Is America Bourgeois?

In an interview this past April with Lucio Brunelli of the Italian Catholic magazine 30 Giorni, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger described dissent among American Catholic moral theologians as the expression of a more pernicious disorder: a “bourgeois Christianity in which Christianity is no longer a spur toward new responses and new hope in the face of a decayed civilization.” In “bourgeois Christianity,” the Cardinal charged, “Christianity becomes a burden that must be lightened to the greatest possible extent. . . . This type of Christianity certainly has a strong presence in a certain social class and also enjoys considerable influence at the level of the mass media. But there is nothing in it which suggests it has a future. One can’t feel attracted to a Christianity which has no respect for itself.”

It would seem that Cardinal Ratzinger was analyzing more here than the methodological assumptions of this or that American Catholic moral theologian. He was, in fact, making a summary judgment about the state of American Catholicism as a whole. That judgment, in turn, rests on certain perceptions about American society and culture: American Catholicism has become a “bourgeois Church” because it has caved in to the temptations of a bourgeois culture that is incompatible with Christian truth claims and the Christian moral life.

The word “bourgeois,” like the word “fascist,” lost much of its precise meaning in the supercharged political and cultural polemics of the 1960s. Since Cardinal Ratzinger is a precise man, one assumes that he is using the word precisely in this case. My Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, for example, defines the adjective “bourgeois” as “marked by a concern for material interests and respectability and a tendency toward mediocrity.” Webster’s definition of “bourgeois” as a noun identifies “one with social behavior and political views held to be influenced by private property interests.” The Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought notes that “culturally . . . the bourgeoisie has been regarded, from Moliere to Balzac, as mean, avaricious, tasteless, reactionary, and rapacious, having no sense of values other than the acquisition of money and objects.” Perhaps Cardinal Ratzinger would not go quite so far as that. But it does seem, from his 30 Giorni interview, that he thinks of American culture as gravely deficient morally — as characterized by a selfishness and radical individualism which has little or no concern for fundamental moral norms, or for the common good. American Catholicism’s present troubles, the Cardinal suggests, are a reflection of its failure to confront this “decayed civilization” with the two-edged sword of Gospel truth.

Few would disagree that American Catholicism is in a time of troubles; one hopes that such times are also understood, especially from a Christian perspective, as times of great opportunity. In any event, the question I want to address here is not whether American Catholicism has problems, some of them severe. That I take for granted. The question I want to address is whether those problems can be adequately understood as based on an accommodation to the radical defects of a “bourgeois” culture.

Present at the Creation

The concept of a decadent, “bourgeois” America fits comfortably with what was once the dominant historiography of the American Founding. Progressivist historians like Vernon Louis Parrington and Charles Beard taught that the intellectual progenitor of the American experiment was John Locke — the Locke of the Enlightenment, not the Locke who had been influenced by Thomas Hooker and the Puritan Covenanters. Locke meant radical individualism. Lockean individualism has bent and shaped the Founders’ and Framers’ political understandings such that America was a republic, not in the classic sense of a community of virtue, but in the distinctively modern sense of a non-tradition-bound, accidental collectivity in which, so as to pursue their own private interests, men agreed to basically leave each other alone. The “common good,” in such a “bourgeois” republic, would not reflect universal moral norms; it would not be pursued through what the Greeks and Romans understood by “civic virtue.” Rather, the common good in a Lockean republic of radical individualism would be a practical, least-common-denominator arrangement in which the pursuit of various private (usually commercial) interests became a centripetal, rather than centrifugal, force. In such a bourgeois republic, the temptation to reduce liberty to license would be severe indeed.

Given the ideological predispositions of their historiography, it is not surprising that Parrington and Beard advanced this analysis; a secular-positivist worldview and an anti-capitalist animus dramatically colored their view of the Founding and its intellectual origins. Interestingly, the concept of a morally defective Founding has been resurrected in recent years from a rather different point on the political-philosophical spectrum, by George F. Will in Statecraft as Soulcraft. Will’s adoption of the radical-individualist-Locke-as-progenitor hypothesis allows him to buttress philosophically his contention that James Madison, the man who turned the American Revolution into the American government, was essentially a political “mechanic” who, in his theory of democratic governance and his constitution-making, cared not a whit for the pursuit of public virtue.

In Federalist 10 and Federalist 51, according to Will, Madison bade farewell to the notion of a democratic republic as a community of public virtue, and argued that the solution to the problem of “faction” (i.e., the pursuit of self-interest) was: more factions. Let a thousand factions bloom, since their multiplicity will prevent any one faction from ever gaining sufficient critical mass to threaten democracy. What was true of the pursuit of commercial self-interest would also be true, ceteris paribus, of moral interest: let a thousand moralities bloom, Will’s Madison seemed to urge, for in their plurality no one will ever gain so strong a toehold as to corner the market on the common (i.e., public) understanding of virtue. Madison’s mechanic’s understanding of democratic governance, in other words, made talk of a community of civic virtue democratically undesirable. Liberty, again, would be easily reduced to license.

Is this what the American Founding was really about?

The Parrington/Beard hypothesis is, happily, on the wane in contemporary American historiography. It simply ill fits the evidence. No serious student of American political thought denies the profound influence of Enlightenment themes on the thinking of Jefferson, Madison, and the rest. John Locke was indeed an important herald of the American Founding. But no one who has examined modern scholarship on the Scottish, as distinguished from English, Enlightenment, and traced the intellectual long-lines between Edinburgh and Williamsburg; no one who has considered the impact of the Puritan revolution and its “covenanting” impulse on Locke’s political thought; no one who has thought about the role played by John Winthrop’s sermon on the Arbella (“. . . Wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill. . . .”), and Roger Williams’s concept of religious toleration as God’s will, in fertilizing the cultural subsoil of the American experiment; no one who has reflected on what it meant that the two most Deistic Founders, Jefferson and Franklin, proposed Biblical images for the Great Seal of the United States (themes from the Exodus in both instances) — no one who has thought seriously about any or all of these phenomena can maintain, with a straight face and a clear intellectual conscience, that the American Founding was devoid of a sense of the common good, or that it did not comprehend the linkage between liberty and civic virtue, or that it was essentially “bourgeois” in its reduction of politics to an expression of private property interests. It just wasn’t so.

Which is not to argue that the American Founders and Framers were not interested in a commercial republic. They were. (That the national capital in which I am writing this, in August, is located on a malarial swamp that just happens to be upriver from George Washington’s tobacco plantations proves the point, existentially at least.) But it is to question radically the depiction of the American experiment as ineluctably “bourgeois,” in the many deprecatory senses of the term noted above.

William Lee Miller, in The First Liberty: Religion and the American Republic, skillfully attacks the “economic reductionism” of progressivist historiographers like Parrington and Beard, and celebrates the new historical scholarship’s “heavy underscoring of the importance to the Founders of moral and political ideas.” Focusing on these ideas has resulted, among other things, in the demotion of John Locke from his accustomed role as Jefferson’s and Madison’s John the Baptist; Locke was one, among many, influences on the Founding. And “the significance of this demotion is that demoted with Locke is the radical individualism of which he is taken (rightly or wrongly) to be the symbol.” The Founders, especially Madison, expected Americans to live in “a way whose hallmarks were . . . public virtue, public liberty, [the] public happiness of republicanism, the humane sociability of the Scottish Enlightenment.” For the Founders, in other words, “the concept of public virtue stood at or near the center of ‘republicanism.’ ” Madison’s genius was not, as Will would argue, in sneaking slyly around the question of public virtue, but in devising “republican institutions which could preserve liberty even in virtue’s absence.” Hopefulness about the human prospect, and a realistic appraisal of the abiding effects of original sin, combined in Madison’s construction of the American experiment’s institutions of liberty.

The assumptions, then, that the deficiencies of modern American moral culture can be traced to the ill-founding of the American experiment, and that the experiment was ill-founded because it was built on the shifting sands of a radical, Lockean individualism, do not meet the test of the present historical scholarship. Whatever their other errors of political theory and practice, the American Founders and Framers were not “bourgeois,” in the deprecatory senses of the term. This was understood, a generation ago, by two of the finest Catholic minds ever to work on these shores: Jacques Maritain and John Courtney Murray.

In his Reflections on America, Maritain argued that the charge of “American materialism” was “no more than a curtain of silly gossip and slander.” Maritain believed that “the basic characteristics of the American people are generosity, good will, the sense of human fellowship.” There were greedy individuals in America, to be sure. But “there is no avarice in the American cast of mind.” Americans knew that, in the modern world, money was important; their “frank admission” of this “makes Europeans uncomfortable.” Still, “the ordinary course of activity of American institutions and the innumerable American private groups show us that the ancient Greek and Roman idea of the civis praeclarus, the dedicated citizen who spends his money in the service of the common good, plays an essential part in American consciousness.” America, which was very much a middle-class nation, was, nonetheless, “not a ‘bourgeois’ nation . . . you have gangsters, racketeers, crooked lawyers, gamblers, small home-owners who grow conservative and thirsty for security as they grow richer; you have social climbers, cheap politicians, hard-boiled businessmen, metallic women, well-to-do people of fashion — you have no Bourgeois. That is one of the blessings of this country.”

The reasons for that happy fact, Maritain argued, lay in the ideas that shaped the Founding. The American polity was “the only one which was fully and explicitly born of freedom, of the free determination of men to live together and work together at a common task.” Those who deliberately chose to share in the American experiment — many of whose European ancestors had fought each other for reasons of tribe or creed — “have freely willed to live together in peace, as free men under God, pursuing the same temporal and terrestrial common good.” Liberté, égalité, fraternité — this motto of the other 18th-century revolution, that of 1789, was more than a “venerable formula” in America: “it corresponds to a general way of thinking which is really at work in the common consciousness and the common existence of the people.” That way of thinking had led to a structure of common life, and a concept of “political society [as] a work of reason and virtue,” that was more congruent with the political philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas than any other.

This was also Murray’s point. Writing in the heyday of the Parrington/Beard hypothesis, Murray insisted that the real herald of the American experiment was St. Thomas, “the first Whig.” Lockean themes had shaped the theory of the Founding, to be sure. But the democratic experiment could proceed because its basic understandings about human beings, human society, and human destiny had been “engraved on the conscience of a people” who had learned their innate dignity in the schola of Christian medieval political theory. One crucial reason why the American experiment did not dissolve into a chaos of license and radical individualism was that those sins were alien to the moral and intellectual taproots of its Founding, properly understood.

In sum, if the charge that modern America is a “decayed civilization” rests on the assumption of an ill-founded experiment, and the nature of that ill-founding is conceived as a radical individualism derived from Locke, the charge rests on thin ice indeed. But perhaps the experiment was well-founded (as Maritain and Murray insisted), and has gone awry only in recent years. Perhaps Madison and Jefferson were not interested in a “bourgeois” republic, but their contemporary offspring are. Are we “bourgeois,” even if they weren’t?

A Nation of Believers

The “secularization hypothesis” has been one of the most tenaciously held sociological models in modern intellectual life. According to secularization theory, the processes of modernization — which included, as central features, the rise of individualism and the emergence of the bourgeois class — ineluctably led to secularization: a cultural situation in which “modern” men and women were impervious to those “rumors of angels,” or signals of transcendence, that had led their grandparents to religious belief. A hard form of secularization theory held that, sooner or later, the processes of modernization would lead to the collapse of religious belief and institutions. A softer form of the theory argued that a “supermarket of values” would emerge, in which religious communities would have to compete for customers with other values-transmitting and values-shaping institutions. A variant on the softer form of secularization theory held that churches would be particularly vulnerable, in modernity, to the temptation to take the edge off their own truth claims and behavioral standards because of market competition. This latter form of secularization theory maybe at work in Cardinal Ratzinger’s analysis of American “bourgeois Christianity.”

Secularization theory is now, like the Parrington/Beard historiography of the American Founding, under great pressure. In this case, the pressure is coming from empirical evidence that is hard to ignore.

Consider, for example, the Gallup cross-national values survey of 1981. 57 percent of Americans belonged to a church or religious organization, while only 13 percent of West Germans did. 43 percent of Americans attended religious services (other than weddings, funerals, or baptisms) once a week or more; 21 percent of West Germans did (as did only 12 percent of the French, and 3 percent of the Danes). 23 percent of the Americans were doing unpaid voluntary work for churches or religious organizations; 7 percent of West Germans were (and only 5 percent of Italians were). 73 percent of Americans thought that their church was, in their country, giving “adequate answers to man’s spiritual needs”; 47 percent of the West Germans, 43 percent of the Italians, and 26 percent of the Danes agreed. 84 percent of the Americans believed in heaven, as contrasted to 31 percent of the West Germans, 27 percent of the French, and 17 percent of the Danes. 65 percent of Americans believed in “a personal God,” while 26 percent defined their belief as in “some sort of spirit or life force”; West Germans, in contrast, preferred the “life force” definition to the “personal God” definition by 40 percent to 24 percent.

Other survey research, principally the classic “Middletown” studies re-done by Theodore Caplow and his colleagues and summarized in All Faithful People, suggests that Americans are not only religious; they are more religious than their parents and grandparents. A bedrock claim of secularization theory was that, as modernization progressed, secularism — the denial of transcendent reference points for personal or civic life — would progress apace. Caplow and his colleagues, in replicating Robert and Helen Lynd’s research in the 1920s in Muncie, Indiana, have shown that the opposite is more likely true; as Caplow himself put it, “We have a fair amount of information . . . that religiosity has very significantly increased since the 1920s. . . . One concedes too much when one says we’re just about as religious as we used to be. We may be a great deal more religious than we used to be.” Peter Berger, himself once an adherent to a form of the “modernization equals secularization” hypothesis, now argues that “the Caplow study puts the final nail in the coffin of the theory that modernity means secularity,” at least for the American experience of modernization. Chesterton’s “nation with the soul of a church” has not, it would seem, lost its soul.

It could be, and often is, objected that surveys like Gallup’s and Caplow’s tell us little about the quality of American religious life. These studies are not disaggregated theologically; one cannot tell whether what is being affirmed is a form of fundamentalism that lacks a sense of social responsibility, or an evangelical Protestantism eager to come in from the American cultural wilderness, or a benignly tolerant mainline Protestantism or Anglicanism, or any of the various styles of contemporary American Catholicism. That is true. On the other hand, the Gallup and Caplow data seem decisive on this more basic point: the charge that American culture is “bourgeois,” in the sense of being so self-centered as to be impervious to religious truth claims and their moral demands, cannot be sustained on the available empirical evidence.

One can even go further, I would argue. It is not the churches of cultural accommodation that are growing in America today, but the churches making clear, sharp theological and behavioral demands on their congregants. The United Methodist, United Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches continue to lose congregants; the Covenant Church and the Assembly of God continue to grow like topsy. To recognize this is not to endorse the particular theological stance taken by fundamentalists and evangelicals. But it is to face the empirical fact that American culture is not predisposing a critical mass of its people to reject even the most severe interpretations of Christian truth claims and behavioral norms.

One also suspects that, aggregate social survey data aside, most Americans intuitively know that they are not a radically individualistic people, whatever their fondness for the imagery of Gary Cooper striding down a dusty street in defense of liberty and justice for all. Americans live in a dense network of voluntary associations: church or synagogue, PTA, trade union, corporation, precinct committee, club, carpool, small business. The typical American answer to a problem is to form a committee. Baseball, which is America’s self-understanding at play, combines individual effort and teamwork in a way that would have, one suspects, impressed the Thomas Hooker side of John Locke. In America, middle class has not meant radical individualism and a lack of felt responsibility for the commons. The 90-plus children’s swimming teams, all coached by adult volunteers, at a pool in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in my county, suggest that, in however unexpected a form, the covenanting tradition is still alive in the American 1980s.

The American Founding was not an exercise in radical individualism; the heirs of that Founding are not, in the main, “bourgeois” in the classic, deprecatory senses of the term. Accommodation to a “decayed civilization” in which “bourgeois” values have metastasized in the vital moral-cultural organs is not, on either the historical or present empirical records, a satisfactory explanation of the contemporary American Catholic moment. And yet, as Cardinal Ratzinger correctly charges, accommodationist winds are blowing through some quarters of the American Catholic elite. Why?

Regaining Our Nerve

“Why” is, of course, the longest three-letter word in the language. There are, surely, multiple reasons for the accommodationist currents evident in the American Church. I can only suggest one avenue for exploration here.

There is, perhaps, a curious symmetry, not at the level of prescription, but at the level of cultural analysis, between Cardinal Ratzinger and those dissenting moral theologians whom he has criticized as the exponents of a “bourgeois Christianity.” Perhaps both the Cardinal and the dissidents tacitly assume both the Parrington/Beard historiography of the American Founding and the secularization model of the American cultural present. The dissidents — for a variety of reasons, running the gamut from personal psychological condition through epistemological assumptions to genuine pastoral concern — believe that the “answer” to modern ministry lies in a counselling model of moral catechesis: the pastor explores his congregant’s options; suggests, perhaps, which seem more congruent with Catholic understandings; but is essentially a “facilitator” rather than a teacher. One need not yearn and pine for the days of the manuals of moral theology and their rigid deductionism to understand the weakness — intellectually and pastorally — of this approach. Cardinal Ratzinger is right to be concerned about it.

But it is not the result of a “bourgeois Christianity.” It grows, I would suggest, out of a defective reading of the American cultural present, one which accepts, as the Cardinal seems to do, the secularization thesis as applied to the American experience of modernization.

Cardinal Ratzinger wants an evangelical proclamation and a moral catechesis that has not lost its edge. I would suggest that the American present, far from being impervious to such a proclamation and catechesis because of bourgeois decadence and an ill-Founding in the 18th century, is open to — indeed, eager for — precisely what the Cardinal is calling for: a Catholicism which has not lost its self-respect. Catholic incarnational humanism is, in my judgment, a more attractive vehicle of evangelization in America than the various dialectical approaches found in the fundamentalist and evangelical Protestant worlds — and far more adequate than the apologetic accommodationism that has characterized the Protestant mainline for over a generation. Catholic liturgical sensibilities are proving attractive to those who find the lecture-as-worship model a bit aesthetically thin after awhile. Catholic natural law understandings are essential in a pluralistic democracy trying to determine the right role of religiously-based values in public policy discourse. The ideal of the “communitarian individual” in American democratic capitalism coheres nicely with Catholicism’s central social-ethical principles of personalism and the common good. The Church is led by a pope who seems widely respected across the country (discounting such secularist redoubts as the New York Times editorial board and the Ed Asner wing of Hollywood).

If there ever was a “Catholic moment” in America, it would seem to be now. Seizing that moment requires, as Cardinal Ratzinger rightly suggests, regaining our theological nerve. But I would also suggest, with all respect, that it means understanding our historical-philosophical roots, and our present cultural circumstances, in a manner rather different from that conveyed by the image of a “bourgeois Christianity” that has surrendered to a “decayed civilization.”


  • George Weigel

    George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books, 2019).

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