Rescuing American Civilization: A Response to Stephen M. Krason

Yesterday, Crisis published a piece by Stephen M. Krason in which he argues that “the strong exertion of presidential power may be the best way after Obama to restore liberty and begin to mend the social fabric whose erosion has accelerated during his administration.” This appears to be part of an ongoing tendency, recently and controversially critiqued by John Zmirak, of Catholic cultural frustration expressing itself through appeals to authoritarianism. Krason, like other advocates of stronger centralized authority, rightfully points to the erosion of religious liberties through the triumphalist march of the “marriage equality” movement, the ongoing slaughter of millions of unborn children in the womb and an all-pervasive cultural disorder as evidence that something drastic needs to be done.

Yet just as America hosted an ideological conflict regarding the role of government in the economy between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians, there is a similar conflict taking place regarding the Catholic response to the cultural collapse. Does the proper solution to this crisis lie in the build-up of executive authority and the centralization of decision-making power, or does it lie in a strenuous push in the opposite direction, towards a reassertion of checks and balances and increased local autonomy? Here I will make a case for the latter.

I will begin by noting that the system of checks and balances between the three branches of the federal government was not the only system of this kind intended by the founders. The 10th amendment of the Constitution establishes the states and the people as a check upon the federal government as a whole. Though the importance of the 10th amendment in this capacity is lost on many American political commentators today, it was Thomas Jefferson himself who considered this amendment to be the foundation of the Constitution, beyond which the federal government could not be justified in taking “a single step.”

Many of the culture war issues we contend with today were never intended to be under the purview of the federal government. In fact, states were—and theoretically still are—perfectly within their constitutional right to establish churches and “legislate morality” in a thousand different ways. The 1st amendment only prohibits the federal government from respecting an establishment of religion. When the Supreme Court invoked Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation” phrase to justify the incorporation of the 1st amendment to the states via the 14th, it made a mockery of Jefferson’s political thought. Even the aggrieved Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, did not expect Jefferson to disestablish its Congregationalist church. Their famous letter to him notes this explicitly: “Sir, we are sensible that the President of the United States is not the National Legislator and also sensible that the national government cannot destroy the laws of each State….”

It was precisely because Jefferson did not think of himself as a strong executive with the constitutional authority to impose his will on the nation that early American states were able to retain established churches and legislate morality through the majority will. The 10th amendment does not merely recognize state governments, after all, but the people too: this is an expression of popular sovereignty, the notion that political power originates with the people as a whole. It is through local and state legislatures that this power is exercised.

Finally, both Jefferson and James Madison, the “father of the Constitution”, believed it was within the legitimate power of the states to resist unconstitutional federal mandates. For Jefferson the doctrine of “nullification” was the mechanism by which states would resist; for Madison, it was a slightly different doctrine of “interposition.” The primary difference here is that nullification recognizes the legitimacy of any individual state rejecting a federal law, while interposition requires the cooperation of several states. Of course the political class and the academic legal establishment will argue that nullification is not only a legal dead letter, but guilty by association with men such as John C. Calhoun of promoting racism. Catholic libertarian Thomas Woods has made the convincing case for the constitutionality of nullification, and I don’t believe it is a coincidence that a Catholic has been at the tip of the vanguard on this important historical question.

At this point it will be conceded that it will be just as difficult for the states to truly reassert their original and authentic 10th amendment rights as it would be for Krason’s Cincinnatus to ascend to the Presidency and begin a unilateral moral reform of the nation. Ultimately we are considering the broad and general direction of our collective political efforts, which we hope will culminate in our maximum demands but will likely fall short. But there are good reasons to push in the direction of state’s rights as opposed to a stronger executive.

The first reason is that any powers assumed by one of our own will inevitably be assumed by one of our enemies. As soon as we set the precedents of granting one man the ability to overturn court decisions, defy Congress, and demand compliance on the strength of his rhetorical abilities as suggested by Krason, we lose any credibility we might have when attempting to resist the efforts of an amoral libertine who employs the same methods towards evil ends. This is arguably happening now under Obama, who enjoys more executive power because of the precedents set by his predecessor, George W. Bush; the next cycle would take us even further down this dark road. On the other hand, the states themselves can accomplish what Krason would like the powerful executive to accomplish, namely resisting the blatantly unconstitutional decrees of the judiciary and the immoral mandates of the federal government. This leads to a different kind of crisis, granted, but one that is less likely to end in bloodshed and more likely to appeal to sensibilities that our more reasonable opponents in the culture war also hold.

The second reason is that, painful as it is to admit, we on the natural law and social conservative side of the major cultural issues of our time are in a distinct minority. It is encouraging to note that the pro-life movement is younger and fresher than it has been in some time, and that half of the country identifies as pro-life. We may also note a growing awareness that the strength and integrity of the family is the key to long-term social and economic prosperity. A closer look at the numbers reveals, however, that many of these same people are willing to make exceptions for abortion that Catholics cannot make. Worse yet, support for “marriage equality” is growing. It is growing on the basis of outright lies and non-stop propaganda, but it is growing. Setting aside therefore the sheer strategic difficulties involved in running a successful campaign for our would-be Cincinnatus, even if he did manage to win, it is doubtful that he would have much of a mandate to impose our maximum demands. The state’s rights approach once again helps us avoid these problems, since support for natural law morality is concentrated locally; red-state America (and occasionally blue-state America) has voted time and again to ban gay marriage and place greater restrictions on abortion. All that is required is a resolve on the part of the states—which is being tested right now, in fact, in Texas, Kentucky, and elsewhere—to resist the morally corrupt federal judiciary.

Ultimately we must ask ourselves how far we are willing to go to reshape an entire nation of 310 million people into something radically different than what it currently is. We can all appreciate Krason’s urgent appeal: “In ordinary times, we can accept the interminable deliberation, plodding, excessive compromising, and willy-nilly decision-making of legislative bodies. It is different in times of crisis, where a civilization hangs in the balance and time is short.” But the long-term risks inherent in transferring vast amounts of power to one man are not worth whatever short-term gains such a measure may bring. The states and the people have the power to fight back without such a risky concentration of power; let us at least wait and see if they have the will to do so.

Joe Hargrave


Joe Hargrave is an adjunct professor of political science at Rio Salado Community College in Tempe, Arizona.

  • joel

    Thank you! After reading Krason’s article I was ready to give up and move to Cuba! It’s time for state and local governments to lead the people they live with and among. The federal government can’t control morality (or any local issue) from afar. The attempt to do so requires a dictator-like leader/president.

    • Tonya-Clay Davis

      Yet state and local governments often do what the fed wants, through grant enticements and collectivist propaganda.

  • Steven Jonathan

    I would go further still and say so goes the family so goes the state- it doesn’t matter what the state or the feds do when our very foundational building blocks are crumbling and both entities, by far worse the feds, are striking at the foundations with tremendous vigor- Local rule and subsidiarity need to return to the domestic church, our Catholic families and good Catholic men and women raising moral and in tact families is this country’s only real hope, and if that is where are our hope lies, it is misplaced anyway- Good families would not tolerate the brutality of this age and there is nothing the state or fed could possibly do to reconstitute the family or to restore morality to society, only the good families can do that, and only by the grace of God.. We must look to God and begin in earnest to colonize heaven, not to man.

  • The culture wars have been lost, and the experiment of the founding fathers has failed. This civilization has been on life support for 40 years, time to pull the plug and admit what we all know to be true- that civilization rests not with the State, but with the Church, and that civilization based on the state will always end in tyranny, sexual lust, greed, and slavery.

    Libertarian worship of license instead of liberty can’t save civilization. It only plays into the hands of tyranny when good men support immorality.

    • Vinnie

      I agree. Only I’d add blood-lust to your list.

  • smartypants

    “The first reason is that any powers assumed by one of our own will inevitably be assumed by one of our enemies.” Exactly so! Thank you for this response to that article. It needed saying and you said it perfectly.

    • Rhoda Penmark

      When “our enemies” do it, it’s tyranny. When we do it, it’s perfectly okay. There’s a term for this: hypocrisy.

  • poetcomic1

    You cannot dismantle the car’s engine and put it back together again with as many parts as you can manage to save. America is over. You cannot throw away the ancient Catholic liturgy and ‘get it back brick by brick’.

  • Art Deco

    I found Dr. Krason’s article a non sequitur, not much of an address to the institutional and cultural problems we face. The one thing that the President could do that would be salutary would be to withdraw the U.S. Marshall Service from selected federal districts and circuits and to re-assign U.S. Marshalls to other activities.

    The editor should have sent the submission back to him with a request for clarification.

  • Diego Fernando Ramos Flor

    Just to add: there’s an article at Ethika Politika ( that goes about the monastic of the last two papacies (Benedict and Francis, St. Benedict and St Francis of Assisi, respectively), and makes reference to a strong local community. At the light of that article and this one, I remind having said days before to a friend of mine that the National Government should be the last resort, but we should have in mind that the most of the time (in recent times), government doesn’t take from us, we give to it: when we avoid to help our neighbor in need, we let (call desperately) the State to take care of that neigbor; when we buy all sorts of sumptuary things and refuse to help the poor (our neighbor), we let (call desperately) the government to tax us; when we buy all sort of imported things, that our governments have to fund at overseas, instead of buying local (to our neighbors), we let (call desperately) the government to impose capital controls [this might not be exactly true for USA, but for the rest of the world, it is]; when we speculate to generate wealth without production (, instead of working for Christ to serve our neighbors, we let (call desperately) the State to regulate and re-regulate. Government is a tool, recognized and celebrated by the Popes at many encyclicals, but giving it its right place is not a condemning/redeeming issue. In recent times, if the Government has failed is because WE have failed to serve Our Lord, WE have failed to love our neighbor, and WE have failed to announce the Good New. Subsidiarity is not only about claiming rights for the smallest structures, it is also about taking responsibilities before someone else have to take them from us.
    Thanks Mr. Hargrave and thanks Mr. Krason for this excellent thoughts you shared.

  • Alan Lille

    This statement is naïve: “The states and the people have the power to fight back without such a risky concentration of power; let us at least wait and see if they have the will to do so.” Make no mistake, the states also suffer from the same problem. The issue unfortunately speaks to a fundamental flaw in our culture, its politics and the assumptions that provide the culture philosophical support. Simply shifting focus to the local level will not change anything.

  • Vinnie

    “In ordinary times, we can accept the interminable deliberation, plodding, excessive compromising, and willy-nilly decision-making of legislative bodies. That’s what got us into this situation in the first place.

  • hombre111

    Excellent. How someone could naively believe that a modern Cincinnatus could prod a nation into a conservative world view without becoming a Hitler and tearing the nation apart eludes me. And it continues to amaze me that the conservative list of society’s tragedies does not include the obscene number of the underclass and the ever expanding wealth of the one percent, with the growing gap between the haves and have-nots.

    • Art Deco

      Because the ‘underclass’ consists of a criminal population that you will always have with you (to varying degrees) which needs to be contained more than anything else, a chronic welfare population whose dimensions are an artifact of public policy, and a skid row population who are small enough in number to be taken care of by philanthropic endeavours. Figures on asset distribution are the softest of soft data and the World Bank has been publishing very little in the way of income distribution figures re the United States.

      • hombre111

        Spin away. My state, with a plethora of millionaires, ranks among the lower five in income distribution, and has the highest per capita number of people living on minimum wage than any other state in the union. This, admitted by the perpetual Republican administration, probably considering it a plus.

        • Art Deco

          I am not spinning. I am pointing out the obvious: you lack a conceptual framework to make sense of anything more abstract than your belly button.

          You’ve repeatedly made reference to the state where you live, but never reveal it so anything you say can be verified. You’ve also never cited a single statistics from a reputable source.

          • TheAbaum

            He’s probably such a notorious type that if he revealed his state, his identity would be obvious and then his Bishop would have to have a discussion with him about his causing public scandal.

            Of course, given his public pronouncements, I still see no reason to believe he’s a priest, other than there are others in desperate need of defrocking, such as the infamous Michael Pfleger.

            • hombre111

              At age 76, I am helping the lone pastor of this 2,500 family parish, with three Masses on a weekend, weekday Masses, funeral Masses, and hospital visits. I do this because of the priest shortage which, along with the clergy abuse scandal and the bishops’ coverup, is the great tragedy of the modern Church. A major fail by the infallible Magisterium. The John Paul priests are now mostly in charge of things, including the two good and extremely conservative young men who are in charge of vocations. Our diocese with over 170,000 Catholics now has 43 priests, 25+ retired priests who help out the best they can, and nine seminarians. We did have twelve, but three just left. This shameful collapse of the priesthood began with the shameful rigidity of Pope John Paul. Because of his colossal reputation, it will be another twenty years before a pope dares ordain married men, unless they are Protestant ministers who join the Catholic Church.

              • TheAbaum

                We don’t have this problem in my Diocese. Of course, we have orthodox men modeling something other than left-wing politics and sexual relativism.

    • TheAbaum

      “How someone could naively believe that a modern Cincinnatus could prod a
      nation into a conservative world view without becoming a Hitler and
      tearing the nation apart eludes me.”

      You ought to consider that sentence before you propose another statist scheme.

  • Arriero

    – «[…] the strong exertion of presidential power may be the best way after Obama to restore liberty and begin to mend the social fabric whose erosion has accelerated during his administration.»

    That was a great – and very wise – assertion.

    It is a 100% Catholic statement, which directly addresses the key issue. It’s wholly Catholic both from a magisterial point of view (well known in tradionalist anglo-saxon Catholic circles) and from a deep historical understanding of Church’s history (not very well known in those circles).

    History tells us that a Church without real earthly power is an easy target for the anti-rational nihilists. In fact, the last 200 years or so of protestant liberalism has done everything to little by little marginalizing the Church and denying her Authority; and I assess anarchism, marxism and protestant-liberal classicism as sheer (anti-Authority, anti-Dogma, anti-government; ultimately: anti-Catholic) protestantism «carried to its logical» (cfr. Pope Benedict). History also teaches us that without this same earthly power the Church would have never become the greatest Institution in Earth’s history.

    More presidential power does not mean more federal state (cfr. Jacksonian Democracy). State NEVER SHOULD be considered a synonym of government. Only communists and fascists – being fascism marxism’s bad copy. Mussolini was first of all socialist, then he became fascist. Franco, in Spain, always hated the word fascism and never used it – saw them as synonyms. The Church is an Institution that per se needs a powerful government in order, mainly, to guide society through the word of God, the magisterium and the tradition til the Salvation. We know that outside the Church there is no Salvation (even the acerbic Oscar Wilde knew this, when he converted just before dying).

    In America everything seems to be discussed in terms of politics, and not in terms of Catholic Vs. anti-Catholic. Mr. Krason’s statement could be discussed from a political perspective, sure, but what we should really care about the statement is that it’s a very Catholic idea regardless of political ideologies. CATHOLICISM IS ABOVE IDEOLOGIES, AND POLITICS. The Jeffersonian/Hamiltonian debate has nothing to do with the intrinsic meaning – and truth – in Krason’s statement. A vietnamese Catholic completely understands Krason’s statement, but a vietnamese Catholic has no idea of who were Jefferson or Hamilton.

    It’s very interesting to read and hear such statements once in awhile. Mr. Krason is right. Catholics are, above any other thing, Catholics. Let’s wipe out our Church of nihilistic anarchic pseudo-calvinists whose only aim has always been to undermine the power from the greatest government the world has ever known: that which comes from the Church!

    PD- Mr. Krason’s article had many good paragraphs. Take this one, for instance, and think about it: «Building up a healthy culture and political order take much time, but if we don’t check—more, start to reverse—the advanced state of decay of our traditional liberties and constitutional principles we may not get the chance. In ordinary times, we can accept the interminable deliberation, plodding, excessive compromising, and willy-nilly decision-making of legislative bodies. It is different in times of crisis, where a civilization hangs in the balance and time is short—and, in any event, we can’t even seem to forge legislative majorities that will uphold our traditions and moral truth».

    • TheAbaum
      • Arriero

        I could explain you why Spain or Italy have traditionally had far-left wing parties where Catholicism has always had a very heavy ideological influx and a very prominent presence. In fact, Matteo Renzi, the new italian prime minister and president of the centre-left party, has been raised as a Catholic and proudly considers himself a Catholic (the priest from his town appeared in television talking about him when he was elected). Mario Monti, a technocrat from a centre-right party never really liked the kind of policies imposed by the daughter of an east-german protestant pastor. Yet it could be very, very long to explain and probably hard to grasp why that happened. Why, moreover, the italian left – sometimes even the communist left – has traditionally had higher Catholic presence within itself in comparison with the liberal (in european terms) right. Conservatives (Catholics, especially) in Europe has always been «socialists» in the good meaning of the word. The right in Europe has always been anti-Catholic. Just like the pseudo-calvinist right in America, that one which likes to go with the Bible – and nothing more than the Bible – in one hand, and the rifle – and nothing more than the rifle – in the other.

        I don’t understand why instead of attacking the argument, you attack (or talk about) Spain’s economy. There is nothing you can tell me that I don’t already know. If you want to talk about economy, we can talk about economy (the ECB policy, austerity, labour reform, the Spanish real-state bubble, corruption, nepotism, etc.). But that’s not the issue. THE ISSUE IS THE PAPER OF THE CHURCH IN THE XXIst CENTURY. WHAT IS THE CHURCH, WHAT WAS THE CHURCH, AND WHAT WILL BE THE CHURCH.

        Speaking of Spain, today was the tenth aniversary of the 11-M islamist attack on Madrid (the worst terrorist attack in Europe’s history). Do you know how it has been commemorated? With a massive mass in Almudena’s Cathedral in Madrid. The King, the president, all ministers, the victims, the most prominent public servants and also ex-presidents were there, in front of the archibishop (plus the great majority of other Spanish bishops) and praying for the souls of the victims. Do you imagine your high-ranked public servants doing that? These are the subtle differences between a millenarian Catholic nation and one where Catholics have always been, unluckily, a minority. A country where Catholic have to search for pacts with mormons.

        If you want to watch today’s wonderful mass (that’s the kind of greatness we praise and admire):

        • TheAbaum

          Do you imagine your high-ranked public servants doing that?

          I don’t have to imagine it – it occurred all the time until Obama, but I still didn’t think these ostentatious displays of piety did squat to change the interior disposition of Ted Kennedy (or Nancy Pelosi or Bob Casey or Kathleen Sebelious or any number of Catholic politicians) who advance abortion, contraception and SSM. Don’t bother attempting to explain or excuse European politics, nothing will suffice to explain the chaos and corruption, much less the tens of millions killed by your “leaders”. The only thing Europe can offer the world is a negative example.

          By the way, I must not be a Calvinist. I have a nice .45 caliber Smith and Wesson that has the advantage of shooting special defense shotgun shells. I don’t rely on god state to protect my wife.

          You don’t have an “argument”, you have a fantasy. The only working models of “real earthly power” succumbed to garden variety lust and idolatry, but you simply skip over historical fact and tediously assert that some form of autocracy will suddenly produce something other than what it it has always produced.

          If you can’t fix your Spain, you don’t have a chance in the countries you can’t conceal your contempt for-and it wasn’t the right, but the left that installed SSM.

          “There is nothing you can tell me that I don’t already know.”

          Thanks for the laugh.

  • Arriero

    (It’s interesting noticing that the author, Mr. Hargrave, teaches in a college with a Spanish name – Río Salado – located in a state firstly evangelized in the true Faith by Spanish conquerors, like the rest of South, Central and some parts of North America. Ask you something: was the Church powerful in the XVII century Spain? If yes, Why? Did that help in some way to spread the true Faith throughout the world? What implications have that from a XXIth century perspective? Could be the Church able nowadays to such evangelization? Is this Church who is again and again insulted by many what we want?)

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