II. Hence Thomas Pink’s theory that the state can’t violently persecute “heretics,” but the church still can. So there’s no inconsistency, folks!

Still other Catholics scoff at American liberty for different reasons. They seem to envy the truculence of Islamists. They are tired of accepting the limits to Catholic political power accepted at Vatican II. Muslims who call for sharia seem to be getting away with it. Why should we ask for just half a loaf? Especially when professors writing at First Things tell us that doing so leads straight to abortion and transgender bathrooms. (More on that below.)

It is senseless to cherry pick,even misquote, the words of our founding fathers to prove that Anthony Kennedy was right about America.

I don’t have space to lay out the whole argument here on why Christians have no right to use violent force to suppress the beliefs of other Christians. I’ve written about it elsewhere. Much better to read the Church Fathers. Or St. John Paul II’s eloquent apology for the sins of Catholics in past centuries. Or Vatican II’s decree on Human Dignity.

Was the U.S. Founded by the ACLU?

But the problem is broader than a few angry young men. More and more Christians of several churches reject religious liberty for more creditable reasons. They see it as part of “liberalism,” in the Anglo-American sense. And indeed it is. But they think that this worldview leads inevitably to legal abortion. And same sex marriage. And the expulsion of Christianity from the public square. (Weirdly, the same things happened in countries where American liberty was never dreamt of, but never mind.)

Some Christians seem to envy the truculence of Islamists.

In other words, these Christians agree with Justice Anthony Kennedy: The core of American liberty is solipsistic nihilism. They just think it’s a bad thing, while Kennedy thinks it’s fabulous. Some (such as Rod Dreher does in The Benedict Option) cite Catholic professors like Patrick Deneen and Michael Hanby as having somehow proved this from the writing of our Founders.

But they’re deeply mistaken. The late, great Michael Novak wrote on this subject for The Stream on the subject. It was one of the last pieces he ever published.

Was America Founded on a Lie?

In a devastating critique that just appeared, Catholic scholar Robert Reilly shows the profound flaws in the arguments of these anti-Constitutionalists, if not quite anti-Americans. The article is behind a paywall, but let me unpack Reilly’s argument for those who sadly don’t subscribe to The Claremont Review of Books. With his permission, let me quote a few of his choicest observations:

Where do Deneen and Hanby locate the presence of this radical autonomy in the American Founding? Their evidence for it is negligible. Deneen has asserted online that the founding was based on “a relativistic philosophy.” …

This indictment leads Deneen to question the very basis of American republicanism: “To have allegiance even to this mixed Constitutional founding is ultimately to declare allegiance to the trajectory of radical autonomy and individualism.” … Therefore, says Deneen, “I increasingly fear that Americans will have to break with America, and seek to re-found the nation on better truths—ones that have perhaps never been self-evident, but rather hard-won, and which are far better than our philosophy and increasingly better than ourselves.”

In his new book, Conserving America?: Essays on Present Discontents, he states that these better truths must be “explicitly in departure from the philosophic principles that animated its liberal founding…to build a new civilization worthy of preservation.” Is there not anything worth saving in the American Founding? Deneen conveys how comprehensively he scorns America by proffering this parallel: “[Vaclav] Havel did not appeal to the better version of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia or seek to reform it from within, but to ‘expose its unstable foundations’ by refusing to pretend that its lies were true.”

Wow. So the American regime is comparable to the foreign-imposed Communist dictatorship of Czechoslovakia. Its foundations are unstable, because they are based on “lies.”

Some Christians agree with Justice Anthony Kennedy: The core of American liberty is solipsistic nihilism. They just think it’s a bad thing, while Kennedy thinks it’s fabulous.

James Madison, Diversity Activist

But is Deneen’s reading of our founding documents accurate? Reilly raises the question:

Where in the founding itself can Deneen locate the malign principles that render it unworthy of preservation? Deneen repeatedly cites James Madison in Federalist No. 10 as evidence that the American regime is based upon a notion of radical individual autonomy. Conserving America? states, “‘The first object of government,’ writes Madison in Federalist 10, ‘is the protection of the diversity in the faculties of men.’” Deneen concludes:

“The political order exists to permit, even positively encourage, humans to differentiate themselves by their choices with near infinite variety, unfettered by limitations of family circumstance, geographic accident, undesired citizenship, unwanted religious identity, and increasingly — as we now see — even gender or any other form of identity that would suggest some form of external limitation on our shaping of selfhood.”

In other words, James Madison himself, in one of America’s crucial documents, tipped his hand. At root, the Constitution and Declaration point exactly where Justice Kennedy, the ACLU, and Planned Parenthood insist: toward gay marriage, legal abortion, and transgender ideology. If that were true, then we ought indeed to reject the country’s political philosophy.

Deneen suggests that the American regime is somehow comparable with the foreign-imposed Communist dictatorship of Czechoslovakia. Its foundations are unstable, because they are based on “lies.”

Mangling Madison

But wait a minute. Did Deneen get Madison right? Reilly shows that Deneen butchers the text:

Deneen relies heavily on his Madison quotation for a definitive expression of “the ends prescribed by our regime.” The only problem is that Madison did not say what Deneen says he said. Deneen cobbles together parts of two sentences and creates a new one that supports his own critique, creating a Madisonian strawman to indict the founding.

A harsh thing to say about a fellow scholar. Can Reilly back it up? Here he does:

In Federalist 10, Madison is talking about minimizing the problems of faction, especially majority factions, in order to preserve the United States. Just after saying that one insuperable problem leading to faction is the connection between man’s “reason and his self-love” he states, “The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests.” In other words, “diversity,” a simple fact of nature in men’s diverse talents, is in the first place a problem, not a solution. [emphasis added] Madison never says diversity is something government should positively encourage, as Deneen suggests. …

It is Madison’s next sentence that declares, “The protection of these faculties is the first object of government.” It is the protection of the faculties themselves, not of diversity, that is the government’s object. By this, Madison means that government protects the free exercise of an individual’s abilities. …

Madison never uses the phrase “the protection of the diversity in the faculties of men.” Deneen creates this phrase and then attributes it to Madison so he can read back into Federalist 10 Justice Kennedy’s views of radical individual autonomy — thus implying a straight line from the founding to today’s LGBT “rights.”

Deneen has used this fabricated sentence frequently to prove his position.

For instance:

In 2012 he employed it against the idea that the founding was in any way a continuation of premodern natural law thinking. As proof, he promised “the founders’ explicit statements.” After all, Deneen wrote: “We need only look at their words, most obviously the Lockean basis of the Declaration … but so too to the justifications they offered for the Constitution. In the course of Federalist10, Madison makes the matter plain: ‘the [protection of the] diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate … is the first object of government.’

Here again he mauls what Madison actually said. It is very hard to “look at their words,” if you get their words wrong. (As we have seen, Deneen eventually dropped the brackets, so there remained not even a hint that he had elided two sentences to make a new one.)

There is much, much more in Reilly’s long and detailed piece. He debunks the fashionable idea that the whole American founding can be reduced to the thinking of John Locke. And the even trendier claim (which he attributes to Michael Hanby) that Locke is fundamentally no different than Hobbes.

It’s senseless to cherry pick, and even misquote, the words of our founding fathers to prove that Anthony Kennedy and the (LBGT) Human Rights Campaign are right about America, while Ronald Reagan and the Religious Right were wrong. Especially if (like Deneen, Hanby, and their disciple in this, Rod Dreher) you refuse to lay out what kind of society you want to establish on the rubble of our Constitution and Declaration. To mix metaphors, it’s to trade a bird in the hand for an unseen pig in a poke.

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  • Joe

    Let’s join with Islam against the Great Satan!

    • Pius XIII

      One must speak carefully & with precision about Islam. That fearsome faith is not a monolith, but composed of warring factions. America for some reason is allied with Sunnis such as Saudi Arabia, who bankroll terrorism. We also oppose the Shia state of Iran, who opposes ISIS. We also oppose Hezbollah & the government of Syria, who also fight ISIS & help Middle Eastern Christians. Obviously Islam is a bad thing (as is degenerate liberalism…) but we must be prudent in our alliances.

      • Joe

        A wall around them all would be fun!

      • Mensa Member

        I hate to quibble with you because you have some important things correct in your comment.

        Islam most certainly isn’t unified or monolithic. Thanks for saying that. Lot of people here can’t seem to get that fact through their heads. With more than a billion followers it’s almost impossible to make unqualified, blanket statements about Islam.

        But I can’t let a comment like “Obviously Islam is a bad thing (as is degenerate liberalism…)” without a little push back.

        Obviously, how? Because they have a fringe wing of terrorists? We Christians have that! So do the Jews.

        And then your inexplicable linkage of Islam and liberalism. Do you understand that Islamic terrorism is very, very conservative? They hate us “degenerate” liberals as much as conservative Christians do.

        • AndRebecca

          I’ll link Islam and liberalism. When the communists in Russia spread out into other countries, they included Islamic countries. Communism lines up with Moslem views more than the democracy of the West. Many Arab countries accepted communism and combined it with Islam. The north African states were used by the communists to go further down into Africa. When England and other colonial nations gave up their colonies around the world, the Russians had people in place to make the transition to communism instead of western style democracy and that is what most of the fighting has been about all around the world. A while back, Libya was the entrance to Africa for Russian and Cuban troops. Instead of the newly formed countries becoming democracies, they are run by dictatorships based on the communist model. On one communist website I looked at recently, they were calling for their comrades to write a song in praise the Arab Spring which they claim as their own.

  • Paul

    What strikes me about this article is I’d be surprised if as much as 1% of Americans have a clue what you’re talking about.

    • Richard W Comerford

      Mr. Paul:

      Nice article though. Mr. Z can think and he can write.

      God bless

      Richard W Comerford

      • Paul

        I agree. My comment wasn’t a dig at John, just observing that by my guess 99% of Americans probably don’t get it.

        • Zmirak

          Five years ago, “trans” arguments were equally obscure. Then they became ubiquitous and gained the force of law. That’s how the Left wins. They work on ideas, while we wave them off.

          • Paul

            Being in California I would disagree about the obscurity of trans advocacy. Using that example, more conservative areas of America failed to either pay attention or heed the warnings, thinking the freaks in San Francisco and Hollywood couldn’t possibly impact them there. At the same time there was also a failure to communicate what was going on in a manner that hammered home the enormity of what was at stake.

            Looking at your article, it begs the question of what ulterior motives are at play and what are the ultimate goals and end game. Exposing that in a manner that the 99% can sink their teeth into has impact.

          • Zmirak

            I can’t read souls. I don’t know what attracts people to hand the intolerant left the whole field of battle, then find some tiny foxhole which they can proclaim as a new Holy Roman Empire. That’s between them and their confessors.

          • Paul

            Another observation John, you expressed your sadness that more don’t subscribe to the Clairmont review of books, published out of California it seems. I’d never heard of it and am a conservative in California. I’ll take a look at it, but with a reported circulation of 8,900 after 30 years of production I can’t help but see it must have a very limited target audience and seems to be written for that audience. Based on that circulation number my earlier guess of 1% is very generous, perhaps only 0.003% of Americans may get it.

          • Zmirak

            It’s super-highbrow and excellent. Don’t be shocked.

          • Paul

            I’m not sure what should shock me about it but we’ll see.

            I’ve heard the Greek Bible is excellent as well but if that’s all we had here we’d be in trouble. Hopefully the Claremont is being ‘translated’ as well, else its impact is limited.

          • Zmirak

            I meant don’t be shocked that it has limited circulation, being highbrow!

          • Paul

            Ah, I see. That doesn’t shock me and to some degree consider it part of the larger problem if that’s where the ideas end.

    • Pius XIII

      Most Americans – let alone American Catholics – are liberals, their minds dulled by the dehumanizing (cooperating) forces of wage slavery & sexual libertinism that have come to define “the West.”

      • Mensa Member

        >> American Catholics – are liberals, their minds dulled by the
        dehumanizing (cooperating) forces of wage slavery & sexual
        libertinism that have come to define “the West.”

        That is a really random stereotype. “wage slavery and sex”?!?

        I’ve lived in the East and they have those there.

  • Richard W Comerford

    RE: Religious Freedom:

    @ 1966 Massachusetts was a very socially conservative State. It was dominated by devout Irish, Catholic Pols. However the Greek Orthodox Church, following the Anglicans, had adopted artificial contraception as a positive good. A then little known Greek Orthodox legislator, Michael Dukakis, proposed a bill wherein the sale and possession of contraceptives would be legalized in Mass. The Irish Pols almost laughed themselves silly; until Cardinal Cushing went on a radio talk show, along with the immediate past president of planned parenthood, and urged support for the bill.

    Cushing argued that Catholic did not have a right to impose their religious beliefs on others. In this he was advised by Fohn Courtney Murray S.J. a disciple of Teilhard de Chardin S.J – the great evolutionists (cited by Holy Father Francis in his encyclical on the environment). Father Murray went on to influence the VII Council Fathers with his views on religious liberty.

    Surprisingly the Irish Pols, more Catholic than their Cardinal, held firm at first; but the bill was eventually passed and signed into law. The Cardinal then went on to pick off the Irish Pols who opposed him at re-election time.

    Today every Catholic Pol in Mass. is pro-abortion and regularly feasted and feted by the reigning Cardinal-Archbishop. And Catholics are a forgotten, dwindling minority. Religious freedom sometimes is not free.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

    • Zmirak

      IF Murray advised that, he was being incoherent, since the argument vs. contraception is natural law. Religious liberty irrelevant here. I know of ZERO connection between Murray, a Thomist, and gibbering gnostic Teilhard. The argument about legality of contraception a purely prudential one; not all sins should be illegal, as Aquinas noted. But some should.

  • Ineverleavecomments

    Thank you for this clear breakdown of things. These sorts of questions-about America’s founding-are precisely what Catholics in the pews were talking about in 2016: what part of America or American life is worth “conserving” if the seventeen or so clowns we were presented with last fall were the best the supposed conservative party could put together (for example).

    Anyway, do we know if the historians you mention are the ones from whom Spadaro gets his American? I don’t know and need to read up more on all of this.

    Finally, someday school kids are going to have to learn about the heresies and bad ideas American Catholics invented leading up to and during the Trumpocene era. I’m not sure we’ve heard the end of this, but I think it will just be a short answer question on a history test someday. We can only hope.

  • Dude Bubba

    Is the American Founding Anti-Christian? No, but it was certainly anti-Catholic. David Wemhoff deals with the issue very thoroughly in his book “John Courtney Murray, Time/Life, and the American Proposition”. He also clearly lays out Church teaching on the proper organization of government and church. Excellent read.

    • Zmirak

      Spare me any shock and surprise that the founding fathers distrusted a church which still, at the time, operated the Inquisition. How did Protestants fare in Spain, Mexico, Papal States? The U.S. was far more tolerant of Catholics at the time. I’m glad we got past these old, unChristian quarrels and don’t wish to reignite them.

  • BroFrank

    Bro. Zmirak, as a concerned Protestant I will spare you recursive arguments concerning the Inquisition. However, as a Christian I must insist that real Freedom is a truly Christian experience that only God, Himself, can grant or enable humanity to truly enjoy. Said our Lord, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” (Jn. 8:32). I propose, therefore, that the American experiment was actually a (gasp!) gift of God to humanity—which you, I, and many millions have been blessed to enjoy for little over two and a half centuries.

    Yet it does now appear that this country is determined to look the Gift Giver in the mouth. . . .

  • Mensa Member

    >> In other words, these Christians agree with Justice Anthony Kennedy: The core of American liberty is solipsistic nihilism.

    I thought “Solipsistic Nihilism” was a prog rock band, so I have no idea if our founders believed that way.

    But the philosophies used in te founding our nation are well documented.

    And there wasn’t just one philosophy and they weren’t all compatible. The liberal humanists believed in freedom and equality for all humans. This obviously, was at odds with southern Christians. That’s hardly a isolated example.

    • AndRebecca

      Try reading some classic books written in the 1700s and 1800s about the founding of the country. These books will tell you we were founded by Christians and nobody else. You would know this if you actually read the philosophies used in founding our nation. The Christian philosophy was IT. There was a famous international debate between the atheist Thomas Paine and George Washington on whether America would be a Christian nation or atheist. Washington said Christian and Paine left the country and went to France where they were having an atheist revolution. Edmund Burke wrote his thoughts on the subject and denounced Paine and the French revolution and sided with Washington and the Americans and Christianity. Thomas Paine’s life didn’t end well. Before he died he was despised in America, France and England. Washington became the father of his country.

    • Sharon

      There were certainly differences, but even Thomas Jefferson, one of the least “Christian” of the Founders, did not subscribe to solipsistic nihilism.

  • Sharon

    Would it be possible for someone to provide a quote from the Casey v. Planned Parenthood decision that shows the view of liberty that is being debated here – ie, radical individual autonomy?

    • Sharon

      Oh never mind, I found it:

      At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.

  • Paul Fry

    This is a mic drop.

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