I wrote here once before about the repartee that keeps the snarks flying between me and my beloved lady Texan. I noted that each of us treasures his own impossible dream. In mine, the Habsburg monarchy is restored in Central Europe, accepting the voluntary fealty of most of its historic realms (I don’t expect the Czechs, but given the horrid policies of Germany, we just might get the Bavarians. The Flemish, perhaps?) My beloved is also subject to fantasies: In hers, the United States is governed according to the text of its Constitution, the rights of localities are respected as the U.S. founders intended, and the rights of private property, freedom of association, and freedom of contract are honored by the State—which eschews “entangling alliances” and confines its activities mostly to guarding the borders and enforcing legal contracts.
I know—what a pair of crackpots! In a good nanny state, the Authorities would step in and prevent us from marrying. The only folk who really ought to be in the business of breeding fall into one of two categories:
Canny Fathers: The initiates of the Noble Lie, who like Leftists have “seen through” the myths of revealed religions and traditional societies. Unlike Leftists (whose egalitarianism drives them to share these unsettling truths) these intellectuals are flexible enough to support these myths in the hope of keeping their servants honest (Voltaire), their nations vital (Charles Maurras) and the masses compliant to rule by their “betters”(Allan Bloom, Leo Strauss). Distinguishing characteristics: graduate degrees from the U. of Chicago’s program in Social Thought, pasty complexions, and bylines in Commentary.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
Cannon Fodder: The true believers who sign up to die for one or more such noble lie, the zealots who pay the bills and cast the votes that keep their “betters” in power—and whose sons fight the wars that give chickenhawks Left (Darfur, Kosovo) and Right (Iraq, Iran) a thrill of borrowed masculinity. Distinguishing characteristics: gold stars in windows, foreclosed mortgages, debilitating combat injuries, plots at Arlington.
Arguing with neocons is like whizzing onto a mushroom cloud, so let me return to my first theme: Is there any reconciling the principles of traditional conservatism (that is, Throne and Altar) with the founding themes of the American Republic? Or is Paul Gottfried right to suggest that there never was any real common ground between the American resistance to bureaucracy at home and Communism abroad, and the European reactionary tradition to which some of the most eloquent self-styled “conservatives” (Russell Kirk, Whittaker Chambers, Erik von Kuehnhelt-Leddihn) sometimes appealed? I go into this question in much greater depth in my book on Wilhelm Röpke—the economic genius who helped form the policies that launched the postwar German “miracle.” In the book, I point out how Röpke synthesized the insights of classical economics and liberalism with what is best in the European Right—the Counter-Enlightenment, the Agrarian and Distributist movements, and the regionalist resistance to centralizing bureaucracies.
However, there’s one key issue which Röpke never addressed, which has troubled my discusssions in recent years with both conservative Christians, and consistent libertarians: Doesn’t an honest person have to come down, in the end, on the question of whether or not he supports a state-sponsored Church? Furthermore, how could someone whose ideal regime would partake in a variety of “statist” acts in pursuit of the Common Good make common cause with libertarians who oppose almost any such actions? Should Christians in America support the dismantling of the secular school bureaucracy, and the growth of home-schooling and parochial education—or attempt to “reform” the existing state bureaucracy, and somehow infuse it with “values”? Should American Christians favor a state which suppresses immoral forms of association (pornographic film companies, racist organizations) and supports the formation of wholesome ones (religious orders, charities)? Or should we ask only liberty for our own congregations and convents, and oppose the others by persuasion?
There’s a long list of activities which a pope such as Pius IX, Leo XIII, or even Pius XII would have considered the duty of a Christian ruler—including the promotion of a specific creed, the enforcement of marriage laws based closely on Christian sacramental principles, the suppression of “vice” and “immoral” literature, just to name a few. Now, apart from the first of these (rejected in the U.S. First Amendment) most of these same activities were performed by state and local governments in the United States—well into the 1960s. While the most “popular” of our Founders (those quoted by secular historians) were mild Deists, M.E. Bradford documented the fact that most of the men who voted for the Declaration and for the Constitution were convinced Augustinian Christians. They would have agreed heartily with 95 percent of what papal politics called for. This common ground was one reason why Catholic immigrants were able, in large part, to assimilate to America and eagerly cleave to such a deeply Protestant country.
There were weaknesses, alas in this great, ecumenical compromise. The Enlightenment rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence was an ever-present temptation to transform the ethos by which an English-speaking settlement had chosen to govern itself into an ideological machine—an abstraction which men would come to love instead of their country, whose dictates (like those of Jacobin France and Bolshevik Russia) would always prevail over the nation’s or people’s best interests. A “propositional nation” is no place where men and women should have to live—any more than they ought to contract propositional marriages, or bear propositional children. The centralizing tendency massively reinforced by the Civil War (and the “incorporation doctrine” later applied to the 14th Amendment) ensured that every issue of significance would ultimately be federalized. There could be no room for difference in laws on anything that really mattered—from marijuana to marriage. What is worse, it subjected to the anti-Establishment clause (which the Founders applied only to Congress) every local law and school board decision—meaning that the U.S. would move from a broadly Christian country with a stern safeguard against the attempt to impose a single church, to one whose government must by its internal, Constitutional logic become a rigidly secularist regime. Deprived of the support of religion, even the implications of natural law (such as heterosexual marriage) would ultimately be subject to the withering logic of pure individualism and egalitarian group activism.
By the mid-1960s, court decisions had sliced through and gutted most of the residual Christian content of American laws, and begun to homogenize our legal standards from Juneau to Tuscaloosa—the better to meet the lowest common denominator favored in Greenwich Village. Despite occasional outbursts of resistance—a few Commandments in an Alabama courthouse here, a stubborn Virgin in a sturdy creche at a city hall over there—the overt de-Christianization of America’s public square has continued with hardly a hitch. Given the text of our First Amendment, and the modern logic of centralization which has prevailed throughout modernity, this was probably inevitable—much as we’d like to blame the activists of the ACLU or some other notoriously secularizing organizations.
Which leads me to my conclusion: In an American context, given our constitutional heritage and the large body of legal decisions solidifying its interpretation, on nearly any issue, Christians of any denomination should reject the assistance of the State. Our efforts to capture it, the courts have made it clear, will always fail. Any attempt to infuse the activity of the government with the moral content of a revealed religion will be rejected, in the end. Indeed, the more our own institutions cooperate with the government, the more they will be compromised; hospitals which take federal funds will be subject to secular ethics on issues like contraception, end-of-life, and even abortion. Religious colleges accepting federal grants will eventually be federalized, and so on.
It seems clear that the public sphere in America is irretrievably secular. So the only logical response of Christians must be to try to shrink it. Instead of attempting to baptize a Leviathan which turned on us long ago, we’d do much better to cage and starve the beast. We should favor low taxes—period, regardless of the “good” use to which politicians promise to put it. We should oppose nearly every government program intended to achieve any aim whatsoever. We can make exceptions here and there: We can favor the protection of innocent lives, which would cover things like fixing traffic lights and throwing abortionists into prison. But that is pretty much that. Christian public policy should focus not on capturing the power of the State but shrinking it, to the bare minimum required to enforce individual rights, narrowly defined. Likewise, the share of our wealth seized by the state must be radically slashed, to allow for private initiatives and charities that will not be amoral, soulless, bureaucratic and counterproductive (like the secular welfare state). Instead of asking for handouts to our schools in the forms of vouchers, we should seek the privatization of public schools—which by their very nature, in today’s post-Christian America, are engines of secularism. And so on for nearly every institution of the centralized State, which has hijacked the rightful activities of civil society and the churches, and which every year steals so much of our wealth to squander on itself that we can barely afford to reproduce ourselves. (So the State helpfully offers to replace us with immigrants, but that’s another article.)
This is not to endorse the universal claims of doctrinaire libertarians, and assert that every State in history has been a tyranny (except perhaps medieval Iceland). It’s not to deny that any community anywhere has the moral right to employ the State to pursue its vision of the Good. (There’s nothing wrong with Kaiser Franz Josef endowing a monastery here and there, or the Israeli government helping educate rabbis.) In many cultural contexts, the State can fruitfully employ its power to promote the faith and morals held in common by a community. But that can’t happen here. Not in America. Several of our Founders, and generations of our lawyers, have seen to that. We have no more reason to cooperate with the secular state than Irishmen have to trust the British Crown. And that’s how I reconcile Ron Paul with Pius IX.
The column originally appeared in the Feb. 4 2008 edition of Takimag.com. It is reprinted with their kind permission, and edited slightly to remove dated references.