John Milbank has a new book, a theological critique of philosophy.
Martin Mosebach on the Coptic martyrs.
Cora Diamond’s book on Wittgenstein and Anscombe.
John Milbank has a new book, a theological critique of philosophy.
Martin Mosebach on the Coptic martyrs.
Cora Diamond’s book on Wittgenstein and Anscombe.
I’d like to offer the text of one more important article by L. Brent Bozell, Jr., also from the pages of his magazine Triumph, this one from 1970.
Everyone recognizes that America today is not a Christian country. The case can be made that it never was in the sense that its public life, as opposed to the private beliefs of its citizens, had a distinctly Christian character. It certainly was never a Catholic country, and was never meant to be even by Catholic citizens who from the beginning accepted the alien status of Catholic culture, to the extent the experience was known here at all. Catholics like other Christians, that is to say, were content to profess the inherited faith and pass it on to their children in the hope that it would steady their personal lives and, if all went well, get them into Heaven. The possibility that the reproductive habits of Catholics might tum America into a Catholic country was never more than a bigot’s fantasy for the simple reason that the highest public ambition of American Catholics was to be Americans.
But if Americans in the past have not much minded the absence of a national faith, it seems that some of them do now. The wages of sin is death, and the wages of long-standing indifference to the informing genius of a culture is—not just the death of the culture, but the pain and fright that attend death. It was possible for Americans to celebrate the open society while they were living off the cultural capital accumulated by Christianity; it is not possible to do so after the capital has been spent. Nothing contributes so much to the anguish of contemporary America as everyone ‘s awareness that there is now no standard around which our disaffected population can rally, no transcendent goal on which the warring factions can converge, and find unity. The testimony is all around. On the one hand, our revolutionaries have no revolutionary aims. Most of them are too busy visiting their rage on particular manifestations of the American system to have given any thought to the kind of system that might replace it. The opinions of Professor Marcuse and his followers are no exception: anarchy plus sex equals anarchy. Some of the black groups—the Panthers, the Muslims—have taken a step toward coherence in their demands for separation; but separateness without content is a social solipsism and cannot have an impact on history. The defenders of the system are no better off. All of the old totems have fallen, all of the old slogans have lost their appeal. There remains: The Flag. But the decals which Middle Americans paste on their car windows are not the symbol of a future envisioned but of a past remembered. They are a defiant but fearful gesture born of the instinct that when backs are to the wall it is well to have a banner on the wall. The more pious of these defenders, however, can see the handwriting on the wall, and are increasingly open to the question: Is it not time to move beyond the mere reaction and look after the country’s soul? Is it not time to make America a Christian country?
The argument of these pages is that the answer is no: that that time has passed; that it is time to do something else.
There is a lawyer in Gretna, Nebraska, Mr. Albert Walsh, who is attempting to launch, first in that state and then elsewhere, “The Christian Party.” The idea is to “baptize” the third-party movement headed by Governor Wallace in 1968, and once its Christian lineaments have been drawn to expand it into a major force in national election campaigns. Mr. Walsh alludes to Constantine and Charlemagne in his writings, and is convinced that their earlier successes in building a Christian political order can be repeated, mutatis mutandis, in the United States. I cite this conception not to ridicule Mr. Walsh, whose ambition is admirable, but to call attention to the nature of the obstacles to such an undertaking. These obstacles have little to do, at the margin, with the usual difficulties of intruding a third force into an established two-party system—getting the new party on the ballot, building a party organization, breaking conventional voting habits, that kind of thing. They have to do with the democratic political system itself which, for all its failings, does manage to reflect fairly reliably the basic conventions of its participants.
Suppose that instead of a new party the project were to convert the Republican or Democratic party into a Christian party. The idea is, recognizably, even more fanciful. For in this case there is something in existence, something familiar, not a vision into which all sorts of conjecture can legitimately be admitted. Again, however, the root difficulty is not the kind of problem, real though it is, that typically plagues “cause” movements: how to penetrate the party machinery; how to generate the media’s interest; how to get serious issues inserted into platforms and campaigns that are designed above all to avoid serious issues. The root difficulty is the wishes of the electorate.
Even assuming the American people could be reached, raw as it were, with all their natural inclinations showing, is there any chance at all that they would be open to a Christian program? It is one thing for a people to regret the loss of moorings, to long for some sort of public orthodoxy—to want to believe, corporately, in something; it is another to have retained the capacity to believe in Christianity. It is not a question of wickedness, or even of indifference, but of distance. America is separated from Christendom, which is the political expression of Christian belief, by more centuries than the nation has existed. What is more, the American experience has cultivated highly sophisticated and deeply engrained civilizational habits antithetical to Christianity, which have become a second nature to the vast majority of its population. America will not shake off such habits overnight: and it will never shake them off in favor of Christian habits until it has had the opportunity to learn what Christian habits are.
A Christian “program”? The very term, so indispensable to the American political conversation, illuminates the impasse. American politics is a list of proposals, a recipe for solving problems. Christian politics is a mode of being, a style of life. America has a style: indeed, our national literature reveals an almost narcissistic fascination with “the American way of life.” But that style is merely what is left behind after the engines of social progress have passed; it is not the function of American politics to shape—to be—the style. Similarly, Christianity has a “program”: it is to go and teach the nations. But there is no ordained formula for doing that. The command is simply to live the gospel life, and bring it to the ends of the earth.
If Christians wished to offer a program to America, it would be spiritual lebensraum. It would be freedom to work a soil, to breed a culture in which the Christian seed could grow. It would be the opportunity to build a city hospitable to Christian living.
Is America capable of entertaining such a program? The first citizen of the city would of course be the Church. She would not govern directly the way a President or Congress does, but she would be the anchor for the whole public thing. Her articulation of divine and natural laws would be the constitution of the city with which any human legislation would be expected to comport. Her ceremonies and feasts, her penances, would set the rhythm of the public life. Her art and music would fill the streets of the public life. Her compassion for sinners and for suffering, would shape the soul of the public life. She would invite the poor, whether in spirit or in body, to seek mercy and justice from the Church of the Poor. She would invite the rich to seek poverty in the Church of the Poor. She would do all of her tasks imperfectly, but the city would know that without her it would go adrift. The city would not have a First Amendment.
The city would be built around the family, in the way that physical cities in Christendom were built around a church. Families would thus be hallowed ground, sanctuaries. They would be respected as temples in which the union of love and life are consummated: Breaking them, or breaking into them would call the city to arms. The city’s weapons would be varied. It could not hold man and wife to love; but it would, by denying legal sanctions to divorce and furnishing social sanctions to discourage it, fortify the place where children learn love from living with their parents. It could not prevent the divorce of love from life in the sex union; but it would exclude contraceptive wares from the public commerce and exclude inducements to them in the public conversation. It could not in every case protect those innocents who have gained entrance to the family by gaining life; but it would save for any known abortionist the coldest fury of the public justice. It could and would assure peace to the family: the peace of privacy, the peace of independence, the peace of freedom in the rearing and training of children. The city would be traced, however inexactly, in the footsteps of the Holy Family.
The city would view life as primarily a training ground for sanctity. Therefore its primary institution after the Church and the family, would be the Christian school. It would not maintain any other kind of school. It would understand that the formation of the young is an indivisible undertaking from hearth to schoolroom, and that to deny the young a Christian formation is to cheat the young. It would respect a family’s right to form its children otherwise, but would not, on the public account, contribute to the injustice. It would recognize that any school which excludes Christianity from its curriculum, indeed from any field of study, quite simply falsifies reality—and thus conspires to entrap the young in an unreal world. To the canard that there is no such thing as a Christian chemistry, the city would reply that if such is the case its schools must invent one. The city would know, that is to say, that the whole purpose of education is to try to convey to the young the unity of the truth, the role of everyone part of creation in the orchestration of salvation.
The city, in its other institutions, would provide a place to live the lessons taught in the Christian school. As the school would form a man’s mind and character in a Christian mold, so the city’s other social arrangements would help him practice Christianity. Sanctity is a state of being, and all that it requires is an unobstructed view—Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God. The view is obstructed however, by a political system that substitutes power for charity, justice and mercy. It is obstructed by an approach to science and technology that enslaves man to his artifacts. It is obstructed by an approach to work that withholds from man the opportunity for leisure, for the enjoyment and contemplation of existence. It is obstructed by ugliness, which hides from man God’s beauty. So the city would seek to remove such obstructions; it would offer, in every aspect of the public life, sensible supports for the virtues taught in family and school. Virtue, after all, is simply the habit of doing good, not as hardy little Puritans do good deeds, but as men with their eyes fixed on the glory of God and His works learn to harmonize their lives with the natural rhythms of existence. The city would be a city of men, all sinners, but sinners allowed to make their way in the light reflected from the City of God.
The city’s foreign policy would be imperialist: it would seek to share with other cities whatever measure of Christianity it had acquired. It could not interpret the command to go and teach in any other way. Nor would it be discouraged if its generosity were opposed. Error, though it has no rights, always asserts rights: and self-determination will always be an attractive condition, even though it is a valid principle only for Christians. The means of teaching would vary with circumstances, and there would be wars. But as wars are natural to human cities, so there are natural rules for fighting them. The natural law of war is codified in the Christian doctrine of the just war, and the city would faithfully observe that law. Whether in advance or in defense, it would never seek Christian ends by un-Christian means. Even the existence of the city would never be purchased at the price of violating the constitution of the city. So the gates of hell might prevail against the city. Still, it would never really know defeat. For in success or in failure it would have been obedient to the victory on the Cross.
Is America capable of entertaining such a program?
The question can be put otherwise. A city that is merely benighted might be regarded as a field for the Christian ministry, a classic opportunity to sow and tend the gospel seed and wait patiently for the harvest. If Christian politics and American politics simply lack a common ground, it might be argued that the duty of Christians is to locate and develop the ground, trusting in time and the Holy Spirit to bring the errant city home. In that case American Christians would properly regard themselves as the Remnant of the biblical tradition, yet as citizens in good standing, and proceed to keep their tablets. But if the American city is systematically making war—not specifically on Christians, which would be tolerable—but on the Christian King, then a different issue is posed. The question is not only whether America is able to become Christian, but whether Christians are able to be Americans.
America’s war against Christ is variously waged, but two aspects of it are sufficient to the point. One is the country’s formal public agnosticism. The Soviet Union is a formally atheistic country, and while some Americans have taken comfort in the difference, they should not. In both cases, Christ is exiled from the public life which He came to occupy at the Incarnation. In the American case, however, His subjects are not blessed with an active persecution, and thus seldom driven to throw up interior defenses in His absence. That is why Christianity is apparently more vital today in the Soviet Union than in the United States.
The most telling consequences of the exile occurs of course in the schools. The vast majority of American youth, like Russian youth, are compelled to spend the greater part of their formative years in institutions in which the merest mention of Christ in His authentic role is forbidden. The point is not so much that Christianity is not taught, as that whatever Christian prejudices children bring to these institutions from their families are systematically undermined and in most cases destroyed. The result is that the vast majority of Americans, on reaching mature citizenship, are not Christ’s subjects in any serious sense and are usually His enemies. American law requires Christians to support these institutions.
The American city’s decision to exile Christ has been followed, not surprisingly, by expropriation of His most intimate possession. By taking on human life, Christ sanctified it, took it to Himself, forever invited the most miserable expression of it to join His own body. Said the king: as long as you did it for one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it for me. Hence forward every citizenship would be subordinate to Membership, and no city could commit a greater crime than to deny admission to the Mystical Body. The American city now does that as a matter of deliberate policy. This is the deepest significance of the anti-life campaign that is today being officially prosecuted at the highest level of government. The meaning of the city’s life prevention policy which is called “birth control”, and its life destruction policy which is called “liberalized abortion”, is to deny the gift of life to souls that Christ wished to gain from the loins of human love: the opportunity He wished to give them to join His body. By asserting the power to control and manipulate the production of human life—by usurping authority over what ontologically belongs to the King, because its destiny is (in) the King—this city has escalated the war against Christ to the highest level. American law requires Christians to support the usurpation.
As long as the American political order was in fact “pluralistic”—as long as there was a place for the King in the city—the city’s government could be considered legitimate, and could legitimately exact from Christians as well as others the duties of citizenship. But that condition no longer holds. Pluralism in America today is a fraud: there is no Christian presence inside the city, none is permitted. The King is now outside the walls, and it is there that His subjects must gather.
Are there any walls? It is perhaps fortuitous, perhaps providential, but certainly fortunate that at the very moment Christians are being driven out of the American city, the genus city seems to be passing out of history. Hardly any serious observer has failed to notice that the social organization of the planet is undergoing a profound change, that the dominant form of organization—the national state, which is the modern mode of the city—is giving way to something else. The less perceptive of these observers, who are not really observers, but ideologues, maintain that the movement is toward global unity; that the successor arrangement is to be a world state inhabited by a humankind evolved from diversity to sameness. The more perceptive observers see that the movement is proceeding in a quite different direction: that the dominant social drive is not toward togetherness but separatenness: that the successor arrangement to the national city is not the world city but the tribe.
Conventional wisdom regards the tribe as a “primitive” social form designed to mature into or be swept aside by the city as part of the inexorable march of progress. Thus a contemporary encyclopedia records as simple information: “Welding the tribes into nations is one of the most important problems that face the newly independent countries of Africa.” Such a judgment is blind to the evidence that Africa’s present promise as a shaper of the post-modern age lies precisely in its easy familiarity with the tribal style, while most of the rest of the world, especially the West, is struggling to break free of the moribund ways of the city. The judgment is partly the result of ideological myopia, the inability to see history except in terms of a linear progression. But it is also linked to a convention of thinking about the public life, which is as old as the West itself.
From the earliest moments of Western political thought the model of the public thing has been the Greek polis, the Roman civitas. The very word civilization signifies the conditions of the city. Even specifically Christian thought has largely observed the convention: the res publica Christiana, thanks mainly to the influence of St. Augustine, has usually been viewed conceptually as some version of the Roman city. Yet the fact is that the social arrangements of the first Christian epoch, from the fall of the Empire through the High Middle Ages, were far more tribal than civil. Feudalism, long after the barbarians had become “civilized,” was existentially a mode of tribalism. It was not until the modern age was introduced with the Renaissance, with the totalitarian thought of Bodin and Machiavelli, with the rise of the centralized monarchies, with Gutenburg, with the Protestant revolt against exoteric Christianity, that the city was restored to preeminence in the West. Now that age, too, is passing. Is it surprising that the death of modernity should also see the death of its characteristic social form, the city? Is it surprising that post-modernity, recording a new swing of history, should again beckon men into the tribe?
The proximate cause of this development appears to be the dissolution in most of the cities of the world, notably the West, of any public orthodoxy capable of holding a city together, to say nothing of molding a world city. In the United States the emergence of the black tribe and of the Woodstock tribe is certainly traceable to this void. It would also seem to be the common denominator of incipient tribalisms elsewhere, the Welsh, the Scot, the Quebecois, and now in various places the Christian. But it is is less important for those living in a transitional age to understand why history is moving in a particular direction than to recognize that it is doing so and thus to be in a position to shape the movement along desired lines. If a full understanding of what is happening must be reserved to the future, an openness to what is happening is indispensable to grasping the opportunities of the present.
For instance, and depending on God’s own plans, the opportunity to help inaugurate the second Christian epoch.
It would be foolish to attempt to draw a sharp line between the two social forms, even as paradigms, and thus force them into a dialectical opposition. In history, tribe and city have often coexisted; even the individual person, because of the overlap of forms, has been part tribesman, part citizen. Nonetheless there are certain characteristics of the tribe and the city that help distinguish them, and that can shed light on the opportunities (as well as the limitations) of the ascending form.
All social forms seek an internal unity, and it is probably in their different ways of acquiring and preserving that unity that tribe and city are most clearly distinguished. The unity of the tribe is based on affinity. The unity of the city is based on convenience or force. The affinities that unite the tribe may be of blood, or custom, or belief—whatever sets the tribesman apart from those not of the tribe, and allows him to recognize a fellow tribesman. The city’s unity, by contrast, assumes the existence of fundamental differences among its citizens which have been suppressed. The suppression has been accomplished either by contract or, more typically, by conquest. In the American city’s experience the adoption of the Constitution is a case of the first approach, the Civil War of the second. Thus the unity of the city is initially inclusive: and the remedy for the dissident citizen is either to convert him or to repress him. By the same token the unity of the tribe is essentially exclusive: and the remedy for the dissident tribesman is neither argument nor auto-da-fe, but ostracism. In a confessional tribe the remedy would be called excommunication.
There are derivative differences. The tribal bond will normally produce a common style of life that flows organically out of the bond. The city is designed to accommodate diverse styles of life, and eventually to assimilate them in the city unity. Tribal life will be rich in symbol and ritual, the sensible proofs of its unity. The coherence of city life will depend more on abstractions, on institutions and laws.
The tribe will ordinarily have a common language, whereas the city can live in a babel of tongues. Indeed, that rapid disappearance of the common Christian language, Latin, may be one of the chief handicaps of the new world-wide Christian tribe; the problem is one of communication which may partially be solved through electronic techniques—by simultaneous translation, or the photographic language, accented by symbol and ritual, of film and television.
But if language may be a problem for tribal Christians, the tribe affords a compensating advantage over the city. It does not need a geography. Some historical tribes have inhabited a particular place, others have roamed from place to place; but the nature of the tribal unity is such that it transcends any frontier. For centuries the Jewish tribe has been living evidence of the point: and it may be that its recent acquisition of a territory will soon be recognized as a blunder—that the city of Israel, precisely because it is a place to be defended, will suffer the fate of all anachronisms.
While citizenship is always an individual matter, membership in a tribe tends to be a family matter. Families can live in either tribe or city; but the tribe, because its unity is based on affinity, will naturally form around families.
The familial foundation of the tribe is perhaps the major reason why loyalty in the tribe is given to persons, not to laws. As a family follows a father, so the tribe follows a chief. And the government of the tribe is made by elders, who are the fathers of the chief families. The city boasts, by contrast, that it is governed by laws, not by men; and so it is. But the safety of the city is endangered if its laws are drained of moral force, as the safety of the tribe is endangered if the men lack moral force.
The personal character of tribal relations has another consequence. Civil rights and duties are established by law, and are an expression of a highly abstract relationship. Tribal rights and duties are established by custom, and are an expression of a highly personal and much more demanding relationship. Membership, unlike citizenship, confers the right and exacts the duties of the brother. The tribesman is his brother’s keeper; and each brother has the right to be kept.
Every human experience, when it is invaded by Christianity, must endure paradox. And so with the tribe. If the natural character of the tribe is exclusive, and thus in tendency closed, it is the character of the Christian tribe to be exclusive, yet emphatically open. The perfect analog of the tribe is the Mystical Body. There is no salvation outside of It, and It jealously guards the notes of Membership. Yet It aches to be joined by every human creature. So the Christian tribe, with one arm raised to defend the integrity of its confession, will offer the other to embrace all of the poor of the earth.
The something else we must do, then, is to be Christians. The first words of Genesis establish the precedence of being over doing: fiat lux. The goal of the Christian tribe, like that of the city which Christians could once hope to build, is to establish temporal conditions hospitable to the Gospel life. But first the tribe must be. It is a matter of consciousness. Am I an American? a Spaniard? an Englishman? Or am I a Christian? It is also a matter of presence. Here and on every other continent Christians must be visible, not in any city disguise, but openly in their apostolic role as teachers sent to the ends of the earth.
So it is, in a manner of speaking, a movement we are launching. But it is not the sort of movement familiar to this country. Its purpose is not to reform the American system. It is not to destroy the American system. The movement’s purpose is to be the Christian system.
Because Christians are willing peacefully to let the city fall, it does not follow that city will peacefully let the tribe rise. What Christian tribesman do in the immediate future may be compatible with the surviving city life; but it also may not. Tribesman will want to set up schools for their children, but the city may obstruct them. Tribesman may conclude they cannot pay tribute to the city for wars on the King, but the city may demand the tribute. Tribesman may be driven to direct action in the defense of the King’s little ones, and the city may flail out against the red berets.
It is not given to Christians to know the future, anywhere. Yet the future is given to Christians, everywhere. Where is the King’s tribe? It is where men salute the Cross, before any flag. It is where Christians have already decided to be.
Fiat hunc totiusque orbis Tribus Regis Christi.
This 1969 essay by L. Brent Bozell Jr., which stated so many of the modern Catholic’s grievances against the American conservative “movement” so clearly and so early, is also very difficult to find online. I thought I would reproduce the text here, that it might be rediscovered by a new generation of Catholics to whose troubles it still speaks so effectively.
I very much want to say these things without sounding reproachful or smug. If I fail in this, I wish you would lay it to weak craft, not weak intention. It may be that you deserve reproach; but my credentials, plainly, are not the best for dishing out. After all, I have shared many of your errors and defeats, and have been involved in others that you have managed to avoid. But more important: the reason for opening this discussion is to encourage a common advance toward political wisdom—a prospect that could be badly hurt by recriminations. Would it not be better, then, for you to say these things? It would; but the fact is that you are not saying them, and have sent out no signal that you mean to have them said. There is silence in your ruins.
Historians will differ as to the moment when the movement you lead ceased to be an important force in America. (My own view is that the hour struck in 1964, with Goldwater’s defeat.) But there will be no one to dispute that it was all over by November 1968, with Nixon’s victory. This is because 1) Nixon in 1968 was your man, and 2) Nixon in 1968 had repudiated you. He was your man in the sense that whatever remained of your energies was committed to his election and whatever remained of your hopes was committed to the success of his presidency. He had repudiated you in the sense that he had pointedly in recognizably rejected every distinctive feature of your movement: that is, everything that set it apart from other political forces in the country. He had rejected everything that gave it an identity—or, more to the point, a being. And since he did this with your full knowledge and thus with your implied assent, He was free to ignore you upon assuming the presidency; and you were powerless to affect his future course. Everything he, and you, have done since the inauguration merely confirms this relationship, or the lack of one. Nixon’s resurrection, in a word, was your funeral, and all that has been missing is a suitable oration.
I speak of the distinctive features of the conservative movement in America without venturing any opinion as to what “conservatism” is. Some of you have treated it as an ideology; others as an attitude toward the public life; others as a style. It may be all of these things and more, but here I am concerned only with how it has “come on” to the country as a political movement since it acquired an identity and shape after World War II and the Roosevelt years. I am concerned, if you like, with its program. For this purpose it can be reduced to four propositions, and for three of these there is a convenient symbol, or hero-figure, who dispenses with any need for elaboration. There is anti-statism, as represented by Taft. There is nationalism, as represented by MacArthur. There is anti-Communism, as represented by (Joseph) McCarthy. The fourth is constitutionalism, which has never had a single champion of the stature of the others, but which may be recalled by thinking of Bricker, or more recently, Thurmond. All of these propositions were faithfully summed up in Goldwater, who ran for president on the strength of them.
Perhaps there is some conservative argument not covered by the above headings; but I think you must agree that should these four propositions be abandoned, and nothing of comparable seriousness put in their place, then the movement itself would be abandoned. And isn’t that really what happened? The conservative program was trounced in Goldwater’s moment, and had been forgotten by Nixon’s; some time in between it was simply abandoned. Again the symbols tell the story. Taft, MacArthur, McCarthy, Goldwater—all former allies of Nixon’ s and all honored by you—fell into obsolescence in 1964-68, a final, formal, irrelevance, which their liberal opponents, older or longer dead than they, have so far been spared; and this is because most of you who honor them no longer deemed it profitable to assert what they had asserted, to re-light the torch which they had carried.
Nixon. There is a sentiment among many of your followers to “give him a chance.” But this makes sense just to the extent, no more or less, that it makes sense to give you a chance. The political Nixon—however one may size up the “real” Nixon— is a resultant of forces; there is no major political figure in memory of whom this is so palpably true. Therefore he will move away from the course on which he is presently embarked only if you can convince him that it is in his political interest to make your program his. Can you? Do you want to? It seems to me that you have already given the answer; it came last spring, during the season for selecting presidential candidates. Reagan was your natural candidate. He was the obvious heir, as Nixon by that time was not, of Goldwater and the conservative program. What is more, he had flair, style, freshness—qualities that more than offset Nixon’s “experience” in the scales of winner-potential. In fact, however, you did not neglect Reagan because he “couldn’t win”; there was actually very little talk of that in your conversations. You neglected him because Nixon was early in the field, had initiative, momentum; to push Reagan in the circumstances would have required the kind of energy that carried the day four years before at San Francisco. But you no longer had much energy, which is a function of will, which is in turn a function of conviction. And so candidate Nixon carried you along, hearing scarcely a word from you protesting the policies he was offering the country. Is it sensible to expect that President Nixon will find a better chance to be harassed by your energy?
Let me suggest an explanation for your failure of energy. It is certainly not a matter of laziness or funk. Nor is discouragement the answer quite, although it would be strange if that were not involved. Disillusionment, I think, is the correct explanation; and this is a promising development if the word is properly understood, because it means emancipation from illusions.
What might prompt disillusionment, apart from a direct infusion of grace? Ordinarily it comes from some striking visitation in the order of existence—from the impact of something felt or experienced which shakes one’s own being at its roots and calls for a reorientation toward reality. I grant that rational argument may do the trick in some cases, but surely it is the rare man whose illusion can be wrecked by reason alone; in any event, I am unaware of the contemporary argument, unless it has appeared in these pages, which might have turned off the conservative movement.
What has not had to be argued, but has simply happened, is this: your supposed enemy, secular liberalism, has fallen—yet no one imagines that you brought it down; the whole country is writhing in the agonies of its death—yet no one reaches out to you for support; history is burying secular liberalism—yet history is not asking you to furnish a substitute. None of this, I repeat, needs to be argued. If the secular-liberal system is still giving off signs of vitality, like Nixon staggering brightly from press conference to empty press conference, every sensitive person recognizes them to be false signs. They are the busy motions pumped into themselves by rulers severed from an organic constituency. Every truly vital man in the country, every vital force, scorns and condemns this system; secular liberalism has become the universal epithet. Yet none of these men, none of these forces, is inquiring into your system, into the “conservative program.” Do you regret that? That is indeed a shattering experience: at the moment of your enemy’s finish, and thus at the finish of your own raison d’etre,—not to be wanted. And not very much to want yourselves.
I think this experience can be described even more sharply. Secular liberalism has lost its war for historical existence, but it has not lost any of the battles it has had with you. On every front where your program has confronted secular liberalism’s, you have been beaten. Consider (against the background of one of Nixon’s press conferences) your campaigns against big government, against Keynesian economics, against compulsory welfare; your defense of states’ rights and the constitutional prerogatives of Congress; your struggle for a vigorous anti-Soviet foreign policy; your once passionate stand for the country’s flag and her honor. Is there a single field which the secular liberals have had to yield to the secular conservatives? That is one side of the coin. The other is that secular liberalism has, nevertheless, died—and for causes apparently unconnected with your ministrations. Some say it succumbed from existential wounds, an inability to cope with reality. Do you deem yourselves sufficiently close students of reality to have helped significantly to inflict the wounds? Others lay the failure to an organic weakness or “sickness,” a self-contained fault of the system. Has your criticism of secular liberalism persuasively diagnosed this sickness? Still others say the basic cause is in the order of ideas. Do you claim to have located the fundamental errors, or to have corrected them? I do not mean, with these questions, to chide you; I concede that men are hard to find in our time who ought to feel any more comfortable with them. The point is simply that, taking both sides of this coin together, it is not surprising you should neither be called, nor offering yourselves, as secular liberalism’s heir—that it is not surprising you are disillusioned.
What, then, are the illusions from which events and history are trying to free you? There are, I think, two principal ones, and they are closely related. The first is the illusion of an essential dichotomy between “conservatism” and “liberalism”: the belief that they differ significantly in the things that matter. The second is the illusion that politics—the ordering of public life—can proceed without continuing reference to God.
What I have suggested as a way of accounting for the exhaustion of your movement may be a good entry to the first illusion. Is it not clear that what we are dealing with here is not two corpses, but one? What is being discarded by history is a whole approach to man and to politics. This approach has had its better and worse expressions, and I have no doubt that yours was one of the better; but all of these expressions were faulted by a similar flaw, and thus similarly fated to obsolescence when man and his politics cried out for an expression of reality. This is why your moment of distress coincides with secular liberalism’s, why it is not traceable to any particular defeat of conservatives by liberals, but to common failure to have anything appropriate to say.
To recognize contemporary conservatism and contemporary liberalism as branches of the same tree would not be disconcerting. After all, commentators on all sides have long acknowledged a common-parenthood: nineteenth-century liberalism. What most of the commentators have stressed, however—and thus what is responsible for the illusion—is the dissimilarities of the offspring. I think it is time to focus on the similarity.
But before doing that, let me acknowledge a strain of contemporary conservatism which is properly linked with the eighteenth century rather than the nineteenth, with Burke and Johnson, say, rather than Mill and Spencer. There is certainly a deep gulf between traditionalist conservatism and libertarian conservatism which has so far resisted all efforts to “fuse” them; and I have no hesitation in admitting a distinct preference for the former—for its essential piety toward history, especially that part of it which God has been in since the Incarnation. It does, however, run the danger of slipping over into positivism, into an intimate friendship with the is or was, and thus of forgetting that Christ came to transfigure history. But the reason I want to acknowledge this strain is not to debate with it, but to point out that despite the redoubtable labors of Mr. Russel Kirk and his associates, it has had a relatively minor impact on the program which you have oppose to secular liberalism. Thus the nineteenth-century liberal remains a just and useful symbol of the common conservative-liberal heritage.
The common heritage, as well as the similarity it has preserved, was succinctly isolated by Robert Fox in a recent review of Professor Mario Pei’s book, The America We Lost. The ideal of the nineteenth-century liberal, Fox pointed out, was self-fulfillment. It was not then, as it has become with secular liberalism, an exclusive materialist ideal, preoccupied with wealth, sex and attendant pleasures. It also acknowledged the spiritual dimension and the need for moral discipline, which is the part of the heritage that your branch alone has preserved. Where it abused reality, according to Fox, was in supposing that the spiritual dimension could be sustained and moral discipline imposed by the naked strength of the individual; it did not recognize that most of the individuals who managed the feat were living off the capital inherited from institutionalized Christianity. Now what this has meant for the present seems perfectly obvious, especially in the light of the gradual erosion of Christian institutions over the past hundred years, and their precipitous collapse more recently. It has meant that the nineteenth-century goal of self-fulfilling the whole man has remained open to a moral elite (and I do mean to include most of yourselves) to realize in their private lives, but has not been accessible to the generality of men and thus ceased to shape and influence the public life of the West. This helps to explain why, with a mass electorate, you have lost every public contest to the secular liberals. They have addressed themselves, far more persuasively than you, to that dimension of life which contemporary politics do indeed help to fill. Their miscalculation was to suppose that nourishment of the material dimension could long sustain any life.
However, it would only fuel an unprofitable delusion to suggest that materialism is a secular-liberal monopoly. The fact is that the main thrust of your quarrel with the secular liberals over the years has been felt in the area of economics. This is hardly surprising, given the parent ideal of self-fulfillment. For the idea of self-fulfillment, however defensible it may be in the abstract, appeared in the nineteenth century laden with certain historical baggage. It emerged as a modern, essentially un-Christian notion, from the Renaissance—which was concerned with the fulfillment of the natural self; and any way you slice it, concentration on the natural self, at the expense of the supernatural self, tends to concentration on the physical self: on the appetites of matter. This is because man’s fallen nature, unsupported by grace, tends to animalhood. Thus it was that the Puritan idea of a visible elite, despite all the nonsense propagated since, became the perfect ally of Renaissance Man. Measuring goodness by the acquisition of material riches, it encouraged him to do what comes naturally. It has also encouraged you to continue to promote what comes naturally. As a result, the ghastly infrastructure of the secular city bears your lineaments, even more visibly than the liberals’. Your economics has not fared as well as theirs at the ballot box: Nixon is in the White House. But they have fared well enough to shape the physical surroundings, the social organization and the lifestyle of the country: Reagan says that the oil-drilling on the California shelf must go on to insure “progress,” and Nixon is in the White House.
It may be easier now to meet the fatal flaw which I have said is shared by both branches of liberalism. If the nineteenth-century version of self-fulfillment is a modern idea traceable to the Renaissance, it is also a pre-Christian idea, as Miss Madden remarks in this issue, illustrated by the Sophists; in fact, the lineage does not stop until it reaches Adam. And the whole meaning of this historical current is to assert, and reassert, man’s ability to fulfill himself, by himself: to assert, and reassert, his self-sufficiency. Which is denied by Christ who says: without Me you can do nothing.
I do not doubt that those of you who are Christians accept this teaching of Christ’s. But I do question whether most of you, as public men, take it seriously. I can believe that it seriously affects your private lives, but I deny that it has deeply invaded your politics. This is curious because you would have curious private lives if they were not profoundly influenced by the public thing around you. You get all of the support you need from direct approaches by God to your interior life, from private prayer, from the Sacraments? If you do, the huge generality of men, including me for one, does not. The public life, as it now exists, is an enormous obstacle to virtue, if not to salvation. It is a fierce agent of Satan. Yet it is meant to provide inducements to virtue and occasions of grace. It is meant to be a place where God is signified in His things.
Many secular liberals are hostile or indifferent to religion, and most conservatives are friendly to it. But over the years their leaders, and you, have developed a common political approach: you have agreed to assign it to the private sphere. Like everything else in modernity, religion has been given a compartment. True, you resisted the recent exclusion of prayer from public schools. But you did so, understandably, without much zest. For you recognized (the constitutional issue aside) that these pre-class recitals were a pathetic expression of the idea that religion belongs in education.
There is the point: at most, liberalism allows that religion belongs in education. It is never admitted that education belongs to religion. The Christian idea of education as a unity designed to impart Truth is emphatically rejected by liberalism, and it has never figured prominently in your program. Thus your criticism of the liberal education system, while usually valid as far as it has gone, has not cut the mustard. It has not proposed a helpful reform of the system because it has not proposed to make going to school an occasion of grace.
To elaborate this argument by further examples is hardly necessary. The argument is that in every field your politics have expressed a relatively unimportant dispute over what the public life should be; they have not acknowledged the Christian teaching that the proper goal of the orderers of the public life is to help open men to Christ. In a word, your politics have been unreal. And they are now suffering the fate which all unrealities must one day suffer.
So what will you do with yourselves? As long as the illusions keep their hold, three avenues are open to you. They are already in use. You will find a place in the establishment as Nixon has, offering commonsense criticisms and suggestions which may be proximately useful. You will retire, perhaps to care for one of those moribund ideological projects like keeping America a republic because it is not a democracy. Or you will be driven (whether wittingly or no, I do not predict) to swell the ranks of a proto-fascist reaction to the collapse of secular liberalism. This last may have a political future of sorts.
But you will not, along any of those routes, have a permanent impact on the post-modern world. The future belongs only to those who keep in touch with reality—that is, those who manage to keep open to Christ, who is Reality. You are certainly entitled to observe that the old Christian forms for sanctifying the public life have themselves become obsolete, and thus do not provide a sufficient guide for the future. But that is only to say that the quest for new forms will be difficult, and will require all the energy and imagination and grace that are now in us and whatever more time will provide. This is why I am writing to yourselves.
… the essential character of the Gospel is to be the religion of the poor—using that term not to indicate those who are detached from: earthly things, but those who form the great mass of mankind. This view shares St. Augustine’s picture of the Church as a net in which all sorts of fish are caught, where the task of separating the good from the bad is for the angels, not for men. On this view of the matter, the Church was most truly itself in the days of Christendom when everybody was baptized and it is this state of affairs which is much to be desired.
Jean Danielou, Prayer as a Political Problem
I have already indicated that the main trouble with liberalism is that it was designed for an intellectual and moral elite—for men who could (or thought they could) take care of themselves. It remains to look into this proposition a little further, to see why one who is disillusioned with liberal politics is naturally drawn to Christian politics.
You should be forewarned, however, that what follows is not an economic argument. It is true that modern elitism has been reflected in economics—explicitly in Calvinism, implicitly in all forms of capitalism (and all forms of socialism!). But it is also true that both the capitalist and socialist branches of liberalism, each after its fashion, have sought to provide the material needs of the “poor”; and thus to a meager extent both systems have expressed Christ. So the real difficulty is not there. Worse still, to enter the debate over which system does a better job of distributing material goods—which has always been a main quarrel between capitalist and socialist liberals—is to enter the liberal dialectic, which is a false dialectic. It is false because it tends to reduce politics to economics, to forget that material wealth is only a small part of what the public life is supposed to provide: what it is for.
The public life is supposed to help a man be a Christian. It is supposed to help him enter the City of God, and meanwhile it is supposed to help him live tolerably, even happily, in the City of Man.
To state the problem in this fashion is to plunge into the Christian dialectic; it is also, given the state and contemporary political theory, to enter a new world. In 1965 the French Jesuit, Jean Danielou, wrote a primer for this venture. A tiny volume, little noticed since it was translated into English in 1967, Prayer as a Political Problem could become the most valuable book of our time inasmuch as it sets forth a plausible invitation to restore a politics to a Christian vocation. Father Danielou begins, as any Christian must, with the premise that Christ aims to reach all men, and thereupon urges us “to discover what those conditions are which make a Christian people possible.” The indispensable clue he finds in the past, in the centuries when Christianity once before was transformed from a sect into a people:
… the extension of Christianity to an immense multitude, which is of its very essence, was held back during the first centuries by the fact that the social cadres and cultural forms of the society in which it operated were hostile to it. To cleave to Christianity called then for a strength of character of which the majority of men are not capable. When the conversion of Constantine removed these obstacles the Gospel was made accessible to the poor, that is to say, to those very people who are not numbered among the elite. The man in the street could now be a Christian. Far for from distorting Christianity, this change allowed it to become more truly itself, a people.
In short, it was found that for the great generality of men a Christian civilization was the indispensable medium for communicating the Christian message. For most men, as McLuhan would say, the medium was the message. And so it is today that a Christian people is to be found only where the vestiges of Christian civilization still exist. Danielou mentions “Brittany and Alsace, Italy and Spain, Ireland and Portugal, Brazil and Colombia.” There are a few other such places, but the lesson of two millenia is clear: “It is practically impossible for any but the militant Christian to persevere in a milieu which offers him no support.” This is why “there is laid upon the Church a duty to work at the task of making civilization such that the Christian way of life shall be open to the poor.” This is why the Church of the Poor, as she has proudly described herself through the centuries, is once again called upon to devise and teach a Politics of the Poor.
A brief reflection on this thesis will suggest any number of ways in which Christian politics is not only quite different from but far deeper and richer than the politics which has dominated the West in recent centuries. But three advantages of the Christian conception, it seems to me, stand out, and provide keys to the others.
The first is that Christianity sees the public life, which is the responsibility of politics, as an extension of the interior life. As Danielou puts it, “there can be no radical division between civilization and what belongs to the interior being of man.” Liberal politics, by contrast, is indifferent to the connection. John F. Kennedy became the liberal par excellence by announcing that his religion would not affect his presidency because it was “a private affair.”
True, the public and the interior are distinct realms and are governed differently. To go no further, the grace that comes to man through private prayer or the Sacraments is of a different order from the grace which is mean t to be found in the public life . But his grace is the favor of the same God and support the same Truth. Therefore disharmony between the two realms is a sign that God has been excluded from at least one of them, and probably both. Even the man who can still cling to God in some interior fashion will admit that he does so not in joy but in anguish, in struggle against a world that conspires at every turn to dry up his spiritual juices. This experience is a sold as modernity. As Danielou recalls, Pascal saw “a conflict, a ripping apart, an abyss between an interior experience which has no outside evidence of its existence and a cold world which contradicts it”; he felt the “tragic coexistence of a deaf world from which God is absent and a heart which is aware of God.” This conflict drove the Jansenists to heresy. It has driven most men back to paganism. “The evidence of the heart,” Danielou says correctly, “is inaccessible to the mass of men, whose destiny is to be involved in the natural order. The world must speak of God; otherwise, man can normally have no access to him.”
The second advantage of the Christian conception is that the public life is not confined to what the state does, or what government does. The public life is whatever is not the interior life. This means that Christian politics is free to regard family and school, play and work, art and communication, the order of social relationships and the civil order, as integral parts of a whole: as integral and therefore mutually dependent aspects of civilization. (Which, of course, every reflective man knows they are.) But more: Christian politics is obliged to take this view of the matter, for the sake of the poor. What point is there in encouraging virtue in the family, and having it undermined in the school and on the street? What point in passing on truth by the unadorned word, only to have it repudiated by art? What point in arranging the departments of government to assure concord and liberty, when the arrangements of the social and economic orders forbid concord and liberty? All of the public life is the proper concern of politics because the poor live in all of it and need the support of all of it.
The liberal conception of politics came into the world with Machiavelli and Bodin, with Hobbes and Locke, and proceeded to reduce the science of politics to the science of the state. This has Jed, on the one hand, to wretched totalitarianism, where the state does everything; and on the other, to wretched libertarianism, where the state does nothing. It has also led to the liberal mind: imprisoned in its little civil cell, _it has never been able to deal intelligently with the wide and rich political ideas of Plato and Aristotle, much less with the Christian elaboration of classical political thought in the Middle Ages. One of the encouraging signs of our time, heralding the fall of liberalism, is that the carefully articulated target of its enemies is not the liberal state, but the liberal system. What is hated is not so much the particular civil arrangements on which liberalism has lavished its attentions, as the whole public experience which liberalism has allowed to occupy the West.
The third advantage is a corollary to broadening the reach of politics. The Christian conception invites single-minded attention to the “quality” of the public life. This idea has recently been co-opted by statist liberals (the phrase is theirs), and generally been denounced by conservative liberals. Both the initiative and the reaction are understandable. Even the custodians of the liberal system can discern the neglect of quality, and see that it is killing the system. And who, but they, wouldn’t recoil at the prospect of turning over the cure to themselves: to a presidential commission, or a university, or a Brookings study? But the idea remains valid. Indeed I have greater sympathy for the impulse, however belated and benighted, to attend to quality, than for the impulse to do nothing (except maybe say a prayer) about what everyone knows is corrupting the poor. In any event, the argument here is theoretical, not programmatic. The argument is that the public life cannot provide support for the poor unless it provides sensible expressions of truth and beauty and love—unless it sets up sensible signs of the divine. The argument is also that the signs will never appear unless Christians make a conscious effort, in their politics, to set them up.
You complain that such signs will always be miserable simulacra of what they signify? You are really complaining about the fallen nature of man, about which God has also complained. You will therefore not be so presumptuous as to cast the City of Man into a reflection, however distorted, of the City of Goo? Then you are abandoning the City of Man, as the Incarnate God did not. You wish to limit the power of those who minister to the public life because of the human tendency to misuse power? You are right to do so. But five centuries of liberalism have infallibly taught that for all its contrived constitutions and laws the one thing liberalism does not provide is effective limitations on power. Has power ever been limited effectively in the West except on God’s authority? Is there any better protector of the poor, on the showing of history, than the Church of the Poor?
We thus return to Danielou who sees that Christianity must reach the poor today through a world shaped by science and technology. The temptation is to withdraw and hide from this fight, to hope it will go away. But it is not likely to. One does not have to share Danielou’s view that the developments it represents is “admirable and irreversible” in order to appreciate that it is our lot today, that it is the clay God has given us to mold. Moreover, there are reasons (which are really intuitions) for taking hope from what now seems so forbidding. Danielou, for instance, suspects that the very omnipresence of technology and its sensible oppressiveness will increasingly demonstrate the absence of the spiritual in contemporary life and drive man to seek God, to be religious. Man is coming to see “more clearly how limited is the help technology can give him”—that it “leaves him unprovided for in precisely those situations which have the most importance for him.” Frederick Wilhelmsen, on the other hand, has recently written that the “essential dynamism” of the ascendant electronic technology itself forces a synthesis of existence, and thus will draw man in the dawning age to a life of contemplation. What disturbs me most about Wilhelmsen’s thesis, however, is the renewed suggestion of elitism. If the dynamism of the post-modern world will free the metaphysician to see God, what in it will free the poor?
I think Danielou has fingered the key. He says that the connection between our technologically organized world and the sacred will be provided by art. The reason why there is no connection today, why the poor are uncared for, is that there is no art. This message makes the point well:
The world of beauty is the world of intermediary hierarchies which are irradiated with the glory that cascades down from the Trinity even into the formless opacity of matter. The beautiful is the world of forms between that which is above, being the sphere of God, and that which has no form at all, being mere matter. The modern world shuts out that intermediate order. It recognizes nothing between scientific thinking and mystical possession, and in so doing denies completely the sphere which it is the function of art to reconstitute by giving back to the universe its depths.
The point can be made otherwise by observing that the beautiful os sensible, not intellectual or moral. Therefore it is always accessible to, and lures the poor. It is no accident that the age of great belief was the age of great art. And the dynamism here moves both ways. If belief nourishes art, it is even clearer, at least for the poor that art nourishes belief.
For this reason it seems certain that a reconstituted Christian civilization will have art as its center. This means, in turn, that Christian politics will have to become centrally concerned with art. The state will always be with us, a necessity and therefore a good. But I think its importance will recede with the disappearance of liberalism, though probably after a final bout with fascism. It is possible that the state’s rank in the public life will be taken over by television.
I will close this letter by seeming to deny its argument, but the blame for this I will not admit. I lay it to the paradox of Christianity. It is true that Christianity and civilization cannot be kept apart, not if there is to be a Christian people. But it is also true that Christianity is not civilization, and cannot be identified with any civilization, past or future. I once wrote an article arguing that Western Christendom was “God’s Civilization.” I was wrong about that. Danielou is right in insisting that “Christianity is of quite a different order … It is a divine irruption which cuts through to the very seat of our wretchedness, prizing us loose from this civilization, which can do no more than lighten our load, and bring us out on to a quite different level of existence … The essence of Christianity … is the transfiguration of our woe.” Christianity is not the poor seeking a God who is waiting to be found. It is God, in violent action, seeking the poor. And it is only the real poor who can, without the brace of civilization, stand up under the collision. This is why there are probably no short cuts to making a new Christendom. Almost certainly the seeds of Christian politics can be resown only “by creating oases in the prevailing secularism where the Christian vocation can develop.” These oases will be peopled, I am sure Danielou means, by the real poor, by those who are “detached from earthly things.” Yet I, maybe like you, am not ready for that. I am still a poor politician.
Robert Orsi’s History and Presence.
Farkasfalvy’s latest on biblical theology.