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.