Seeking the Truth with Orestes Brownson

Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., among others, thought highly of Orestes Brownson—indeed, Russell Kirk, who led the Brownson revival in the last century, placed him “in the first rank of American men of ideas,” and his work is of more than historical interest. Reflections on American society as good as Tocqueville? Check. Addressing a devastating critique of socialism before Marx even writes Capital? Check. Produces the central work of post-Civil War political theory? Check. Friend of Emerson and Cardinal Newman? And finally, native Vermonter and burned-over district preacher who became a Catholic? Check indeed.

Yet despite this high level of respect, there is an Orestes Brownson sized hole in American intellectual history. In this handsome anthology titled Seeking the Truth, Richard Reinsch reminds us why all Americans, but especially Catholics, should care what Brownson has to say. He provides a powerful intellectual argument for the complementarity of our democratic experiment with Catholic thought. This argument is needed far more than ever. With the recent meltdown of American evangelicalism over support for Trump, the influence of the “religious right” is at an all-time low. Ross Douthat has recently argued that “some kind of religious conservatism must be rebuilt,” because a right-wing without the formative power of religious belief would be “very dark indeed.” Yet that reborn religious conservatism must also reject the easy identification of America with the Kingdom of Gods, which has been a besetting weakness even of the non-Trump religious right. Brownson may offer a way through.

seeking-the-truthThe typical dismissal of Brownson (1803-1876) is that his mind was undisciplined. He allowed his powerful intellect to get pushed by the winds of doctrine and politics this way and that and so his opinions, which changed drastically over time, can be safely ignored. But as Reinsch notes in his excellent introduction, that view fails to appreciate the underlying unity of Brownson’s work. Brownson was searching for the truth, and our modern relativism—that since he changed his opinions, none of them could be true—says more about us than about him. He rejected a pragmatism that measured truth only by utility or material comfort, and engaged with modern philosophical thought from a perspective open to supernatural as well as natural evidence. “Brownson’s writings, born from his existential wrangling, were addressed to our authentic human longings to know the truth about ourselves. To study Brownson is to learn from a man whose first concern was to be open to the truth about what it mans to be a human person.” And what it means to be human is to live in relationship (what Brownson called communion) with others, with the world, and ultimately with God.

Only a relational God, one who loves us and whom we also love, makes our human experience of reality comprehensible. Modernity had sidetracked political society because it tried to ground that society on incomplete ideas, like the social contract (a topic Brownson excoriated in his essays), the popular will, or, more recently, an authoritarian “tolerance.” Rather, the conclusion about our human experience should lead, “Brownson held, to a profoundly different ground for a liberal politics precisely because the person found his authentic freedom in love of man and God. Politics is transcended by and must support these truths of human freedom and existence.” This does not mean a confessional state. Brownson was too much the American for that, and as we will discuss shortly, contested with Rome over the proper relations between religious belief and politics. However, it does mean that politics is derivative of our beliefs about the human person, and so will have consequences for how we organize our political life.

Brownson’s Life
Reinsch discusses the biographical details of Brownson’s life to set the stage for his work. Brownson was born in Vermont and raised by neighbors after his father’s death when Brownson was six. Although raised in a Congregationalist household, at eighteen he made a public profession of Presbyterianism, which he soon left because he was frustrated by the rejection of reason in Protestant theology. Thus began a lifelong journey through various American denominations; along the way Brownson married, had eight children (two sons died in the Civil War), and taught himself Latin, Greek, Spanish, German, Italian, and French. He was deeply involved in both philosophical debate with current European trends, as well as argument about federal power and political favor in America. For much of his life he supported himself by his writing, and his prose is a distillation of elaborate Victorian sentences punctuated by sharp denunciations or affirmations.

In 1840, while in the throes of a secular progressivism that sought to create a “Church of the Future,” Brownson wrote one of his most famous essays, included in this collection. Titled “The Laboring Classes,” the essay reflected both his deep empathy for workers and concern for inequality, as well as a description of a socialist utopia before Marx wrote his Capital, which came out in 1867. He is critical of the bourgeois middle class: “The middle class is always a firm champion of equality, when it concerns humbling a class above it; but is its inveterate foe, when it concerns elevating a class below it.”

However, the reaction to the essay had a sobering effect on Brownson’s thinking. The essay was seized upon by the Whigs against Brownson’s Democrats in the election of 1840, and Brownson was devastated by having to defend himself against charges of radicalism. This shook his faith in the revolutionary majority, and brought to the fore themes he had been exploring, including “his deep-seated disagreement with the notion that the sovereign people were the masters of government,” and the “ease with which democracy can become authoritarian.” At the same time, the years after “The Laboring Classes” saw Brownson reflect more deeply on the nature of God, which brought him to Catholicism in 1844.

Religious Liberty Becomes Central After Conversion
It is his work on religious liberty and the American polity that may be more important today. Upon becoming a Catholic, Brownson argued on two fronts. The first was simple American nativism. Brownson became a Catholic when the Church of Rome was under deep suspicion of dual loyalty, superstition, and the general charge that Catholics could not be good Americans. Brownson turned that argument on its head and demonstrates that Catholicism reflects a better grounding than secular Deism or Protestantism for the American Founding. He makes this argument in an essay called “Catholicity Necessary to Sustain Popular Liberty.” As Brownson understood, and argued in his classic 1865 work, The American Republic, generous portions of which are included here, philosophy cannot demonstrate the truths, for example, of the Declaration of independence that all men are created equal. And because of that, society must degenerate unless sustained by religious foundations, specifically Christianity’s notion of a relational, personal God. Democracy, he writes, “is a beautiful theory, and would work admirably, if it were not for one little difficulty, namely, —the people are fallible, both individually and collectively, and governed by their passions and interest, which not infrequently lead them far astray, and produce much mischief.” Something outside its own will must sustain the people.

We know of but one solution to the difficulty, and that is in RELIGION. There is no foundation for virtue but in religion, and it is only religion that can command the degree of popular virtue and intelligence requisite to insure to popular government the right direction and a wise and just administration. A people without religion, however successful they may be in throwing off old institutions, or in introducing new ones, have no power to secure the free, orderly, and wholesome working of any institutions. For the people can bring to the support of institutions only the degree of virtue and intelligence they have; …. We say, then, if democracy commits the government of the people to be taken care of, religion is to take care that they take proper care of the government, rightly direct and wisely administer it.

Brownson thought the best religious support to democracy was Catholicism, precisely because it was supposedly immune from the democratic or individualistic temptations of both secularism and certain forms of Protestantism. But Brownson did not think this meant a confessional state. Because of this, Brownson also had adversaries among his fellow Catholics. Some European Catholics argued that religious liberty was acceptable only until Catholics could support a confessional state. Brownson responded that the constitutional protection of all faiths allowed Catholicism to grow; moreover, the First Amendment reflected a better understanding of the human person. In this, Reinsch argues, he anticipates some of the arguments made decades later by John Courtney Murray, S.J. and reflected in Vatican II’s declaration of religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae.

In his essay, “Religion and Liberty,” Brownson distinguished between theological tolerance and civil tolerance. The Church has authority to discipline over the former, but not the latter. “Error has no rights, but the man who errs has equal rights with him who errs not.” The Church’s authority in a civil social order is moral and spiritual, not temporal. But this also means that the state cannot interfere in spiritual matters or the exercise of one’s faith, and for the same reason. Each individual must follow his own faith without compulsion to violate it. “The enemies of religion must understand that if they require the state to use its power against religion, or to suppress it, they violate the first principle of civil and religious liberty. … The state, under the control of infidelity, and establishing atheism, is, to say the least, as hostile to religious and civil liberty as the state under the control of the clergy, and establishing the Roman Catholic Church.”

Alas, that consequence may be coming to pass, as the “enemies of religion” interpret the First Amendment as prohibiting any expression of religion in public life and through the government’s extensive involvement in social services, in effect banning theistic expression in things like healthcare. If Catholics in the nineteenth century were beset by the larger Protestant culture, now they are under threat by a secular culture hostile even to the very idea of religious liberty. Brownson saw the weakness in establishing a social order on mere consent of flawed individuals, without transcendent warrant. Only by recognizing that our destiny transcends the political, can we hope to have a stable political order.

Gerald J. Russello


Gerald J. Russello is a Fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University and editor of The University Bookman. He is also the editor of the 2013 edition of Christopher Dawson’s Religion and Culture from Catholic University of America Press.