The Confessional Tribe

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.


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