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 the president and co-founder of the American Chesterton Society. He is the creator and host of the Eternal Word Television Network series, "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense." Dale is the author of G.K. Chesterton: Apostle of Common Sense and the recently published The Complete Thinker. He is also the publisher of Gilbert Magazine, and associate editor of the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius). He lives near Minneapolis with his wife and six children.

  • Jo Joyce

    Oh my! What a concept! But not with the kind of Catholics in government today…Kerry, Biden, Pelosi, etc. That is why we need better formation…to save souls, and America (and the world, for only Jesus can).

    • Micha Elyi

      Fortunately, “Kerry, Biden, Pelosi, etc.” are not the only or even the majority “of Catholics in government today”. However, the usual silence of the bishops is a scandal for it leads their flock (and others) to believe that the Catholic Church is the Democrat Party at prayer.

      Yes, bishops are busy but they can hire out the paper pushing tasks, they cannot hire out their responsibility to shepherd the faithful and speak for the Church.


    I have an Episcopalian friend whom I have been trying to convert. He is highly intelligent and one of my arguing points is the intellectual firepower in the Church. I sent this to him.

  • John Flaherty

    I’m surprised to hear that the NYT had the nerve to publish anything by Chesterton.

    • In 1931, the New York Times was a far more conservative paper than it is today Under the Tyranny of the Hippies

  • Gail Finke

    Great piece, and all based on just one paragraph by Chesterton. Hm. Maybe that guy ought to be a saint. Someone should look into that…

    • reader

      Maybe he could be the first lay doctor of the Church (if there isn’t one already).

  • publiusnj

    I think the author grants too much weightiness to the Founders intent in writing the First Amendment when he writes that the USA “was founded as a Protestant nation that would not declare its religion but would attempt to maintain a freedom of religion. ” In fact, the Founders were not looking to spread tolerance, but just to restrict Congress from imposing any intolerance other than the one dominant in a particular state.

    If one reads the First Amendment all it really does is prohibit “CONGRESS” (i.e., the FEDERAL Government) from establishing a national religion or interfering with “the free exercise” of religion. That was a necessary compromise in closing the deal on the Bill of Rights because many states wanted to maintain the establishments of religion they already had (i.e, Congregationalism in the North and Episcopalianism in the Deeper South with the Middle split. The New England states maintained some variant on their establishments well into the 1800s. New Hampshire still required Protestantism of its office holders until 1868, for example.

    What actually killed the state establishments of religion was NOT the “sweet reason” of the First Amendment but the tendency of Protestantism to keep splitting up (each Awakening spurred the development of yet more sects) and the arrival of Catholics in large numbers. By the 1830s, Massachusetts was no longer a Congregationalist state, and it gave state aid to schools of different sectarian provenances. Yet, when the Catholics came along and demanded the same state aid for their schools as Protestant sectarian schools were already getting, the anti-Catholics amongst the Massachusetts polity (a very prominent group, as the author notes) freaked out and backed the idea of “public schools” that the anti-Catholic Horace Mann was proposing. Since there was no single Protestant sect that dominated in most states, “Establishments” of religion were no longer an effective way to keep Catholicism down as it had been in Merry Olde England. The public schools were, in effect, non-denominational protestant schools, in which a non-denominationalist Protestantism based on the KJV Bible was favored for another 120 years until the School Prayer Decision of the Early 1960s.

    That institutional anti-Catholicism and tolerance for all variants of Protestantism is the real root of the Maximalist View of the First Amendment that the USSC has now inflicted on this nation. The aim of the Court’s increasingly “strict” view of the First Amendment at least up until the 1960s was almost always to deny Catholics any share in the non-denominationally Protestant public life of this country. Of course, anti-Catholicism was not restricted to the USSC and found itself expressed in all sorts of other ways, such as the Know Nothing Party, the Blaine Amendments of the late 19th Century that so many states adopted and post WWI anti-Catholic acts such as Oregon’s Compulsory Eaducation Act that sought to eliminate all private schools (including parochial schools) and was struck down by the USSC as going TOO far. However, the inevitable result of using the First Amendment to deny Catholicism any benefits has been to end up denying anything but Official Governmental Amoralism any rights.

    • HigherCalling

      What actually killed the state establishments of religion was the imposition of the First Amendment’s secular mandates onto the states. The 14th Amendment was the first constitutional amendment directed expressly against the states as a limitation of their sovereignty. The so-called “incorporation doctrine” meant the obliteration of the remnants of Christianity in the states, routing every vestige of Christianity at the state level.

      The 1st Amendment appears to merely prohibit Congress from establishing a national religion. It does much more than initiate a benign, religiously “neutral” and pluralistic State. It effectively equalizes all religions, placing devil-worshipers and Catholics on equal footing before the law, and it neutralizes the moral power of religion on public policy. It subordinates religion to secular ends — especially the Christian religion with its claim on both men and nations.The First Amendment has subjugated the First Commandment. So-called “religious liberty” granted by the government to the Church has achieved what centuries of enemies of Catholicism could not — the quiet and almost proud submission of Catholics and their Church before the Secular State.

      • publiusnj

        The end of state establishments had NOTHING to do with the First Amendment or the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment “incorporation” dogma was not invented by the USSC until the 1930s or so and applied on a case-by-case basis over the next four decades or so. The state establishments of particular religions died much earlier during the 19th Century.

        That said, I agree with much of your analysis in the second paragraph. I would, though, change the phrase that begins the second sentence of the second paragraph: “It does much more….” I would agree with the sentence if it began: “The First Amendment has been interpreted by Maximalists to do much more….” Likewise, the later sentences on the effect of the First Amendment should be amended to make it clear that it is “the maximalist interpretation of the First Amendment” that has “effectually equalized” etc.

  • phranthie

    Great stuff! And with what ought not to have been such a surprise at the end, especially from the pen of Mr Ahlquist. Sadly, though, the Catholic Church is now unlike that guiding beacon of yesteryear, its teaching authority no longer believes in teaching, the Papacy is uninspiring and muddled, and a certain Biblicism, once seen only in those sects, is now the adopted rule for many Catholics, too.

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    Wm. F. Buckley summed it up well. “A man today will have far greater qualms about throwing a piece of litter from his boat than about committing adultery in his boat.”

    • Watosh

      As I regularly walk the streets with my dog, of a well to do neighborhood, I do see a lot of litter every morning. What I object to most is those who throw a glass bottle of beer, generally a premium beer, on to the sidewalk leaving broken glass all over. In the apartments I lived in they billed themselves as “luxury” apartments, but the litter there is so bad they have to have someone walk over the grounds and pick up the trash deposited there every day.

      • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

        I think you missed the point.

        • Watosh

          Well it does not address the main point in the article, but I had to express my qualms about litterers having less qualms than adulterers. Of course one seldom is in position to view adultery so perhaps Mr. Buckley’s theory could be true. On the other hand are you suggesting that Mr. Buckley wanted to warn people about the dangers involved in boating? Well as they say, more studies are undoubtedly needed.

          • AugustineThomas

            Do you ever leave your house?

            • Watosh

              Now I just stated in my initial comment on this topic that I regularly walked my dog, who will verify this, so s:vbkr0boc,klos might conclude you had missed not only the point, but the article itself.

          • Micha Elyi

            …I had to express my qualms about litterers having less qualms than adulterers.


            I took your remark to be a hint that the number of adulterers in your well-to-do neighborhood is shockingly high, given what I will dub the Buckley Adultery to Litter Ratio.

            The late Mr. Buckley was an avid and skilled boater. Perhaps adulterers rendezvous more often on a luxury boat than at their luxury home (unless one of their spouses lives on the boat).

            Also–alas!–in my experience the well-to-do nowadays litter in public spaces about as much as Section 8 tenants. There was a time when the well-to-do as a class understood they were obligated to set a public example of correct behavior. “From whom much is given, much is expected” was the watchword. Those days are gone. The modern secular substitute, “giving back”, seems limited to specific, often showy, gifts of cash to causes rather than a rule that guides ones way of life and moral behavior.

            • Watosh

              Yes, when I was very young rowing up in the U.P. our neighbors were Serbians, Finnish, Italians, Welsh and Polish miners working in the Iron mines. I don’t believe any had a college degree there, except for the mining engineer and superintendent, but there was no litter. Of course there were no fast food stores then and we were still suffering the effects of the depression.

              Sometimes I wonder as i have observed parents with toddlers at Church and in restaurants, and it seems like, and I do confess, this is off hand observation and I could very well be wrong, that parents today feel that they should not tell their children “No.” I wonder if that is the reason that when they grow up, they tend not to realize there are things they shouldn’t do. This is just a conjecture and I am sure some parents do train their children in behavior. It is just that I have to wonder when I see a teen ager throw a MacDonald’s wrapper on the sidewalk as they walk gaily on. This is just hard for me to understand.

              Anyway I think you made some good points. And that is always appreciated by me.

              • Marie Noybn

                The sad fact is, you are absolutely right. The word “no” has had negative connotations since i would say the sixties. People began to believe they should be their children’s best friends instead of their parents, and because of abusive parents who had no trouble with coupling the word “no” with the back of their hands or their fists, “good” parents started to believe “no” itself was abusive, when the best parents knew that “no” coupled with gentle but through and sometimes corporal discipline was a powerful tool. The generation of children that grew up with no knowledge of “no” have no self restraint because they believe that they are entitled to every whim or desire. This is a very poor way to raise a child and leads, i believe, to both disappointment and possibly violence in a child who grows up thinking if he is not given what he wants, he is justified in taking it. These same children had parents who always picked up after them, or ignored the mess, so they think nothing of throwing down their trash, assuming someone else will pick it up. That said, im not sure when Buckley wrote this, but i know there was a time, in the nineties, when littering WAS seen as almost the ultimate crime hehe. We still have major fines for it in my state. Adultery, alas, is far too common, and, as far as i know, not against the law. I do believe we need to learn to teach our children what is right, rather than trying to legislate morality, except for enforcing current laws, especially the ones against murder.

                • Watosh

                  The thing is my wife and I raised four children rather close together. We did not beat them, we might have given a little tap on the back of the hand, but we very seldom had to go beyond that, but my wife and I were consistent with them and I don’t recall any trouble with tantrums as they always knew what to expect. We never gave them any treats when we shopped at the grocery and they were happy. My parents had a lot of Hummel figurines and such in their house and they remarked who when some people came with small children my parents had to put their figurines away, but when we visited them our children never touched them. And we didn’t have to warn them before we made our visits. When they got into high school it was not as simple to manage them, but we had no big problems. I did take my youngest boy out of Church and paddle him once after he ignored warnings, now he is a surgeon. The two younger boys did engage in a lot of roughhouse that we had to ride herd on. Never had that problem with the girls. Once my wife was provoked by one of the boys behavior and grabbed him near her to give him a couple swats but as she began, lo and behold our cat came over and struck the boy with his paw which cracked up my wife. actually we never spanked them after they reached the age of reason. All in all our children were a joy and did not terrorize us. In closing I came across a little magnetic plaque that said “The fundamental job of a toddler is to rule the universe.” So true, I notice that even little toddlers realize that if they can get their way by screaming they scream. Well I’ve gone on too long, but I want to thank you for reply.

  • Jdonnell

    Chesterton was well aware of the pervasive anti-Catholicism of so many intolerant colonists. Unlike Ahlquist, he would have read the Times, though like sensible people do, knowing that for all its biases and selectivity it is still likely to be the world’s best paper. Ahlquist is certainly correct in saying that politics uses religion. This month marks the anniversary of the assassination of Salvador’s Bishop Oscar Romero, who is now a candidate for sainthood. He was murdered for insisting that religious values must inform politics. In one homily, he said, “Woe to the powerful…when they subjugate people to their power by torturing, by killing, by massacring! What terrible idolatry is being offered to the god of power, the god of money.” In a homily delivered the day before he was shot at the alter while saying Mass, he said, “No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order.” His words echo Aquinas (and more recently Martin Luther King Jr.) apply as much to the US as they did to his own flock.

    • fredx2

      The Times ceased being a serious newspaper at about 2005. Maybe a bit earlier. But now it is simply silly, and unreliable.

      • Jdonnell

        The Times is certainly less than it used to be, but it’s still the fullest source of news in any paper. It has succumbed to excessive pressure from AIPAC and others and has become a source of Israeli propaganda. Its traditional anti-Catholicism was highlighted in its relentless, repetitive coverage of the priest abuse scandal.
        For the author of this article to say that he makes a point of not reading the Times is a virtual head-in-the-sand attitude.

        • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

          “…the fullest source of news in any paper” That’s an endorsement?

          • Jdonnell

            Yes, full coverage is good, unless, as you imply about yourself, “no news is good news,” i.e. ignorance is bliss.

            • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

              Deceit is worse than ignorance, and that is all there is in the Times.

              • Jdonnell

                If you, like the article’s author, don’t read it, you are speaking from blissful ignorance. If you do read it, you are speaking from a different sort of ignorance. Even that joke of a commentator, Rush Limbaugh, uses it as a source, as is clear from much of the information he distorts, though he would never admit that he used it as a base for information gathering. The Times certainly did use “deceit” in assisting and adding to the lies the Bush administration, used to get Americans to support an illegal and immoral war in Iraq, but I doubt that that example is one you had in mind.

                • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

                  You are really on the wrong site. The National Catholic Distorter is more your style.

                  • Do you remember the old TV show “Herman’s Head”?

                    I’m beginning to think that Jdonnell and the Hombre are two inhabitants of a similar situation.

                    I’m sure he thinks Brian Williams is a serious commentator, though.

        • Augustus

          The fact that the NYT has had to lay off hundreds of employees due to a decline in circulation suggests that Mr. Ahlquist is not the only one who thinks the paper is unworthy of serious attention. This is especially true given that there are worthier competitors, most notably the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

  • Ed Mcdonald

    Wow… very, very Disappointing!!!. … Image that the article was written today, and image what your response looks like. Taking sides with the rhetoric of the atheist left in order to make a point about schism? What a vicious lie it is to say that there was no unity of philosophy; that is exactly what our children are being taught in public schools today. Of course there was a coherent philosophical vision for mankind, and it was decidedly Christian in nature. One aim, however, was to prevent coerced uniformity of thought or adherence to particular denominational practice… but there was a unity of philosophy which happened to be very religious in character. It can be found throughout the founding documents as their intellectual and philosophical framework. “The spiritual vision was not wide enough for the breadth and variety of brotherhood that was to be established among men” ??? what total nonsense, and this is exactly what is being fed to us by the inclusion and diversity crowd today…. and you bought it! absolutely unbelievable. Despite its revered author, you should have been tearing this apart as a piece of potential propaganda, not an informative idea.

    • Nel

      Can you supply a few quotes or details? I’m only closely familiar with Franklin, who was by no means religious. He was a deist who supported (financially) the establishment of any religion – including the first synagogue in Philadelphia – on the grounds that all religions had some morality in them. Encouraging people’s religious practice was, for Franklin, a means to make virtuous citizens, but he didn’t care what religion they practiced, as he thought they were all full of absurdities and tended to divide people. Franklin was all about uniting people, uniting the new republic, keeping the states together. If people’s religious faith made them moral and good neighbors, great. If it tended to divide people, bad. I can’t see that his ‘philosophy’ was ‘decidedly Christian in nature,’ since he declined to declare himself a Christian.

      In his papers somewhere he said that he was asked, late in life, by a Protestant minister, whether he did not think that Jesus was the Son of God. He replied that he didn’t know, but figured he’d find out soon enough (when he was dead).

      Franklin was a man who put away the ‘childish thing’ of religion fairly early in life, and substituted what we’d call a ‘behaviorist’ self-improvement plan. He hoped, in fact, to create ‘virtue clubs’: young men who would go through his 13-week virtue-improvement program (‘Project for Moral Perfection’) a few times and then, having the practice of virtue, be admitted to the club. Eventually, he hoped that every man would be a member of a virtue club and thus the society would be virtuous, prosperous and united. But he by no means thought for a moment that virtue needed to come through Christian religious practice. As he said in his Autobiography, he quit going to church (Presbyterian) because the minister’s ‘administrations’ tended to make them better Presbyterians, rather than good citizens. Safe to say that Franklin was decidedly secular in his outlook.

      Perhaps you mean that having been formed by a Christian culture, they were unable to escape Christian virtues and values? – like certain Polish communist atheists I’ve met who, when pressed, give the same moral value-judgments a Catholic would.

      • fredx2

        You are apparently quite wrong, at least to some things, or as to certain broad conclusions you draw from minimal information.

        Michael Benton, writing at

        Was Benjamin Franklin a Christian? Yes, he never gave up believing in Jesus Christ which was completely compatible with his Deists views. Although he was willing to criticize the structure and role of the Church throughout the history of Christianity, Franklin saw this as a failure of man instead of a lack of divinity in Christ. When Thomas Paine made his famous comments against all religion, Franklin joined the chorus of Founding Fathers to condemn his opinion.

        One of the famous Benjamin Franklin quotes on religion emerged from his response to Paine’s comments; Franklin asked, “If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it?”

        In the earliest formative years of the United States, Franklin voiced his concern about the stability of any nation without a virtuous population. Although he would never pick one religion as superior to others, he did understand the usefulness of religion in building a stronger society and thus, a stronger nation. Only a month before his death, Franklin replied to a question on his religion from the President of Yale University by stating that he viewed Christ’s “system of morals and His religion” as the best the world had ever seen, but had “some doubts as to his divinity.” The dying Franklin joked that further study was not necessary because he would “expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.”

        “Deism was a movement born out of the Enlightenment in Europe that saw divine intelligence behind the complex and wondrous beauty of the natural world but did not believe that God intervened in human activity through prophecy or miracles.”

        • Jude

          Nothing here contradicts the previous poster.

    • Senhorbotero

      Ed could you expand on your points .My understanding of things differs from yours. The USA may have a political Philosophy but that I can see there is no Metaphysical one and no grounding beyond tactics. The only philosophy which I can trace is back to John Locke, (social contract and all that). What was left out was any recognition of a transcendent authority. This was recognized somewhere along the way, long past Jefferson and all, and efforts were made to amend things but apparently failed. It is this lack of such an authority that has left us with a rather shallow understanding of Liberty which essentially today means” Do what you will just do not break the law” at least in obvious ways. And the law itself is a variable dependent on time and circumstances (basically who has the biggest voice or the most power) It has also left us, to my mind at least, without any culture or tradition. One can pretend the Constitution is our tradition but that seems to have been abandoned.
      To my mind the extent of this countries thinking does not proceed much beyond, “Lif,e Liberty, the pursuit of happiness and the protection of private property. Of course there are individuals with more depth then this but in the main that seems to me to about sum us up. On all 4 tenets one can point out a break in thinking that displays the weakness of each point. Life applies only to some but not others, Happiness leads directly to relativity, property rights apply only until the government wants yours and liberty is translated as a free for all.

      • Ed Mcdonald

        Please read this article… it is sufficient to get you started towards the evidence that America’s foundation was decidedly christian in origin and that contemporary claims to the contrary are probably attempts to undermine that foundation.

        • Senhorbotero

          Thanks for the article. I particularly was struck by the idea that america was founded pre 1776. That provides the best evidence i think. Nevertheless these items presented only provide tangential evidence and to my mind does not a cohesive philosophy make. I wouldlove to have had such clear evidence that any debate on this subject would be moot. Somehow the Fathers left us with a giant hole that subsequent generations drove a truck thru. They left us with a house divided unto itself that i fear will not much longer stand.
          It has been a long time since i read him but i recall that oren brownsteen saw early the troubles heading our way and so did other americans of rich insights. Again my memory fails me in total but there was a movement that recognized the absence of christianity in the founding to be a severe error and there was a movement to fix this….
          Chris ferrara also did a pretty solid job exposing the difficultiesof the founding fathers and christaintiy in his Liberty the God that Failed.
          Let me end by saying that i am not trying to defeat you. I would dearly love that you are correct as it would make my relation to the usa tighter. As it stands now this country and i are not the best of friends and i feel that the root of our troubles trace back a long long way. Humpty has fallen and i aint convinced he will be put back together again….at least half the country has bought into new assumptions. At the very least Separation of Church and state has been pushed way too far….i wish they could be brought closer together…..thanks again…..sorry for the typos, i use an ipad and it is very hard to go back and correct sometimes.

          • Ed Mcdonald

            I am not sure what Catholic alternative is being suggested. The history of Catholic Europe hasn’t done any better, any way you cut it… from early times until today. The problem is that there have been and continue to be aggressive anti-christian attempts to undermine all social order that orients from a Christian perspective. At least the USA has a system governed by rule of law that will constrain their efforts, and that system was created by Christian men that foresaw the possibility of “dictatorship of the proletariat” and other such options which have and continue to assail.

            • Senhorbotero

              I am not totally sure i follow your question. Let me take a stab. My issue with the usa is that there is no real christian vision articulated in it. The country seems founded on the four principles i mentioned earlier, life, liberty etc. those are not extensive enough to present the basis for a unified world veiw that one can point toward and say this makes me an american. If we define ourselves as lovers of liberty and our culture is based on that then we alredy have empriacal proof that gets really problematic. As a nation we seem to have drifted downwards toward neing basically a corporate extension of the business world. If you listen to our political speech it is primarily always nothing more then economic….jobes, growth, taxes etc. moral discourse is never real it is always a feeling and has no basis in anything except a want. My perspective lf a catholic alternative would be that there be a system whereby measurement could be made lf the culture and determinations of law could be validated against what at a present time is deemed to be Gods will whihc would be correlated to tradition, scripture and understanding of th Natural law. I do not mean to imply that this would be shifting. But it would over time become revealed with more depth and understanding and thus there wouldbe room for some change. Dont know if this is enough but i am mindful of not writing too much so as to become obnoxious.

              Let me say also that i think we can only judge history with some idea toward context. I beleive that catholcism is a major factor in western culture and development. Never will we find any perfection but we can readily see that what has been did in fact succeed for a rather long time. Strife existed, yes but the result was a giant success. Did it need some modification, yes but only in detail not principle….as to specific countries under long time catholic rule, being successful, i think you can point to many…and then of course we must define as well what we think of as success. My factors of measurement are more then material ones perhaps yours differ from mine….let me again apologize for my typos….using this ipad is a massive pain for me. I turned off the spellchecker cuz it was always choosing new words for me….technology….ughhhhhh

          • Watosh

            I learned a lot from Chris Ferrara’s book, very interesting exposition.

            The thing that bothers me about separating religion and the state, as is the basis of a secular state, is that for Catholic if God’s command takes precedence over what the people command, then how can we obey the secular law that goes against God’s command? And in a secular State all authority comes from the people. While certain practical adjustments can be taken between the secular State and religious teaching, there is a problem. A secular State in the long run is going to insist on its teachings. For a while this was not to much of a problem as the country was fairly homogenous and sympathetic to the requirements of religion, but as time has gone on we see how this is becoming a distinct problem.

            • Senhorbotero

              Thanks for your reply. Yes the Ferrara book was rather impressive. It really challenged me to the point of having lost many nights of sleep.
              Your question is a really tough one. Far be it from me to know the answer but i think the church would be playing a role, maybe we could call it defender of culture. It could have its own lawyers as it does today that would rule on secular law in light of natural law…it would likely be evolutionary in that as we learn we migh see more clearly. It would not make law as mich as challenge it and there would need to be a defined demarcation of the authority between the two realms (church and state), that could be done constitutionally. I think hungary has recently declared itself in its constituion to be a christian maybe even catholc state. It might be interesting to see how they are doing things.
              As to the present diversity my true feeling is that this is going to have to change. I think there is a need for a radical re-engineering. The basic premises of the west have been undermined and are leading us toward demise….we are all too stuck on holding to what amounts to tradition in this country ie: the constitution. But this is only a bit over two hundred years old and is in fact a break with tradition. We did it once lets break again.

  • Segstan

    This is Right shoe, Left shoe. Imagine applying this in reverse … a Great Religious philosophy backed by a Small Political philosophy. Secularism manages to avoid that trap by skipping past the Great to embrace the Small .. Greatness eludes them but, by golly, they’ve got Small down to a political science.
    Chesterton was merely pointing out that factionalism, religious or political, has inevitible consequences .. and we are now living in those consequences at the Small end of things because .. and who knows why .. this society has rejected its own Greatness.
    I see the proof in some of your responses.
    I personally refuse to stoop that low .. and I believe the Church of Rome can rise to a new Greatness that can get America through this current crisis of religious and political faith.
    Grestness has consequences.

  • Jackie

    There is genius in Catholic teaching.

    • JBubs

      Truth is genius, even divine.

  • John O’Neill

    As the psalmist says “nolite confidere in principibus(government); in homine non est salus”.

  • Some thoughts on this very interesting piece. First, and this is just minor quibbling, we are not technically a democracy but a Republic, and yes Protestants were at the helm of the beginning of the country, but I’m not sure I would consider that founding a Protestant nation. The country was modeled on the classical Roman Republic in a very conscious way.
    Second, and more importantly, what now drives the nation is not a Protestant unity nor certainly a Catholic unity, but a secular unity which is getting closer to an agnostic/atheist unity, which are just as fanatic as any religious. That’s the tragedy.

    • HigherCalling

      The Founding, while not explicitly atheistic, was intentionally secular, politically non-Christian, and effectively atheistic — witness the purely Deistic and Christ-less Declaration, and the deliberately Secular and Godless Constitution. We are getting closer to pure secularism and atheism because it was anticipated in our Founding. It was written in our DNA. Of course the Founding did not happen in a vacuum. The 18th century Protestantism of the educated, ruling elite (better called Deism and Unitarianism) was bred from the Enlightenment, which itself was borne of the Reformation. The misguided philosophy of the Enlightenment-bred and Deistic Founders produced the language of the Declaration and the Constitution. The very language of the First Amendment reflects a faith in unaided human reason to achieve a lasting liberty severed from the guidance of Revealed Religion to protect the people from deadly error. The observation that Protestantism, taken to its (theo)logical conclusion, ends in atheism, should be a self-evident truth. The Founding occurred at a stage midway between the prideful and explicit rejection of the legitimate moral and doctrinal authority of the Catholic Church (i.e. the Reformation), and its eventual conclusion, which is the rejection of God Himself.

  • crakpot

    This is what the founders thought of democracy:
    “Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner.”
    Benjamin Franklin

    They took that lesson from the vote between Jesus and Barrabas.

    This is what they thought of government:
    “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force.”
    George Washington

    Taking another lesson, from what the Israelites did with their newfound “freedom” in Exodus, they knew that true Liberty (to do as one ought) cannot last without protection of what is right, but suffered no illusions about what can happen when you give people power over the rights of others.

    The ‘great political idea” was not the ability of 51% of the 40% of the population that bothers to vote to elect a dictator, it was the concept of just powers, given only by supermajority consent of those truly governed by it (constitution), and used only to help protect some of our God-given rights. Democratic elections are only to temporarily hire mechanics to execute those powers.

    I’m Catholic, but I’m not so arrogant as to think God speaks His truth only to the consciences of Catholics, or that only we can understand and express it well. Moses was an idolator who held thousands of slaves. St. Paul was a Roman soldier who persecuted Christians.

    Jefferson was no saint, but I believe his preamble in the Declaration of Independence to be a perfect statement of conscience.

    • Schrödinger’s cat

      ” Moses was an idolator who held thousands of slaves. St. Paul was a Roman soldier who persecuted Christians….” What??

      • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

        BTW, Schrödinger is amazing…. “What is Life” is a marvelous book. Meow!

      • I think he was referring to their past lives.

      • Marie Noybn

        Hes not wrong. But that only emphasizes the power of God’s Mercy and Grace, that He could and would use such people to bring about His Kingdom, that these people would turn away from wealth and power when shown the Truth of God and Jesus Christ, and become a force for God and Good. Think about it, Moses was raised as a Pharaoh’s brother, he worshiped statues of isis and others, before God spoke to him and lead HIM out of the darkness, so that he could in turn lead the Israelites out of the slavery that he himself had kept them in. St. Paul, when he was Saul, did indeed persecute and even kill Christians as he was once a pharasee, before Jesus LITERALLY knocked him down and blinded him, in the same stroke opening his eyes to the Truth, demanding of him why he was persecuting Jesus’ people….both heeded God’s word and turned their lives completely around to serve The Lord…thus we learn that ANYONE can be saved. Profound lesson.

        • Schrödinger’s cat

          Paul was not a Roman soldier. Paul fills in enough of his life detail for us to know that. He was a Roman citizen, which allowed him to appeal to Caesar after he was arrested and falsely charged – to Rome he went.

  • littleeif

    I rather agree with Pope Benedict that whenever the Church has attempted to wield worldly power it has proven unfortunate. I do not believe the Catholic Church has an inside track on the governance of this fallen world, any more than I believe Our Lord came to earth to become its emperor.

    The lack of a “great religious idea” would, I think, have been seen by Chesterton as a strength, who marveled that America was not founded on a creed or ethnicity as were the European nations, but on a philosophical agreement. That agreement is that the civil law must reflect the natural law. As Acquinas would agree, I think, one can reason to the existence of a natural law without a particular theology. Our founders counted on reason, therefore, to be our governance, not religion. True religion will ever stand astride of reason.

    Our nation is descending into a form of depravity not because the Catholic Church does not govern it but because it has denied natural law, has seized the rights of man natural law grants, and has given them over to the strong. We have abandoned reason.

    • Senhorbotero

      I do not think anyone is suggesting that the catholic church govern anywhere but rather that it protect against abuse of the natural law as given by God. It is a dual function. The government in its sphere and the church as the watchdog against abuses of what is right and proper. There is a correct recognition that each has it rightful place in the formation of society. An overpowerful government that does not recognize the role of God in civiliazed society is left to place all reliance on human reason alone and that as we see rapidly shifts with the sand…reason to be correct needs proper formation and that comes from authority that transcend the temporal. Protestantism in its subjective individuality is an essentially bankrupt effort to acheive what was necessary. The founders failed and we now live out their logic and it to my mind is quite ugly.

      • littleeif

        I have a few problems with this article and, incidentally, your response. The first is an apparent confusion between Theology and Philosophy. The second is as this relates to History. The third is as to the perfectibility of governments. And finally as to Chesterton.

        Schism and theology aside, there’s a philosophical unity possible between all rational people. At least that’s what the founders, children of the Enlightenment, were shooting for, I believe. Protestants though they be, did they do poorly in creating an environment where Catholicism could eventually flourish? How have the countries fared where the Spanish or French (conflicts with whom explain some of the early anti-Catholic aggression here) established more Catholic environments? Canada? Spain? Not so well, I dare say, as concerns the protection of moral values. So the theory that somehow Catholicism guarantees a greater adherence to natural law falls apart.

        In my opinion that’s because the whole point of the faith has to do with another kingdom and our fealty to that. The faith, in my opinion, predicts that all these human systems are not perfectible and will eventually fail. That all involve a form of evil, in as much as no one man has a divine right to governance over another, but such governance must be submitted to because of the fallen nature of man and his city.

        American individualism is not inherently anti-Catholic nor inherently subjective, any more than the Catholic faith inerrantly prefers the collective.

        • Senhorbotero

          Reading your reply i cannot see much with which i would disagree. Perhaps the only point being that i would not give protestants too much room for grace. In my mind the unraveling of the catholc role during the middle ages began the long slide toward where we now are. And in the usa they did not make it all that hospitable for catholics. The enlightnement came along and put the sword thru the heart of the church so what has followed to my way of thinking is not indicative of failure on the churchs part in total because they clealy made some goofs but rather that philosphy moved away from theology and places all its hope on human reason….and i wholeheartedly agree with your point that there is no perfection on earth and always we work toward the best with nothing more then hope really….utopia is forbidden us even though i really cannot understand why…..but because reason is imperfectable there needs to be that transcendent other to whom we can refer when we falter…..thanks for replying….i think we are in agreement generally

  • Louise


  • Great political ideas are sustained by great religious ideas. Equality and love are religious ideas, and I think Christianity has helped inspire and sustain the gay rights movement with the ideas of equality and of love. I’m very grateful to Christianity for that inspiration and sustenance.

    • Augustus

      The very definition of heresy is when you take elements from Christian teaching and remove them from their proper context so that their original meaning is distorted or exaggerated beyond recognition. You can rightly point to the Catechism where it says that gays should not be “unjustly” discriminated against. But if you define equality for gays in ways that conflict with Christian moral teaching as a whole, then you are defining incorrectly the Christian understanding of equality and justice…and love.

      • Many Christians disagree on the definitions. I’d say that, on this issue, the Catholics are woefully behind the times. That’s unusual, but not unheard of.

        • Michael S.

          In 2008, during the presidential elections, three-three states voted for marriage between a man and woman only. California had two referendums with the same result. The vast majority of Christians AND non-christian’s agreed on a definition.
          Also, many Christians and non-christian’s who hid and aided Jews during the Nazi era were accused of being “behind the times”.
          If two men can “love” one another and have sex, a parent can love a child and have sex. This is a logical consequence of your definition.

          • Michael S.

            Correction: thirty-three”

        • Augustus

          Clearly I interpreted your comment correctly. For a progressive, being behind the times is to be avoided at all cost because truth is whatever cultural elites think is fashionable at any given moment. But for a Christian it is a paramount necessity to hold fast to the universal and timeless truths of revelation, even if those truths are counter-cultural. So, being “behind the times” on marriage and related questions is a good thing. We do not have the authority to water down the teachings of Christ. Otherwise, his ministry and sacrifice becomes a pointless and futile exercise.

          • Tony

            Times come and go. Truth remains. The Catholic Church does not pay homage to what Maritain called “the Minotaur of history.” So great Waves of the Future come and go, surge in their greatness, and break against the rocks of truth. Communism was a Wave of the Future. Communism is dead. Nazism was a Wave of the Future. Nazism is a ridiculous abomination. Arianism was a Wave of the Future. Arianism is discredited by all orthodox Christians. The Sexual Revolution, the latest Wave of the Future, is a body filled with stinking tumors and gangrene. It too will die.

            • “Times come and go.”
              Unfortunately, neophilia does not.

        • Dave

          “Many Christians disagree….” – which goes right back to Mr. Ahlquist’s point….no unifying principle if the only source of authority is ourselves. Then, without that unifying principle, not only do we disagree about the particulars, as will happen in any case, we disagree about the very foundations.

          Equality and love are givens for every person, but the correct definition of the family is crucial to society’s well-being.

          • Love and acceptance are unifying principles. Gay marriage is about acceptance, unity, dare I say Catholicity. Those who fight it are the ones who reject that principle of love that can unite humanity, and make old-fashioned prejudice their authority.

            I do think that the disagreement is on particulars, frustrating little details. Christians, true Christians, are united by Christ’s law of love.

            • Dave

              If love is defined as acceptance of every human action, then that is not a unifying principle, but tolerance run amok. Certainly, Christ’s law of love is the unifying principle, but what does “love” mean? I suspect your answer and mine would be very different.

            • Anthony Zarrella

              Jesus preached love – He never preached “acceptance.” His response to the woman caught in adultery was not, “You’re good just the way you are, and don’t let anyone tell you different.” It was, “Neither do I condemn [i.e. sentence] you. Go, and sin no more.”

              In other words, He didn’t say, “There is nothing to be ashamed of – you’ve done no wrong.” He said, “I forgive you… now get your act together and don’t do it again!”

              To assume that “love” means unquestioning acceptance of whatever makes someone else happy is to negate the very concept of sin (or at least to reduce it to the Locke/Mills Harm Principle, which presupposes that it is impossible to sin against *God* without first sinning against *man*).

            • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

              It’s Christ’s law, not yours. And you will find no support for homosexuality in the scriptures or any authentic Christian tradition.

              • You won’t even find a mention of homosexuality as a human trait in the Scriptures. There were simply some acts that were proscribed.

            • Pseudonogamy is a counterfeit.

              • Marie Noybn

                Just because you find no value in faithfulness does not mean that faithfulness has no value. Even nature will tell you monogamy is valuable. My monogamous husband and i have never had a sexually transmitted disease, while our country is rife with them, and this without keeping a shield between us. I get very aggravated with people who pretend that just because something is beyond them or not valuable enough to sacrifice for, that everyone who has accomplished it is simply lying. Its insulting and wrong of you to proclaim that i am not living, happily, in a MONOGAMOUS (pseudonogamy, really? you’re inventing words to support your infidelity now? please.) relationship with my husband simply because you find it expedient to spread yourself around.

      • Jude

        The part that many Catholics fail to comprehend is that there can be just discrimination.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      I would recommend you read this essay by two eminent Catholic natural law philosophers. I think it will show how you misapprehend the ideas of love and equality when it comes to the ideas of marriage and the family.

    • Mark

      “Equality” is a Masonic liberal idea that has nothing to do with Christianity.

  • Thomas J. Hennigan

    I have a problem with this idea of “the pursuit of happiness”. Happiness is not something that can be achieved by means of pursuit, as it is very elusive and only very partially available in this life, as everyone has to face death, which scares most people. . Normally this pursuit of happiness is understood as an abundance of material goods, so a so called good lifystyle and the “American dream”. The Catholic concept of happiness is based on grace which is the downpayment of its full flowering in the future life, which in reality is not just future, but is already present in this life, albeit in a small way. The modicum of happiness available in this life is only achieved by means of following the way of the Lord, which inevitably leads to the cross, but doen’t end there, but in eternal life. Heavenly glorly is not another life, but the full fruition of the life of grace here and now. So, the best way of achieving happiness is conversion, the life of grace and the practice of the theological and mora virtues by allowing oneself to be guided by the Holy Spirit.

    • Andrew

      With regard to Chesterton’s insight, we do not pursue happiness but rather more so Happiness pursues us.

  • Mike W

    Yes there are protestants who are wrong but there are also many Catholics who are wrong and at the moment Catholicism is nowhere near as unifying as it should be. The fact is it is easier to see the flaws in others than in ourselves and The Constitution was written in the sure knowledge that people would, on many occasions, be wrong. It may have been a protestant invention but it was an astoundingly brilliant one which I think even Catholics should admit.

    • Andrew

      Christian (ie. Catholic) Truth is never wrong.
      Whether “Catholicism” (or even “Catholics”) unifies or disunites is immaterial. No matter the brilliance of “The Constitution,” it simply lacks the splendor of Catholic (ie. Christian) Truth, and therefore inherently inadequately provides a complete political framework.

      • Mike W

        That would be true if indeed Catholic truth was catholic truth. Unfortunately the Roman Catholic Church in the past has tended to promote monarchy and therefor war lords and oppression in complete contravention to the scriptures (Eg 1 Sa 8:7 & Mat 23:9). It was for this reason that God had to use Protestants to achieve His will and this is precisely the reason the Catholic Church has lost some of it’s power base and the American Constitution has gained so much traction and influence world wide. It could be likened to how Israel lost power and was lead into Babylonian captivity – if you dislike Protestants so much. To think that we can actually attain perfect knowledge in this world is in fact contrary to Biblical teaching so yes, of course, The Constitution is going to be imperfect and incomplete.

  • The_Monk

    Great column! Thanks….

  • mollysdad

    This is very much to the point. A Catholic society would not punish anyone for refusing the Christian faith or for dissenting from the Catholic faith concerning the Holy Eucharist or the supremacy and universal jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff.

    But it would punish, with the severest penalties if necessary, any expression of dissent from Catholic truth concerning the inviolability of innocent human life.

  • CCIG

    Good observation – Thanks, Dale.

  • Nostromo

    Perry Miller’s The New England Mind of the 17th century is a good follow-up read to this story for top-notch insights on US foundational ideas.