These days, Philadelphia archbishop Charles Chaput has been showing signs of America fatigue. “Democracy,” he told an audience at the Napa Institute this past July 26th, “is not an end in itself.” The mainstreaming of American Catholicism hasn’t made America more Christian, much less more Catholic; instead, it’s weakened Catholic witness. “Sooner or later,” Chaput warned, “a nation based on a degraded notion of liberty, on license rather than real freedom — in other words, a nation of abortion, disordered sexuality, consumer greed and indifference to immigrants and the poor — will not be worthy of its founding ideals.”
Could Chaput have assigned too much blame to American culture, and by extension, to the American people? After all, it was the Supreme Court of the United States, that least populist, most cloistered of institutions, that struck down abortion bans across the board and lowered the standard according to which laws impinging on the free exercise of religion are to be scrutinized. Lower federal courts overturned Proposition 8, the gay marriage ban that California voters passed. If, nationwide, support for gay marriage has risen sharply to a record high of 50%, opposition to abortion has gained a near-record high of 51%. At least at the grassroots level, God is running neck-and-neck with Mammon, at worst.
But Chaput’s frustration may have a more immediate cause. The Fortnight for Freedom, the two weeks of protest over the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act, among other threats to free exercise, had failed to hit its numbers. Only 70 of the nation’s 198 dioceses organized activities. More generally, despite the bishops’ determination not to turn the events into a national referrendum on sex or contraception, despite the coinciding release of For Greater Glory, which glamorized the Cristero rebellion against Mexico’s anticlerical government, the buzz just wouldn’t build. The secular media — the secular public — took little notice. In thundering against “acedia” and “cowardice,” Chaput might well have had in mind everyone who failed to man the barricades during those two crucial weeks.
Sure enough, the Fortnight for Freedom doesn’t seem to have shown anything like the frenzied energy of Chick-fil-A Apprecation Day. Although the fast-food chain, which became the object of a boycott when the public learned of its owner’s opposition to gay marriage, hasn’t released exact figures, its spokespeople claim a “record-setting” sales day. Stories abound of customers driving dozens of miles to the nearest outlet, waiting on line for hours, and in some cases, being directed by frazzled cashiers to other locations. Campaign mastermind Mike Huckabee reported feeling “giddy” over results. That’s not a self-description I can imagine Chaput uttering after being ushered through the Pearly Gates by Padre Pio himself, but the Fortnight for Freedom left even Cardinal Dolan sober.
Unfortunately, the enthusiasm gap, to speak in pollster terms, is easy enough to understand. Both sides of the Chick-fil-A controversy are easy to popularize, which is to say vulgarize. Speaking to (and probably for) those opposed, The Onion ran a gag story in which the chain released a “Queer-Hatin’ Cordon Bleu” sandwich. My own Facebook news feed was clogged with stills of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka asking snotty questions of boycotters. (Example: You won’t eat a Chick-fil-A but you shop at City Creek. Please, tell me more about your ethical spending…) What equivalent could the Fortnight for Freedom have offered? Oh, so you think America’s a Christian nation but you’d deny clergy the right to minister to children of God who happen to be undocumented immigrants. You must fit right in at the “Know-Nothing” movement leaves me strangely unmoved.
But more importantly, and depressingly, support for Chick-fil-A and support for the contraception mandate — the infringement against which bishops protested loudest and longest — come from the same quirk in the American character. Both positions boil down to getting what you want, when you want it. Chick-fil-A partisanship is, at bottom, consumerist: people will not be morally (or, in Boston and Chicago, legally) bullied into giving up a particular kind of chicken sandwich. If people offer their time and toil to a particular employer, and if they consider a particular type of medical care vital to their health, or even their sex lives, they expect that employer to provide insurance that will cover it.
Some self-appointed Chick-fil-A flacks, most notably Sarah Palin, have tried to elevate their cause to a First Amendment issue like the bishops’. As Amanda Marcotte observes, the fact that the threats to free expression she alleged came from boycotters, not city officials, tends to vitiate her case. Nevertheless, some supporters may have believed her. Given their apparent similarity, the two causes’ varying responses point, I think, to a new American ambivalence regarding bosses, suits and the 1%. Several years ago, Page and Jacobs found that “large majorities of Democrats and low-income Americans” believed it was possible for a poor person to become rich. In the popular imagination, the American Dream was perfectly intact.
More recently, however, Duke University professor Dan Ariely asked a 5,000-person sample to envision the distribution of wealth in a society they'd be willing to enter at a random point on the socioeconomic scale. He found that his sample's ideal distribution was "dramatically more equal than exists anywhere in the world," and that Republicans and Democrats distributed wealth along "quite similar" lines. In a separate section of the same study, Ariely found that 92% of respondents preferred Sweden's pattern of wealth distribution to ours. Such a public could still hail a businessman as a pillar of the community, provided it perceives him strictly as the provider of a valuable service, as Chick-fil-A COO Dan Cathy's supporters do him. On the other hand, if it sees an employer as the denier of a benefit, which is how ACA supporters view Church-run institutions, then it's an avatar of Scrooge himself.
Chaput might well approve some re-distribution of wealth. But he might not think very highly of people who, as Ariely’s subjects implicitly did, call for wealth’s re-distribution chiefly because they imagine themselves on the receiving end. Along with those who supported the state-mandated provision by employers of contraceptive services, they would probably affirm for him his warning, quoted from Robert Kraynak, that Democracy supports a low cultural tone, which tends to “[reduce] human life to a one-dimensional materialism and [an] animal existence that undermines human dignity and eventually leads to the ‘abolition of man.’”
Among Catholics, he’s far from alone in this jadedness. This week in First Things, Patrick J. Deneen proclaims liberalism “unsustainable.” By liberalism, Deneen means any philosophy, including modern American conservatism, that conceives of the individual as a perfectly autonomous unit, unbound by nature or community. He writes: “So long as the dominant narrative of individual choice aimed at the satisfaction of appetite and consumption dominates in the personal or economic realms, the ethic of liberalism will continue to dominate our society.” And that, for Deneen, means that the modern Leviathan — the Left’s state and the Right’s market — “daily attains more reality.”
Like Chaput, Deneen sees a potential antidote in a radical cultural change. He calls for “cultivation of self-limitation and self-governance among constitutive associations and communities,” which sounds harmless. But then he goes on to lick his lips over the way the economic downturn has resulted in “growth of multigenerational homes, which were the norm for much of human history.” For Deneen, the civic virtue that restores true liberty begins at the dinner table with the Maneros of Bay Ridge, presumably when Pa hits Tony’s hair.
It’s deeply disturbing to read such dire predictions, particularly when at least some of the symptoms are visibly real, and when the solutions are made to sound so drastic. The fact is, I have lived all my life in a society where license is mistaken for liberty, and with a liberal conception of the self. Unless you’re reading this from an Opus Dei barracks, so have you. And if we thought long enough, we could all recall benefits we’d prefer not to give up. If I am the only blogger in the world who doesn’t live in his parents’ basement or attic, that’s a distinction I’d like to hang on to. If there is a close-knit, censorious village somewhere missing an idiot, let it keep looking.
If you are of the same mind, let’s form a pact: We’ll engage critically with both the culture and the doomsayers, hang on to as much of our liberal autonomy as we can, and pray the chickens don’t come home to roost after all.