In a conference at the University of Dallas on “America, Liberalism, and Catholicism,” Patrick Deneen gave a talk (video embedded above), in which he argued that the early American Republic was far less liberal than soi-disant “conservatives” (funded as they have been since the Cold War by big business) have thought it to have been. The particular states even had a kind of “Prostestant integralism” as he argues—established religion, laws aimed directly at fostering virtue, etc. A similar point was made by Matthew Petterson in a recent lecture for the Thomistic Institute. That is, the American founders may have established (at least) soft liberalism at the federal level, but many of them wanted to continue to allow a kind of pre-liberal magisterial Protestantism at the state level. I think it is a useful point, especially as part of an argument for a politics of virtue and the common good in contemporary America.
An important question was, however, raised by Ross Douthat at the end of the Q&A to the panel above. He asked whether there was not something logical about the development from Protestantism, with its particular kind of “individualism,” towards a more individualistic kind of politics. Deneen gave a very gentle, ecumenical answer. But there is a lot of evidence for another answer.
In another panel at the same Dallas conference, Gladden Pappin showed how liberalism is always opposed to the authority of the Church, which it has always wished to deny the status of a societas perfecta, with the ability to make laws, and reduce to the status of a voluntary club. But, of course, this denial of the authority of the Church was one of the main points of the Protestant Reformation. The “liberty of the Christian” was taken to be opposed to the authority of the Church. Luther was very clear that this understanding of an opposition between liberty and authority did not extend to the authority of magistrates in the visible kingdom (hence his opposition to the Peasants’ War, etc.). Nevertheless, it was not surprising that the false opposition between liberty and authority that Luther wanted to contain to the invisible kingdom was later extended to deny political authority (Enlightenment and French Revolution), and even the authority of God (some of the more extreme philosophes, and then Feurbach and Marx in the 19th century). That was of course against the intentions of Luther and Calvin, who would probably have advised the magistrates to put Feurbach and Marx to death if those philosophers had lived at the time of the Reformation. But we have here a kind of reversal of intentions and effects, of the sort that Max Weber delineated in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, or (even more) Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.
A group with the strange name Tradinista has published a manifesto, and a defense of Catholic “socialism” in three parts (part I, part II, part III). To understand the background of the tradinistas it is helpful to look back at Patrick Deneen’s 2014 essay in The American Conservative,A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching. Deneen argued that the really interesting controversy among American Catholics is not that between “liberals” and “conservatives,” but rather between two sorts of Catholics who could both be termed “conservative” in the conventional sense: firmly believing in Catholic doctrine and staunchly pro-life. On the one hand Deneen put “neoconservatives” such as George Weigel, Richard John Neuhaus, and Michael Novak, who followed the Rev. John Courtney Murray, S.J., in proclaiming the compatibility of Catholicism and liberal democracy. On the other hand he described a group of “radical” Catholics, followers of Alasdair MacIntyre and David L. Schindler. The “radical” Catholics, Deneen writes, “[reject] the view that Catholicism and liberal democracy are fundamentally compatible.” Liberalism, they claim is not the value-neutral procedural framework that its proponents would have us to believe. Rather it is the political and cultural embodiment of certain substantive philosophical views. Liberalism bases itself on an individualistic view of human beings, in which political and social community of all kinds are formed by voluntary— as it were contractual— agreement of sovereign individuals. The radical Catholics thus claim that liberalism is fundamentally at odds with Catholicism, which holds rather that human persons are,
by nature relational, social and political creatures; that social units like the family, community and Church are “natural,” not merely the result of individuals contracting temporary arrangements; that liberty is not a condition in which we experience the absence of constraint, but the exercise of self-limitation; and that both the “social” realm and the economic realm must be governed by a thick set of moral norms, above all, self-limitation and virtue.
Many years since, the writer of this volume was at the residence of an illustrious man [presumably John Jay], who had been employed in various situations of high trust during the darkest days of the American Revolution. The discourse turned upon the effects which great political excitement produces on character, and the purifying consequences of a love of country, when that sentiment is powerfully and generally awakened in a people. He who, from his years, his services, and his knowledge of men, was best qualified to take the lead in such a conversation, was the principal speaker. After dwelling on the marked manner in which the great struggle of the nation, during the war of 1775, had given a new and honorable direction to the thoughts and practices of multitudes whose time had formerly been engrossed by the most vulgar concerns of life, he illustrated his opinions by relating an anecdote, the truth of which he could attest as a personal witness.
Daniel Nichols has posted a piece on the American Bishops’ failure to agree on a statement on the economy. One wishes that they had come out with a stern reminder of the Church’s perennial teaching against usury, and suggestions for overcoming it. Some Americans are attacking usury though; the eccentrics of the Occupy Wall Street movement. They have had a brilliant idea for saving some people from usurers:
OWS is going to start buying distressed debt (medical bills, student loans, etc.) in order to forgive it. As a test run, we spent $500, which bought $14,000 of distressed debt. We then ERASED THAT DEBT. (If you’re a debt broker, once you own someone’s debt you can do whatever you want with it — traditionally, you hound debtors to their grave trying to collect. We’re playing a different game. A MORE AWESOME GAME.)
The name “Rolling Jubilee” is explicitly taken from the Old Testament jubilee. As one commentator puts it “it … feels great to have the opportunity to be an anti-bank for once. There’s something very good about forgiveness.”
Meanwhile, Front Porch Republic reports on a method from a completely different part of the American political “spectrum” to help poor immigrants avoid getting into the hands of usurers in the first place:
Eleven years ago, Bruno Rivas left Mexico City to make a better living for his family in San Francisco. He landed a job at a restaurant and began making some money, but couldn’t figure out how to break out of a cash system into a marketplace driven by credit. […] he was able to purchase items for daily provision, but without a means of building credit, he struggled to find a way to fund larger purchases or take bigger steps toward financial health. But then four years ago, Bruno learned about the Bay Area-based Mission Asset Fund (MAF)—an organization that has garnered nationwide recognition for its nontraditional approach to lending—and decided to join a peer lending circle, or “cesta populare” (“community basket” in Spanish). Joining a cesta meant that Rivas and the eight other members of his circle would contribute $100 every month to a communal pot. After drawing names to determine order, members would take turns collecting a loan that they could then put toward whatever they chose. When Rivas’ turn came around, he took the loan from the lending circle, combined it with savings from an Individual Development Account (IDA) that MAF had set up for him, and purchased equipment to start a screen printing business.
“Peer Lending Groups” are doing the same sort of thing as the montes pietatis.
Matthew Peterson has posted some trenchant objections to a post of mine on the American Revolution. The main point of my post was a contrast between the way political order is viewed in the modern social imaginary vs. the way it was “imagined” in ancient and medieval societies. While in the modern social imaginary (and in modern political theory) political order is not seen as something good in itself, but only as an instrument to the realization of other goods, in the ancient/medieval imaginary political order was seen as something in itself good. St Thomas (as I read him) sees order as the primary intrinsic common good of political society. Continue reading →