God & Freedom
Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order
God and the Atlantic
reviewed by James Hitchcock
Daniel Mahoney’s Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order is the best single book for understanding the crisis of American democracy, which is the abandonment of the moral basis without which it cannot flourish.
Democracy requires something beyond itself, Mahoney argues, including “metaphysical claims about human nature, liberty, and natural justice” and “support for the biblical religions that have been a major source of our ethical system, one of self-restraint and belief in something beyond material existence.”
Instead, modern democracy tends to “systematically overcome all external restraints and limitations on the exercise of human autonomy,” making itself bereft of “common memory, shared references, and an awareness of common destiny.” It strives to become a “pure democracy,” based on nothing more than “a vague and empty affirmation of equality and personal and collective autonomy.” Of necessity, therefore, it is destructive of “religion, patriotism, philosophical reflection, family ties or bonds, prudent statesmanship.”
Like many people, Mahoney identifies the worldwide crisis of 1968 (the “culture of repudiation,” “anarchist delirium”) as the point at which a line was irrevocably crossed. But in a sense, that event was merely the culmination of political and intellectual forces that had been building up for three centuries, with Nicolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, and Friedrich Nietzsche among its obvious progenitors.
On the other side, Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville both saw that the French Revolution revealed democracy’s nihilistic potentialities. But both also saw that it differed from the revolution in America, which was based on an ideal of ordered liberty.
But the roots of the American order are not without their own problems, Mahoney points out. Tocqueville was the first to see how a radical individualism that dissolves all social connections leaves men vulnerable to a “schoolmaster state” that can evolve from “soft” to “hard” despotism, a social atomism that precisely makes totalitarianism possible, even perhaps inevitable. Ironically, although modern democracy conceives of itself as the sworn enemy of totalitarianism, its central tenet—“liberty unbeholden to ends or purposes outside the human will itself”—is at the root of totalitarianism as well, so that liberals have often been uncritical towards totalitarianisms of the left.
“Human beings are free only when they know they are not gods,” Mahoney insists. But modern “secular fundamentalists” now revisit the American Founding to argue, however fallaciously, that it was intended to effect a complete separation of religion from public life. The modern liberal state will not allow public recognition of “the goods of life,” notably the goods of religion, and commands them to be treated as purely private preferences.
These secularists necessarily ignore the connection between atheism, nihilism, and totalitarianism that was perhaps first fully understood by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Joseph Conrad, Leszek Kolakowski, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the French philosopher Raymond Aron, and the English historian Michael Burleigh are among the intellectuals who have been most alive to the dangers of nihilism, and Mahoney offers Winston Churchill and Charles DeGaulle as examples of genuine democratic statesmanship.
Mahoney regards much of “neo-conservative” foreign policy, in its proclaimed intention to foster democracy throughout the world, as naive and lacking in the virtue of prudence. He does not address economics directly but notes that, like democracy, the capitalist order is dependent on certain “pre-modern” virtues, such as self-restraint and law-abidingness. Economics cannot be an amoral science.
The churches have often been naive about the link between democracy and the anti-religious Enlightenment and overly eager to accommodate themselves to it. Even in terms of its services to democracy, religion must stand for something more than “humanitarian values” and egalitarian “social justice,” Mahoney argues.
The Atlantic Divide
Mahoney thinks that democratic self-destruction is less advanced in the United States than in Europe, and Thomas Albert Howard’s God and the Atlantic offers an insightful historical analysis of why religion flourishes better in the former than in the latter.
Like others, Howard believes that the division between the Old World and the New can be traced both to the religious character of the New England colonies and to the differences between the Continental and British enlightenments. From the beginning, European liberals wanted “freedom from religion,” while Americans wanted “freedom for religion,” a distinction that endures to this day.
Also from the beginning, Europeans were intrigued by American religion, some being insightful and sympathetic (Tocqueville, Philip Schaff), others critical or condemnatory. Liberals deplored the rampant religiosity of the New World, while conservatives found it fatally enthusiastic and democratic. Religion is one of the principal reasons why many Europeans today regard America with disdain or uncomprehending puzzlement, and Howard speculates that these nineteenth-century attitudes still survive.
Howard points out that, for many years, standard secularization theory regarded the decline of religion as inevitable and its survival as the puzzle that needed to be explained. But while Europe has indeed fulfilled that model, it turns out that it is the European experience that needs to be explained, since it diverges from most of the rest of the world.
Since World War II, an increasingly aggressive secularism has gained considerable ground in the United States, as in the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment, something that has provoked the backlash of the “Religious Right.” Like Europe, America now has its own Kulturkampf, while there are signs (faint ones) that some Europeans are rethinking their own secularity, Howard believes.
A flaw in this generally incisive book is Howard’s account of the “Americanist” crisis in American Catholicism in the 1890s, an episode that he sees entirely through the lens of present-day liberal Catholics, seemingly without realizing that their view is in many ways not very different from that of secular Europeans. •
James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“God & Freedom” first appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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