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.
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.”
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.
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.