The Fundamental Conflict in Joseph Bottum’s Thought

Joseph Bottum was once an undergraduate at Georgetown. A nice young man (a bit of a liberal), but also a cool young man (a bit of a libertine). One day he was sitting in the smoking room of Georgetown University Library smoking (how cool!) and reading Fielding (how nice!), when he looked out the window at the sunlight filtering through the April leaves, falling on a lady in a bright red jacket pushing a toddler in a stroller and leading a dog by a leash. The dog got the leash tangled in the stroller’s wheels, the lady stumbled, and the toddler “laughed and laughed, clapping her small hands at the slap- stick world into which God and her parents had unexpectedly delivered her.” And suddenly Bottum had a revelation, a sudden conviction that babies are good, and from this he was lead to a strong conviction that abortion, and the sexual libertinism that leads to it, are wrong. Really wrong. “Anything that participates in the murder of a child—anything that slices it into pieces or burns it to death with chemicals in the womb—is wrong. All the rest is just a working out of the details.”

That is from Bottum’s essay “The Events Leading Up to My Execution,” from a collection of stories of how nice, cool liberal people became conservatives. “The rest” to which Bottum refers as a mere working out of the insight into the evil of abortion is Bottum’s whole conservative philosophy. But why conservative? Bottum notes that the conviction itself might just as well make one a radical. But in America being pro-life is associated with republicanism. Bottum admits that there is something arbitrary about this. A pro-lifer in America suddenly finds himself attending meetings with libertarian economists,  foreign-policy hawks, and “newly elected Republican congressmen with much clue of what they ought to stand for—except, of course, for re-election.”

It is to Bottum’s  credit that he realizes how strange American conservatism really is. In America there is no conservatism in in the old world sense of an anti-Enlightenment stand, a stand for “a government of throne and altar, and a perpetual endowment of medieval privileges for certain families, guilds, and classes.” American conservatism is “a balance between the the Bible and the Enlightenment.”

Now it is to Bottum’s great credit that he— unlike the disciples of John Courtney Murray— realizes that there is a real opposition  between the two sides of that balance. The fire of Biblical religion that runs so deep in America is not fully integrable with the rationalist political philosophy of the Enlightenment. This conflict is not always evident, but again and again it breaks out in the sort of fire in which the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison publicly burned a copy of the Constitution, condemning it as “a Covenant with Death, an Agreement with Hell.”

At times Bottum portrays this conflict as a conflict between biblical fire and any political order, but what he is really pointing to is a conflict between the the prophetic dimension of Christianity and an Enlightenment political order, in which human beings are thought to legitimately rule themselves. Not that there was not plenty of conflict between prophets and pre-modern rulers from Nathan and Elijah to SS. Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas à Becket, but the conflict was of a fundamentally different kind. In a “throne and altar” order the fire of prophetic zeal does not challenge the legitimacy of the political as such, it merely condemns this particular ruler for  being unfaithful to his office. The ruler is seen as a servant of God, who has been behaving as though the master will never return— getting drunk and beating the serving girls. But if one thinks that rulers are not acting as the ministers of God’s justice in the world, but rather as the legitimately chosen organs of human self-rule, then there is no common frame of reference in which the claims of political arrangement and prophetic protest can appeal.

But, my John Courtney Murray-ite readers will protest, there is a common reference point— namely the natural law, inscribed by the Creator in the hearts of his creatures, and explicitly appealed to in the American founding documents (“the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”). But here Bottum is more clear-sighted. Natural law is becoming less and less intelligible as the Enlightenment project of “disentchantment” of the world (in the sense of Weber’s Entzauberung) progresses. And, as Charles Taylor as so eloquently argued, the liberal political idea that human beings legitimately rule themselves, is one of the great motors of disenchantment.

Bottum sees that this produces a paradox. It a paradox pointed out by many others, such as Robert Kraynak. Namely, that political liberalism requires a background of Christian morality with which it is simultaneously in conflict. Hence the need for a “balance.” For Bottum the work of a “conservative” American is to preserve enough Christian “enchantment” (belief in human dignity etc.) to keep liberal democracy afloat, but not enough to capsize and sink self government altogether.

The difficulty of this balancing act is manifest in Bottum’s recent essay on homosexual “marriage,” which has caused quite a stir in the “Blogisterium.”  Many bloggers, and even The New Republic, have read Bottum to be arguing thus: there is no point in Catholics (and especially the Catholic bishops) trying to rally political opposition to homosexual marriage. Given the way the culture’s understanding of marriage has already been destroyed by divorce, contraception etc., plus the more general loss of any “enchanted” understanding of  nature, no-one will understand the natural law argument against gay marriage, and so Catholics should spend their energy on other things. But Bottum is really saying more than this. As Rod Dreher has pointed out, this is the key sentence: “I believe, American Catholics should accept state recognition of same-sex marriage simply because they are Americans.” In other words, for Bottum loyalty to the American-liberal ideal of human self-rule requires that one accept the democratic determinations that seem justified given the premises from which American’s now work. And he further argues that given the current state of the culture, and of its view of marriage, homosexual marriage cannot but seem a matter of basic fairness. I think this a highly dangerous position.

The strangest part of Bottum’s essay, and the part in which the dangers of his divided loyalties become most manifest is the following:

Precisely because human social experience has never recognized same-sex marriage on any large scale, we don’t know the extent to which metaphysical meanings—the enchantment of marriage—can be instantiated in same-sex unions. […] How will such unions aid their participants to perceive the joy of creation? The answer is that we can’t predict the effects of same-sex marriage. I think some good will come, I hope some good will come, but I cannot say with certainty that all must go well with this social change. Still, as the church turns to other and far more pressing ways to re-enchant the world, we’ll have time to find out. And when we are ready to start rebuilding the thick natural law that recognizes the created world as a stage on which the wondrous drama of God’s love is played, we will have the information we need to decide where same-sex marriage belongs in a metaphysically rich, spiritually alive moral order.

If Bottum really realized that homosexual intercourse is wrongreally wrong, the way he realizes that abortion is wrong, and he seems to claim that he does, then how could he think that a relation based on the celebration of such intercourse could “instantiate” the same sort of enchantment as marriage? It doesn’t make any sense. But the reason why Bottum is lead into it is because the whole Murray-Neuhaus-Weigel thing, the “neo-conservative Catholic” thing, doesn’t make any sense.

I fancy I detect some schadenfreude in the way some of my fellow Catholic integralists have responded to Bottum’s demonstration of the incoherence of neocath-ism, but for me there is no joy in this, only sadness:

Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon.

13 thoughts on “The Fundamental Conflict in Joseph Bottum’s Thought

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  3. Bottum’s recent article indicts the entire Whig-Catholic project. George Weigel assures us that Americanism is a “phantom heresy” but as you noted Bottum saying: “I believe, American Catholics should accept state recognition of same-sex marriage simply because they are Americans” dispels Weigel’s assurance. It also shows that the tide of history is against the Whig-Catholic project- and we are all better off for that.


  4. I agree. Here is an objection though from another reader though: “if Bottum is led to this position because of “the whole Murray-Neuhaus-Weigel thing, the ‘neo-conservative Catholic’ thing,” why do all the people from that camp utterly reject him on precisely this issue? Your division of Catholic political philosophy into “the whole Murray-Neuhaus-Weigel thing, the ‘neo-conservative Catholic’ thing” v. “throne and altar” is one I obviously reject as simplistic and manichean, but you are writing a blog post, so fair enough. But again – if your thesis is correct why are the strongest arguments re morality and sex coming from the same camp you condemn? This is the camp Bottum is on the verge of leaving because of his position.”


  5. Why does it matter what Joseph Bottum thinks? Until a couple of days ago I didn’t know who he was, and now I find his selling out the Faith to be a popular subject for speculation.

    Apparently he’s rather popular among the establishment and elitist Catholic types, but given that’s he’s one of the neocons where selling out the Faith is what they do, why is his low grade apostasy a story worth covering?


  6. I find Bottum fascinating for a number of reasons. 1) Because he is a brilliant writer, and has a wonderfully persuasive and poetic way of talking about the glory of the Creator in Creation (cf. eg. this: 2) Because I think that unlike other “Whig Catholics” Bottum actually realizes that there is a conflict between Whiggism and Catholicism, and so I think his breaking ranks on the gay marriage thing is a good opportunity to get people who approve of Whig Thomism etc. to maybe start questioning it. 3) Some of his arguments against the political strategy of the American Bishops may actually be worth thinking about…


  7. Sancrucensis writes : ” I think his breaking ranks on the gay marriage thing is a good opportunity to get people who approve of Whig Thomism etc. to maybe start questioning it.”

    After my 10 minutes of research it looks like Whig Catholic or Whig Thomist is the same creature that used to go by the name Theocon. At which I had to laugh when I thought of the above written by you. The last article I read by a Theocon was Novak’s inexcusable excuse for waging a war of aggression on Iraq. If that incredible vicious mess in hindsight doesn’t convince the followers of the thoughtlessness of the Theocons, whose argument were proved over and over again by their betters at to be based on lies, delusions and american yankeeism, than why do you expect Bottum’s silliness to move them?

    Of course, I hope you’re right, by anyone who can buy into american exceptionalism and the rest of that nonsense are not unlike the Mormons with their mommy and daddy gods and planets, their faith is immune to common sense.


  8. Adding on. Just for the fun of it I went over to First Things to see what they have to say about the impending attack on Syria. And sure enough they’re mongering for war complaining that the proposed attack is insufficient.

    Anyone with common sense can see that the entire reason for the attack was a false flag operation by the rebels, and that the US executive branch is dishonestly using it as an excuse for an attack. In other words what happened in Iraq, Serbia and elsewhere is happening again and the Theocons are at it again with more of the same.

    And just for the fun of it I went over to Chronicles to see what they had to say. And sure enough common sense is used.

    Which brings me back to my original question, why does it matter what J. Bottum thinks, he may be ‘brilliant’, but he like the rest of the theocons are fools, which is why I would rather be rules by the first names in the New York telephone directory than by the staff at First Things.


  9. Well, a lot of my friends and acquaintances are Theocons, and I’m not willing to give up the first spiritual act of mercy toward them just because they can’t see how blindingly obvious it is that the invasion of Iraq was unjust. You are probably right that I won’t succeed though.


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  11. Pingback: Archbishop Chaput on the ‘Divorce’ of Christian and Enlightenment Culture—but isn’t it rather an annulment? | Sancrucensis

  12. This is one of those nice articles that managed to get cited on Wikipedia somehow (in the Joseph Bottum article) and yet is much more intellectually stimulating than most of what one finds on Wikipedia. Maybe I will subscribe to your fine blog.

    Liked by 1 person

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