Exactly 70 years ago, in 1940, Rev. John Courtney Murray gave a series of three college talks. For his theme, he chose the “concept of a Christian culture.” After his death, his Jesuit brothers fused the talks into a single essay called “The Construction of a Christian Culture.” It’s a modest word change. But that title — the construction of a Christian culture — is a good place to begin our thoughts.
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Most people know Father Murray for his work on Vatican II’s Decree on Religious Liberty. In his 1960 book We Hold These Truths — which has never gone out of print — Father Murray argued the classic Catholic case for America. Like any important thinker, his work has friends and critics. The critics respect Father Murray’s character and intellect. But they also tend to see him as a victim of his own optimism and a voice of American boosterism. I understand why. Over the years, too many people have used Father Murray to justify too many strange versions of personal conscience and the roles of Church and state.
But for me, Father Murray’s real genius is tucked inside his words from 1940. They’re worth hearing again. Father Murray said that “a profound religious truth is at the basis of democratic theory and practice, namely the intrinsic dignity of human nature; the spiritual freedom of the human soul; its equality as a soul with others of its kind; and its superiority to all that does not share its spirituality.”
He said that “the task of constructing a culture is essentially spiritual, for culture has its home in the soul.” As a result, “All man’s cultural effort is at bottom an effort at submission to the truth and the beauty and the good that is outside him, existing in an ordered harmony, whose pattern he must produce within his soul by conformity with it.”
These are beautiful thoughts. They’re also true. The trouble is, they bear little likeness to our real culture in 2010. Murray spoke at a moment when the word “gay” had more connection to joy than to sexual identity; and when the word “truth” could be used without ambivalence or irony. Times have changed.
We’d all quickly get fatigued by a litany of what’s gone strange with America. There’s so much of it: from our consumerism and narcissism; to our sexual dysfunctions and family breakdowns; to our bad schools and moral illiteracy; to what Eric Voegelin called in his autobiographical reflections the “intellectual terrorism of institutions [like] the mass media, university departments, foundations and commercial publishing houses.” Listing problems and then complaining about them achieves little. And more importantly, as Murray would say, it isn’t a Christian response. If Jesus tells us to be leaven in the world, and to make disciples of all nations — and, of course, He does — then we have missionary obligations. And those duties include the renewal of our country’s best ideals.
But we can’t shape the future unless we know the facts of present-day life. And we can’t understand the present unless we know the past it came from. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in Faith and History that “memory is [the] fulcrum of freedom for man in history.” The less we understand the past, “the more do present facts appear in the guise of irrevocable facts of nature.”
I believe that. And it explains some of the hardships American Catholics will now need to face. There’s a passage in the Old Testament from the Book of Judges. It says that, after Joshua led the people across the Jordan and secured the Promised Land, “[Joshua] dismissed the people, [and] the people of Israel went each to his inheritance to take possession of the land. And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work which the Lord had done for Israel.” But after Joshua died, “and all that generation were also gathered to their fathers; [then there] arose another generation, after them, who did not know the Lord or the work which he had done for Israel” (2:6-7, 10).
The people of Israel forgot their God because they weren’t taught. And if American Catholics no longer know their faith, or its obligations of discipleship, or its call to mission — then we leaders, parents, and teachers have no one to blame but ourselves.
Having said that, let me offer a portrait of our current terrain in very broad strokes.
I grew up in Kansas. And when I began my book Render Unto Caesar in 2006, I had in my mind the America I always knew — or thought I knew. But that America, I admit, has been passing for 50 years, and probably longer. When major Protestant and Catholic scholars — public intellectuals like Robert George and Timothy George, men with national weight — felt in 2009 that a manifesto like the Manhattan Declaration was needed, it affected me.
In its urgency for defending the sanctity of life, the dignity of marriage and the family, and the rights of religious conscience, the Manhattan Declaration came as a caution — for me, and for many other people — that a certain kind of America no longer exists.
This is ironic. Back in the 1930s, after visiting the United States, the great Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his Ethics: “American democracy is founded not upon the emancipated man, but, quite the contrary, upon the kingdom of God and limitation of all earthly powers by the sovereignty of God.” The great British historian Paul Johnson said much the same — that America was “born Protestant.” And for good reason: America’s earliest settlers were children of the Reformation. The Enlightenment ideas that helped shape America’s foundation were themselves, in part, a product of earlier Christian thought. And Gov. John Winthrop’s historic homily, “A Model of Christian Charity,” given to Puritan colonists before leaving for the New World in 1630, expressed in a moving way the moral vision that has ever since flavored the American experiment. In a sense, America is not really the child of 1776 but of Reformation theologies and their results.
These Protestant roots have given us many good fruits: a culture of personal opportunity and freedom, respect for the individual, religious liberty, and reverence for the law. Other effects have been less happy: radical individualism; revivalist politics; a Calvinist hunger for material success as proof of salvation; and a nearly religious sense of national destiny and redemptive mission.
Our Enlightenment roots pose another problem. In America and Britain, the Enlightenment took a form tolerant and even friendly toward religion. In France, it turned harsh and anti-religious. But as scholars Peter Gay and Jonathan Israel have separately argued, there was essentially only one Enlightenment in its basic principles. And it was fundamentally anti-religious and specifically anti-Christian (See Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment, 2001, and Enlightenment Contested, 2006; Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism, revised edition, 1995). If this is true, then the main factor muting Enlightenment prejudice in America has been our tradition of widespread religious belief. And if faith declines, then hostility to religion must rise.
What’s most striking about the American founding, of course, is the absence of any large Catholic role. The different strands in our nation’s early history had one common theme: hostility to the Catholic Church. That prejudice, in one form or another, has continued down to the present day. As a result, Catholics, as Catholic believers, have always been strangers in a strange land.
The American Founders wanted to create a novus ordo saeclorum, “a new order of the ages.” But they had a strong sense of original sin. They also knew that history matters: Man can’t be reinvented out of nothing, nor can he be made perfect by his own devices. So they borrowed heavily from a reliable source: Roman republican forms, law, institutions, architecture, and virtues. When friends called Charles Carroll — the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence — an “American Cicero,” it was the highest form of praise. (Bradley Birzer notes this, by the way, in his very good new Carroll biography.) Comparisons between Rome and America therefore make sense.
The differences, of course, are obvious. Rome was always a slave-dependent, agrarian society. It was never a “democracy” in the Athenian or modern American sense, much less an industrial power. But the similarities are also important, starting with structures of law and public life; but also with the fact that success bears the seeds of its own failure, and power corrupts.
As St. Augustine noted in City of God, Roman success was built not just on greed, pride, and violence. It also flowed from the early Roman virtues of piety, austerity, courage, justice, and self-mastery. For Augustine, these virtues had an unfortunate and self-defeating basis in paganism. But in their natural effects, they were wholesome — so long as the Romans actually practiced them. All of these Roman virtues were revered in the thinking of the American Founders.
As with Rome, the fruits of American power now surround us. But success always has its cost in personal and national illusions. As a people, we seem to become more foreign to our origins every year. The quality of education is declining. So is religious practice. Mediating institutions are diminishing. The size of government is growing. So is public and personal debt. Government and economic structures often seem remote and complex. The realities of American life — as the late Christopher Lasch argued — have created “a culture of narcissism” that seems to foster anxiety, self-absorption, and dependency.
Augustine’s view of Rome can have an unpleasantly modern ring: He wrote in City of God that “[The pagans] are nowise concerned that the republic be less depraved and licentious. Only let it remain undefeated, they say, only let it flourish and abound in resources; let it be glorious by its victories, or still better, secure in peace; and what matters it to us? This is our concern: that every man be able to increase his wealth so as to supply his daily prodigalities.”
Of course, American politics has always been messy. This isn’t new. It’s the nature of ordered liberty. But in the long run, a healthy civic life depends on permanent virtues rooted in nature’s God, not “values” developed by ourselves. To their credit, nearly all of the Founders saw government as grounded in a divine authority greater than citizens themselves.
Augustine believed that political action and public service could be worthy Christian paths, so long as they’re guided by the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity, and a humble awareness of human limits. So it would be bracing to imagine his thoughts about America in 2010 — a nation where politics often seems dominated by market research, judicial activism, the ascendency of positive law, lobbying, the vast expense of campaigning, simplified messaging, the complexity of government structures, party tribalism, and a dumbing down of the electorate.
American democracy needs an intelligent, reasoning citizenry; persons with free will and the maturity to use it. Yet American students now often fail to compete in global comparisons because of failures in public education. As Daniel Boorstin warned almost 50 years ago in The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, technological changes in our mass media — in the ways we deliver information — have had other, unintended consequences. Technology has modified the tools and the “language” of our public discourse, and therefore the way Americans think, feel, and act. To put it another way, America was created and sustained by a print culture. It’s really not clear how well its institutions and traditions can survive in an electronic, image-oriented, technologically transformed world.
These issues are compounded by declines in attention span and popular print literacy, the centralization of media ownership, rising costs and the need for profit, less time and resources available to journalists, and the drift away from professional skill and ideological detachment in newsrooms. As a result, many citizens experience reality from inside a media cocoon of entertainment and simplified news, while vital information and context go unreported.
I’ve offered a hard portrait of the current climate, but I think we serve the truth by telling the truth as best we can. Christian faith in the Risen Jesus converted an empire. It changed the course of history and gave meaning to an entire civilization. And in the Risen Christ, I believe God is now calling us to do the same.
The integration of faith and reason in Western culture has ensured its humanity and genius. America’s welcome of religious faith among its people has been the key to its decency and vitality. But we need to remember Leszek Kolakowski’s warning in Modernity on Endless Trial that the words of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” are not at all self-evident to the modern intellectual world. We also need to remember J. L. Talmon’s caution that democracy too can become “totalitarian” (The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy).
The inquisitors of today’s developed societies are secular, not religious. The real enemies of human freedom, greatness, imagination, art, hope, culture, and conscience are those who attack religious belief, not believers. Real hope — not empty optimism but the virtue of hope; the virtue Georges Bernanos called “despair, overcome” — is impossible without faith in realities unseen. Unbelief — whether deliberate and ideological, or lazy and pragmatic — is the state religion of the modern world. The fruit of that orthodoxy is a compression and destruction of the human spirit, and a society without higher purpose. This is the logic of the choices that America is already making. But they can be unmade. And they can be redeemed.
Let me close by going back to John Courtney Murray. As I said earlier, Father Murray is sometimes seen as being too high on America; too naïve about its flaws; too grand about its possibilities. And he truly did love the best ideals of our country, because those ideals are worthy of honor. But in “The Construction of a Christian Culture,” he also said this:
American culture, as it exists, is actually the quintessence of all that is decadent in the culture of the Western Christian world. It would seem to be erected on the triple denial that has corrupted Christian culture at its roots, the denial of metaphysical reality, the primacy of the spiritual over the material, of the social over the individual . . . . Its most striking characteristic is its profound materialism . . . . It has given citizens everything to live for and nothing to die for. And its achievement may be summed up thus: It has gained a continent and lost its own soul.
In the same text he says, “in view of the fact that American culture is built on the negation of all that Christianity stands for, it would seem that our first step toward the construction of a Christian culture should be the destruction of the existing one. In the presence of a Frankenstein, one does not reach for baptismal water, but for a bludgeon.”
He wrote those words seven decades ago. We can only guess what he might write today.
For Murray, there is no real “humanism” without the cross of Jesus Christ. And dismantling the inhuman parody we call “modern American culture” begins not with violence but with the conversion of our own hearts. This is the only kind of revolution that lasts; the only kind with the power to change everything. The problem in American Catholic life is not a lack of money or resources or personnel or social influence. These things can be important, but they are never fundamental.
The central problem in constructing a Christian culture is our lack of faith and the cowardice it produces. We need to admit this. And then we need to submit ourselves to a path of repentance and change and unselfish witness to others. The reality of life in the late years of the American republic is that “we have sought first the kingdom of earth,” as Father Murray said, “and we begin to discover that in the process, millions upon millions have been disinherited from both the kingdom of earth and the Kingdom of God.”
The role of Catholics in America is exactly the opposite of what we’ve been doing for half a century or more — compromising too cheaply, assimilating, fitting in, fleeing from who we really are as believers; and, in the process, being bleached out and digested by the culture we were sent to make holy.
C. S. Lewis famously said that Christianity is a “fighting religion.” He didn’t mean a religion of violence. He meant that Christianity is a religion of candor in naming good and evil; zeal in advancing the gospel of Jesus Christ; and courage in struggling against sin. Your task is to strengthen that spirit in each other — and to instill it in all the people you reach with the extraordinary skills God has given you.] If you do only that, but do it well, then God will do the rest.
Father Murray said, “Only when our dwelling is in the heavens can we hope to fulfill our vocation on earth . . . . If we do not understand the world and why it was made, what right have we to meddle with it? If we do not know that man is made in the image of God, how dare we . . . attempt to fashion his life?”
The construction of a Christian culture begins by lifting our own hearts up to God, without plans or reservations, and letting Him begin the work. It sounds like a small thing. It is a small thing. But as Christians know better than anyone, worlds and empires can turn on the smallest “yes.”
This article is adapted from remarks given to the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars on September 26, 2010.