Lowry and Ponnuru are Exceptionally Wrong

Lowry and Ponnuru are Exceptionally Wrong July 21, 2010

A few months ago, Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru penned a long essay on American exceptionalism, and what they regard as Obama’s assault on it. Although I disagree with practically everything in it, is has the virtue of explaining the core tenets of what the modern American right dubs “conservatism”. My own belief is that this philosophy is fallacious – partly because it misinterprets conservatism, but mainly because it is totally divorced from Catholic sensibility and the Catholic worldview.

Their hypothesis is stated clearly upfront:

“What do we, as American conservatives, want to conserve? The answer is simple: the pillars of American exceptionalism. Our country has always been exceptional. It is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth. These qualities are the bequest of our Founding and of our cultural heritage. They have always marked America as special, with a unique role and mission in the world: as a model of ordered liberty and self-government and as an exemplar of freedom and a vindicator of it, through persuasion when possible and force of arms when absolutely necessary.”

Sisters-in-arms: Enlightenment-era liberalism meets Protestantism

Lowry and Ponnuru extol individual liberty as the supreme virtue, but this perspective does not fit very well with Catholicism. Rather than conservatism, it is actually the philosophy of classical liberalism, something the Church has vigorously opposed from the outset. As I mentioned in a recent post, liberalism denies that the state has any duties toward God. Instead, the individual is paramount and the state is a purely human creation designed to enforce a social contract between individuals and whose chief function is law and order. Catholicism, in contrast, has always seen society as an organic whole, not as a mere collection of individuals. It extols a social order that charges the authorities with oversight of the whole common good, not merely law and order. Of course, those with responsibility for the common good must always respect human dignity, and out of this rose the core teachings of solidarity and subsidiarity.

In short, the kind of liberalism extolled by Lowry and Ponnuru stands in contrast to Catholic social teaching. Pope Paul VI puts it well when he says that “the very root of philosophical liberalism is an erroneous affirmation of the autonomy of the individual in his activity, his motivation and the exercise of his liberty”. Both individuals and society should be ordered toward virtue, not freedom, as the highest end.

While they deviate sharply from a Catholic worldview, Lowry and Ponnuru do not ignore the role of religion. Indeed, they praise the religiosity of America, but they are quite clear that it springs from a particular kind of English Protestantism that heavily influenced America’s founders:

“England never had a peasantry in the way that other European countries did, or as extensive an established church, or as powerful a monarchy. English society thus had a more individualistic cast than the rest of Europe, which was centralized, hierarchical, and feudal by comparison…It was, to simplify, the most individualistic elements of En­glish society — basically, dissenting low-church Protestants — who came to the eastern seaboard of North America…America was blessedly unencumbered by an ancien régime. Compared with Europe, it had no church hierarchy, no aristocracy, no entrenched economic interests, no ingrained distaste for commercial activity… It was as close as you could get to John Locke’s state of nature.”

Reading this paragraph, two reactions come to mind. The first, and most obvious, is that it is anti-Catholic – look at the condemnations of “church hierarchy”. Second, is meshes a particular Enlightenment-era liberal position with a particular Protestant theology. The appeal is to Locke, and implicitly to Hobbes – and also explicitly to Adam Smith later in the essay. Many American conservatives today put a dividing line between the English/ Scottish Enlightenment and the continental Enlightenment. This is somewhat artificial, as both spring from the same roots – the individualism that comes from the nominalist revolution against the Catholic intellectual order. The Hobbesians and the Cartesians did indeed choose different paths – the Hobbesians had a more pessimistic view of human capacity – but their source is the same. And of course, Protestantism – another offspring of the nominalist revolution – is thrown into the mix. In the United States in particular, a dominant Calvinist-Protestant tradition regarded material success of a sign of virtue and divine favor, and saw America as a “new Jerusalem” made up of God’s chosen people. Out of this, American exceptionalism was born. Needless to say, there is not much here that is compatible with Catholicism – both big C and small c!

It is completely misplaced to associate this ideology with “conservatism”. Conservatism denotes an emphasis on tradition, prudence, and respect for the social order. In a Christian sense, it implies a respect for God’s eternal law and a stand against modernity’s attempt to make man the master of nature and to elevate human freedom. Does this mean Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular are inherently conservative? The answer here is no, because Christianity is dynamic, not static. As then-Cardinal Ratzinger has noted in the past, Christ was deliberately not given the static title Conservator – a perfectly natural Roman title – but rather the dynamic Salvator. Although no man-made utopia is possible, we are still called upon the change the world. This must be done by following the law of God, not the law of man, and can obviously be the source of great tension.

A wholesale repudiation of Catholic social teaching

Of course, not everything that came out of the Enlightenment was bad. The renewed emphasis on the rights and inherent dignity of every human person was particularly laudable. But how can the good points of liberalism and modernism be gelled with the old Catholic intellectual order? The path taken by the Church has been to accept democracy, but it does not end there. The Church also built up the corpus of Catholic social teaching, especially as developed from Pope Leo XIII onwards. In the political sphere, it has been particularly supportive of Christian democracy.

While the Church has always insisted that the state had a duty to care for the poor and promote economic justice, this took on a whole new meaning during and after the Industrial Revolution. In its response to the modern world, the Church rejected both collectivism and the classical liberalism so loved by Lowry and Ponnuru- these “twin rocks of shipwreck” were deemed to repress human dignity and create grave injustices. Instead, the Church’s preferred approach twinned solidarity – with its emphasis on the “social market” and the proper role of the state in economic life – and subsidiarity, with its support of the family, unions and other mediating institutions. It took the middle ground. In the economic sphere, of course, there are clear overlaps with social democracy. The-man-who-was Ratzinger has said as much:

“Democratic socialism managed to fit within the two existing models as a welcome counterweight to the radical liberal positions, which it developed and corrected…In many respects, democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine, and has in any case made a remarkable contribution to the formation of a social consciousness.”

Let’s go back to Lowry and Ponnuru. The bulk of their essay is really a defense of an old position condemned by the Church, chiefly laissez–faire liberalism in pursuit of individual freedom. There is no Christian democratic tradition in the United States, and they don’t want one. Thus they will extol the Calvinist merchants who began their ledgers with “in the name of God and profit”, while condemning the un-American “positive rights to government benefits”. They are not too pleased with the New Deal and its aftermath since “the power of central government increased, a welfare state was born, and unionization advanced”. But they laud the rise of the Reagan era when “the individualistic American character began to reassert itself”. It becomes important to stand against “government child care, or gun control, or mass transit, or whatever socialistic program or other infringement on our liberty we have had the wisdom to reject for decades”. In the name of freedom, they condemn the attempt to limit carbon emissions, to impose a healthcare mandate, and to “make it easier for unions to collect new members”. And on foreign policy,  they justify the use of force to “export our model of liberty” for “America is still a martial nation”. They condemn the European Union where “Brussels is arrogating more decision-making to itself”.

Needless to say, none of the preceding paragraph is philosophically compatible with Catholicism. The Church recognizes the right to income security, including unemployment benefits, healthcare benefits, and pensions. The Church has always argued that that market outcomes are not necessarily synonymous with justice, condemning the “greed of unrestrained competition” (Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum) and the “despotic economic dictatorship ..consolidated in the hands of a few” (Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno). The Church has always regarded trade unions as a key pillar of the social order. The Church has always supported a just distribution of income. Put simply, the common good comes first. If an individual mandate, or a progressive tax system, or a tax on carbon corrects some underlying injustice, then these intrusions in the market economy are not only acceptable, but necessary. And the Church has called for an end to war, for solving conflicts by peaceful means, for tackling underlying injustices that foment discontent, for lower military spending, and for the creation of a world political authority with responsibility for managing the global economy and fostering peace. Somewhat ironically, while  American “conservatives” denounce the role of government in their lives, they cannot see beyond the nation-state itself, whereas Catholic social teaching sometimes regards the multilateral level as the appropriate level to address a problem, in line with subsidiarity.

How exceptional is America?

So is America really exceptional? It is exceptional in one area –  it retains a peculiar attachment to certain modes of economic and political governance that were dominant in Anglo-Saxon circles over 200 years ago. While pure laissez-faire liberalism and its Calvinist underpinnings have been relegated to the margins of political discourse elsewhere, they remains preeminent in the United States. The counterweight is a form of social democracy, but there is no Christian democracy. In a sense, the American right is caught in a time warp, unwilling to move past the constraints of 18th century political thought, locked in by a rigid constitutionalism. That means a lot gets missed – including the entire corpus of papal social teaching! Even more damaging, America retains a view of itself as somehow standing apart from other countries, endowed with a unique mission to remake the world in its own likeness (again, this is the antithesis of true conservatism). And linked with a “martial spirit”, this has had drastic consequence – just look at manifest destiny, the Calvinists Wilson and Dulles, and warrior theology of George W. Bush.

Lowry and Ponnuru specify four dimensions of exceptionalism – more free, more individualistic, more democratic, more open and dynamic. It is certainly more individualistic. That is a given, but not something to brag about. I don’t see it as more “free” than the typical western democracy, unless you point to those areas of “freedom” that trump the common good (unrestrained gun ownership being the chief example). It is certainly not more “democratic” than other countries – in fact, politics is dominated by monied interests, smaller rural populations have far more weight than larger urban ones, and the first-past-the-post system (unlike proportional representation) does not do a good job in align voting preferences with outcomes.

What about “open and dynamic”? I would like to end this essay on a positive note, so let me say that Lowry and Ponnuru have a point here (although, once again, this kind of dynamic society is the antithesis of real conservatism!) The United States has always been welcoming of immigrants and immigrant cultures. Like the Roman empire of old, it has always played down differences, and opened the doors of opportunity to all. It has been open to different religions, and to the public practice of these religions. These are great virtues, not to be dismissed lightly. But there is nothing really exceptional in the nature of the country itself, there are gaping holes in its dominant ideology, and its much-touted religiosity too often leads down the wrong road.

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  • Rodak

    But, in fact, didn’t many, if not most, Catholics come here precisely to take advantage of all of the opportunity that “”Protestant liberal rugged individualism” makes possible, and to escape from the smothering feudal, class, and other hierarchical restraints that rendered life in Europe such a long, futile grind toward the grave?
    My take is that neither system partakes in any systematic way in the teachings of the Gospels. Each of them is self-referential and self-serving. I really have come to believe that–whether individually or communally–it is necessary to withdraw from society-at-large to attempt to live a fully Christian life. That said, given that one has decided to be “of the world,” the Protestant world has proven, overall, to be the more comfortable–and just–highway to perdition.

  • digbydolben

    MM, you have outdone yourself here, and probably for the first time, provided your critics with your most cogent explanation of the roots of America’s radical–and, indeed, revolutionary–ideology of consumerist capitalism (“the transvaluation of all values”–for the sake of “constant growth”), in her heretical theological origins in the traditions of profoundly pessimistic “watered-down Calvinism.”

  • Re: the cited article – Seldom have I seen so much drivel spewed in one place. “We would be an ‘empire of liberty’.” He should have tacked on: “or else”. Or else we will steal half your country (Mexico), invade you (Vietnam, Iraq, etc.), or topple your government (Chile, Central America, etc.) This does not even mention the interior colonialism against African-Americans, immigrants, and so forth. America has seemed to dream itself a classless society, or a society that has gotten its way by merit and not violence, but just because you dream it doesn’t make it so.

    That is not even to mention the imperialist violence of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism: one that even by colonial standards sought to exploit, decimate, and exclude, rather than evangelize and engage. Read Marx’s Captial: the reason England didn’t have a peasantry is because the nascent bourgeoisie stole church lands and kicked the peasants off. The paupers that entered the cities became the nascent proletariat: landless and dispossessed of the means of production. And much of the fuel for the British economy came from the “humanitarian” efforts of such entities as the British East India Company, that, among other things, was the first big international drug cartel (opium to China).

    It is funny that there has been so much talk of the “Fathers” in this time of crisis. Like all reactionary movements, demagogues tend to return to a mythical pristine origin that scapegoats some for the benefit of others. The Germans in the 1930’s returned to the idea of the blond beast, the master race, and Aryan racial supremacy and blamed the Jews for everything. The American right now wants to return to a disembodied Platonic ideal known as the Constitution that is being attacked by “socialists” and “Marxists”. (Having been both a socialist and a Marxist at one time in my life, I am particularly appreciative of how ridiculous such an accusation really is.)

    Really, though, what of people like me who are stuck with a U.S. birth certificate who do not share the ideal of “America”? I don’t believe in democracy, don’t consider myself exceptionally patriotic, but don’t really have any particular desire to get up and leave. Will I never be a “real American” just because I don’t particularly care for the idea of “American exceptionalism”? I wouldn’t shed a tear if tomorrow someone tore up the Constitution. In this brain of mine, there is only room for one religion, and it ain’t America.

  • Rodak

    Its seems to me to be counter-intuitive that the Church should have owned lands to be stolen by the nascent bourgeoisie in the first place. The Son of Man had no place to lay His head; and He chose that. Neither, I would wager, did the Son of Man deck Himself out like a Las Vegas lounge act to deliver the Beatitudes.

  • Colin Gormley

    “Lowry and Ponnuru extol individual liberty as the supreme virtue”

    Actually they don’t. What they are saying is that what makes the American experiment exceptional is the emphasis of liberty in the founding of the country. Whatever you think of their argument, virtue has little to do with their argument.

    “The first, and most obvious, is that it is anti-Catholic – look at the condemnations of “church hierarchy”.”

    They don’t condemn a hierarchial construct of church per se. Remember the context is the Church of England, where the government and the church leadership are closely knit.

    “As I mentioned in a recent post, liberalism denies that the state has any duties toward God. Instead, the individual is paramount and the state is a purely human creation designed to enforce a social contract between individuals and whose chief function is law and order. Catholicism, in contrast, has always seen society as an organic whole, not as a mere collection of individuals.”

    You are conflating “the state” with society, which is the core fault of the analysis. The two are not equivalent.

  • WJ


    Great post. In recent years the ideology of “individualism” has been a stalking horse for the corporate consolidation of wealth, which needs to be mentioned more often whenever you hear some neoliberal extolling the “individualism” and “entrepreneurial spirit” of Reaganism.


    I just want to say that I really enjoy your posts. You have a stylistic brio uniquely fitted to the combox.

  • digbydolben

    Rodak, to follow up on what Arturo wrote–and to support it, against what you’ve said in opposition to it: it is an acknowledged fact that, during the Dark Ages, the monastic institutions of the Catholic Church virtually saved civilization in Europe by preserving and duplicating Roman agricultural techniques and vintnaculture. Aldous Huxley, no fan of Church hierarchies, offers a superb account of how the Benedictines accomplished both this and the rescue of the peasantry from famine and disease, in Gray Eminence.

    In English history–and particularly in the Celtic parts of the British Isles and France–the monks were, until the Late Middle Ages, the best friends and protectors of the peasantry, giving them sanctuary from their aristocratic predators and teaching them what they would not otherwise have known about agriculture and animal husbandry. They most emphatically were NOT “worked to death” in the monastic establishments and the corruptions of the Late Middle Ages occurred only when the hierarchy and the Roman curia began to SELL abbeys and priories to aristocrats.

    And, still, the peasants were never so badly treated by the monks and nuns as they would be by the rising Tudor aristocracy, when they seized the land and evicted their tenants.

    Disraeli, the 19th century’s most brilliant British politician, mourns the destruction of the monasteries in terms that make him the founder, in British political history, of a type of “conservatism” unknown to American politics–“wet,” paternalistic (in the best sense) and Christian Toryism.

  • Yes, I would have to exempt the monasteries, at least in part, due to the fact that they, by definition, represent an attempt to withdraw from society-at-large in order to live a more fully Christian life. That said, monasteries that became rich in a worldly sense–and I think there were some–still stand accused of…being rich in a worldly sense. It’s not as though the Protestant work ethic did not have good results, in a material sense; as American political conservatives are wont to remind us. But, it is hard to show, in either case, how holiness was an effective factor in the production of abundance. Or, how it was in the first instance, but not (as claimed) in the latter.
    As for the Church apart from the monasteries…

  • jh

    “Protestant work ethic”

    I actually think the Protestant work ethic is tad overblown. I mean it was not like the people of Louisiana when they were under French and Spanish control were just sitting around. A lot of stuff was going on.

    Further the fact that a lots of folks were able to get basically Free land forever seems part of the equation for success

  • Either it carries the full strength of Satan and his minions and is responsible for all of American’s moral ills, or else it’s “overblown.”

    It’s all so confusing…

  • Alex

    Please don’t call Americanism in any way Calvinist.

    It is most assuredly not, though it may have been at one point or another.

    If the original Puritans toiled in the name of God and profit because this world was all they could count on, their god having already blessed or cursed them for all eternity, their decidedly less-toiling descendants feels that a moment of pretend gnosis is enough to assure salvation.

    It is not Christian, yes; but neither is it Calvinist.

  • digbydolben

    Alex and Rodak (and everybody else on this thread) should some day take a look at this book, by Harold Bloom:


    It is an extremely insightful analysis of the Gnosticism that Bloom calls “the American religion.” He demonstrates that that religion has little to do with orthodox Christianity, but that it indeed DID form as a mutation of Calvinism.

  • Alex

    Digbydolden brings up the book that formed most of my thinking on the whole matter. I am not, however, as sure as Bloom that the religion in question is properly Gnostic. It is, rather, a simplistic do-it-yourself mockery of the strange (and apparently heretical) postulates in the gospel of Thomas. A pretence.

  • Kiyoko Edridge

    Here’s a funny quote to make you smile 🙂

    If at first you do succeed try not to look astonished. 🙂