As Passover and Easter near, the heart and mind turn more intently to questions of the divine. How do we in the grubby business of politics relate to the most transcendent and the most high? A good place to start is Vice President Mike Pence’s tried and true response to questions about who he is: “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.” Where is “American”? some critics sneered.
Pence could readily reply, America was there all the time—implicit in Republican at the least—for he’s surely not a Tory conservative.
Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America notes that Americans confuse Christianity and freedom in their minds, while “religious zeal constantly warms itself at the hearth of patriotism.”
We live today in a different America, one which those who have preferred Tocqueville to the founders and Lincoln seem unable to grasp. Patrick Deneen’s recent book, Why Liberalism Failed, exemplifies how a dramatic change of worldview arises from what appears a mere academic dispute.
At the heart of this dispute is our regard for ourselves as Americans and as believers. It’s not primarily about Trump, though he does figure in.
An Ignoble Lie?
Deneen has just published a version of his provocative thesis in the April issue of First Things, “The Ignoble Lie.” Here he turns the current rage over inequality into a meditation on the absence of Christian understanding and charity. It’s readily evident from his writing and ability to reach into the souls of his students at Georgetown and now Notre Dame how marvelous a teacher he is. (I’ve known him over the years.)
The core of his argument can be fairly encapsulated in this paragraph:
So long as liberalism [meaning the Declaration of Independence’s “stress upon individual rights and liberty”] was not fully itself—so long as liberalism was corrected and even governed by Christianity—a working social contract was possible. For Christianity, difference is ordered toward unity. For liberalism, unity is valued insofar as it promotes difference. The American experiment blended and confused these two understandings, but just enough to make it a going concern. The balance was always imperfect, leaving out too many, always unstably oscillating between quasi-theological evocation of unity and deracinated individualism. But it seemed viable for nearly 250 years. The recent steep decline of religious faith and Christian moral norms is regarded by many as marking the triumph of liberalism, and so, in a sense, it is. Today our unity is understood almost entirely in the light of our differences. We come together—to celebrate diversity. And today, the celebration of diversity ends up serving as a mask for power and inequality.
America is a success, Deneen appears to be saying, because of its schizophrenia. Liberalism in its classical sense has finally been revealed as liberalism in its contemporary sense. He must concur with Judge Robert Bork’s incredible assertion in Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline (1996), that “the street predator of the underclass may be the natural outcome of the mistake the founders of liberalism made.”
In fact, Deneen’s argument refurbishes older ones by Thomas Pangle and Allan Bloom. Briefly stated: The inspiration for the Declaration of Independence, John Locke, was a student of Thomas Hobbes, and their nihilism, which rivals that of Friedrich Nietzsche, is what has exploded today. It took 250 years, but it’s here staring us in our looney faces.
Deneen adds the Christian element, but it’s the same old story about the anti-tyrannical Declaration and its talk of “the pursuit of happiness” leading to contemporary nihilism. The “lie” that Deneen wants to hold in contempt is not only the famous one from Socrates about souls of different metal but also the one about the truth and justice of the American Founding.
Moreover, Deneen cleverly turns his version of America into one involving current political controversies: “Elites denounce the ‘populists’ while denying that they have fomented a class war. They deplore the obnoxiousness of Donald Trump, perfectly obtuse of their complicity in his ascent.”
Deneen is not without his fellow Catholic critics. Robert Reilly has exposed his errors about the Founding in a series of essays. Though his most thorough treatment comes in the Claremont Review of Books, the most moving passage occurs in his two-part follow-up to Deneen’s reply:
My oldest son, now serving as a newly minted Marine Corps officer, had a course in American political thought in his last semester at a Catholic university. The exclusive point of view presented by the professor was the same as Deneen’s, though he was not mentioned in the course. My son struggled as best he could against this, but the professor prevailed in convincing the majority of students that the Founding was grievously, morally faulty….
How would [Deneen] like to tell a class of Marine Corps second lieutenants that the country to which they have just pledged their lives and honor is morally base at its origins?
Reilly’s bluntness should be contrasted with Eric Cohen’s eloquent review of Deneen’s book in the Weekly Standard. Cohen portrays Deneen’s horror at “the cultural depravations all around us, from collapsing birthrates to ecological deterioration, from broken communities plagued by opioid addiction to massive governmental and personal debt, from tween sexting to the collapse of liberal education.” Blame modernity and the American Founders!
Of note are where Cohen agrees and how he disagrees with Deneen: He chides Deneen for “perhaps miss[ing] an opportunity to contribute to the renewal of a realistic version of Burkean conservatism, which he rightly seeks and which this era sorely needs.” Reconstructing liberalism need not, joining Deneen, lead to “the false hope of Trumpism.”
What Cohen, with Deneen, has done is to expose conservatism’s current intellectual weaknesses: embracing Burke, renouncing Jefferson (going back to Russell Kirk); rejecting modernity but somehow still defending religious liberty, while suppressing discussion of slavery; and failing to see Trump’s patriotism as the best political means of preserving freedom and political virtue, disparaging political correctness, and repudiating a conservatism of sanctimony. These critics acknowledge nothing about the Progressive revolution that repudiated both the restraint of the founding and religious liberty. The political revival starts with speech that has been missing for decades.
As for religious speech, the Lord’s Prayer presents the tension: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven . . . .” That is the earthly challenge for the Christian, which is captured in the American Founding. It still provides not merely the best but the only hope.
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Image credit: Thomas Jefferson drafting Declaration of Independence; painting by N.C. Wyeth/Bettmann