Friday, November 16, 2012

Book Review: Ferrara, Liberty, The God that Failed

Christopher Shannon, "A Declaration of Catholic Independence" (Crisis Magazine, October 30, 2012):
G.K. Chesterton once described America as a “nation with the soul of a church.” Many have wrongly interpreted this statement as Chesterton’s way of saying that America was a Christian nation, or that Americans were especially pious and devout people. Chesterton meant something rather different, and not especially complementary. America is like a church in the sense that it has often understood citizenship in terms of assent to a creed. One becomes an Englishman or Frenchman through history, through coming from a family that has lived in a particular place for generations. In contrast, one can theoretically become an American simply by assent to certain abstract principles, the American creed. Chesterton’s characterization of America as a creedal nation came to mind as I passed an election sign for the Romney-Ryan ticket that read, “Believe in America.” What could this possibly mean? Is America a god? What precisely are we supposed to believe in? In a word, liberty. And make no mistake about it, liberty is a god.

That, at least, is the argument that Christopher A. Ferrara makes in his important and timely new book, Liberty, the God That Failed: Policing the Sacred and Constructing the Myths of the Secular State, from Locke to Obama.The title references the 1949 work The God that Failed, a famous collection of essays by ex-communists describing their disillusion with the utopian ideology of communism. Liberal and conservative American political thinkers share a common characterization of communism and fascism as irrational, secular religions against which the American political tradition stands as a model of reason and moderation. It is just such a conceit that Ferrara sets out to expose as a delusion. At a time when the American bishops are calling on Catholics to defend the American tradition of religious liberty against state coercion, Ferrara argues that religious liberty itself has been the main ideology through which the modern state has sought to redefine and control religion. This is a difficult and challenging argument, one that goes against the common sense of American political thinking. It is an argument based on a very different kind of common sense that comes from traditional Catholic understandings of the public nature of Church authority.

For the last fifty or so years, liberal and conservative Catholics alike have interpreted Dignitatis Humanae as a baptism of the U.S. Constitution. Ferrara reminds his readers early on that even as the document affirmed the right to freedom from coercion in religious life, it also rejected the notion of a purely privatized religion and held up the traditional confessional state as an enduring political ideal. For Ferrara, the Constitution’s rejection of religious establishment reflects a broader Enlightenment desire to privatize religion in a way that is counter to Catholic political traditions from the Middle Ages up to and including Dignitatis Humanae. In the wake of debates surrounding the HHS mandate, conservative Catholics have been falling all over themselves defending our “sacred” Founders from the charge of privatization.

Much of how you judge the Founders’ intentions and the historical record of religion and public life in American history depends upon what you mean by religion. Ferrara convincingly argues that the Founders were more or less Masonic deists to a man, with no desire to see anything like a robust, orthodox Christianity, even of the Protestant variety, shaping public life. They certainly believed that the health of the republic depended upon a disciplined, moral citizenry and believed that religion—at the very least, a belief in God and fear of damnation—was useful as a prop to support such a public morality. That the moral probity of eighteenth-century Masonic British gentry strikes many a conservative Catholic today as a rough approximation of a Catholic world view should be troubling to Catholics, whatever their politics. The only God that the Founders acknowledged as having public standing was, as Ferrara’s title suggests, the God of Liberty.

For Ferrara, Liberty is not a political ideal, but a rival faith, a false idol. His book is difficult reading for any Catholic, liberal or conservative, raised on the idea of the complete compatibility of Catholicism and the American Founding. His argument seeks to shatter this illusion on both the level of ideas and institutional practice. The early sections of this massive work deal with the development of modern social contract theory, particularly the work of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Ferrara shows that, with respect to religion, the attempt to present Locke as a kinder, gentler rationalist simply does not hold up. Locke may have had a more benign view of the state of nature than Hobbes’s vision of a life nasty, brutish and short, but he leaves no doubt that the peace man seeks by entering the social contract requires the subordination of religious authority to that of the secular sovereign or state.

Following the work of William Cavanaugh, Ferrara argues that the whole modern social contract tradition has been nothing less than an alternative foundational myth, a parody or perversion of the origins of human society found in the Book of Genesis. If traditional Christendom saw the purpose of political life to approximate, within the limits of our fallen nature, the City of God amidst the City of Man, the social contract tradition understands politics as a tool for protecting individual freedom, particularly through the instrument of rights. In public life, Catholics have been all too willing to accept this myth as a guide to political action—such as the grounding of pro-life politics in a “right to life.”

If Locke’s political philosophy is at fundamental odds with Catholicism in theory, it is at odds with itself in practice. The great philosopher of liberty significantly excluded Catholicism from his vision of religious tolerance, largely because, through the person of the pope, the Catholic Church still claimed to have some public authority over the rule of princes. The so-called “Glorious Revolution” that drove a legitimate Catholic king (James II) from the throne of England and secured Protestant rule was followed by a century long battle to bleed Catholicism from the people of Ireland through a series of draconian penal laws. The irony of coercion in the name of freedom was not limited to eighteenth-century Ireland or the French Revolution, but has characterized the reign of Lockean freedom in American history. Here Ferrara particularly targets the historical myths peddled by libertarians, Catholic and otherwise, who tell of a golden age of libertarian freedom in America corrupted by a fall from grace with the advance of statism under Lincoln during the Civil War (or the statism of the Progressive Era, New Deal, Great Society, etc.). For Ferrara, the Founders—that is, those who drafted and supported the Constitution—were statists from the start and would brook no opposition to (centralized) state authority.

A Case at Times Overstated

Here, I sometimes feel Ferrara overstates his case. He is certainly right to highlight the role of state violence in an era (the Founding and early republic) that patriotic Americans like to think of as somehow bloodless. He is also right to highlight the continuities between the American and French revolutions. Still, even a reader open to such a critical interpretation has a hard time accepting a moral equivalence between the suppression of Shay’s Rebellion and the Reign of Terror. Rightly calling attention to the Janus-faced character of American liberty, his exposé of coercive state power from the Founding to the Civil War would seem to draw its sense of moral outrage from the very concept of liberty he is critiquing. Modern nation-states, including the United States, have indeed exercised coercive powers beyond anything imagined by a medieval king or an early-modern absolute monarch, but pre-modern life was hardly “free” in the modern sense; rather, individual and family life were structured by a complex system of local laws and customs that would strike a modern libertarian as being just as restrictive as any power claimed by the modern nation state. I understand that it is just such libertarians that Ferrara is trying to outrage, but lacking an account of the local customs, laws and traditions that structured life in the early republic, his account threatens to keep the whole debate within the false libertarian dichotomy of individual freedom and state coercion.

So too, in an effort to demolish the libertarian myth, Ferrara often loses all sense of degree and proportion. He is right in seeing a consistently statist direction in American political history. That is, whenever the prerogatives of state or local government came into conflict with those of the federal government, the federal government won out, most spectacularly and violently in the Civil War. Still, at times he makes even the early republic sound like a Stalinist police state simply because the Founding generation quickly discovered that for all their talk of liberty, social order often requires the use of government power. Ferrara is on much firmer ground when dealing with the most overt forms of violence inextricably bound up with American freedom: slavery and the extermination of Native Americans. Patriotic Americans are too quick to judge that dwelling on these matters amounts to America bashing. It does not. It is the only way to understand the true historical meaning of liberty in America.

The products of slave labor—first tobacco, then cotton—were at the heart of American economic life from the colonial period through to the Civil War. No sooner did America correct the historic wrong of slavery through the Civil War (at the cost of some 600,000 American lives) then the country turned its energies to “winning” the West through a genocidal war against Native Americans. And let us not forget our own times. No sooner did the Civil Rights Movement complete the work of slave emancipation then the apostles of liberty found another threat to freedom in the unborn child. Abortion is not state mandated. Americans freely choose to offer up roughly a million children every year to the altar of liberty.

The history of liberty in America is more complex than Ferrara presents. He ignores many countervailing traditions that did, for a time, help to slow the “progress” of liberty. Still, his history is selective with a purpose, and a noble one. Any honest look at American history will show that negative liberty, “freedom from,” has consistently triumphed in its battle against positive conceptions of human flourishing and the common good. It will also show that there is nothing in our quasi-Masonic public religion, from Washington and Lincoln to Ronald Reagan, which could have prevented this development. Catholics can work with the American system, but they first must realize what it is. When the Church converted the Roman Empire, it knew that it was dealing with a pagan institution. American Catholics since John Courtney Murray have approached the U.S. Constitution, and the American ideal of liberty, as somehow crypto-Catholic and in need only of our full-throated assent. If Catholics are to be truly Catholic in America, and not just a branch office of the Church of Liberty, we need to first stand apart from a political tradition born in a revolt against the Catholic Church. Christopher Ferrara’s book is an essential starting point and a necessary declaration of Catholic independence.

Dr. Christopher Shannon is a member of the History Department at Christendom College, where he interprets the narrative of Christian history from its foundations in the Old Testament and its heroic beginnings in the Church of the Martyrs, down through the ages to the challenges of the post-modern world. His books include Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in Modern American Social Thought (Johns Hopkins, 1996) and, most recently, Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (University of Scranton Press, 2010).

[Hat tip to Sir A. Sistrom]


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I am not Spartacus said...

Dear Dr. "Culture Wars" has been drilling into this issue in many of its recent issues and there has been a fascinating exchange of letters in there twixt Fr. Brian Harrison and Mr David Wemhoff re the necessity of AmBishops to abandon "Religious Liberty" and work to convert America to a Catholic Confessional State (Fr. Harrison is opposed to that for practical reasons).

"Culture Wars" has also published many excellent pieces on Catholic Economics; including many lengthy letter-to-editor exchanges about usury and capitalism.

re you a subscriber?

I am not Spartacus said...

The War to prevent Southern Independence was not fought to eliminate slavery - just read Lincoln's First Inauguration speech - but it is the mythical eisegesis read back in our history as a way of trying to exculpate the Tyrant as being culpable as a War Criminal of the first order (and I think the number of deaths is now conceded to be north of 800K).

Lincoln, a railroad lobbyist, was plucked by the Oligarchy to run for POTUS because he was a mercantilist who delighted in the business of State Capitalism and who loved dispensing state favors on the already wealthy and powerful.

I think "Honest Abe: got his nickname for the same reason a 400 lb mobster gets the nickname, "Tiny."

Pertinacious Papist said...

Not Spartacus,

Not a subscriber, but will have to look into "Culture Wars" on the basis of your remarks. Thanks, as always. -PP

Ralph Roister-Doister said...

My copy arrived Friday. I paged through it last night, and I'm looking forward to reading it. It may be Ferrara's masterpiece. Of course, you won't hear anything of the sort from the handful of mainstream academic hit men who will be stuck with the onerous task of reviewing it. Liberals and conservatives will despise it with bipartisan fervor.

I remember going to just about any church as a kid and seeing an American flag, and sometimes even a state flag, placed in a corner near the altar. I'm surprised they weren't accompanied by Uncle Sam statuary. I suppose it was the bishops' way of forestalling trouble with any protestant yokel who might happen to wander through the door, and think that he had happened upon a nest of mackerel snappers plotting to turn America over to the pope. American Catholic docility goes back long before V2.

Every American who has fought in a war will swear to you that he has done so in the name of liberty -- my father included. People everywhere yearn to be free to pursue their peculiar form of happiness: we've all heard the founding fathers' version of "Sweet Adeline" over and over, in our homes, and in our schools (even the Catholic ones). It may well be a pernicious falsehood, but that doesn't mean that American Catholics have the wherewithal to face up to it. Deification of liberty is, as the raging conservative Willmoore Kendall once phrased it, "in our hips." I don't think that more than a handful of American Catholics will find Ferrara's thesis intelligible, and those who do will likely be raring to punch him in the nose.

Still, an exposure of just how abysmally the leaders of the American Catholic clergy have failed us is long overdue. Instruction of the ignorant is a work of mercy.

Pertinacious Papist said...

The American hierarchy was enamoured of the American political experiment to such a degree after the Civil War and up through Vatican II that it's a wonder Rome didn't excommunicate the whole lot. Instead, it condemned a narrowly-defined ideology which it called the heresy of "Americanism," and allowed the American bishops to shape Vatican policy in liberalism-friendly direction that ultimately gave us John Courtney Murray's WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS and Jacques Maritain's MAN AND THE STATE, both shameless accommodations to the Civil Religion of Americanism and the Statue of Liberty.

Mortimer J. Adler has a little book of the kind I like, easy and accessible, entitled SIX GREAT IDEAS, the first three chapters of which are devoted to "liberty," "equality," and "justice." What he shows is that our American tradition is focused on "liberty"; the Marxist-Socialist tradition on "equality," and that neither can do justice to its own principle without the third, "justice," to arbitrate between the excesses of the other two. A nice little essay.

This is doubtless Ferrara's magnum opus. I've learned that his writings often have a personal edge to them, which will repel many of the academic types, who would rather kill an idea slowly by a thousand hedging qualifications. But I've also found that I never come away from Ferrara's work without having learned something important, even if it's deeply unsettling.