us christianflag1

I will admit that I did not keep up with all of the discussion that ensued from various blogs that tried to discern the differences between folks that write over at First Things’ blogs and those who do so at FPR. But after giving a talk at ISI’s Honors Conference on Reinhold Niebuhr in which I roughed up the current hero of ironists for clinging to Anglo-American Protestant civil religion (from a German-American no less!), the thought dawned on me that one of the significant differences between Pomo’s and Fropo’s is civil religion. That is, is one willing to work with civil religion and use it profitably to do battle in the cause of freedom and cultural integrity, or does one see through it as basically a sham that should be avoided at all cost?

I have to admit as well that these thoughts occurred to me during the question-and-answer session after my lecture when I received comments and queries from listeners (some of them identifiable Pomo’s) that took exception to my criticism of Niebuhr. Some described this exchange as “pummeling” but these people do not commune in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church where we put the fell in fellowship. To OP readers, I’m kidding, mainly.) The nub of the issue concerned the value of civil religion for opposing Communism. I myself believe that opposing Communism is a good thing. But I do wonder if one should actually lie when arguing against a genuine enemy. Yes, the Soviets were atheists and they gave the United States a ready way to show God-fearing Americans the evils of Communism (as if the gulag or East Germany were not enough). And yes, trusting in God as we profess on American coinage can supply a healthy check upon the aspirations of magistrates who are prone to think highly of themselves (even to the point of deity). But trusting in God as a nation has also issued sacralizing party platforms, such that some now see the contest between Democrats and the GOP the old Cold War contest between the Soviets and Yankees.

Anyway, the point of this lengthy rhetorical question is simply to wonder if civil religion is important to a constellation of convictions that separate Pomo’s and Fropo’s. For instance, in one of Patrick Deneen’s posts during this debate, he wrote, “The effort to manipulate the natural world to the ends of human desire have been catastrophic, in the view of FPR’ers, and have resulted in a condition in which modern humans have lost the capacity to exercise prudence, wisdom, and above all, the capacity for self-governance.” I would add to this the notion that manipulating the revealed word to the ends of nation’s desires has been catastrophic, maybe not for the state, but for faith. And when Caleb Stegall described himself as “an anarcho-capitalist, a localist-agrarian, a communitarian-libertarian, a prairie-populist, above all a lover of liberty and the freedom of self-sufficient locales, and a scots-presbyterian to boot, all of which means I have a deeply embedded antipathy to the state and to hucksters and razzle-dazzle men and a fierce loyalty and love for my own highways and byways and fields and streams and towns and farms and the people who inhabit them,” I recognized a realism where Niebuhr dared not tread if only because it is hard with this set of intuitions to conceive of any nation-state doing the work of the Lord.

Now, not every Fropo conservative will likely regard civil religion as a threat to faith because he or she is not a believer. And this is precisely where it gets interesting for me, as an advocate of a “secular faith.” Skepticism about grand projects rests close to the heart of most conservatives, and it is what has often united the truly skeptical (both about faith and politics) with the faithful in seeing through the abstraction and deceit of civil religion. My favorite skeptic is H. L. Mencken who did not need to be a serious believer to see through the hollow vanities of Woodrow Wilson or the uplift of liberal and fundamentalist Protestants (who were united on keeping the United States a Christian nation).

So to conclude this digression, here is Mencken on the problem with liberal Christianity, but it is one that could equally apply to the Religious Right (whether Protestant or Roman Catholic). The Modernists “no doubt with the best intentions,” he wrote, “have tried to get rid of all the logical difficulties of religion, and yet preserve a pious cast of mind. It is a vain enterprise. What they have left, once they have achieved their imprudent scavenging, is hardly more than a row of hollow platitudes as empty of psychological force and effect as so many nursery rhymes.” Civil religion may yield a nation of much greater psychological (not to mention physical) force and effect, but in the ultimate scheme of things is it is any less empty?

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. Perhaps I missed it, but maybe Fr. Neuhaus should figure somewhere into this conversation???

    I think his book “American Babylon” strikes the right tone, and certainly condemns substituting America for the Church.

  2. An interesting suggestion, Daryl, but I’m not so sure. First Things magazine (which, so far as I can tell, shouldn’t simply be ellided with them Post Modern conservatives) has some concept of civil religion in place, but has always done a good job of suggesting that the theological should inform the political in principle as it always and already does in reality. I know Michael Baxter and others, in the past, have suggested otherwise, but I’m not yet convinced.

    That said, clearly some fellows over there are beholden to a conventional sort of civil religion. The post Joe Carter wrote making reference to yours strikes me as especially confused on this point. I read it rather quickly, I confess, but he seems to begin insisting — inexplicably — that FPR promotes civil religion while First Things doesn’t. But, he then goes on to demonstrate that First Things clearly does believe in a civil religion — just not the civil religion of Rousseau, which is not, in any case, the only or even the dominant formulation of civil religion. He thus sets up a straw man from which to distinguish First Thing, but this is an evasion.

    In any case, I suspect that the Communio sympathies of most FPRrs, as well as their general rejection of civil religion, have already manifested themselves to some extent and will do so more clearly in the weeks ahead as we continue to digest Caritas in Veritate.

    There’s much to be said here: obviously to the extent one embraces Tocqueville’s account of American religion, one supports a civil religion, but I can see First Things and FPR as equally admiring of Tocqueville, the difference between them being that FPR clearly reads him more carefully and so tends to recommend more of his particular prescriptions about community (family, land, stability) and to look — as he did — with a bit of suspicion at American religious practices, which operates more like a release valve for a materialist American society always on the move rather than a foundational informing principle.

    I’ll try to dig into this soon, perhaps by posting my own recent ISI lecture on T.S. Eliot, the subject of which was to show that Eliot’s conservatism was founded on a Christianity that rejected civil religion as a Machiavellian and immoral sham.

    But might I suggest right now — and the odor of Rousseau having drifted up, this suggestion seems inevitable — that discussions of civil religion in general are pertinent mainly, perhaps only, to Protestant thinkers?

    Because Catholicism already has a place for the political within its theology, and a place for state power within the hierarchic unity of the Eternal Law, a Catholic must perforce address these questions in terms other than of “civil religion.” We take for granted the separate sphere of the temporal, and that is it subordinate to the Church; the questions that remain are matters of prudence (i.e. how should this subordination express itself in a given society, and how can it?). As such, pace Joe Carter, Catholics take for granted that their country’s flag will hang somewhere off to one side of the sacristy; fidelity to our political commmunity is, after all, a lesser but real virtue, and it is only a real virtue so long as it is not in tension with our fidelity to Christ.

    The main tradition of civil religion strikes me as a compromise between Protestant denominations, i.e. it is an extension of latitudinarianism that says, “Well, if you at least accept Jesus as savior, you may participate in public life,” while taking for granted that other doctrinal differences may be insurmountable and, politically, indifferent.

    And so, I would suggest that any Catholic and Protestant discussion of civil religion would have to begin by establishing that Catholic understandings of Church and State, temporal community and the Kingdom of heaven, are ordered teleologically to the final cause of the salvation of souls. The temporal and the divine are reconciled in their final cause. In contradistinction, it is my impression that Protestant Civil Religion is ordered in terms of the present state of the person, i.e. “if you believe at least this much then you may participate in society, if not, then you are a goat outside the sheepfold.” It therefore operates under the assumption that politics is something in principle disconnected from our destiny as Christians; civil religion serves therefore as a gate keeper on who can enter into a secular political sphere rather than as an informing principle of the political.

    I can already hear Peter Lawler raising an objection from Augustine, but I’ve rattled on long enough.

  3. *** but he seems to begin insisting — inexplicably — that FPR promotes civil religion while First Things doesn’t.***

    Sorry, I guess I left too much unstated. No, I certainly don’t think FPR promotes civil religion. I was looking past the Front Porch to the mass of citizens who most resonate with the ideals presented here. Here are a few assumptions that I left unstated:

    1. Although the concepts that FPR promotes (e.g., localism) are not location-specific, they tend to appeal to conservatives in suburban and rural areas.
    2. These types of folks are more likely to be religious and patriotic in the unashamed, non-ironic sense.
    3. More than most Americans, they are likely to believe that America is a “Christian nation,” or at least was founded as such.
    4. This views shapes their conception of “civil religion” and how it fits into their roles as Americans in relation to both the church and the state.
    5. The put the emphasis on the Christian in “Christian nation.” They are more religious than nationalists. Their agenda is to promote/protect their faith rather than to use it to advance the agenda of the nation-state.

    Now I could be wrong on all those points, but this was the position I was working from. I think that this group is more likely to align themselves with the views of FPR than they would with an organization like First Things.

    That does not mean, however, that the folks here at FPR would agree with them. I assume that most (if not all) of the bloggers here would not. The FPRers are a sort of intellectual vanguard that is quite out-of-sync with the common people (though that sounds more perjorative than I intend). They are as unlike the common suburban/rural conservative as Wendell Berry is to the average farmer. That, of course, is why this is such a great site. It’s alow, sadly, the reason that the ideas presented here are likely to fit a charming intellectual niche rather than have a significant impact on actual political and cultural life.

    *** But, he then goes on to demonstrate that First Things clearly does believe in a civil religion — just not the civil religion of Rousseau, which is not, in any case, the only or even the dominant formulation of civil religion.***

    I certainly agree that it hasn’t been the dominant form since at least the end of the Cold War. The most prevalent form—which is what I think is represented by the Christian Nation type I describe above—is not presented in top-down fashion by the elites as it once was. About the only civil religion being pushed by the elite classes is the neo-pagan National Greatness-style represented by John McCain (honor, stoicism, military virtue, etc.). But this form was all but rejected even by hardcore Republicans during the last election and isn’t likely to catch on anytime soon.

    *** As such, pace Joe Carter, Catholics take for granted that their country’s flag will hang somewhere off to one side of the sacristy; fidelity to our political community is, after all, a lesser but real virtue, and it is only a real virtue so long as it is not in tension with our fidelity to Christ.***

    I think you make an excellent point. But I think this simply causes American Catholics to err in a different direction. While American Protestants try to bring the values of the nation in line with the church, many American Catholics have convinced themselves that the nation and state have non-overlapping magisteria. For example, many seem not to recognize the tension in being strongly pro-life and yet supporting candidates (and a political party) that is strongly in favor of abortion rights. If pressed they could probably justify such actions by shifting the focus to other “seamless garment” issues. But the truth seems to be that for all practical purposes they don’t think the church should tell them how to vote. They have compartmentalized these areas of their lives into separate areas, and allow them only the most tenous connection.

    Of course at the acadmic level you can find both Protestant and Catholic thinkers that have a robust political theology and an understanding of how church and state should relate. But at the level of the average pew-sitter it seems that such thinking is muddy if not downright incoherent.

  4. Very interesting and informative answers, Joe. As Bob Cheeks would put it, you may have defused things before much heat could be generated.

    But, since you enjoy the “guilt by association” of First Things, let’s contemplate the Just War debates carried out in its pages, with ever the thumb pressed in favor of preemptive war. There’s an instance where, of the major articles in any sound Just War theology, we heard much of the last one, i.e. that it is the State’s sovereign decision to enter into a war regardless of whether that war meets the usual antecedent principles (just cause, right motive, prudential necessity).

    I do not deny the validity of such an idea, but merely point out that it was issued forth rather blithely by the same people who — objectively, rightly — blast the Cuomo doctrine . . . But let me leave off on this. My point is not to pull that infuriating rhetorical zepher where opposition to war or the death penalty is treated as if it compensated for pro-abortion policies. Rather, it is your particular language in the latter half of your comment I would critique; it could rightly describe, say, Weigel’s reading of Caritas in Veritate as much as it could the John Kerrys of the world.

    As to the first part of your comment, I’m not sure even with your more robust account I could fully agree with you. It seems to rely on caricatures that sound neither intuitively right nor accurate upon reflection — a slight off-key that I noticed also in your reflections on Crawford’s book. And yet, I sense room for some agreement. Civil religion as it rose up in America served, as I said previously, a kind of gate-keeper function, i.e. “If you Jesus-people, you good enough to stay for dinner.” And it still serves that. For once, I would follow Michael Novak in saying that that is probably a reading of “One Nation Under God” more in line with the founding fathers than your comments seem to grant.

    In any case, I’ll leave it up to Kate and Caleb to determine just how unhinged FPR is from those who till the earth (even in the age of no-tillage farming).

  5. Actually, I wouldn’t mind a little skirmish on this one, a rather interesting subject and one worth of both camp’s steel!
    So, if someone would just cast the first insult, maybe we can get D.W. to throw some gasoline on it.

  6. James, regarding your first response, I did wonder what sort of response I would receive from RC’s. I admit that evangelicals and Roman Catholics have different political theologies, I’m not quite so sure about differences between RC’s and paleo-Protestants. Be that as it may, it strikes me that civil religion in America has a Roman Catholic source, namely, pining for Christendom while accommodating Locke, Jefferson, and all that. If that’s so, then perhaps a more basic difference that likely transcends pomo’s and fropo’s is what to make of Constantine, or better, which part of Augustine’s City of God do we read?

  7. Joe, I appreciate your responses here and at FT’s blog, but I do wonder if you have your finger on the pulse of the readership and editors of both FT and FPR. The sort of civil religion you describe is prevalent at World magazine, Focus on the Family, and talk-show hosts like Bill Bennett, Laura Ingraham, Michael Medved, and Hugh Hewitt. Now I would bet FT has many more of the members, readers, and audience of these outlets than FPR does or ever will.

    Plus, I wonder what you make of Jody’s article on the Protestant mainline from a year ago. It strikes this historian who has some familiarity with anti-Catholicism a tad strange that a Roman Catholic would ever long for a return to the days of the Protestant mainline for whom civil religion was synonymous with Rome as un-American. But such respect for religions that prop up the nation is evident among the various faiths of neo-cons, hence the Salem Radio network’s ability to patch together Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant talk show hosts for a largely evangelical audience. I’m betting also that Bennett and company find more to agree with in Jody’s article on the mainline than in Stegall’s or Deneen’s localism.

  8. Now that you put it that way, Darryl, I would suggest that the version of civil religion you perceive goes back even further. When I trolled through the early Puritain documents as a student, it quickly became clear that they were struggling to accomodate Christendom to Locke even before they knew about Locke. Forgive the vague reference, but I recall especially the accounts of how they dealt with Anne Hutchinson as revealing a sort of bewilderment: how does one proclaim certain doctrinal condemnations without a shared conception of who may speak ex cathedra and how.

    Because you and Joe have both deployed definitions of civil religion in ways distinct from me, I’ll just ask: is there an agreed upon definition of the phrase among intellectual historians? I see a range of different conceptions of “civil religion” having appeared since the Reformation, and the one that I, perhaps improperly, assumed was most acceptable and relevant in our context was that which Tocqueville described (hence my criticism of Joe for drawing on Rousseau). Since paleo-Protestantism has been one of my newer interests in the last couple years, I’d be curious to see how it can or should be fleshed out in contradistinction from Catholicism.

  9. James, I am basically using civil religion the way that Robert Bellah defined it. Here’s one quote from Bellah:

    “What we have, then, from the earliest years of the republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity. This religion-there seems no other word for it-while not antithetical to and indeed sharing much in common with Christianity, was neither sectarian nor in any specific sense Christian. At a time when the society was overwhelmingly Christian, it seems unlikely that this lack of Christian reference was meant to spare the feelings of the tiny non-Christian minority. Rather, the civil religion expressed what those who set the precedents felt was appropriate under the circumstances. It reflected their private as well as public views. Nor was the civil religion simply “religion in general.” While generality was undoubtedly seen as a virtue by some, as in the quotation from Franklin above, the civil religion was specific enough when it came to the topic of America. Precisely because of this specificity, the civil religion was saved from empty formalism and served as a genuine vehicle of national religious self-understanding.

    “But the civil religion was not, in the minds of Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, or other leaders, with the exception of a few radicals like Tom Paine, ever felt to be a substitute for Christianity. There was an implicit but quite clear division of function between the civil religion and Christianity.”

    Interestingly enough, in this article Bellah quotes both JFK and Abraham Lincoln as expressing this civil faith:

    Kennedy: “Finally, whether you are citizens of America or of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice that we shall ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

    Lincoln: “If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”

    Bellah’s article is here:

    On paleo-Protestants, I’d simply say that they were agreed with medieval Roman Catholicism on natural law and the functions of the magistrate more than contemporary Protestants realize. That’s not to say some big political-theological differences may exist, or that the Reformation didn’t upset European politics. But paleo-Prots are far more on the other side of 1776 than commonly realized.

    On your point about the Puritans, I guess I need to be convinced that church polity is a paradigm for statecraft. I’m not a big fan of the New England Puritans, but neither am I as a Protestant particularly wild about the papacy. Even so, I don’t see why I as a jure divino Presbyterian can’t support a constitutional monarchy. My sense it’s a matter of wisdom, not specially revealed truth.

  10. Darryl, thanks, that helps. I should have said that my account of civil religion attends as much to Burke as it does to Tocqueville, hence my reference to latitudinarianism previously. I’m not sure I would understand why it would ever have occurred to early Americans (including those post-Revolution) to see civil religion as separate from or as a potential rival to Christianity. Given the doctrinal fluidity and mutability of American Christianity, and given the necessary vagueness of civil religion (just as one’s neighbor is vague, relatively speaking, when looked at from across the fence), it seems pretty clear that a few fundamental ideas from Christianity were American civil religion until someone finally thought to attack them; the great masses to which Joe refers are those who quite understandably cannot see why someone would attack the form of Christianity they see as foundational to the cohesive functioning of a free society. Being “vaguely Christian” is like the signature of the soul on the American social contract (that’s not my opinon, that’s my description of how American thought traditionally functions).

    But let’s get things back to your original post. Since I’m an ultramontane Catholic who believes that the State is subordinate to the Mystical Body of Christ and that it should recognize that subordination in codified law when possible (e.g. Ireland’s 1932 (?) Constitution), and since my adamant localism derives from two Catholic ideas a) its Thomist anthropology of man as a social animal and b) its social doctrine of subsidiarity, would it not be reasonable to presume that there are divisions in FPR every bit as decisive as those evident between FPR and First Things? (Or am I simply an outlier at FPR in one direction, as R.A. Fox is in another?)

    Finally, there is clearly a conception of civil religion shared among many First Things writers (Catholic or otherwise) that ironically makes them look, to me, more like “JFK meets Charles Maurras” than, as Joe seemed to suggest, persons deeply suspicious of a non-Rousseauistic civil religion.

    I think I’ll hold my peace and just listen to whatever anyone might have to say in response to these musings.

  11. The following is a cut-n-paste from a discussion I had with DGH and others several years back, so it may seem slightly out of context, though it seems relevant to this discussion …

    … [T]here is such a thing as justice, but the most basic political questions center around scarcity and death, and justice is often forced to play second fiddle. We will not cheer, nor should we cheer, a statesman who does not act swiftly and ruthlessly to supress threats to the social order we depend upon. And even justice defined as “to each his own” in most definately not a Christian principle. …

    The fact is that these “Christian principles” of politics everyone keeps pointing to do not exist. … When we use justice and other moral sounding words to describe our politics it ought to be understood as a veneer of civilization [i.e., a civil religion, a noble myth, etc.] that contains many ambiguities and outright contradictions. Something for the boyscouts and church-ladies. If the statesmen begin to believe it, or, worse, the boyscouts and church-ladies become statesmen, then you are in real trouble.

    At least pacifists have actual arguments about what Christianity requires for politics. It is suicide, if you ask me, but if you are going to drag the Gospel into the public square, that is what an honest argument will get you. Go back and pay careful attention to Jody Bottum’s discussion of the death penalty. Or read the theorists Bottum is depending on such as Rene Girard. They are right: Christianity denies the state a whole raft of necessary tools, such as “cosmic justice.” Fact is, I don’t want a Christianized state because if it were truly Christian it would not be capable of maintaining order for very long (nor do I want a wholly pagan state complete with blood fueds, etc., but a penitent state, as described earlier). This is akin to the argument I am sure many of you are familiar with that the Protestant abandonment of the Augustinian compromises which undergirded the middle ages inexorably leads to liberalizing orders, which eventually lose the will to live. Read Hobbes, Nietzsche, or any modern theorist.

    I think one problem with these discussions is that the protestant church at least does not produce any political philosophers, but primarily theologians and christian college professors. We are, for the most part, not even familiar with the fundamental texts [present company excepted, of course]. This is reason enough to suggest that all us churchmen ought to quit commenting on matters of state.

    When faced with such hopelessly naive rule from the “justice and freedom” right (GWB, anyone?) or the “social justice and love” left, one begins to understand some of the wisdom of the Grand Inquisitor. However, such stark admissions are not psychically tolerable for many people who need to believe that God, the Bible, good intentions, and/or political theory X offer us a body of principles that, if applied in the political sphere, would sustain a society in which one would almost never have to choose lesser evils or justify immoral means with moral ends. Such people want and are able to believe that these kinds of infernal, damning bargains are lies and swindles that may be refused by those who bear worldly power. They want and are able to believe this because they have been removed, by means of various opiates (including forms of Christianity) and phantasms, from the ever-Machiavellian realities of the world. This fantasy is the real problem.

  12. Religion is to some extent a red herring in the sense that we are all Conditional Co-operators. We are hard-wired through our many years as hunter-gatherers to be both selfish and altruistic. How could a universal force make us otherwise to operate successfully within the necessary determinants of nature’s energy (genetic) drive? We are, therefore, not perfectible beyond this condition.

    We can witness our true nature by seeing that whilst we will usually tend to pay extra special attention to our own interests and those to whom we have strong emotional bonds we will rise to the occasion and rescue complete strangers from danger. We will even go to war for love of our fellow citizens against those we perceive threaten our interests. Most interesting of all is that sometimes at great personal cost we will seek to punish cheaters and free-loaders. This is the conditional part of our natures. We do this because we know allowing individuals to engage in zero-sum games results in dysfunction for large numbers of citizens. The Sub-Prime Disaster is a classic example of this. Engaging in non-zero-sum activities builds trust and trust is a very important component of co-operation. It is human co-operation that has enabled us to manipulate nature, to commoditize it, and reach the stage of civilization that we are at.

    Trust has been falling in the United States and other developed countries largely because we have lost sight of the importance of trust in relationship to co-operation and how co-operation builds well-being for all. This again is the central message of the Sub-Prime Disaster. An event caused by societies allowing to many zero-sum games to be played for too long. We have failed to understand that liberty requires control. We have failed to understand because of the corruption of government by zero-sum cheaters and free-loaders that the principle agency for imposing tolerable limits upon our behavior to each other is government and not the market. Indeed many have failed to understand that markets can only work by government imposing constraints, such as anti-monopoly laws, fair contract laws, etc. In the United States one of the strongest indicators of how little understanding there is of the importance of trust is the repeated failure to reform gun laws. Switch on your local TV news at supper time and there will be a lengthy litany of murders caused by the easy availability of guns. How can trust within communities be built by allowing such hazard to exist within their environments. How can businesses and civic organizations hope to flourish in such environments? Guns are but one example of the zero-sum games that are increasingly being played in societies. The main zero-sum game though we allow to be played is the use of capital for power whereby a small elite is allowed to control the use of capital for their own selfish interests. Monopolies are created. Unfair global trading rules are permitted. Indeed the majority of us have to bargain like serfs for our wages from a position of unequal power to the elites. Our inability to share the power of capital means that most of us have little control to influence the direction and activity of enterprise. The benefits of our co-operative abilities accordingly cannot flourish to their maximum potential. By restricting the full use of our co-operative abilities elite owned and run enterprises also restrict the creation of trust which is a mutually reinforcing catalyst in co-operation. In short, enterprise is not operated to realize its maximum potential because of zero-sum games driven by greed or put more simply lack of tolerable limits on our liberty.

    How can we get out of our increasingly disastrous decline? We can recognize our true nature as hard-wired Conditional Co-operators and start re-adjusting our societies to operate on the basis of non-zero-sum rules. We might see the ideas of distributism as offering some ideas in that direction. We might also start to see religion as really being largely based on our Conditional Co-operator natures as demonstrated in all religions with the emphasis on the importance of the Golden Rule. We might finally see that the main importance of religion should be to act as an energizer to create a non-zero-sum world.

  13. Daryl and James and Joe have very quickly elevated this thread above my ability to contribute much in a substantive way, but a couple of thoughts nonetheless:

    1. There seems to be some dispute over the nature of intellectual sympathy and/or shared concerns between those thinkers and writers who self-identify as “postmodern conservatives,” and those who speak for First Things. Of course, it may be that there is no necessary reason to assume any overlap between them: PomoCon is a blog, and FT is a website that gave that blog a home for purposes of attracting readers and fostering discussion, and that’s it, end of story. But more than a few things have been written by various PomoCons (I think in particular of Ralph Hancock’s comments about PomoCons being realistic “regime” thinkers) which lead me to believe that said overlap is there, though the question of what areas of thought it covers and to what degree remains unclear. In any case, though, if there is some overlap, then I have to view Joe’s disavowel of civil religion, particularly sectarian civil religion, with some suspicion, as James has already demonstrated above. Especially, I’m somewhat disconserted by Joe’s enlistment of Michael Novak for the separationist crowd, since Michael wrote On Two Wings, one of the more explicit attempts to demonstrate that the God which America’s founders assumed would form the basis of the nation’s moral sensibility and infrastructure really was “the God who died on the Cross.”

    2. Joe’s main point seems to be basically an anti-populist or anti-majoritarian one: most of the folks in rural Kansas probably think of Jesus when they say the Pledge of Allegiance, if they had to put a name to whatever it is they’re thinking of, and therefore anyone who defends populist policies or the empowerment of local communities is, whether they like it or not, making room for this kind of simplistic America = a Christian nation-type of civil religion. Hence, the Front Porch, as a place which defends patriotism and other expressions of attachment to community and locality, supports a civil religion. If I’m correct in my reading of his rebuttal of Daryl’s original suggestion, then I suppose I would have to agree with him. Nor to I find that necessarily troubling; it invites all sorts of potential abuses, of course, but I would note that it is, by definition, also a limited expression of civil piety: God is here, with these people, in this place, at this time. It’s an expression of a relationship, a covenant, a gift. Contrast that to the “public religion” that Joe suggests as an alternative to such civil piety, which seems to me to incorporate far ideological baggage than a belief that God loves Kansas or Utah or Montana or upper-state New York; quoting Novak and John Meacham, Joe says a public religion emphasizes “the link between religion and republican virtues, and…an almost religious sense of obligation to defend liberty at home and, at times, around the world.” If the populist/localist/majoritarian/community-based “civil religion” of rural Kansans has sounded like an attempt to make God aggressively and ideological partisan in recent years, I suspect it has more to do with the influence of FT-inspire public-religion theoconservatism, than anything inherent to civil religion itself.

    But then, I guess that’s not really my debate, as I’m a strange kind of conservative myself, and don’t completely agree that Rousseau was a villain in the first place.

  14. Freedom of Religion and a Secular Republican Government , as opposed to a Monarch and its State Religion remains one of the chief reasons organized religion remains such a vibrant and important thing in this country. Combine them and both suffer with religion getting the worst of the beating because the State always jumps on the life raft first, pushing woman and children away with dispatch.

    Being timorously agnostic and of Mencken’s disposition, I am always suspicious of government piety and so I can really offer nothing of any substance on this issue. What I can say however, is that having been a lifelong dissenter toward organized religion, I have seen this stance soften and become far better informed while engaged with this site. More importantly, I have come to see much to be gained by the independent yet compassionate and frequently good-humored stance proffered by many here. Perhaps the softening passions of age are at work here but it is more than that…there are principles espoused here and a strong sense of intellectual exploration and , at basis, a neighborly and ecumenical tip of the hat from a variety of porches, perhaps just forbearance…but something that I think Republics spring forth from and thrive. It is like a good marriage one supposes, where there may be differences and indeed spirited differences at work but at the end of the day, the marriage works quite naturally on the basis of productive engagement and does not need to waste any time crowing about it . In fact, as soon as one party or the other begins crowing too much, one senses there is mischief at work.

    Cheeks, my gas can on this subject is empty..unless, you want to mention one of the more dubious ideas of the previous and now current administration…. the government offices of so called “Faith Based Initiatives”. This is high comedy indeed because one is reduced to a reliance on Faith for anything this government attempts. Had the Mormon’s waited for FEMA to grant them entrance to the lower Ninth Ward of Katrina slapped New Orleans, they would not have gotten in as quickly as they did.

  15. D.W. I gotta little choked up reading your above comments. Next thing you know you’re gonna have a ‘come to Jesus moment.” Alas, you are quite right about the porch, I love the give and take, the brilliant often contrary arguments, then at the end of the day, in most cases, there’s a ‘goodnight, dude,’ that emotes from the ethereal mists.
    I’m trying to pull a comment out of the ‘spam’ box at PoMoCon (I’m trying to save civilization there) but hope to contribute a little something if it’s only stomach pains for someone.

  16. At FPR, I suspected there is little shared consensus on political theology and civil religion, and this thread confirms it, so I am skeptical as to the validity of Joe Carter’s post, as in when he seems to imply a shared understanding of civil religion here:

    Although he never says so directly, Hart hints that the Front Porchers reject civil religion while the PomoCons (and others at First Things) would embrace it. To me, this seems exactly backwards.

    The reason for the lack of consensus at FPR, in my opinion, is that the very concept of “civil religion” presupposes both modernity’s flawed conceptions of “religion” and of “politics” as entities that can be adequately separated at a fundamental level, and modernity’s totalitarian stance of elites managing all of society from a distance atop a tower of Babel.

    My sense is that the contributors to FPR (more of less) reject modernity, and in so far as they do, they may have problems with the very concept of “civil religion” itself that are more profound than mere acceptance or rejection of it. And yet, given the theological differences represented here, FPRs are nonetheless able to achieve consensus on certain matters because the rejection of modernity entails a rejection of the divisive, abstract quarrels divorced from particular local realities in favor of real, local participation in community that softens the edges of debates through small-scale relations.

    Reading William Cavanaugh’s “‘A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House’: The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State” will provide a glimpse as to what I mean by “more profound problems than mere acceptance or rejection of ‘civil religion.'” His article gets to the heart of how even the framework of our language concerning “religion” and “politics” is not without question.

  17. D.W., What you say is conventional wisdom dating back to Tocqueville (so it must have some truth to it!), but I think it an inadequate account. A “separation” of Church and State, of course, has no necessary bearing on the essential dependence of all areas of speculative and practical life on theological foundations. Therefore, regardless of a polity’s state formation, religion “subtends” politics, and good theology makes for good politics.

    Albert, as always, is dead on.

    I cannot wait to read this long awaited and much needed book by Cavanaugh:

  18. Mr. Wilson, thanks for the heads up on Cavanaugh’s new book, which I had not known about. I’ll try to get some publicity for it if it’s as good as his earlier work (in the judgment of those wiser than myself).

  19. DGH: The sort of civil religion you describe is prevalent at World magazine, Focus on the Family, and talk-show hosts like Bill Bennett, Laura Ingraham, Michael Medved, and Hugh Hewitt. Now I would bet FT has many more of the members, readers, and audience of these outlets than FPR does or ever will.

    Having worked for World magazine, Family Research Council (a close associate of FotF), and for Bill Bennett, I have to say that I don’t think that is completely truth. The audience of each of these is no doubt largely comprised of the Christian Nation-types. But for the most part the people that work there are more skeptical of that sort of thing than you’d imagine.

    Plus, I wonder what you make of Jody’s article on the Protestant mainline from a year ago. It strikes this historian who has some familiarity with anti-Catholicism a tad strange that a Roman Catholic would ever long for a return to the days of the Protestant mainline for whom civil religion was synonymous with Rome as un-American.

    I thought Jody’s article was much more nuanced than that. He simply takes Prostantism as a historical fact that, when it passed, took with it something important. The key graf is this one:

    . . . Protestantism nonetheless gave America something vital: a social unity and cultural definition that did not derive entirely from political arrangements and economic relations. And America gave Protestantism something in return: a chance to flourish without state interference, a freedom to fulfill the human desire for what lies beyond the material world.

    It seems this would be a theme that would resonate with FPRers.

    But such respect for religions that prop up the nation is evident among the various faiths of neo-cons, hence the Salem Radio network’s ability to patch together Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant talk show hosts for a largely evangelical audience.

    I think there is a much simpler explanation for Salem recruiting Catholics, Jews, and Mainliners: We evangelicals have so few people that have the talent for such political discourse that we can’t even staff our own radio stations.

    I’m betting also that Bennett and company find more to agree with in Jody’s article on the mainline than in Stegall’s or Deneen’s localism.

    I suspect that Bennett would like both. He probably doesn’t see a necessary tension between localism and a shared sense of Americanism.
    Russel Arben Fox . . . In any case, though, if there is some overlap, then I have to view Joe’s disavowel of civil religion, particularly sectarian civil religion, . . .

    I may have caused some confusion about what I think civil religion is. In my estimation, it is not merely the mixing of religon and the state, but the use of religion tropes and sentiments to further the agenda of the state. While this is still done, of course, I don’t think you’ll find anyone at FT that advocates for that type of thing. Also, what I have been calling the Christian Nation variety of civil religion probably isn’t civil religion at all, but its reverse (religious civilness?) since it uses the tropes and sentiments of the state to further the agenda of a religious perspective.

    Especially, I’m somewhat disconserted by Joe’s enlistment of Michael Novak for the separationist crowd, since Michael wrote On Two Wings, one of the more explicit attempts to demonstrate that the God which America’s founders assumed would form the basis of the nation’s moral sensibility and infrastructure really was “the God who died on the Cross.”

    I can’t speak for Novak or—despite the puffery of my original post—much of anyone else at FT. I’m made a lot of assumptions about where I believe they stand, though I could certainly be wrong.

    As for Novak, I see three possible interpretations (based on your summary since I haven’t read that particular book). One is that he is simply wrong, as I think he is in his claim in Washington’s God that George Washington was a somewhat orthodox Christian. The second is that he could be saying that the Founders were referring to the Trinitarian God even if they didn’t know it. This is much the same thing that goes on when Christians say that we worship the same God as the Jewish people. If it really is the “same” God then they are worshiping Jesus and just don’t know it. I think this is even more rude and insulting than saying that we don’t, in fact, actually worship the same God. But that is the game we play to maintain civility.

    The third possibility is similar to the second. Novak could be saying that when the Founders talked about God they were actually talking about God. Too often we treat the deity as if he were an abstract concept in which other alternatives were possible. There is, however, only one actual God. Everything else is just a false idea that has no actual existence, and therefore no real role except as a useful fiction. Novak could be saying that by basing our moral sensibility on the Being Who Actually Exist, the Founders were doing something wholly different than simply propping up a noble lie to get the unwashed masses to act right.

    Joe’s main point seems to be basically an anti-populist or anti-majoritarian one:. . .

    Whoa, hold up a second: I certainly don’t intend to come off as anti-populist (though anti-majoritarian I can live with). While I think the elites (represented here by the folks at FT and FPR) are right, that doesn’t mean I am bashing the people who hold this view.
    . . .but I would note that it is, by definition, also a limited expression of civil piety: God is here, with these people, in this place, at this time.

    I could certainly see our friends here at FPR thinking that when they say the Pledge. But I would still hold that their neighbors view it quite differently. The Pledge of Allegiance, for instance, is to a national symbol, not to a specific location (that’s why in Texas we have the Pledge of Allegiance to the Texas flag, so we can cover all our bases). It’s okay to substitute in one’s head “one state of Kansas” when saying “one nation under God.” But we shouldn’t assume that this what our neighbors are thinking.

    Also, I always assumed that God is here, in America, with these people, at this time. I never thought to assume he was only with us Texans. (I suspect that God loves even those parts of America that I don’t care for.)

    . . . than a belief that God loves Kansas or Utah or Montana or upper-state New York

    But doesn’t God love the Republic? If not, then does he not love the Front Porch Republic? ; )

    Albert: My sense is that the contributors to FPR (more of less) reject modernity, and in so far as they do, they may have problems with the very concept of “civil religion” itself that are more profound than mere acceptance or rejection of it.

    I’ve never really understood what that means? How can anyone live in America and “reject modernity?” It would be easier—though still well nigh impossible—to reject capitalism, democracy, reality TV and the other fruits of modernity than it would be reject modernity itself.

    The best that could be done, in my estimation, is what the PomoCons try to do: try to run to the end of modernity and see what is worth salvaging.

  20. Joe,

    Thanks for the comment. A couple of responses:

    You have a very judicious and careful reading of Novak, which I respect, as you’re certainly more familiar with the man than I. I only know what I observed and heard when he was at Catholic University in 2000, working on and presenting the research he was doing for On Two Wings. I thought then–and still think today–it was a baldly (and highly flawed) attribution of a sectarian Christian “civil religion” perspective to the American Founders.

    I could certainly see our friends here at FPR thinking that [a limited expression of civil piety] when they say the Pledge. But I would still hold that their neighbors view it quite differently. The Pledge of Allegiance, for instance, is to a national symbol, not to a specific location (that’s why in Texas we have the Pledge of Allegiance to the Texas flag, so we can cover all our bases). It’s okay to substitute in one’s head “one state of Kansas” when saying “one nation under God.” But we shouldn’t assume that this what our neighbors are thinking.

    But I, at least, am not supposing that the FPR approach is to do something different than what our (non-elite? populist?) “neighbors” do. I agree that the flag is a national symbol, and that the Pledge of Allegiance is an expression of devotion to, and faith in, that land which the flag symbolizes. Isn’t that land–namely, the United States of America, the “republic” which the Pledge mentions–also a “specific location”? I mean, it’s here; it’s not Argentina or Chad. Granted, the Pledge and so much else which travels under the name of patriotism in America can and often does mean a devotion to something abstract and ideological: the ideas in the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence, perhaps. All sorts of people will claim that the “meaning of America” is something purely civic, untied to anything spatial or historical or ethnic. And who knows–maybe you’re right, maybe that is what our local neighbors are thinking. In my experience, though, most American localists really love (or at least have an intense relationship with), in addition to their own particular American places, America, the country, the republic, the place. A civil religion that leads people to feel piously about their country is not something to be discounted, I think, nor is it something that I think any proper Front Porcher should or would have a problem with.

    The difference that I alluded to in my closing lines–and I freely admit that I may be an outlier here at FPR in this regard–is that I see a difference between a civil religion that grants citizens a spiritual understanding of the general relationship they have with the people they are part of (this, I think, is perfectly compatible with localism), and a “public religion” that postulates that what God really loves is not particular places, but particular (republican or democratic) principles. I’ve no doubt that God, in His wisdom, has preferences for how His children ought to organize themselves and live together. (Of course I do; I’m a Mormon, and we’ve got a history of collective projects galore.) But that kind of piety I think is politically dangerous, much more dangerous than a belief that God loves our places and our ways of living in those places, because He loves us as His children, and therefore can’t not love the places we choose to be.

  21. RAF . . . a “public religion” that postulates that what God really loves is not particular places, but particular (republican or democratic) principles. I’ve no doubt that God, in His wisdom, has preferences for how His children ought to organize themselves and live together. (Of course I do; I’m a Mormon, and we’ve got a history of collective projects galore.) But that kind of piety I think is politically dangerous, much more dangerous than a belief that God loves our places and our ways of living in those places, because He loves us as His children, and therefore can’t not love the places we choose to be.

    Ah, I see what you’re saying now. You’re right, that’s a very important distinction and one that hadn’t occurred to me. I may have been reading something into Novak’s summary of Meachem’s remark that wasn’t there (agreeing with a concept that I received as if it were transmitted like a game of Telephone is always dangerous).

    I was reading it as more of our collective civil response to God’s expectations rather than the political structures that God prefers. In other words, I saw it as our republican and democratic virtues flowing from our attempts to treat all people as equal in worth and dignity, rather than as being forms of governance that God prefers. My friend John Mark Reynolds once said that “God is not a Republican or a Democrat, he’s probably a monarchist.” I think the same holds true for small “r” republicans and small “d” democrats.

    I also believe that God is a “localist.” After all, as Abraham Kuyper once said, “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!'”

  22. Wilson,
    As to the “conventional wisdom”….I was careful not to use the terms :”Separation” of church and state or a “firewall” between church and state or some of the other over-statements of history because I generally agree with you. Many of the Framers who were Deists and most secular in their leanings toward the relationship between church and state would not likely have used the term “firewall” that is bandied about by militant secularists today. The frequency of use of the term “providence” or “providential” in the writings of the Framers generation would seem to acknowledge that they saw their experiment as a part and parcel of a spiritual existence.

    That said, I continue to believe the distinction…institutionally…is an important one with both benefiting by the distinction and both suffering by blurring the lines. Many of those conservatives who fell for the breezy and calculated use of God as Campaign Slogan have seen their support re-paid with an erosion of both the larger society and a complete bungling of their political agency.

    We are seeng a continuing homogenization and commodification of the citizenry and the “separate but equal”…to use another loaded historic term….relationship of organized religion and the State is one of the things that puts the breaks on the mongrelization of the culture. It falls neatly into the “Separation of Powers” doctrine that is continuing to be eroded at our ongoing peril.

  23. Re what I think Novak is getting at — and I use my friend, co-blogger (and devoted First Things reader) Tom Van Dyke’s likeminded endorsement of Michael Novak’s work — is that Novak in embracing the “public religion” of the American Founding posits something more ecumenical than an “orthodox Christianity” that defines God as Triune.

    If Christians by definition worship a “Triune God,” you just can’t get a “Christian” Founding civil religion; you just can’t. So instead the term “Judeo-Christian” is offered and questions like original sin, the Trinity (and cognate orthodox doctrines) are taken off the table.

    “Judeo-Christian,” though, as a vague term has its own problems (it’s one I don’t endorse to describe the civil religion of the American Founding).

  24. Especially, I’m somewhat disconserted by Joe’s enlistment of Michael Novak for the separationist crowd, since Michael wrote On Two Wings, one of the more explicit attempts to demonstrate that the God which America’s founders assumed would form the basis of the nation’s moral sensibility and infrastructure really was “the God who died on the Cross.”

    I’ve never read “On Two Wings,” but have read (and reviewed for Liberty Magazine) “Washington’s God,” and have read most of Novak’s articles on the Founding and religion.

    I engaged him (briefly) in an online debate for Encyclopedia Britannica; he actually was engaging Brooke Allen and I was blogging and commenting and I kept pressing the Trinity/orthodoxy issue.

    He replied in an article and seemed extremely equivocal that Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement were anything central to the “civil” definition of Founding era Christianity. That is Novak seems to recognize (contra the “Christian Nation” crowd) that the God of the American Founding isn’t necessarily the God who died on the cross.

    He did misunderstand a bit my position (but I don’t care that he didn’t read me too closely as I am a nobody). He wrote:

    Rowe holds that “the primary ‘end’ of religion is morality itself,” and that the three distinctive tenets “which distinguish Christianity from all the other world religions” are “things like the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement.”

    I actually argued that the FFs’ civil religion held the primary “end” of religion is morality itself but Christianity was distinguished by Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement. That is the FFs’ unitarian civil religion flipped the traditional Christian doctrine of works and grace on its head.

    Novak also wrote:

    Meanwhile, most of the American Founding Fathers would have recited the Nicene Creed with some regularity at Anglican services. The tenets of that creed include many more items than Mr. Rowe’s three. Such abstract terms as “Trinity” and “Atonement” do not appear in it.


    The three most distinctive features of Christianity (in a political context) include constant emphasis upon the axial role of human freedom. For Christians and Jews, freedom is at the heart of the matter.

    Second, some things belong to God, and Caesar dare not interfere with those. This teaching about Caesar and God is the great barrier to any form of political totalitarianism. It is the ultimate ground of the “separation” of state and church.

    The third distinctive feature is a recognition that humans, even the best, often do what they ought not to do, and do not do what they ought to do. Human sinfulness is a fact of life. It makes necessary checks and balances, and a division of powers.

    These three distinctive marks of Christianity are cited frequently by the Founders. Alexander Hamilton in 1802:…

    You got that, in defining civil “Judeo-Christianity” Novak sidesteps issues of orthodoxy and posits 1) Freedom, 2) institutional separation of church and state, and 3) man’s sinful nature.

    I’ll let the readers decide on the “authenticity” of the theological system Novak seems to be cheering.

  25. D.W.
    Prof. Wilson is right, I think, in saying that good theology makes good politics for the very fundamental reason that man is a being designed to seek Infinite Being, to bear witness to a nonexistent reality.
    Man is a spiritual being, but because we have culturally, historically, and philosophically severed our ties with this traditional ‘nonexistent’ reality as a result of the Enlightenment, ect and the ensuing second realities it is our task to restore the order lost. It is this act of restoration that finds Wilson arguing for his particular and unique form of governance and finds you revealing a certain desire, or movement, or feeling re: matters of faith, spirit, or nonexistent reality.
    This searching, questing, and seeking for order has also brought into existence the FPR and its associated academics and intellectuals and their various critiques of modernity, culture, and politics. But, I think, the basis of this effort, as Dr. Wilson argues, must be grounded in the acknowledgment of the Logos, as the only opportunity for man to recover the truth of the tension of existence that has been lost.
    All of this is of course a tremendous challenge because we are emerging from an age that engaged in a revolt against theology/metaphysics and failed to capture the tension of existence while simultaneously destroying the old symbols that in order to gain the truth of reality must be restored.
    This may be FPR’s most daunting task because the restoration must be conducted sans ideology and dogmatic distortions, the horrid effects of the libido dominandi, the lure of Nietzsche’s ‘self-salvation'(the distortion of individualism), the perverse idea that a philosophy of consciousness found in Hegelian dialectical speculation can be substituted for revelation, and the temptations inherent within the various doctrines of the epigonic Marxists.

  26. Joe: I had no idea you were so well “gonnected” with the evangelical world. I still have reservations about the Protestant mainline and Jody’s take on it, though. I don’t presume to speak for all Fropo’s, but I suspect most of us would object to the politics of the Protestant mainline’s civil religion, a set of political convictions that favored the nation over localism, progressivism over tradition, centralization over decentralization, and cultural uniformity over diversity. I mean you don’t have a high regard for Lincoln and Wilson and somehow hold on to the U.S. as a modest republic.

    The Protestant mainline’s civil religion is also a problem theologically and I’m surprised evangelicals would take a positive view of it, since the sort of Christianization of America in which the Protestant mainline engaged also involved a Social Gospel that abandoned crucial components of Protestant faith.

    So my concerns about civil religion and FT’s view of it remain.

  27. I still have reservations about the Protestant mainline and Jody’s take on it, though.

    I’m with you on having reservations about the Protestant mainline. And while I can’t speak for Jody, I think he would too. In fact, I think that article was a “not speaking evil of the dead.” I also suspect that it was simply a prefatory remark for his forthcoming book, The Catholic Awakening: How Catholicism Replaced Protestant Christianity as America’s National Church. The Amazon blurb says this about it:

    I think he would see this as more of the way it should be, rather than leaving it up to the mainline church.

  28. Oops . . . Here’s the missing blurb:

    “Something deep in American culture has always demanded a church—a source of morality that is not owned by the hard cash of the marketplace or the angry passions of politics. For two centuries, that role was filled by American Protestantism, but as the mainline Protestant churches have collapsed in recent decades, American culture has increasingly looked to Catholicism to provide the missing piece of the nation’s soul.

    In THE CATHOLIC AWAKENING, the influential Catholic neoconservative Joseph Bottum explains how the disappearance of the Protestant churches helped join the once-marginalized Catholics and Evangelicals. For two hundred years, the antagonism between Catholics and Protestants was a consistent force in America, but it has been replaced with a growing unity that represents a new political reality. Coalitions of Catholics and Protestants now have the power to swing elections and affect the way politics is conducted in this country.”

  29. Joe, perhaps the Roman Catholic church’s experiment with American civil religion will work out better than Notre Dame football’s dalliance with NBC, but I doubt it will. The United States is an exacting dissolver of tradition.

  30. Here’s some of my thoughts on William Cavanaugh’s and Aurel Kolnai’s critique of Maritain, whose “democratic charter” was pretty much a Catholic-Rawlsian project for a civil religion:

    Though differing radically in methodology and theological and philosophical starting points, Rawls and Maritain end up in a similar practical place in their endorsement of the fundamental structure and practices of the liberal democratic regime. William Cavanaugh, though identical to Maritain in fundamental theological and philosophical starting points, could not be more opposed to him in practical destination, in the moral and theological assessment of the present liberal democratic regime and the historical development that brought it about. Maritain’s positive judgment regarding the “coming of age” of the modern political order derives from his judgment that it has become more fully differentiated from the spiritual order, autonomous in its own sphere, and more conscious of its purely temporal nature, end, and duties. No longer unified by religious confession, which is a unity proper only to spiritual institutions such as the Church, the temporal order can now only be properly unified upon a non-confessional foundation and end, the promotion and vindication of the dignity, rights, and overall good of the human person. Such a development was not only a boon for the state, having now been liberated from its servile status as merely the temporal, coercive arm of the spiritual power, but was also a liberating development for the Church. It served to purify Her of all purely accidental and contingent temporal and political accoutrements, thereby permitting her the exercise of her full autonomy, power, and rights in the purely spiritual order. The breakup of Christendom was evil, but insofar as it occasioned (not necessarily caused) these positive differentiations, separations, and purifications, it was a boon, leading ultimately to the desacralized democratic state’s institutionalization of these positive goods. In short, whatever the errors and evils that beset our times, only in the modern era do we now possess the possibility of full obedience to and execution of Christ’s command to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.
    Cavanaugh’s main critique of Maritain’s argument that post-Reformation political history is friendly to, inspired by, and a fuller practical realization of the Gospel is not that it is merely mistaken, but that it is not even a genuine argument:
    According to Maritain, it is simply “common knowledge” that the distinction of spiritual and temporal and the creation of the desacralized state is “the achievement of the Christian centuries and their glory,” an assertion he seems to offer in order to bluff his way out of presenting any evidence that such is the case. Undoubtedly the distinction gradually took form during the Christian centuries, but it would be odd to call “their glory” what in fact coincided with their demise. Maritain’s contention that the best of liberal freedoms and universal human rights is the fruit of the Gospel’s subterranean work in Western culture similarly is based on mere assertion.
    What is most significant about Cavanaugh’s critique is that it begins from Maritain’s theological and philosophical premises, including the proper subordination of the temporal to the spiritual, the non-coercive character of the spiritual power of the Church, and the dignity of the human person. However, it ends in contrary evaluative judgments about the course of historical development that led to and the precise nature of the modern, liberal democratic regime:
    In this work Maritain is remarkably sanguine about the desacralization of the modern state, which he sees as the honored heir of the Christian era instead of its undertaker. While rightly applauding the extrication of the Church from entanglement with coercive state power, Maritain seems unable to contemplate the possibility that the modern distinction of temporal and spiritual, body and soul, has also served to subjugate the Church by creating a sphere of purely temporal power which is by definition property of the state alone.
    Instead of the potentially liberated and purified Church and state that Maritain envisions (potential, in the sense that the full liberty and purity in actuality still require the free and graced actions of Catholics in the world in cooperation with men of good will), Cavanaugh depicts a powerless church enslaved to a tyrannical state, using the historical example of the Catholic Church in Chile under the Pinochet regime.
    The reason Cavanaugh gives for this deplorable state of the Church is a false interpretation of the distinction of the temporal and the spiritual planes as the separation of spirit and body. Such has produced a purely incorporeal, and thus, powerless Church, under the thumb of a purely material, and thus, amoral state. While the modern state permits the Church to exert a purely moral and spiritual influence upon the souls of individual men and society in general, it does not permit it any substantial influence over their bodies. When it comes to bodily performance, discipline, and action, the state is lord. Whether primarily the cause of the state’s assumption of the body of its citizens or the effect of it—Cavanaugh does not entirely settle this point—the modernized Church has renounced her claim on the body of citizens; she now only claims authority over their souls.
    Thus, according to Cavanaugh, Maritain’s biggest mistake was to place his ostensibly moral and Gospel-inspired democratic charter under the aegis of an amoral and spiritless state, and not the Church, where all authority, including the ultimate coercive authority over men’s bodies, has its primary origin and locus. For Maritain, however, the Church’s political role is restricted to providing the theoretical foundation for the state’s authority and end in order to secure the freedom and rights of man, leaving the practical application and enforcement of these rights and freedoms to the state. For Cavanaugh, this separation of theory and practice, of body and soul, serves not to subordinate the temporal authority of the state to the spiritual authority of the Church, as Maritain would have it, but to give the state absolute authority over both the Church and individual men:
    Maritain, of course, is keen in theory to circumscribe the state’s power by limiting the state to purely temporal pretensions and subordinating the temporal to the spiritual. What he does not see is that this very distinction of planes can function to augment the power of the state by eliminating the interference of the Church. Maritain may declare that only God, and not the state, is truly sovereign, but once the Church has been individualized and eliminated as Christ’s body in the world, only the state is left to impersonate God. As the state itself becomes guarantor of rights, human rights become tied, in bitter irony, to the security of the state.
    Both Maritain and Rawls would claim that the inexorable reality of religious pluralism, the moral necessity of the political provision and defense of personal rights and freedoms like freedom of conscience and the right to life, and the just equality of all citizens under the law require the state to be detached from any particular comprehensive doctrine, leaving questions of ultimate purpose and personal obligations towards the transcendent realm for citizens and private institutions to answer and act upon without state interference. Yet, what Maritain does not see, according to Cavanaugh, is that as a result of this detachment and separation, the state itself has become the sole authoritative judge of the “correct” theoretical grounding of rights, the sole publicly recognized defender of the dignity of the person, and the sole determiner of the proper area of state detachment from and noninterference with the spiritual sphere. In short, the state retains the sole authority and power to define not only its own sphere of business but also that of the Church’s. It is the state that has the final say as to the claims of Caesar and God because it alone possesses the coercive power to enforce and thus authoritatively determine the boundaries and power of each claim. Why should the state look to a less powerful body, let alone the “bodiless” institution of the Church, for guidance when the latter no longer possesses or even aspires to the public identity of a politically authoritative body?
    Cavanaugh’s account of the origins and nature of the modern state is at the heart of his opposition to Maritain’s sanguine evaluation of it. The modern state was instrumental in creating the mythological identity of man as an autonomous, atomistic “individual” with no intrinsic and constitutive ties with other men; it thus served as a main catalyst for the breakup of the religious unity of Christendom. Indeed, the state itself was directly responsible for the violent religious conflicts that, according to the standard view, necessitated the centralized, “religiously neutral,” “peacemaking” power of the state:
    The rise of the state was not necessitated by the “Wars of Religion”; rather, these wars were the birth pangs of the state, in which the overlapping jurisdictions, allegiances, and customs of the medieval order were flattened and circumscribed into the new creation of the sovereign state (not always yet nation-state), a centralizing power with a monopoly on violence within a defined territory.
    Maritain mistakenly reads into Christ’s command to separate the things of Caesar from the things of God the modern collapse of the things of God into the merely private realm, what Rawls terms the “background culture”; and he is blind to the true import of this dynamic, the modern extension of the things of Caesar into all other realms, including the spiritual. Christ’s command was given by God himself, and since for both Maritain and Cavanaugh the Church is the directly authorized spokesman for Christ and thus for God, it should be the Church and the communities under it, not the state, that should define the precise sovereignty and distinction of planes, and that should oversee, inform, and ultimately, if necessary, coerce the activities of not only the souls of citizens but their bodies:
    Although he is certainly right to endorse the disentanglement of the Church from coercive state power, we should expect Maritain at least to acknowledge that the desacralization of the state is not historically separable from the very privatization of Christianity and rising nation-state ambitions to power that Maritain himself abhors.
    In short, the limitation of the state’s power must come from within the Church, not from the state, even if the state be a “gospel-inspired democratic charter” theoretically founded upon the authoritative teachings of the Church.
    While Maritain gives all theoretical authority to define the limits of the state to the Church, he places all practical coercive power and control regarding the enforcement of these limits to the state; therefore, he ends up unwittingly supporting the state in its tyrannical temporal hegemony, what Cavanaugh calls the state’s “soteriology.” The latter is not a cultural pluralism of thriving religious doctrines all sharing in the political prescriptions of the democratic charter, but a tyrannical imposition of an alien religion upon deceived and unwilling subscribers forced to submit to its irrational demands. The established religion of the state is, for Cavanaugh, raw, arbitrary power, and it is this mock-church, and not Maritain’s “purified” and “properly secular” state, that is the actual culmination of political history since the Reformation:
    Maritain believes that the careful distinguishing of the spiritual and temporal planes prevents this from happening in true democracies. He does not fully appreciate to what extent many modern states have already replaced, or at least displaced, other religions, including Christianity, either through the privatization of religion or the hostility of an ever-expanding state. The task of limiting the state’s power once it has been charged with maintaining a secular faith is at least more difficult than Maritain makes it out to be.
    Cavanaugh’s alternative political prescription is not a return to the medieval, theocratic Church-state union in which the Church is given a share in the coercive power of temporal authority; this would contribute, for Cavanaugh and Maritain alike, to the Church’s degradation, as it would be a corruption of her primary supernatural mission of salvation. Yet, Maritain’s solution is just as bad, since it also serves to degrade and corrupt the spiritual power of the Church, not by giving it a share in the state’s political power, but by taking away its own intrinsic political power, by disembodying, privatizing and neutering it, depriving it of its political and corporeal nature as the true “Body of Christ”:
    Maritain would protect the Mystical Body from reduction to a merely natural community subject to the same laws of power as the state and other temporal bodies. Instead of challenging the autonomy of the temporal, however, his thought has the effect of promoting it, aiming at the same time to carve out an untouchable “spiritual” space for the Church which is both interior to the person and transcendent to the state. Maritain does not allow the possibility that the Gospel may have its own bodily performances, its own “politics,” its own set of social practices which are neither purely otherworldly nor reducible to some “purely temporal” discourse.
    When the Church is denuded, nature recoils in horror vacui, and the state takes on the identity of a religious body with absolute claim to both the soul and the body of its devotees, willing or unwilling.
    What Maritain sees as the exclusive temporal and theoretical component of gospel teaching, the “democratic philosophy” and its practical realization in the modern, secular, religiously pluralistic, rights-based regime, is actually the theoretical and practical temporal components of an alien, antichristian religion. Cavanaugh argues that the reason for Maritain’s confusion is a distorted ecclesiology, specifically, his view of the Church as politically disembodied. Such a distortion is the logical result of molding the Church on the model of the modern state, instead of vice-versa. Maritain thought that the Church in order to be as spiritually effective as possible must at all costs remain practically viable in the modern democratic regime, a regime, like it or not, having complete coercive jurisdiction over the bodies of citizens; thus, the Church must renounce a corporate body of its own, presenting itself as a purely spiritual and moral entity (though still visible, hierarchical, and juridical—Maritain had absolutely no Protestant tendencies in this regard). For Cavanaugh, however, a bodiless, apolitical Church is unnatural, and the absence of what should be visibly present inevitably makes itself felt in the societal air, as it were. The state fills up this absence, and adopts the body of the Church in a perverse parody of the mystical body of Christ.
    For both Cavanaugh and Maritain, in order to know what Catholics owe Caesar and God today, and to be able to pay this debt, Catholic citizens in both the private and public dimension of their lives must listen directly to His authentic mouthpiece, the Catholic Church. But unlike Maritain, Cavanaugh urges Catholics to reject the neutered, privatized, individualized, disembodied form the Church now resembles after becoming an unwitting victim of the tyranny of the modern state. Catholics must instead have recourse to a fully embodied Church, and so must help rebuild her in the image of her Founder, Jesus Christ, not in the image of the “antichrist,” the modern state (Cavanaugh does use strong language here). What is needed is a politically powerful, robustly corporeal, mystical body of Christ with the power to tame and tutor all regimes under the easy yolk of Christ, not a democratic faith and charter that is only an inadequate substitute for the kind of political body the Church ultimately is and should become in its visible structure, appearance, and explicit public identity. The primary contradiction in Maritain’s project is that this dynamic and robust Church, the Church Christ intended, the only institutional body that can redeem both individual men and societies is not permitted to exist in this form under his “new Christendom.”
    What began as liberation of the Church from alliances with the state and party entanglements ends with the privatization of the Church and its domination by the state. The promise of a “social Catholicism” did not materialize because it was misconstrued from the start. The problem with “social Catholicism” is that it was never truly social. The Church was interiorized more radically than before, relegated to a ghostly “mystical” body unable to resist the fragmenting disciplines of the state. To look for a true alternative Christian social practice – a true body – we must look elsewhere than “social Catholicism” and the New Christendom.

    Aurel Kolnai: synthesizing Christ and anti-Christ

    Aurel Kolnai was a Hungarian-born political philosopher whose lifespan corresponds roughly with Maritain’s; indeed, he died in the same year as Maritain in 1973. Kolnai sees in Maritain’s thought a misguided attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable, to synthesize modern democratic philosophy and its spirit of equality and rights, with the spirit of “conservative metaphysics,” (to use Kolnai’s peculiar phrase) and its spirit of inequality, privilege, and hierarchy. The latter cannot be reconciled with the modern “democratic metaphysics” that sees things in terms of identity, sameness, and rebellion. Maritain’s hope that “the Christian inspiration and the democratic inspiration recognize each other and be reconciled” was not merely a futile but a perverse hope, since these two inspirations are as diametrically opposed as truth and error.
    Like Cavanaugh and Kraynak, Kolnai rejects outright both Maritain’s judgment of the superiority of a secular, religiously pluralistic Christendom, and his narrative regarding how this superior historical product came about:
    According to Maritain, a “temporal” society “Christianly inspired” (as he puts it) is better and indeed in a sense more Christian than a “sacral” society whose fully qualified citizens are supposed to be all Christians, because it represents a more advanced stage in the evolution of Christendom, at which the Christian “leaven” has had more time to “ferment” and to Christianize implicitly the very tissue of secular social relationships as such. He only forgets that the specifically anti-Christian reaction of pagan human nature to Christ’s claim on man also had more time to unfold; to combat and to suppress (rather than merely reject) embodied Christianity proper, that is, the Church; but especially to distort the glad tidings of Christianity into a poisonous gospel of man’s prideful self-worship.
    Kolnai, like Cavanaugh, interprets modern history as a process of dechristianization of the social and political order. Maritain would agree with Kolnai that evil as well as good has flourished in history, but Maritain would make a distinction between the progress of theory and practice. The modern era is replete with evil and anti-Christian ideas and motives, but what has accompanied these are not necessarily the evil, practical, political fruits that should have logically flowed from them; instead, we have witnessed, through God’s merciful providence, the happy development of good and Gospel-inspired practices and values in spite of bad ideas. Kolnai, however, would reject this distinction, seeing in it an attempt to characterize the modern political ethos and overall practical structure as neutral to ideology and theology. Like Kraynak, Kolnai denies that such neutrality is possible. Social and political practices convey and embody their own implicit spirit and theory, rendering them inseparable from the ideologies that spawned them. Maritain’s attempt to synthesize modern, secularist political practice with Christianity is the attempt to synthesize not only two contradictory systems of thought, but also two contradictory systems of practice, even two opposing religions. I quote Kolnai in full here because a paraphrase cannot capture the severity of his critique:
    The author, then, aims at a compromise, not between the Christian religious position and this or that extra-religious, worldly, though naturally justifiable point of view, (for example, biological welfare, patriotism, or any reasonable demand of political expediency), but between the Christian religious position proper, which he espouses whole-heartedly and is eager to make valid, and another position “religious in nature”: that of “temporal” Christendom, Christianity made into the quasi-religion of progressive democracy, Christianity inverted and secularized into the humanistic self-worship of the “person” and the “body politic” (which he over emphatically distinguishes from the mere “state.”) What he really has in mind is not an agreement, adjusted to what is attainable according to time and place, between Christ and Caesar, but a synthesis, suffused with all the religious afflatus of the soul, between Christ and the idol of the modernity: between Christ and His modern caricature; between the true Christ of the faith and the substitute Christ of humanism; between Christ and Anti-Christ.
    For Kolnai and Cavanaugh, Maritain’s project is essentially the attempt to fuse together the soul of the Church with the body of the state. Maritain mistakenly assumes that the modern state is a discrete, separable, interchangeable part, a module, to use Rawls’s term, that can fit into any comprehensive doctrinal scheme or institution, and that the soul of the Church can be separated from its body without suffering death. However, as Kolnai argues, the attempt to incorporate the body of the state into the soul of the Church, i.e., Maritain’s desire for the “recognition and reconciliation of the democratic and Christian inspiration,” serves instead to mutate the Church’s body into the soul of the state. The “soul” is the state’s antichristian doctrinal scheme, which is inseparable from its diabolical “body,” the antichristian set of practices that constitute the modern liberal democratic state in action.
    Although these three critiques do not constitute a refutation of Maritain’s Christian political project, they are credible and reasonable alternatives to it that are equally Christian in content and inspiration. What they demonstrate is that the reconcilability of Catholic political theology with full practical acceptance of and participation in the modern, secular, democratic regime is not a necessary and indisputable conclusion. Premises drawn from post-reformation political history, Thomistic philosophy, and Catholic theology can lead to both the principled acceptance and outright rejection of the religiously pluralistic, democratic, and non-sacral political order. Thus, one is left with the question: Is the actualization of Maritain’s democratic charter the temporal realization of the Gospel, or does it serve instead, in the words of Kolnai, to “distort the glad tidings of Christianity into a poisonous gospel of man’s prideful self-worship”?

Comments are closed.