Great Political Ideas are Sustained by Great Religious Ideas

I do not normally read the New York Times. No normal person normally does. But every once in a while I make an exception. Which is also a normal thing to do. The article I read astonished me, especially the following passage:

America had a great political idea, but it had a small religious idea. The spiritual vision was not wide enough for the breadth and variety of brotherhood that was to be established among men…. The nation arose not with unity of philosophy but with variety in fanaticism; with sects built on special dogmas or on the denial of special dogmas, on something that was not merely private judgment but particular judgment.

I have never seen packed so tightly so complete an explanation of the development of America’s religious history that also explains its cultural history.

The “great political idea” is obviously democracy and the “self-evident” truth that all men are created equal and that their basic rights come from God. Democracy means self-government, the ability to rule oneself, which is everyone’s right and responsibility. Self-government literally means self-control. Self-government does not mean doing whatever you want, rather it means controlling whatever you do. But the control does not come from some outside force, it comes from yourself. Self-restraint is the essence of protecting your own freedom and everyone else’s because self-restraint is what prevents us from trampling on anyone else’s rights. And the natural consequence of self-restraint is self-respect, remembering our own and everyone else’s dignity. Self-control is one of the fruits of the spirit described by St. Paul in Galatians 5:22-23. Thus, a nation of self-government would be a nation of self-control and self-respect.

If what I just described does not look anything like America today, that is because the founding fathers’ great political idea of self-rule was not accompanied by a great religious idea.

America, of course, was not founded as a Catholic nation. It was founded as a Protestant nation that would not declare its religion but would attempt to maintain a freedom of religion. All well and good as far as that goes. But Protestantism is not a unifying philosophy. If it is unified by anything, it is anti-Catholicism. It is defined by its continued “protest” against the authority of the Catholic Church. But freedom of religion must tolerate even Catholicism, thus eroding any unity in a Protestant philosophy that is already not unified. It starts broken and continues to break apart. The Protestants who broke away from the Catholic Church then broke away from each other. America has had a genius for breeding one new sect after another. A “sect” is a section, and each section is smaller and narrower. Even if a section grew, as did the Baptist and the Mormon sects, it was still narrow, because it had broken off from something bigger and broader than itself.

Each sect was founded on a certain fanaticism that would turn around and attack everything that was not itself, which caused continual disruption in the culture around it. For instance, the Puritans attacked basic pleasures that sparked a backlash that has rippled across American history right to the present moment. Even as Puritan fanatics retreated to their separate little chapels, waiting for the Second Coming, they condemned cigarettes and beer as from the devil. They alienated themselves, they were completely out-of-touch with wholesome salt-of-the-earth citizens who had an innocent enjoyment of cigarettes and beer, and who subsequently dismissed all religion as an institution that only wants to take away cigarettes and beer. But the latest attacks on cigarettes and beer don’t come any more from religious sects, but from secular sects. The religion is gone, only the fanaticism remains. And those who hold these “particular judgments” want to make them universal. And so all the fanaticisms clash and the culture falls into chaos because there is no unifying philosophy.

One persistent fanaticism that prevents unity is the idea that you cannot mix politics and religion. But as a matter of fact, you cannot help mixing them. A good political idea can only be sustained by a good religious idea. Justice cannot be sustained unless it is divinely ordained and permanent, and not subject to human whims and societal trends.

Implied in the idea that Protestantism is not a unifying philosophy is the idea that Catholicism is a unifying philosophy. Catholicism is the spiritual vision that is “wide enough for the breadth and variety of brotherhood” that America wanted to establish. Catholicism can respect religious freedom, but it will not allow such freedom to destroy societal order and create cultural chaos. Catholicism respects the authority of the family, but it will not allow a different definition of family. It respects life, liberty, and the pursuit of true happiness. It does not allow any attack on life and on liberty. It does not respect the pursuit of unhappiness. Could the Catholic Church save the great idea that was America? Nothing else can. Nothing else is big enough.

I drew all that from one profound and insightful passage in a newspaper article. And to think I found that article in the New York Times. Did I mention the article was in the issue from July 12, 1931? And did I mention that the writer was G.K. Chesterton?

Editor’s note: The image above, titled “Declaration of Independence,” was painted by John Trumbull in 1819.

Dale Ahlquist


Dale Ahlquist is President of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton and the author of Knight of the Holy Ghost: A Short History of G.K. Chesterton.

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