Wednesday, January 29, 2014

This site remains available as an archive of my informal writings between 2007-2013. For those interested in current commentary, I now post a regular weekly column at The American Conservative.  Additional writings have appeared at Front Porch Republic.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Who Closed the American Mind?

This retrospective review, written on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the publication of Allan Bloom's unexpected bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, appeared in the October 2012 issue of "The American Conservative."  As it's now been liberated from its paywall, I'm posting it here as well.


One crisp morning 26 years ago I was walking across the campus of the University of Chicago, where I had just enrolled as a first-year Ph.D. candidate in the renowned Committee on Social Thought. While I had not yet met him, I had heard much about Allan Bloom, a legendary professor, teacher, and lecturer. I had read his translation of Plato’s Republic as an undergraduate and had some notion that I would write my eventual dissertation under his direction.
As I crossed one of the campus quads, I saw a man sitting on a bench, swaddled under a heavy overcoat and his head topped by a fedora. A photographer was arranging his equipment across from him, while he bemusedly awaited some kind of publicity shoot. While I realized only a short time later that the man I had seen was Allan Bloom, it was a year later—a quarter-century ago—that I realized that I had witnessed the photo session that led to the headshot inside the hardcover jacket of Bloom’s blockbuster book The Closing of the American Mind. By that time, I had left the University of Chicago, disillusioned by the program and put off by Bloom’s circle of students. But I loved the book and credit it, at least in part, for my eventual return to the academy and a career as a professor of political philosophy.
I still assign the book with some regularity, especially in a freshman seminar on education that I’ve taught over the last half-decade. As the years have passed, I’ve noticed how the book has aged—many of its cultural references are long dated, while contemporary hot-button issues like gay marriage and religious liberty are altogether absent from Bloom’s confident pronouncements on our likely future. Still, the book continues to excite new readers—today’s students find it engaging, even if, unlike their elders, they don’t get especially upset by it and almost unanimously have never heard of it before. And with every re-reading I invariably find something new that I hadn’t noticed before, a testimony to the expansiveness of Bloom’s fertile mind.
While I continue to learn much from Bloom, over the years I have arrived at three main judgments about the book’s relevance, its prescience, and its failings. First, Bloom was right to be concerned about the specter of relativism—though perhaps even he didn’t realize how bad it would get, particularly when one considers the reaction to his book compared to its likely reception were it published today. Second, his alarm over the threat of “multiculturalism” was misplaced and constituted a bad misreading of thezeitgeist, in which he mistook the left’s tactical use of identity politics for the rise of a new kind of communalist and even traditionalist tribalism. And, lastly, most of his readers—even today—remain incorrect in considering him to be a representative of “conservatism,” a label that he eschewed and a worldview he rejected. Indeed, Bloom’s argument was one of the early articulations of “neoconservatism”—a puzzling locution used to describe a position that is, in fact, today more correctly captured by its critics on the left as “neo-liberalism.”
What should most astonish any reader of Bloom’s Closing after 25 years is the fact that this erudite treatise about the crisis of higher education not only sat atop the bestseller list for many weeks but was at the center of an intense, lengthy, and ferocious debate during the late 1980s over education, youth, culture, and politics. In many ways, it became the most visible and weightiest salvo in what came to be known as “the culture wars,” and people of a certain generation still hold strong opinions about Bloom and his remarkable, unlikely bestseller.
Today there are many books about the crisis of higher education—while the nature of the crisis may change, higher education never seems to be out of the woods—but none before or since Bloom’s book achieved its prominence or made its author as rich and famous as a rock star. It was a book that many people bought but few read, at least not beyond a few titillating passages condemning rock-and-roll and feminism. Yet it was a book about which almost everyone with some engagement in higher education held an opinion—indeed, it was obligatory to have considered views on Bloom’s book, whether one had read it or not.
Bloom’s book was at the center of a debate—one that had been percolating well before its publication in 1987—over the nature and content of a university education. That debate intensified with the growing numbers of “diverse” populations seeking recognition on college campuses—concomitant with the rise of departments of Women’s Studies, African-American Studies, and a host of other “Studies” studies—leading to demands that the curriculum increasingly reflect contributions by non-male, non-white, non-European and even non-dead authors.
The Closing of the American Mind spawned hundreds, perhaps even thousands of responses—most of them critiques—including an article entitled “The Philosopher Despot” in Harper’s by political theorist Benjamin Barber, and the inevitably titled The Opening of the American Mind by Lawrence Levine. Partly spurred by the firestorm initiated by Bloom’s book, perennial presidential candidate Jesse Jackson led a march through the campus of Stanford University shouting through a bullhorn, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go!” Passions for campus reform ran high, and an avalanche of words, articles, denunciations, and ad hominem attacks greeted Bloom’s defense of the Western canon.
Yet the nuances of Bloom’s qualified defense of the Western canon were rarely appreciated by critics or supporters alike. While Bloom was often lumped together with E.D. Hirsch—whose Cultural Literacy was published the same year and rose to number two on the New York Times bestseller list, just behind Closing—Bloom’s argument was fundamentally different and far more philosophically challenging than Hirsch’s more mundane, if nevertheless accurate, point that educated people increasingly did not have knowledge about their own culture. Hirsch’s book spoke to anxiety about the loss of a shared literary and cultural inheritance, which today has been largely supplanted by references to a few popular television shows and sports televised on ESPN.
Bloom made an altogether different argument: American youth were increasingly raised to believe that nothing was True, that every belief was merely the expression of an opinion or preference. Americans were raised to be “cultural relativists,” with a default attitude of non-judgmentalism. Not only all other traditions but even one’s own (whatever that might be) were simply views that happened to be held by some people and could not be judged inferior or superior to any other. He bemoaned particularly the decline of household and community religious upbringing in which the worldviews of children were shaped by a comprehensive vision of the good and the true. In one arresting passage, he waxed nostalgic for the days when people cared: “It was not necessarily the best of times in America when Catholic and Protestants were suspicious of and hated one another; but at least they were taking their beliefs seriously…”
He lamented the decline of such true belief not because he personally held any religious or cultural tradition to be true—while Bloom was raised as a Jew, he was at least a skeptic, if not a committed atheist—but because he believed that such inherited belief was the source from which a deeper and more profound philosophic longing arose. It wasn’t “cultural literacy” he wanted, but rather the possibility of that liberating excitement among college-age youth that can come from realizing that one’s own inherited tradition might not be true. From that harrowing of belief can come the ultimate philosophic quest—the effort to replace mere prejudice with the quest for knowledge of the True.
Near the beginning of Closing, Bloom relates one telling story of a debate with a psychology professor during his time teaching at Cornell. Bloom’s adversary claimed, “it was his function to get rid of prejudices in his students.” Bloom compared that function to the activity of an older sibling who informs the kids that there is no Santa Claus—disillusionment and disappointment. Rather than inspiring students to replace “prejudice” with a curiosity for Truth, the mere shattering of illusion would simply leave students “passive, disconsolate, indifferent, and subject to authorities like himself.”
Bloom relates that “I found myself responding to the professor of psychology that I personally tried to teach my students prejudices, since nowadays—with the general success of his method—they had learned to doubt beliefs even before they believed in anything … One has to have the experience of really believing before one can have the thrill of liberation.” Bloom’s preferred original title—before being overruled by Simon and Schuster—was Souls Without Longing. He was above all concerned that students, in being deprived of the experience of living in their own version of Plato’s cave, would never know or experience the opportunity of philosophic ascent.
This core of Bloom’s analysis seems to be not only correct, but, if possible, he may have underestimated its extent. Consider the intense response to Bloom’s book as evidence against his thesis. The overwhelming response by academia and the intelligentsia to his work suggested anything but “indifference” among many who might describe themselves as cultural relativists. Extraordinary debates took place over what books and authors should and should not appear in the “canon,” and extensive efforts were undertaken to shape new curricula in light of new demands of “multiculturalism.” The opponents of Bloom’s book evinced a deep concern for the formation of students, if their concern for what and whom they read was any indication.
In retrospect, however, we can discern that opponents to Bloom’s book were not the first generation of “souls without longing,” but the last generation raised within households, traditions, and communities of the sort that Bloom described, and the last who were educated in the older belief that a curriculum guided the course of a human life. The ferocity of their reaction to Bloom was not simply born of a defense of “multiculturalism” (though they thought that to be the case) but a belief that only a curriculum of the right authors and books properly shapes the lives of their students. Even in their disagreement with Bloom, they shared a key premise: the books we ask our students to read will shape their souls.
Today we live in a different age, one that so worried Bloom—an age of indifference. Institutions of higher learning have almost completely abandoned even a residual belief that there are some books and authors that an educated person should encounter. A rousing defense of a curriculum in which female, African-American, Latino, and other authors should be represented has given way to a nearly thoroughgoing indifference to the content of our students’ curricula. Academia is committed to teaching “critical thinking” and willing to allow nearly any avenue in the training of that amorphous activity, but eschews any belief that the content of what is taught will or ought to influence how a person lives.
Thus, not only is academia indifferent to whether our students become virtuous human beings (to use a word seldom to be found on today’s campuses), but it holds itself to be unconnected to their vices—thus there remains no self-examination over higher education’s role in producing the kinds of graduates who helped turn Wall Street into a high-stakes casino and our nation’s budget into a giant credit card. Today, in the name of choice, non-judgmentalism, and toleration, institutions prefer to offer the greatest possible expanse of options, in the implicit belief that every 18- to 22-year-old can responsibly fashion his or her own character unaided.
Bloom was so correct about the predictable rise of a society defined by indifference that one is entitled to conclude that were Closing published today, it would barely cause a ripple. This is not because most of academia would be inclined to agree with his arguments any more than they did in 1987. Rather, it is simply the case that hardly anyone in academe any longer thinks that curricula are worth fighting over. Jesse Jackson once thought it at least important to oppose Western Civilization in the name of an alternative; today, it would be thought untoward and unworkable to propose anyshared curriculum.
Those who run institutions of higher learning tell themselves that this is because they respect the choices of their young adult charges; however, their silence is born precisely of the indifference predicted by Bloom. Today’s academic leaders don’t believe the content of those choices has any fundamental influence on the souls of our students, most likely because it would be unfashionable to believe that they have souls. As long as everyone is tolerant of everyone else’s choices, no one can get hurt. What is today called “tolerance,” Bloom rightly understood to be more deeply a form of indifference, the extreme absence of care, leading to a society composed not only of “souls without longing” but humans treated as utilitarian bodies that are increasingly incapable of love.
If this core argument of Bloom’s seems prescient, a second major argument not only seems to me incorrect but in fact is contradicted by this first argument. It was because of his criticisms about the rise of “multiculturalism” that Bloom came to be readily identified with the right-leaning culture-warriors like William Bennett and Dinesh D’Souza and was so vilified on the academic left. Yet Bloom’s first argument implicitly makes a qualified praise of “multiculturalism,” at least as the necessary launching pad for the philosophic quest. In his praise of the belief structures that once inspired some students to disillusionment, he was singing the praises of a society composed of various cultural traditions that exercised a strong influence over the beliefs and worldviews of that culture’s youth.
Such qualified praise led him to wax nostalgic about an age when Catholics and Protestants cared enough to hate one another. But at his most alarmist—and, frankly, either least perceptive or most pandering—Bloom portrays then-regnant calls for “multiculturalism” as a betrayal of the norms of liberal democracy and as the introduction of dangerous tribalism into the university, as well as the body politic. At times, Bloom painted a portrait in which the once-ascendant claims of American individual rights, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, were about to be displaced by the incipient warfare of identity tribalism and groupthink.
At his best, Bloom sees through the sham of yesterday’s “multiculturalism” and today’s push for “diversity”—little of which had to do with enthusiasm for real cultural diversity, but which was then and remains today a way for individuals in under-represented groups to advance entitlement programs within America’s elite institutions. Those individuals, while claiming special benefits that should accrue to members in a particular group, had no great devotion to any particular “culture” outside the broader American anti-culture of liberalism itself. Indeed, the “cultures” in question were never really cultures at all, if by a culture we mean an identifiable group of people who share a generational, geographical, and distinctive set of customs aimed at shaping the worldview and practices of successive generations.
By this measure, women, blacks, Hispanics, and so on were people who might once have belonged to a variety of particular cultures, albeit not specifically as women or blacks or Hispanics. These new categorical groupings came to be based on claims of victimhood rather than any actual shared culture; many cultures have been persecuted, but it does not follow that everyone who has been mistreated constitutes a culture. While in passing Bloom acknowledged the paucity of such claims to cultural status, too often he was willing to take seriously professions of “multiculturalism” and to lament the decline of the American project of universalist natural rights.
The stronger case would have been to expose the claims of multiculturalism as cynical expressions from members of groups that did not, in fact, share a culture, while showing that such self-righteous claims, more often than not, were merely a thin veneer masking a lust for status, wealth and power. If the past quarter century has revealed anything, it has consistently shown that those who initially participated in calls for multiculturalism have turned out to be among the voices most hostile to actual cultures, particularly ones seeking to maintain coherent religious and moral traditions.
Bloom was prone to obtuseness about this fact because, at base, Bloom himself was not an admirer or supporter of the multiplicity of cultures. Indeed, he was suspicious and even hostile to the claims of culture upon the shaping of human character and belief—including religious belief. He was not a conservative in the Burkean sense; that is, someone apt to respect the inheritances of tradition and custom as a repository of past wisdom and experience. Rather, he was at his core a liberal: someone who believes that the only benefit of our cultural formation was that it constituted a “cave” from which ambitious and rebellious youth could be encouraged to pursue a life of philosophy.
Reflection about Bloom’s distaste for particular cultures suggests that the differences between Bloom and his apparent nemesis, the Cornell professor of psychology, are rather minimal. Both wanted to disabuse the youth of their “prejudices” in the name of openness: the psychology professor in the name of nihilisitic openness, and Bloom for the encouragement of philosophical inquiry, open to the possibility of Truth as well as the possibility of nihilism.
In fact, Bloom’s critique of the “multicultural” left is identical to and drawn from the critique of the “multicultural” right advanced by his teacher, Leo Strauss. In his seminal work Natural Right and History, Strauss identified Burke’s criticisms of the French Revolution as one of the lamentable responses to the “Crisis of Modern Natural Right,” a crisis that arose as a reaction against the social contractarianism of “modern natural right.” Burke’s argument against the revolutionary impulses of social contractarianism constituted a form of conservative “historicism”—that is, in Strauss’s view, the rejection of claims of natural right in favor of a preference for the vagaries of History. While today’s Straussians concentrate their criticisms largely on left historicism (i.e., progressivism), Strauss was just as willing to focus his criticisms on right historicism, that is, the traditionalism of Burke and his progeny.
Ironically, because the left in the 1980s adopted the language (if not the substance) of multiculturalism, Bloom was able to turn those Straussian critiques of Burke against those on the left—though of course they were no Burkeans, even if they used some Burkean language. For this reason, Bloom was assumed by almost everyone to be a “conservative,” a label that he not only explicitly rejected, but a worldview that he philosophically and personally abhorred.
Bloom’s argument became a major touchstone in the development of “neoconservatism,” a label that became associated with many fellow students of Strauss but which, ironically, explicitly rested on rejection of the claims of culture, tradition, and custom—the main impulses of Burkean conservatism. Bloom continuously invoked the natural-rights teachings of the Declaration and Constitution as necessary correctives to the purported dangers of left multiculturalism: rather than endorsing the supposed inheritance of various cultures, he commended the universalistic claims of liberal democracy, which ought to trump any identification with particular culture and creed. The citizen who emerged from the State of Nature, shorn of any specific cultural, religious, or ancestral limitation, was the political analogue for the philosopher who emerged from the Cave. Not everyone could become a philosopher, Bloom insisted, but everyone could be a liberal citizen, and ought rightly to be liberated from the limitations of place and culture—if for no other reason, to make them more tolerant of the radical philosophers in their midst.
Bloom’s was thus not only an early salvo in the culture wars, but an incipient articulation of the neoconservative impulse toward universalistic expansion. Burke’s willingness to acknowledge the basic legitimacy of most cultures—his “multiculturalism”—led him, in the main, to oppose most forms of imperialism. The rejection of multiculturalism, and the valorization of a monolithic liberal project, has inclined historically to a tendency toward expansionism and even imperialism, and neoconservatism is only the latest iteration of this tendency. While many of the claims about Strauss’s influence on the Iraq invasion and the neoconservative insistence upon spreading democracy throughout the world were confused, there was in fact a direct lineage from Bloom’s arguments against the multicultural left and rise of the neo-liberal or neoconservative imperialistic impulse. Bloom explicitly rejected the cautiousness and prudence endorsed by conservatism as a hindrance to philosophy, and thus rejected it as a political matter as a hindrance to the possibility of perfectibility:
Conservatives want young people to know that this tawdry old world cannot respond to their demands for perfection. … But … man is a being who must take his orientation by his possible perfection. …. Utopianism is, as Plato taught us at the outset, the fire with which we must play because it is the only way we can find out what we are.
Bloom here witheringly rejected “realism” as “the easy way out” of real inquiry; yet, in the wake of the Iraq invasion, one of Bloom’s longstanding allies and admirers, John Agresto, lamented the overconfidence of the neoconservatives, and especially their neglect of the reality of culture, in a post-invasion book entitled Mugged by Reality.
Bloom’s book remains a kind of liberation, an intellectually adventurous work written with a kind of boldness and even recklessness rarely to be found in today’s more politically correct and cramped age. But it was, ultimately, more reckless than many of its readers realized at the time—not because it was conservative, but precisely because it rejected the conservative impulses to modesty, prudence, the genius of place, and tradition. It opened an era of “culture wars” in which the only combatant who seemed absent from the field was a true conservatism. Perhaps it is finally time for an opening of the American mind.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Quigley on Georgetown, 1967

The Hebrews and the Greeks, who are our cultural parents, and our own western civilization descended from these two, have always agreed that the only sin, or at least the greatest sin, is pride, a particularly aggressive type of self-deception. And anyone who is concerned with the health of individuals knows well that neuroses and psychoses are basically simply forms of self-deception, combined with an obstinate refusal to face the facts of the situation.

This kind of illness is prevalent in all American higher education and in all the sub-divisions of it, existing, indeed, in a more obsessive and virulent form in the aspirant "Great Universities" than in the so-called "Great Universities" themselves. It is to be found in its acute form in Catholic education, in Jesuit education, and at Georgetown.

Of course, that is not what we are being told. Today, in education, as in government and in everything else, the propagandists flood us daily with rosy reports on how well things are going. Larger and larger expenditures of manpower, money and facilities (such as floor-space) are devoted to telling the world about the wonderful job being done in every organization worthy of the name from the Johnson Administration down (or up) to Georgetown University. Fewer and fewer people are convinced, or even listening, but in the process the money and facilities (if not the manpower) which could have been used on the goals of the organization are wasted on propaganda about what a wonderful job is being done, when any sensible person with half an eye can see that, every year, a poorer job is being done in the midst of self-deceptive clouds of expensive propaganda.

But beneath these clouds, ominous cracklings can be heard, even at Georgetown. If they come from within the University, they are drowned out with another flood of words, denials, excited pointings to a more hopeful, if remote, future, or by the creation of some new organizational gimmick, a committee or a new "Assistant Something-or-Other," to deal with the problem.

If, on the other hand, these criticisms come from outside the University, they are ignored or attributed to jealousy, sour grapes, or to some other unflattering personal motivation of the critic. When these criticisms come, as they often do, from some departing member of the faculty, they are greeted by reflections on his personal competence or emotional stability, both of which had been highly esteemed as long as he remained here. As a result, most departing faculty, to avoid such personal denigration, depart quietly, but they depart. Their reasons for leaving are then attributed to the higher pay to be obtained elsewhere, an explanation which fits in well with the Big Lie at GU, that all its problems would be solved if the University only had more money. Anyone who knows anything about the situation knows perfectly well three things: that Georgetown's problems would not be solved by more money and have not been, but, on the contrary, have grown steadily worse as the supply of money has increased; that resigning faculty have been leaving because they were discontented; and that the chief cause of that discontent has not been inadequate pay, but the generally chaotic and misguided Administration of the University....

Professor Carroll Quigley
"Is Georgetown University Committing Suicide?"
The Hoya
April 28, 1967

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Seven Years

Seven years ago today, my teacher and friend, Wilson Carey McWilliams, passed away. I miss his gentle wisdom and bear hugs; his gravelly voice and uproarious stories; his invitations to sip bourbon as the sun descends toward ground.

We need his voice more than ever. Here is an excerpt from an essay entitled "Religion, Morality, and Public Life," re-published in the recent collection of Carey's essays The Democratic Soul. The essay was written in 1999, but still rings as true today as when it was written over a decade ago.


In contemporary practice, the moral picture is not entirely bleak. Despite much uneasiness and more posturing, there have been gains in the relations between the races and the genders, and many old abuses are now subject to sanction. And religion, if it needs saying, provides support for the decencies and for some sense of obligation. But the temple, if standing, is in need of repair, especially since so many of the institutional pillars of the Framers' moral design have been unsettled or pulled down.

That states and local governments are now held to the essentially secular standards of national law would inspire some sympathy among the Framers, although the Supreme Court's insistence on the "wall of separation"—rendered almost go labyrinthine by the Court's opinions--goes far beyond the understanding and practice of the founding generation.

It is a matter for greater concern that the institutions of civil society have been so thoroughly penetrated and reshaped—and often shattered—by economics, technology, and the "hidden curriculum" of the media. In the new order of things, indignity is commonplace: the media confront us with superstars, just as the market disproportionately rewards elites; by comparison, the intermediate dignities offered by local communities seem tawdry. This perception is strengthened by the fact that localities--and with them, a good many personal relationships--increasingly are exposed to mobility and change, transient connections to which we are apt to limit our liability.

Despite general prosperity, economics adds desperations, weakening our already slender resources of trust and moral community. Inequality is escalating, with the middle class recently losing ground to both rich and poor. The vogue of "outsourcing" and "downsizing" makes jobs feel insecure, even in good times. Responding in kind, Kristin Downey Grimsley reports, employees are becoming less loyal to the firm or to their fellows, resulting in a workplace that may be "leaner," but is surely "meaner."

It is hardly surprising, consequently, that so many Americans are hesitant or half-hearted about commitments, or that they seek solace in immediate or short-term gratifications, inclinations evident even in the seats of power. It is also understandable that we are tempted to treat market forces as if they were autonomous and irresistible, partly because doing so saves us from the burden of responsibility, allowing us a more or less guiltless pursuit of interests and enjoyments. But conceding sovereignty to the market leaves us only the consumer's passive freedom to make choices, rather than having a say in defining what is choice-worthy. All of these retreats from society, politics, and faith diminish us, so that more and more Americans seem to be looking, sometimes furiously and sometimes wistfully, for what is missing.


Recquiscat in pace, my friend.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

In the National Cathedral

On Sunday I was the invited speaker at the magnificent National Cathedral in a series devoted to the exploration of political themes. The subject was "The State of Political Language." The event was recorded, and is available here.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Our Libertarian Future

I was invited by the good people at "Minding the Campus" to write a response to the recently released 2011 American Freshman Survey. My brief essay is now available on their website. My main point:

What the data also demonstrates is [not only an increase in libertarian toleration, but] a keen and intense emphasis on the self. Today's students simultaneously urge toleration toward others, but also expect to be left alone. Their overarching emphasis upon individual achievement--particularly in the area of career advancement--suggests that the message of "toleration" and "diversity" seamlessly co-exists with a self-centered focus on material success and personal lifestyle autonomy. At risk is a cultivated belief in civic membership, a sense of shared fate and even forms of self-sacrifice.

One telling aspect of the survey has, to my knowledge, received no attention: while 72.3% state that the "chief benefit of college is to increase one's earning power," only 2% of current college graduates are enrolled in an ROTC or other military program. While likely career choices are fragmented among many possible choices (with the largest numbers of responses clustering around the choices of engineer, physician and business, together totaling 28%), only 1.5% responded that they foresaw a military career; 0.9% intended to enter government or public policy; and .1% stated an intention to become a member of the clergy. As many respondents indicated a likely future of unemployment (1.5%) as those willing to serve in the military!


Several disquieting questions should come to mind: what kinds of citizens will these people grow up to be? What kinds of parents and what kinds of neighbors? They will likely be willing to leave other people alone--but will they care about others? Will they love? Will they serve? Will they sacrifice? According Charles Murray in his recent book Coming Apart, it is the upper classes (which will be composed by the students in this survey) that have largely abandoned any idea of trusteeship and moral and civic responsibility toward those who have not won the meritocratic sweepstakes. The survey suggests that this divide will only deepen in coming years.

I fear that we are not ushering in a utopia of toleration and sensitivity, but one of indifference and self-absorption. Today's young people have deeply absorbed the lessons that have been taught them by their elders. Do we truly think a civilization can persist when it teaches its young that the most important thing in life is indifference toward others and that the means to happiness is earning the most money?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Religious Liberty?

Vast and even incalculable quantities of ink have already been spilled over the issue of the HHS mandate that religious organizations purchase contraception as part of their compliance with the Obama health care plan. It would seem that little remains to be said.

I have read and pondered this issue as it has unfolded. I have signed a document, with many other scholars, objecting to the recent "compromise" on the grounds that it does not resolve the basic issue of forcing a religious institution to provide a service that is incompatible with its doctrine and belief. I am largely in agreement that this issue represents a profound and disturbing encroachment upon the internal ordering of religious organizations.

However, I am disquieted by the way in which the issue has largely been framed - not only by the Left, but perhaps more by the Right. The Right has sought to defend "religious liberty" on the grounds that the HHS mandate would represent an abrogation of the First Amendment's right to "free exercise" and that it would violate the "conscience" of religious adherents. By these appeals to the "rights" of religious organizations to hold certain religious beliefs - whatever those may be - and by an appeal to "conscience" informing that belief - no matter what it may hold - critics of the HHS policy have framed their response in the dominant privatistic language of liberalism. Their defense rests on the inscrutability and sanctity of private religious belief. It borrows strongly from sources of private religious devotion that lays no claim to public witness, in keeping with liberalism's dominant mode of allowing acceptable religious practice so long as it remains outside the public square. The appeal to conscience, while lodged at the level of institutional belief, subjects itself easily to the same claim by adherents within that religious order who might similarly object to a religious mandate (e.g., the prohibition on artificial birth control) on grounds of "conscience" to aspects of that belief (think Martin Luther. Or Andrew Sullivan.). The public response of critics of the mandate essentially cede to liberalism most of the ground that they would need to mount a serious case against the individualizing, relativizing and subjective claims that lie at the heart of the mandate and, more broadly, liberalism itself.

More than a few commentators have noted that this issue seems particularly oriented toward and at the Catholic Church. While some wags have questioned why other religious traditions don't seem to have a problem with other aspects of the mandate (e.g., Christian Scientists haven't risen up in objection to coverage of blood transfusions), frank speech requires acknowledgement of a more fundamental truth: from its earliest articulation, liberalism has set its sights on the rout of Catholic Christendom. Liberalism was fundamentally animated by a deep philosophical and theological objection to Catholicism - and, until recent times, vice-versa. Debate over the HHS mandate should be understood in its broadest context: the longstanding effort to wholly remake society in the image and likeness of liberal philosophy. That philosophy holds at its core that humans are by nature free, autonomous and independent, bound only by positive law that seeks to regulate physical behavior that results in physical harm to others (and, increasingly, selves). Liberal people should not be bound by any limitation upon their natural freedom that does not cause harm (mainly physical harm) to another human; otherwise, the State should be indifferent ("neutral") to any claims regarding the nature of the "the Good." Liberalism seeks to secure legal structures governing "Right" - procedures ensuring fairness with an aim to protecting (and expanding) the sphere of individual liberty while balancing claims regarding the "harms" of some individual practices (e.g., liberalism seeks to limit some harmful activities of the market at the edges while leaving its basic structure intact).

Liberalism understood from the outset that it could not abide any religious tradition that sought to influence the order of society based upon its conception of "the Good." "Private" belief could be tolerated: such belief would extend only to the immediate adherents of that faith; its adherents had to personally choose their allegiance to that faith; and any faith commitment would be the result of voluntarist choice and thus, a chosen self-limitation on the part of the faithful. Famously in his "Letter Concerning Toleration," John Locke refused to extend toleration practically to only one faith - Catholicism. His claim was that toleration could not be extended to any faith that acknowledged a "foreign potentate," which, for all practical purposes, meant the Pope. But, it requires a peculiar set of assumptions to conclude that the Pope is a "foreign potentate" - while the Pope does not claim political rule over Catholics, the Pope is the final arbiter of doctrine that is to govern not only the private behavior of Catholics, but their role and witness in the world. It is no coincidence that many of the cases involving "religious liberty" now involve Catholics, inasmuch as Catholics have erected worldly institutions in the effort to live out the witness of their faith - schools, universities, hospitals, charities, and the like. The Catholic faith is, by definition, not "private"; it involves a conception of the human Good that in turn requires efforts to instantiate that understanding in the world. As such, Catholics represent a threat to the liberal order, which demands that people check their faith at the door and acknowledge only one sovereign in the realm of proscribing public behavior - the State.

Catholics begin with a fundamentally different understanding of the human person than liberalism. We are not by nature "free and independent"; we are, rather, members of the Body of Christ. In the natural law understanding, we are by nature "political and social animals" (so states Aquinas, following and amending Aristotle), requiring law, culture and religion for our flourishing and right ordering. The law does not simply seek to regulate and prevent bodies from committing harm; rather, the law necessarily derives from, and seeks to advance, a positive vision of human good and human flourishing. The law reinforces the Divine law, seeking the restraint not only of practices that will harm others, but which will tend toward a condition of sin and self-destruction. Even where the law is "silent," we are not at leave simply to act as we wish; rather, we are admonished to live in accordance with and by the practice of virtue necessary to human flourishing. A polity based upon securing "the Right" is radically insufficient; rather, the polity is understood to be a reinforcement of efforts to orient people toward "the Good." While the Church and State necessarily operate in different spheres, the State's activities are oriented by the vision "the Good" articulated by Church and God's word.

Critics of the HHS mandate have framed their responses to the mandate within liberal terms. This is doubtless a requirement and necessity in contemporary liberal society - to gain a hearing at the table of public opinion, and especially the Courts, arguments must be framed in dominantly liberal terms. Thus, critics of the Mandate have sought to craft their response by claiming that the Church's internal beliefs will be violated by the Mandate, that the Mandate represents an encroachment upon "conscience." Critics of the Mandate thus downplay and even ignore the content of the belief in question; they rally around the protections of conscience, claiming a sphere toward which the State should manifest indifference, in which they should not meddle. The nature of the belief is largely irrelevant for the sake of the claim. Many of the Mandate's critics (especially non-Catholics) claim that they regard the Church's view on birth-control to be somewhat batty, but that fact is irrelevant to the Constitutional issue protecting private institutional conscience and free-exercise. Catholic critics don't depart much, at all, from this same argument.*

Catholic as well as non-Catholic defenders have largely sought to hold at arms length any claims about the rightness or truth of the Church's teachings on birth control: these are to be treated as belief within a "black box" that should be ignored by liberal society. As long as those crazy beliefs don't harm individuals within or beyond the faith tradition, then they should be accorded respect and indifference by the State. The Church seeks the leave of the State on the only terms recognizable by the liberal state: we have a certain set of private beliefs that aren't harming anyone. Leave us alone, and we'll be quiet.

However, everyone is aware, even if dimly, of the real issue, though few explicitly raise the matter. The Church does not seek to propound its teachings as a matter of internal belief solely for its faith adherents: it claims that its teachings are true as a matter of human good. The teachings regarding birth control are not simply a peculiar faith tradition that is thought to apply to adherents of Catholicism; it is a teaching that Catholicism hopes and intends to be adopted by all people, regardless of their faith tradition. The strictures concerning birth control are not propounded as a "faith-based" peculiarity applicable only to Catholics, like Jewish dietary laws, but as a considered position concerning the Church's deepest understanding of the human good - one that can be, and has been, framed in terms that are intended to be accessible and persuasive to non-Catholics. Among other reasons offered, the adoption of a birth control concerns a practice that Catholicism has understood to entail profound social consequences that, when widely practiced, leads to profoundly damaging social practices.

The Church's argument - made at a time when it was believed by many that the Church had no choice but to update itself to be relevant to changing times - was articulated forcefully by Pope Paul VI in his 1968 encyclical "Humanae Vitae," and is addressed not only to Catholics, but to "all men of good will." As nicely summarized recently by Brendan Patrick Dougherty and Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry, Humanae Vitae articulated four discrete areas of social and political concern that they believed would become manifest widespread use of birth control:

1. General lowering of moral standards

2. A rise in infidelity, and illegitimacy

3. The reduction of women to objects used to satisfy men

4. Government coercion in reproductive matters

The first three - unarguably evident in our time - concern the social implications of transforming sexuality from its intimate and natural link to reproduction to a "recreational," hedonic activity. The Church understood that the cumulative decisions of individuals - not intended to "harm" anyone - would nevertheless lead to manifest and extensive social ills. Liberalism begins and ends with the view that individual choice is paramount, and social costs can and should be redressed by government alone, leaving as much latitude possible to individual satisfaction of desire; Catholicism (echoing Aristotle) holds that society is an intricately woven fabric in which autonomous actions aimed at the satisfaction of individual desire will often prove destructive of that fabric. The Church holds this to be the case in all realms of human activitiy - sexual as well as economic, a point that is too often missed by American Catholics who allow their partisan identities to define their understanding of their faith (are those who oppose abortion and pornography any less "Social Justice Catholics"?). Liberalism holds that the State must be indifferent to the personal choices of individuals; Catholicism holds certain choices not only to be inherently wrong (even if they do not result in the immediate and evident harm of others), but, over time and cumulatively, socially destructive.

The last area of concern is perhaps even more difficult to grasp in an intuitive fashion than the first three. The last claims that the widespread adoption of birth control will eventually entail government coercion in support of its use. The Church understood - long before this tendency became evident - that liberalism was finally incapable of "indifference" toward the choices of individuals, particularly when those choices involved the limitation of individual autonomy, and particularly when any such limitation occurred in the context not of organizations that stressed individual choice, but rather asserted the preeminence of conceptions of the Good that commended practices of self-limitation. In short, liberalism would finally reveal its "partiality" toward autonomy by forcing institutions with an opposing worldview to conform to liberalism's assumptions. Liberalism would seek actively to "liberate" individuals from oppressive structures, even at the point of requiring such liberalism at the point of a legal mandate and even a gun.

The response of American Catholics to the HHS mandate has (perhaps necessarily) been framed in dominantly liberal terms that give it a chance of receiving a hearing in today's public sphere and within its Courts. But it should be acknowledged (as the response to the "Compromise" reveals) that the Church will ultimately lose the argument simply due to the fact that the way it is framed already represents a capitulation to liberal premises. Doubtless, an argument that stated more explicitly the Church's opposition to birth control would be even more quickly dismissed (but, first, caricatured and mocked) than the current invocation of "religious freedom." But, the real debate is not over religious freedom, in fact: it is over the very nature of humanity and the way in which we order our polities and societies. Catholicism is one of the few remaining voices of principle and depth that can articulate an forceful and learned alternative to today's dominant liberal worldview. That it truncates those arguments for the sake of prudential engagement in a contemporary skirmish should not shroud the nature of the deeper conflict. That conflict will continue apace, and Catholics do themselves no favors if they do not understand the true nature of the battle, and the fact that current arguments aid and abet their opponent.


*See, for instance, an interview in today's Washington Post with William Thierfelder, President of Belmont Abbey College, in which he states "We’re not trying to tell anybody else how to live their lives. I, personally, I would hope people don’t seek abortions, but we’re not saying that. We’re being asked to violate our religious beliefs in our Catholic home." If this is the case, then my response is similar to Flannery O'Connor's retort to the fashionable notion that transubstantiation was only a metaphor: "What's the point?"