American Happiness, Divine Damnation?

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

About Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, as well as for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of seven books on American politics. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor; James Madison College of Michigan State University; the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University; and Princeton University.

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22 responses to “American Happiness, Divine Damnation?

  • Ken:

    Good piece!
    Interesting on Deneen and his recognition that it is the diminishment of the Christian influence that has played a major role in our current derangement. I had missed this in my scant earlier readings of Deneen.

    From some other readings, (including Marini ms you provided) I have come to the conclusion that far too many commentators wrongly assume that the founding is Lockean. Consequently, we are confronted with an apparent conflict between the Framers belief that *virtue* is what is required and what actually animated republican government and the belief of the Lockean position that men behaved both personally and politically based upon (solely?) “self-interest.
    Thus, a structure, such as that crafted by the Founders,that was designed to *counter* Locke – not highlight it. The founding was not Lockean but a blend of both ancient and modern with virtue viewed as the principal moderating influence on self-interest. Presumably, this attribute was to be instilled via Christianity and as a number of Founders expressed, “This Republic was intended for a [Christian] religious people. As one commenter opined at LLB, the Framers were content to “outsource” religious indoctrination for a variety of historical / political reasons.

    with the loss of such indoctrination and the lessened appreciation of virtue, all that is left is “self-interest” and rabid individualism.

    As you rightly state, Deneen (and others) ignore the *purposive* actions of the Progressives who embarked on a relentless campaign to change the political landscape and overturn the constitutional regime. To argue that a burglarized home inherently contained the possibility of burglary because the homeowner did not sufficiently fortify it is to deny the wrongdoing of the miscreant bastards who trashed the house. The Progressives and Woodrow Wilson’s “infamous” 50 men and their political descendants are the miscreants wrecking the house of republican virtue.

    We ought not to forget the role played by those hostile to the republic / constitution. The sooner that the devices / intents / methodologies of these miscreant political actors are brought to the conscious attention of the citizenry, the sooner we may begin to counter their malicious intent and actions.

    • It really gets tiresome, this endless criticism of the Founding Fathers. Whether Burkian, or Lockian, or a combination of both, what other group of people, king, emperor or tsar, ever came up with the idea: that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” ? That, together with a sincere belief in a Creator, is what gave rise to the greatest country in the world.

      If today’s leftist, liberals, are so much more righteous that the founders, then please, have at it. Tell us, what would you have done had you been in their place after winning the war with Britain? What kind of government would you
      have instituted? I dare say, you would have accepted the kingship that Washington rejected.

      Go ahead. Tell us the version of the government that you think would have worked better that that which established a country that people the world over, even today, desperately want to immigrate to.

      • Yep – it is tiresome, especially from those who, by virtue of their education, ought to know better.
        In short, why blame the grandfather for the sins of the grandson, who has squandered his inheritance on all manner of delusion undertakings,

    • Thanks, Gabe. Deneen also has a strong religion argument. He may disagree with the post-Vatican II move from establishment to religious liberty (maybe Kennedy’s election was a lesson). That’s just a hunch.

  • You can’t follow the Republican party and Christ at the same time! You m must make the choice!!! To whom do you give your heart, your loyalty, your efforts!! Last night Pat Robertson showed us that he chose the GOP over Jesus when he called for an end to the investigation into the attacks on our nation by the Russians! He doesn’t want the truth to be our guiding light! He serves darkness!!

  • Let’s just say people like Gershon wouldn’t have been able to create the United States.

  • True liberalism [not to be confused with present day Liberals, who are tyrants] and Catholicism have in common the concept of free will. We choose to do good or do bad, to work hard and prosper or to succumb to sloth. Liberalism no more produced evil individuals than Catholicism. Some people choose to be evil, simple as that.

    • You focus on everything negative at the expense of everything good this nation has done. People like you would throw out the baby with bath water. In reality all you can do it criticize via application of today’s standards to yesterday’s circumstances. Pathetic, and useless. What would you do after you’ve ripped the nation up into spreads?

      • Tell me about the good. Having been an historian for forty years the good does not jump out at me.

      • You must be a pretty ignorant historian. Just for starters, how about the sacrifices of our country in WWII to help rid the world of murderous tyrants…the type your side would most assured become should the opportunity arise?

      • Here’s the facts, Jack. We DID make sacrifices in WWII, to our credit. BUT, we ignore the agony and tribulations of the French/British for over 2 years before we entered.

      • I did not assert we “won” WWII. Yes we were late. Who wants to go to war, especially after the gruesomeness of WWI? Hardly think being late nullifies the sacrifice this country eventually made, which certainly qualifies as one enormous good.

        Likewise, many scientific advances made, particularly in medicine, would qualify as “good”. We have created enormous wealth, raising millions out of abject poverty. Have you ever driven through the streets of Calcutta and seen how those folks live?

        You have to go out of your way to see this country as doing more more evil than good. Well…I take that back…people like you do enormous harm to our country and the world with your warped perspective that we are force for evil in the world.

      • I invite you and all like-minded America-haters to live your values – move to Canada or perhaps Venezuala. Or, you could consider Sweden, but I’d recommend taking along a gun if you want to take a stroll in the Immigrant section of town.

        America has been the primary engine of prosperity for the entire world since the end of WWII. All major economies, including Europe, Japan, China, S Korea, go their start and to this day maintain themselves through exports to America. Those countries who take care of citizens better than the US, which assertion is very questionable, don’t have the burdens of defense that America has carried for itself and also the world for a long time. We saw how aggression rises when we reduce our commitment to defense under Obama. Those allies holding their noses…they know they’d be stomped on if we didn’t defend them.

        With regard to your other assertions, they’re all just baloney. You hate America and Americans, end of story. Here, where freedom reins, you are FREE to leave. Don’t let the door hit you in the behind.

      • I lived in Paris two yrs, The Netherlands for 6 mons, and I’ve travelled all over Europe and Asia Pacific. There is no place I’ve visited that I would prefer over America. Only Germany comes close, though I found Japanese culture very beautiful. Furthermore, I have numerous family friends, mostly engineers, who immigrated here with families in tow from that socialist paradise called France, all of whom claim they would never go back. The folks who love socialism the most are those who talk about it, not those who live it.

        Nobody argues the constitution was perfect, but the founders got right at least one thing. Tyrants are the danger.

        Our problem is twofold: 1/ Too many of us come from broken families and have undeveloped character, which has diminished our society, and 2/ too many people, like you, think the answer to that is to blow everything up and start over or naively think the answer is global handholding. This checks meaningful political action to address our problems. Try reading a little Daniel Patrick Moynahan after he matured.

        What is definitely not a problem is a constitution that cherishes freedom or the ability of people to create wealth. But feel free to keep living in your imaginary world of straw men and fantasies.

      • If you prefer America to Paris I suggest you imagined the whole thing.

  • From the article:

    “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?”

    Start with reminding him that a twenty year old walking in to a class where the authority figure has a couple more decades of experience and has had years to hone the argument that he is going to make you go through (it is his class, correct?) so it is not an even fight. Do not fight, just think (thank you, I never considered that) and tear the argument apart at leisure – – – like he did years ago when you, the student, were in junior high.

    God – it is not a fair fight so do the smart thing – do not engage, just smile, nod, ask for cites, and move on. Why? He has your grade and he has had years to deal with all of the arguments you will be able to bring without six months of research.

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