Intellectual divisions are sometimes deceptive. They are not always so exclusive as they appear. Take, for instance, liberals and conservatives; they are polar opposites, aren’t they? Well, not on everything. Consider the question of the moral status of the American regime. On this there is a curious convergence of sentiment between otherwise opposing camps. Both agree that America is morally bankrupt.
Liberals of the “San Francisco Democrat” stripe so emphasize America’s faults (real and imagined) that Jeane Kirkpatrick was moved to dub them, aptly, “Blame America Firsters.” On their view, the U.S.’s problems in the world can be traced to “the arrogance of power,” to being “on the wrong side of history,” and to elevating commercial, selfish concerns above a concern for the oppressed and the poor.
Some conservatives are now voicing similar indictments. George Will, one of our most thoughtful commentators, argues that the American republic is “ill-founded” inasmuch as it was based at the outset on an unseemly accommodation to self-interest, rather than being founded to inculcate virtue. A grievous moral failing at the country’s beginning has down the years been compounded, so that we are today come to a point where “all of the nation’s life is marked by excess and disdain for what once was…thought to be a virtue: self-denial.”
Catholic voices of a conservative bent are adding their own indictment. In its issue of May 2, The Wanderer, the feisty conservative Catholic weekly, ran a “Presswatch” column which wondered, bleakly, “what future generations will be disposed to think about the non-totalitarian wholesome sentiments that motivate us.” The author (the column is un-signed) takes issue with a statement by Robert L. Houbeck, Jr. in an article in the April issue of Catholicism in Crisis (“The Clinic Bombings: On ‘Pouncing’ and Prudence”), to wit that “Americans are a people of wholesome sentiments but sometimes blurry reasoning.” To The Wanderer’s columnist, the presence of pornography and the practice of abortion deprives Americans, pace Mr. Houbeck, of any basis for such “self-congratulation.” Given the graphic (and disgusting) details of au courant porn that “Presswatch” assembles, one is invited to conclude that “we”—America—are a latter day Sodom. Moral depravity, then, is the dominant characteristic of modern America.
To this, two points need to be made, the first a simple one concerning fairness and accuracy, the second touching on political wisdom. In the first place, The Wanderer misses the point, and cavalierly distorts the meaning, of Mr. Houbeck’s essay. As a moderately careful reading of the article should disclose, it did not aim at “self-congratulation,” but rather attempted, in the context of the controversy over the bombing of abortion clinics by pro-life activists, to make what should be an obvious distinction: that our situation is not morally analogous to the Nazi holocaust. (To point this out is not to ascribe moral purity to the American soul.) Moreover, readers of “Presswatch,” if they have not read Mr. Houbeck’s essay, could easily form the impression that he is “soft” on, or ambivalent about, abortion. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mr. Houbeck is in fact an implacable foe of abortion.
So much for fairness and accuracy. The more troubling issue concerns the soundness and wisdom of the moral-political assessment of the American character. On this question, conservatives of the “America is ill-founded” and “America as morally depraved” schools and liberal Blame America Firsters share the same conviction; they have diagnosed the disease and it is us. The moral tissue of our nation is cancerous—and the condition is far advanced, perhaps even terminal. How can such a country be valued and esteemed? More to the point, how can such a country be worth defending? The implication seems unavoidable: reform is misguided; revolution is the only moral option.
From this analysis of the shortcomings of the American regime—and shortcomings there certainly are—there emerges, by implication if not by intention, a counsel of despair. If we are so far gone, what’s the point of trying to remedy our moral failings by drawing on the resources of our own culture? For the forces arrayed against us are so entrenched and so formidable as to render anything short of guerrilla warfare—or perhaps retirement to isolated, self-enclosed communities—totally ineffective. Efforts to persuade our fellow citizens that, say, abortion, being homicide, ought to be legally restricted are hardly worth the trouble. Our fellow citizens, you see, are, the bulk of them anyway, morally corrupt. Where moral corruption is this far advanced, exhortation to virtue is powerless.
Sober Catholics, mindful of their tradition, know that all nations, at all times, are under God’s judgment. Not one is above criticism. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) applies to nations as well as to individuals. Thus societies are always more or less in crisis. There is no “Golden Age” of morality to which we can return. Still, fidelity to truth compels us to recognize that some regimes are better, morally better, than others. Some more closely approximate the values Christians are called to protect and advance than do others. And some are better structured to allow for the restoration of these values when they have been eroded. There are resources within the American political and moral tradition with which to combat both abortion and pornography. (On the latter, see the excellent recent work by Francis Canavan, S.J., Freedom of Expression: Purpose As Limit, reviewed by Robert Houbeck in this issue.)
It is not exactly that Americans need to “feel good” about themselves. Neither self-adulation (which The Wanderer fears) nor self-flagellation are healthy. There is a cheap kind of patriotism that admits no moral faults and is dangerously jingoistic. What is wanted is a critical patriotism that recognizes that our republic is both flawed and noble. Despite pockets of self aggrandizement and despite the promoters of pornography and abortion, there is a considerable reservoir of “wholesome sentiment” in the land. We must seek to tap it and channel it to good purpose. For this a certain amount of self-confidence is required. Pushing the “America is morally depraved” line undermines this task and risks a self-fulfilling prophecy.