Our quadrennial spectacle of electing a president brings out the relationship between political order and the nation’s cultural and social order. Take the question of “rights,” which is a concept at the heart of the American experiment. Based on the nation’s revolt from England, and deeply grounded in the mother country’s common law tradition, rights were seen as simply those claims that exist independently of the state. Citizens have rights because they are human, as part (as Catholic social thought might phrase it) of their human dignity. To “secure” these rights, as the declaration of Independence phrases it, governments are instituted. Of course, how these rights are expressed in a particular cultural or political condition change over time, but in the Anglo-American tradition they are closely bound up with notions of limited government, federalism (and its close cousin, subsidiarity), equality under the law, and other structural features.
However, these structural features must necessarily reflect more substantial cultural and religious suppositions. The historical basis of American culture is that of Europe, and European culture cannot be separated from Christianity and the forms it took in institutions such as the monastic orders, the tradition of chivalry, the cult of the saints and martyrs, and above all the international structure of the Catholic Church. Europe, as the historian Christopher Dawson noted, is a “society of peoples,” split geographically, ethnically and linguistically. This caused a juxtaposition of practices and ideas that propelled Europe to world power, but it was not sufficient to create a Western “culture.” That unifying force was provided by Christianity, which, Dawson stressed, was in its teachings “neither Eastern nor Western but universal.” Because Christianity was not native to Europe, it was able to exist separately from individual European people even as it molded European culture as a whole.
Christianity’s great political contribution was its contention that Christians were citizens of an eternal society as well as living in a particular political society. The dual citizenship of the Christian had dramatic political effects that remain important to this day in the political self-conception of the West and its preservation of freedom. American political and cultural tradition is derivative of this wider European basis. As the great American critic Russell Kirk wrote, “[t]he whole body of assumptions that underlie American private life and social policy, indeed, is profoundly Christian; and these assumptions exercise their power through the force of tradition, rather than the authority of positive law, America having no establishment of religion.” What contemporary liberalism has not fully understood is that this basis is what produced the constitutional order that protects rights; to eliminate the foundation will inevitably destroy the structure.
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However, in an effort to dispense with the need for God, liberal thinkers of the last three or four decades have argued for a “value free” political culture, where religious principles could not interfere. But of course there is no such thing. Some other value will always, by necessity, fill in what liberal thinkers such as John Rawls argued would be “neutral” political processes.
Perhaps the best example of this is the debate over the HHS mandate, which will require vast numbers of religious believers and their institutions to act contrary to their beliefs. Such a regulation is simply not compatible with the cultural underpinnings of freedom of religious exercise. Rather, as John Zmirak and others have pointed out, the motivating factor behind the mandate is simple hostility to religion, and Catholicism in particular. Aside from the federal government, numerous states have put similar regulations in place, which are being challenged (and thankfully, sometimes overturned) by the courts.
In place of the freedom of religious exercise, governmental authorities place other goods, such as references to “health care,” and appoint themselves as the arbiter of granting, or rescinding, those rights. The state therefore begins to insert itself as the sole source of those goods as well as rights. That understanding is a complete reversal of the traditional American understanding of rights and the role of government. Further, without the limiting cultural force of religion and traditional practice, there is no limit to government power. In contrast to the older understanding, rights limit state power. In the current elite understanding—exemplified by President Obama, but not only by him—rights are a warrant for the expansion of government power.
Dawson anticipated the rise of what he called a “vague moral idealism” and a “vague rational optimism” that would replace belief in modern political societies. He also foresaw that this replacement would be insufficient in the face of the challenges of the modern world—first the regimes of Germany and the Soviet Union, and later the soft tyranny of consumer societies such as Britain and the United States. The natural conclusion of this liberal secularizing process is totalitarianism, which elevates one idea—say, an undefined “tolerance” that remains at the mercy of government definition, or “health”—over any others, and uses the powers of government to enforce that idea. Because liberalism dispenses with acknowledging the normative force of spiritual values in the polity, it becomes vulnerable to appeals to economic utility or political power. These cannot substitute for a religious faith that allows for plural expression of eternal truths or uncontrollable elements of the spiritual life, such as redemption or prayer.
President Obama unfortunately has absorbed this diminished understanding of the Western tradition and its important supports such as limited government. Famously, of course, Obama was raised outside the United States, largely in Indonesia. Even more unfortunately, Obama was not given an opportunity to immerse himself in the American tradition in his years of higher education in the United States. His years at Occidental and Columbia, then at Harvard Law School, coincided with a high point in this anti-Western intellectual position. One does not have to buy into recent interpretations of Obama’s intellectual life to recognize that someone raised at a critical age in a different culture will bring different understandings as to how to govern. Rather, as Charles Kesler has noted in his book I Am The Change, Obama falls neatly into a slot as the culmination—and dissolution—of liberalism that began with President Woodrow Wilson and continued through FDR and Lyndon Johnson. However, unlike the Southern gentleman, Dutch aristocrat, or Texas pol, Obama comes with few roots attaching him to that common culture Kirk and others described as so essential to self-government.
The Republicans are not free from this kind of cultural amnesia either. Although too much can be made of her influence, the once-again rising star of Ayn Rand should serve as a warning. Reacting against her own upbringing in totalitarian Russia, Rand misinterpreted what she saw as the economic freedom around her as pure capitalist anarchy, and missed out on the communitarian, religious, and other elements of the society that had made that freedom possible. Kirk correctly once warned that “Only a grasp of sound moral and political principles, widely diffused, can resist the menaces and promises of fanatic ideology.” That ideology can come in a number of different flavors, from no-holds-barred capitalist destruction to soft totalitarian political correctness. The John Galts are just as alien to the American tradition as the radical community organizer: “Tradition, indeed, by its very nature is opposed to moral and social isolation—that is, to doctrinaire individualism in the sense of Bentham or Godwin or Spencer. Tradition, by definition, is the common possession of a people, what Gabriel Marcel calls ‘diffuse gratitude,’ closely joined to piety, and linking together the generations that are dead with the generation that is now living and with the generations that are yet to be born.”
Where might a real American tradition of governance be found? Not in the electoral politics of Washington. Both parties seem desirous of sucking the electorate into the centralizing whirlpool of politics, where no disaster is complete without a visit from the President or a senator calling for more federal aid (looking at you, Chuck Schumer). These false notes of community mask, and dissolve, the real thing. As Kirk said in his essay “What Are American Traditions,” mass democracy is not a tradition. Rather, the American traditions include devotion to local and state government, and indeed to the notion of what political scientist Wilson Carey McWilliams denoted as “fraternity:” not the bloody fratricides of the French Revolution, but more like the neighborliness of the small town or small geographic spaces.
There is a distinctively American political tradition that balances individual rights (but not the ideology of individualism) with the claims of community, and which recognizes the limits of politics. This tradition, as articulated by Kirk and others, needs to be revived in light of the predations of liberalism and the libertarian distortions of conservatism.