Was America Pagan From the Get Go? This Learned Historian Denies It
I’ve spent a lot of virtual “ink” here going after some abstract ideas. Two of the chief ones? Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option and Catholic Integralism. The worst thing about each of them? It’s something they share in common.
Each takes as gospel the argument of Patrick Deneen that America’s Founding rests on false, anti-Christian ideas. On the radical atomism of Thomas Hobbes, for whom John Locke was merely a shiny red G-string. Hence Justice Kennedy and Planned Parenthood are right. The Constitution protects abortion. And same-sex marriage. And transgender ideology. Then the next perversion the Left dreams up. Probably something to do with fish sex or euthanasia robots.
But, these thinkers claim, the radicals are right. And the Family Research Council is wrong. The radicals are simply being consistent with the wicked logic on which our whole nation was founded. The system and hence the country are fundamentally unfixable. So we might as well sing some hymns, grow some kale, and hope for the best. (The “best” being a total societal and economic collapse. After that we can build some brave new theocracy or localist confederacy of Distributist communes in the ruins.)
Sloth as a Political Philosophy
And that’s a tempting thought. “Tempting” in the literal sense. As in “a poisonous lure of the devil’s.” Such theories draw us to the deadly sin of Sloth. Specifically, the “Accedia” that morphs simple laziness into deep-seated despair. I wrote about this in The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins:
The monks who struggled with it called it the “noonday devil,” and spiritual writer Kathleen Norris has penned an instructive book on the subject called Accedia and Me. This condition entails spiritual weariness, even dreariness, and it often afflicts the most pious or industrious souls partway along their journey toward holiness. Those whose vocation is marriage might know it as the “seven-year-itch.” For parents, this is the age at which most children cease to be quite so cute. Slowly but insidiously, the good things we have striven and sacrificed for no longer seem entirely… worth it. Instead of keeping our eye on the prize, we start to total up the costs a goal has imposed upon our lives, and look forward to the unending decades of effort that still lie ahead of us. We realize the stark ugly truth that
At age 50, and again at age 60, I will still be married to this person.
Till the day I turn 65, I will be teaching these same damn books I used to love. Why did those bloody monks have to save them from oblivion?
They’re going to bury me at this desk. Or take me to the taxidermist and have me stuffed and mounted.
At age 35, this kid will still be living in my apartment. Is being a mammal really worth it? At least reptiles can lay eggs, then scurry away.
Day in, day out, the same thing over and over again— we seem to feel that burden all at once, and the theological truth that God will never burden us beyond our strength starts to sound like a pious fable. Our favorite Bible verse becomes the line from Job, “Curse God and Die.” (Which makes, by the way, an imposing bumper sticker.)
When Accedia slams into the virtue of patriotism, all it leaves behind are books that slam the American Experiment hammer and tongs.
Is Lockean Liberty The Matrix?
But what if they’re right? We know all that the Founders said about religion and self-mastery. What if that was just a smokescreen? Yes, they cited dozens of thinkers they cited beside John Locke. (Including Thomas Hooker, Philip Sydney, Aristotle and Cicero.) What if that was all window-dressing?
For such “conservatives,” Justice Kennedy and Planned Parenthood are right. The Constitution protects abortion. And same-sex marriage. And transgender ideology. Then the next perversion the Left dreams up. Probably something to do with fish sex or euthanasia robots.
Or worse yet, what if our Founders were simply self-deluded? Maybe they thought they were creating a virtuous Republic. But they released a Serpent in the Garden whose name is not Legion but Liberty. Perhaps the virus of Locke is just that powerful. It’s antibiotic resistant.
That’s an attractive argument, if you’re an intellectual historian. Why? Because it reduces everything to intellectual history. No need to read all the biographies of the people who made decisions. Or the ins and out of politics, economics, and warfare. Just find a set of ideas that might (on one reading) produce our current problems. Then claim that this ideology was always bound to triumph. No matter what.
It doesn’t matter that the Republicans in the Senate didn’t fight for Justice Robert Bork. Or that Bush cronies in the White House lied to Reagan about Anthony Kennedy’s views. Say none of that ever happened. Then the “System” of Lockean/Hobbesean atomism would have found some other way to enshrine itself. If Anthony Kennedy did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent him. And the wicked dialectic of Liberty would have done so. It’s just that powerful. It’s The Matrix, and it always repairs its glitches.
More Complex, More Hopeful … and More Work
Unless it isn’t. What if that single-actor view of American history as wicked Individualism inexorably conquering is radically too simple? If it’s as blunt and crude an instrument as Marxist economic determinism?
A much more complex and hopeful picture appears in the work of historian Thomas G. West. I just bought his book on the strength of a long review by the pro-Trump intellectual Michael Anton. Let me quote you the passages that sold me. Anton warns:
We misunderstand the founding, first, because of the dismal state of modern education, and second, owing to deliberate efforts to libel the founders and their works. The founders’ political theory has been, by turns, denounced, misrepresented, mocked, dismissed, and forgotten. The culprits have been and are of the Left, Right, and Center. The founders’ detractors include fascists and communists, despots and anarchists, Yankees and Southerners, ardent abolitionists and slaveholding oligarchs, eastern elites and western individualists, foreign enemies and domestic terrorists, anti-American leftists and patriotic conservatives, smug atheists and the deeply religious.
Our Founders Weren’t One-Dimensional Men
To repair this deep misunderstanding:
West shows that the founders, far from being hostile to or dismissive of religion, tradition, and other non-rational sources of guidance for human life, saw these things as not only broadly useful for political society but fully compatible with natural rights and absolutely indispensable to a political order based thereon.
Natural rights don’t contradict natural law. In fact, they’re part of it.
In the founders’ view, it is reasonable that the God who both revealed the Decalogue and is author of the natural world created that world with natural moral principles that accord with His law. The alternative — moral commands with no basis in, or that contradict, nature — seemed to the founders profoundly irrational and implausible.
So Roll Up Your Sleeves
What about political quietists like Dreher and Deneen? And religious Integralists who dream of some sectarian sharia? West has an answer:
[T]he founders also agreed that religions and traditional sources of human guidance should not be authoritative for politics. In Europe, resting political legitimacy on religion led, first, to a millennium of oligarchic stagnation and, later, to bloody religious wars. Any attempt to do so in America would also crash into the many deeply held religious convictions on the new continent. Whose understanding of God would rule? Better to ground politics in a reasoned account of human nature that admits man’s inability to know the mind of God and respects each person’s equal natural right to follow his own conscience in matters of worship. Similarly, traditions not infringing on the equal natural rights of others were to be tolerated, and even celebrated. Under the new “form,” men would be freer to live as men than ever before in human history.
Go read the review, and order the book. It should deeply enrich your understanding of the challenges we face today. And it will remind you how blessed we are to live in America. It might even remind you that God put each of us here, in this time and place, for His own very good reasons. He had jobs in mind for us. And one of them wasn’t dressing up on weekends to LARP as Inquisition re-enactors.