The man I regard as America’s Pope spoke at the Heritage Foundation the other day. (Fortunately, I lack the authority to choose a pope, which would be quickly abused.) The presence of Bishop Robert Barron marked an important point in the history of the American Right and the Catholic Church in America. Heritage is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary. On that occasion, it has much to be proud of and, yet, much work still to do. Heritage has been an indispensable part of the conservative movement, in both its theory and especially its presence in Washington, D.C. Bishop Barron has been the foremost evangelist for the Catholic Church through his Word on Fire ministry and his innumerable publications and talks.
It is too easy to link the American Right and the Catholic Church (or any other serious Christian church). Bishop Barron is a thoughtful man whose homilies, books, and videos I have been absorbing for years. I read most recently his insightful commentary on 2 Samuel in the Brazos series of theological commentary. He is an inexhaustible source of enlightenment and inspiration and, I believe, a doer of much good for the public weal.
In his remarks, Barron lived up to his reputation as a probing intellect, laying out in Heritage’s annual Russell Kirk lecture, his reflections on the divisions within Catholicism and their political implications. Oddly, Barron’s approach to these issues mirrors political developments on the American Right. Here his obeisance to Kirk’s criticism of the founding brings him troubles.
He takes up Kirk’s objection to modern Hobbesian “rationalism” that posited an individual ego desirous of power in its various forms—especially for Americans, wealth. Thus, Thomas Jefferson became a less vulgar version of Thomas Hobbes but distinct from Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle; the “pursuit of happiness” replaced happiness as the summum bonum, the greatest good. The detachment from divinity cut Americans away from the richness of ancient philosophy and Christianity. Modern philosophy is “a continent away from Aristotle.”
Today, Barron relates, we see modern philosophy justifying what Joseph Ratzinger denounced as “the dictatorship of relativism” and more recently what Carl Trueman has derided as “the sovereign self.” Catholic critics of the founding, such as Adrian Vermeule, Patrick Deneen, and David Schindler, have emphasized their objections to liberalism, asserting that nihilistic liberty follows its end. (Such Integralism threatens to make use of authoritarian developments in government for alleged Catholic purposes.)
Nineteenth-century Catholicism attempted to maneuver between modern institutions inspired by Hobbes and Locke and the individual conscience of believers via a type of fusionism, seen in exemplary fashion in Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville saw an America in which liberty and religion are fused together such that they become indistinguishable, he claims. Rights and freedom are exercised in light of man’s highest duties to God and country. Tocqueville, Barron maintains, provides an “equilibrium” permitting freedom and anticipating duties from a self-governing people.
There are three objections one can make here to Barron’s sketch. He is too quick to attribute our present nihilism—for example, the lack of intellectual depth among “nones” and atheists and their trolling social media—to America’s alleged embrace of modern philosophy. Barron’s approach reminds one of the East Coast Straussians who see America as an unfolding of the “philosophic nihilism” of Hobbes and Locke. Harry V. Jaffa has long criticized such theoretical approaches to a practical endeavor, the founding of a nation.
Only the most twisted interpretation of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, and George Washington—to name just a few founders—could possibly justify such a perverse interpretation. Moreover, Barron never cites any of these founders and barely attempts a type of deconstruction of Jefferson. So his alarm about the founding is misguided, as it bases all on a strained interpretation of Hobbes and Locke. Acquaintance with the work of Jaffa would have dissuaded him from taking this approach.
Since there’s no text currently available, I’m going to focus more on Bishop Barron’s general argument that taking the philosophers at their most theoretical aspirations is a reasonable way to understand what the American founders were up to, and that conceding modernity’s theoretical flaws exposes the errors in the founders’ conception of human nature. Taking this approach is to transform the founders’ principal understanding of the philosophers into a purely theoretical appreciation. Robert George recalled Jefferson’s understanding of the Declaration, as he put it in his previous Russell Kirk address. That is, it’s not as simply a modern natural rights view peculiar to Hobbes and Locke but a general natural law view that reflects what Jefferson maintained about the Declaration, which was,
an expression of the American mind, and [gave] to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.
All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c. . . .
Second, Barron’s interpretation of Tocqueville is already refuted—by Tocqueville himself, no less! Tocqueville acknowledges the fading power of religion, not to mention its tendency to foster fanatical movements (such as Marxism). Earlier in America, religion and liberty were indistinguishable, and so it followed for religion and patriotism. Tocqueville declared religion to be the first of American political institutions. But Tocqueville himself undermines reliance on religion at the beginning of Volume II of Democracy, written a few years after Volume I. In his estimation, religion lacks the authority it held before the age of equality, where all authority comes to be questioned.
Third, Barron’s overall argument is actually anticipated and rejected by a much earlier Kirk lecturer, Robert Reilly, in his 2020 book, America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, written with the Integralist critique in mind.
The problem is nihilism, but its root is in the West, in voluntarism. Reilly does not call for a “1319 Project” but for more respect for the prudence of the Christian founders who respected natural law, embodied above all in the principle of equality. Religious liberty is not only to be tolerated but demanded in order for Catholicism to flourish. Thus it was not the founders’ putative Hobbes and Locke that Barron presents but the Marx-Darwin-Hegel-Progressives who corrupted the founders’ legacy and replaced one form of slavery with another. With this major qualification, Reilly is very much on the side of Barron against the nihilists they both attack so effectively.
The moral misery of America today comes not from sober John Locke—see, especially, Some Thoughts Concerning Education for his practical teaching on character—but from later thinkers like John Dewey and other Progressives.
The reliance on Tocqueville, a trope adopted by Harvey Mansfield, fails from the start. Tocqueville does not see America as a nation that was founded but rather as one that was there as equality unfolded its necessary course. Hence, he did not mention the Declaration of Independence in Democracy in America. This is why Tocqueville is so offended by Americans’ braggadocious patriotism—for he could not understand a patriotism that produced the Civil War he did not predict, that is, not one between blacks and whites but one between whites over the slavery or freedom of blacks. To rely on Tocqueville is to surrender to historicism, that is, the notion of unalterable forces of history.
Of course, the “1619 Project” would deny such patriotism. The diversity, equity, and inclusion fanatics would denounce it as delusional. They would welcome racial tyranny, making the body superior to any soul or transcendent meaning to life. Tocqueville’s focus on racial identity denies the political identity of citizens that the founders wished to cultivate. In a dynamic situation, Tocquevillian “equilibrium” only invites “individualism,” that is, an isolation from the challenges of social life.
This, of course, raises the issue of natural law, an alternative Bishop Barron inadvertently suppresses by his analysis of Hobbes and Locke, but one to which he is surely sympathetic. Yet Tocqueville has no particular use for natural law or natural rights. From the isolated margins at the time of the founding, the Catholic Church in America has come to occupy a key place in public debates. Its regard for natural law may account for its rise.
As Reilly argues, in agreement with Leo Strauss, philosophy and revelation complement one another, as these two peaks of the West did for Thomas Aquinas and for the American founders. Thomas West has argued that the natural law of theologians and statesmen of the founding era is, at a minimum, compatible with Thomas Aquinas. That Heritage has made natural law the implicit subject of the Kirk lecture series, and I suspect in other ways as well, is a great tribute to its President Kevin Roberts and Simon Center Director Richard Reinsch.