Friday, March 09, 2007

Today's Quote, March 9, 2007

"Principle is a better test of heresy than doctrine. Heretics are true to their principles but change to and fro, backwards and forwards in opinion; for very opposite doctrines may be exemplifications of the same principle. Thus the Antiochenes and other heretics sometimes were Arians, sometimes Sabellians, sometimes Nestorians, sometimes Monophysites, as if at random, from fidelity to their common principle that there is no mystery in theology. Thus Calvinists became Unitarians from the principle of private judgment. The doctrines of heresy are accidents and soon run to an end; its principles are everlasting."

-- John Henry Newman

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Today's Quote, March 7, 2007

"The American Bill of Rights is ... the product of Christian history."

--John Courtney Murray

Murray continued: Catholics and the American Consensus

The next chapter in Murray's book, which is actually Chapter One and titled ":E Pluribus Unum the American Consensus" was more relevant to Murray's purpose than to ours. Murray specifically wished to show that Catholics not only fit readily into the American project but were indeed especially well fit to it.

He starts off by making a not unfamiliar argument for the Christian roots of the American political order. This is persuasive as far as it goes. But even more to the point, he argues that the reason Catholics feel so at home in America is that the "American political community was organized in an era when the tradition of natural law and natural rights was still vigorous. Claiming no sanction other than its appeal to free minds, it still commnaded universal acceptance. And it furnished the basic materials for the American consensus."

To be sure Locke was an innovator in that tradition, but also brought it new vigour. And since the natural law tradition is essentially the Catholic tradition it should be no surprise that we are comfortable in it and with the core principles of a government founded on it. There are lively arguments to be had here, but they would not be to our purpose.

He does make one intriguing remark by way of allowing for the influence of secualarist thought on the American consensus. He concedes that there was always secularist dissent. "But the secularist dissent is clearly a dissent."

That is the key point that has changed. Vigorous, self-conscious secularists may still be a minority, but their ideas are increasingly the only ones allowed in the public culture.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Today's Quote, March 6, 2007

"To be at peace befits love; but to make peace is the work of ordering wisdom."

-- St. Thomas Aquinas

Murray continued: The war between pluralisms becomes the war against pluralism

Yesterday we ended by noting that Murray saw two great threats to civil society in America, such society being understood as “men locked together in argument.” The first was the barbarian, whether skeptic or zealot, “the man who makes open and explicit rejection of the traditional role of reason and logic in human affairs.” For barbarism “is the lack of reasonable conversation according to reasonable laws.”

But in the U.S. specifically he goes on to say there is another challenge to the civil argument and thus civil society: diversity of religion: “[W]ithin the great sprawling City that is the United States the achievement of civil society encounters a special difficulty—what is called religious pluralism.”

The challenge of religious pluralism is in part intellectual: “We have no common universe of discourse. In particular, diverse mental equivalents attach to words in which the constitutional consensus must be finally discussed—truth, freedom justice, prudence, order, law….”

But more challenging even than these disagreements and misunderstandings are the divisions and deep emotional wounds of history between Jew, Catholic, Protestant and secularist. “we not only hold different views we have become different kinds of men as we have lived our several histories.”

As a result “the fact is that among us civility—or civic unity or civic amity…is a thing of the surface. It is quite easy to break through it.” Citing Voeglin, “our pluralist society has achieved its structure through wars and the wars are still going on.”

The proof that we are engaged in a war rather than an argument says Murray is that we are not really “men singly engaged in the search for truth.” Rather our various ideas and versions of the truth are to a large extent simply our way of articulating and staking out positions in our long standing war. Our variant ideas “are entrenched as social powers; they occupy ground; they have developed interests; and they possess the means to fight for them. The real issues of truth that arise are complicated by secondary issues of power and prestige which not seldom become primary…. To each group, of course, its influence seems salvific; to other groups it may seem merely imperialist.”

This sketch of a war of deep beliefs and interests raging beneath a thin cover of civility seems at least as accurate a description of our own times as of Murray’s. That’s certainly true as regards the intensity of the conflict. But what has changed enormously, what indeed creates the new political situation is the alignment of parties.

Murray identified four parties or “conspiracies”. They were the obvious ones: Catholic, Protestant, Jew, and Secularist. But Murray paid most attention to the conflict between Catholics and Protestants who distrusted each other's motives not only religious but political. This focus made sense in his day. The Protestant establishment still existed and was willing as ever to say no to Catholics on any political issue particularly dear to them and especially Catholic schools. The Protestant anti-establishment—evangelicals, fundamentalists, et al--was overwhelmingly and almost hysterically anti-Catholic. Catholics, for their part, still defined evangelization as saving people from Protestantism.

As for the other two parties, he gave scant attention to the Jews, the smallest and most cautious of the four. On the question of the secularists he was, as I have noted, extremely insightful on their rejection of pluralism. But he did not consider them central to the contest at least under the aspect he was considering. This becomes particularly clear in the last few paragraphs of this introductory chapter in which he asks whether the problem—that our pluralism is little more than an uneasy truce defined by a history of warfare rather than a genuine civil argument—can be solved.

In answer he says, “my own expectations are modest and minimal.” We cannot, he argues, hope to base American society on a “unanimous consensus."But, he argues “we could do at least two things. We could limit the warfare and enlarge the dialogue. We could lay down our arms …and we could take up the argument. … The free society … has inaugurated a new history. Therefore it might be possible to lay the ghosts of the past—to forget the ghettos and the autos-da-fe; the Star Chamber and the Committee on the Public Safety; Topcliffe with his bloody question and Torquemada with his rack; the dragonnades and the Black and Tans…the Know Nothings and the Klu Klux Klan…”

To be sure the, the secularists are formed by this history too. Religious wars and persecutions represent religion to the mind of many secularists, and thus he was asking them to let go of the old history too.

But Murray’s very object, to build up civil public argument among “real pluralisms” confirms that his concern was with the religions, because the secularists were characterized precisely by their rejection of pluralism.

Earlier he had contrasted the secularist view of society with the Catholic tradition that society is properly ruled by two authorities, the spiritual as well as the temporal. This assertion he says must be “doubly anathema” to the secularist because:

“It clashes with the socio-juridical monism that is always basic to the secularist position…. In secularist theory there can be only one society, one law, one power, and one faith, a civic faith that is the ‘unifying’ bond of the community, whereby it withstands the assaults of assorted pluralisms.

“The secularist has always fought his battles under a banner on which is emblazoned his special device, “The Integrity of the Political Order.” In the name of this thundering principle he would banish from the political order (and from education as an affair of the City) all the “divisive forces” of religion.”

Flash forward forty-seven years and two things are remarkable. The first is the extent to which Murray’s modest hopes for a dialogue of real pluralism are now being realized, and in some cases exceeded as between believing American Catholics and Protestants, and even believing Jews.

The Protestant establishment has largely disappeared; most of those who would once have been a part of it have joined the secularist party. Serious American Protestantism now consists mostly in the heirs of the Protestant anti-establishment of Murray’s day. The genuinely Catholic party, like the Protestant party, is much smaller than it was having also lost huge numbers to the secularists.

But as we all know and would be tedious to elaborate, the degree of political cooperation and even religious dialogue between these two remnants has already become an important fact in American society and seems likely to grow more so.

Just as remarkable is the cause of this rapprochement. Vatican II and positive prayerful effort on both sides have done their part. But the overwhelming practical stimulus to cooperation has been the vast increase in numbers and in power of the secularist party and its inclination to show that power in a triumphalism that would do any ultra-montanist proud.

In short those with a real stake in pluralism have been pushed into an alliance by the overweening power of the one party that utterly rejects the pluralist idea.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Today's Quote, March 5, 2007

"The truth is, of course, that the curtness of the Ten Commandments is an evidence, not of the gloom and narrowness of a religion, but, on the contrary, of its liberality and humanity. It is shorter to state the things forbidden than the things permitted: precisely because most things are permitted, and only a few things are forbidden."

-- G.K. Chesterton

I'm baaaaaaack

Almost four months ago I stopped making daily entries to this blog for what I thought would be a few days. The thing that stopped me was John Courtney Murray’s “We Hold These Truths” which I had never read before. It seemed clear to me that I could not really move ahead with the project of thinking through a Christian Democratic politics for America without confronting Murray.

Given his reputation for liberalism, I expected the confrontation might be a hostile one. (It’s true that I have renounced conservatism. But as Joyce once said in a similar context “sir I have lost my faith not my mind.”)

To my surprise, I found Murray’s core insight to be a much more articulate version of the raw impulse that moved me to launch this project in the first place. More than forty years ago, it was quite clear to Murray that the note that distinguished American secularists from believing American Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, was that the secularists and the secularists alone rejected pluralism, even in principle.

Seeing that Murray had “got there first” and had gone on to develop the argument brilliantly, persuaded me the next topic for the blog would have to be a serious grapple with Murray, or at least a recounting of his argument, which might take a while. The word “serious” was fatal. I actually began to take notes and outline the piece—not really consistent with blogging. And then came Christmas and then some extra end of year tasks at work. And now I am back and Murray remains to be grappled with.

So I begin. I no longer pledge “serious” and I certainly don’t pledge “daily.” But here goes.

Murray’s Intro is titled “The Civilization of the Pluralist Society.” He opens by observing that it had become popular in his day to ask, rather skeptically, whether America is actually a free country. But he can’t engage that question immediately for the simple reason that the “norms of freedom seem to have got lost in a welter of confused controversy.”

That certainly has not changed. But this very inability to establish the terms of the discussion of freedom suggested to Murray another question.

We can, he said, “ask if American society is civil” because the basic standard of civility is not in doubt. He offers a simple but persuasive definition in a quote from a Benedictine Thomist, Thomas Gilby. “Civilization is formed by men locked together in argument. From this dialogue the community becomes a political community.”

Expanding on Gilby, Murray argues that the “specifying note of political association is its rational deliberative quality, its dependence for permanent cohesiveness on argument among men” which makes it different “from all other forms of association found on earth.” The polis to be sure is not purely rational, for a political community is first a community, but its reliance on rational discourse is distinctive. Thus the climate of the city is cool and dry “with the coolness and dryness that characterize good argument among reformed and responsible men” It lacks the warmth of family or of passionate love or friendship.

But if civilization is men locked in argument, what is the argument about? Murray suggests three main themes.

1. Public affairs, the res publica, those things that are for the advantage of the public which call for public decision and action by the government.

2. The affairs of the commonwealth that go beyond the necessities of public order but bear upon the quality of the common life, which may or may not be reached by law but are certainly not exclusively addressed by the law. The pre-eminent affair is education.

3. The most important and difficult is the constitutional consensus whereby the people acquires its identity as a people and society is endowed with its vital form, its “sense of purpose as a collectivity organized for action in history.”

Thus the “state of civility supposes a consensus that is constitutional …. This consensus is come to by the people; they become a people by coming to it.” They come to it “by the methods of reason, reflecting on experience.”

The consensus has a specific type of content “It is an ensemble of substantive truths, a structure of basic knowledge, an order of elementary affirmations that reflect realities inherent in the order of existence. It occupies an established position in society and excludes opinions alien or contrary to itself. This consensus is the institutional a priori of all the rationalities and technicalities of constitutional and statutory law. It furnishes the premises of the people’s actions in history…”

“The whole premise of the public argument, if it is to be civilized and civilizing, is that the consensus is real, that among the people everything is not in doubt…. We hold these truths; therefore we can argue about them. …” Agreement is not the end of argument but its beginning. “There can be no argument except on the premise and within a context of agreement.”

The “public argument within the City and about the City’s affairs begins with the agreement that there is…a heritage of essential truth, a tradition of rational belief that sustains the structure of the City and furnishes the substance of civil life. It was to this patrimony that the Declaration of Independence referred….”

We hold these truths, he says, both because they are a patrimony and because they are true. But for both those reasons the consensus, though the condition of the public argument, is also dependent on the continuation of that argument. The argument must continue because it keeps the patrimony fresh in our minds. And the argument must continue because otherwise we will forget why we hold these truths to be true.

Thus to ask whether the US is a civil society is to ask what is the state of the argument? It is to ask do we have the consensus we need, the truths we must hold in common so that the argument can continue, and especially so that it will, as he argues later, be truly an argument and not just a thin cover for civil war.

You know, as in “culture war.” (Told you he was prescient.)

He then identifies two great enemies of the civil argument. The first is the barbarian, who rejects the possibility of rational argument altogether. I have quoted this bit before in quote of the day but it is too good not to give again:

“This is perennially the work of the barbarian, to undermine rational standards of judgment, to corrupt the inherited intuitive wisdom by which the people have always lived, and to do this not by spreading new beliefs but by creating a climate of doubt and bewilderment in which clarity about the larger aims of life is dimmed and the self-confidence of the people is destroyed.”

And then there is this bit, that sounds like nothing so much as the Holy Father at Regensburg: “The barbarian is the man who makes open and explicit rejection of the traditional role of reason and logic in human affairs.”

We all recognize the barbarian. But the second threat to the argument is even more insidious. And will be the subject of my next post.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Today's quote: Nov. 20, 2006

"Three things are necessary for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe, to know what he ought to desire, and to know what he ought to do."

St. Thomas Aquinas "De duobus praeceptis caritatis"

No I can't give a translated source because I encountered this in a wonderful little book by Josef Pieper who rendered the heart of St. Thomas's thought into 532 epigramatic quotations filling less than 90 pages including white space. The book is called "The Human Wisdom of St. Thomas".

I am stalled on blogging because I feel like I can't go any further without trying to summarize for myself what I learned from Murray, and I haven't had the several hours work that would take, especially when I am determined to keep things short.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Today's quote: Nov. 17, 2006

"[I]f post-modern man, like modern man, rejects the Christian mode of existence, the result will be that an explicitly non-Christian mode of existence will progressively come into being at the heart of human life. It will have its own structure and its own substance. And since it exists, it must manifest its existence and its dynamism. And it will do so in all the violence of the chaotic. Violence is the mark of the Architect of Chaos, the Evil One, whose presence in the world is part of the structure of the world.... It was Nietzsche, I think, who said that the non-Christian man of modern times has not yet fully realized what it means to be non-Christian. But in these last decades the realization has been dawning, as we have watched the frightening emergence and multiplication of that 'senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless' man whom Paul met on the streets of non-Christian Corinth..."

John Courtney Murray, 'We Hold These Truths'

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Today's quote: Nov. 15, 2006

"[T]he political experience of modernity has essentially consisted in an effort to find and install in the world a secular substitute for all that the Christian tradition has meant by the phrase, the "freedom of the Church."

John Courtney Murray, "We Hold These Truths"

"Two there are, august Emperor, by which this world is ruled on title of original and sovereign right--the consecrated authority of the priesthood and the royal power."

Gelasius I to the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I, in 494
Quoted in Murray, above

Yes, I know the notion of a quote of the day implies every day. But I have been so deeply engaged by Murray that I could not come up for air.

Here's the short version: Murray's reputation is as a modernist who tried to reconcile Catholics to pluralism. This is an insupportable reading. What he in fact did was claim pluralism--very convincingly--as an outgrowth of Catholic Christendom and natural law translated to the infant circumstances of the U.S. And he showed how secularists would necessarily be anti-pluralist and their predominance would see the restoration of a society consumed by the unitary state including a secular state religion universally imposed.

Not bad as prophecies go.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Today's quote: Nov. 9, 2006

"It seems to have been one of the corruptions of intelligence by positivism to assume that argument ends when agreement is reached."

John Courtney Murray, 'We Hold These Truths'

But What About the First Amendment?

An essentially sympathetic friend perusing the blog comments that she could never think of herself as a Christian Democrat because “if the establishment clause means anything it has to mean my country is not a Christian democracy at its deep core.”

There is a lot in that pithy remark and I do not pretend to have a profound or complete answer. But I do have a superficial and partial answer.

Suppose for a moment a congress of Christian American leaders, belonging to diverse and disagreeing denominations gathered together to create a new governing document for our nation. What would be the first topic on their minds and what would they do about it?

Simple: The first topic, indeed the main point of such a congress would be to answer the question “how do we form a united government when we disagree profoundly on questions that go as deep as the relations of man with his Creator? How do we ‘e pluribus unum’?”

And the answer would be: “We pass the First Amendment.” It would be the first thing they would do, the thing without which they really could not expect to do anything else, democratically.

It was almost the first thing the Christians who founded this country did do, after agreeing on the basic machinery.

A people without strong religious feelings would never need the First Amendment. But a democracy of many Christian denominations could hardly do without it. Christians, at least American Christians, would want it for themselves even if there were not (which God forbid) a single non-Christian in the country. Christians would want the First Amendment even if they re-named the country (which good taste forbids) the United Christian States of America.

Now there are two narratives about how we got the First Amendment: the heroes of Protestant liberty narrative and the common sense prudential narrative (AKA the lawyers' story). Under the heroes of Protestant liberty narrative, of which Roger Williams is the usually the most heroic hero, not only religious liberty but non-establishment are understood to be invincible implications of at least Protestant theology and perhaps of the Gospels themselves.

If that narrative is historically true then the First Amendment is distinctly Christian as a matter of actual historical fact. But even if the heroes of Protestant liberty narrative is a mere latter day adornment to an eminently practical effort of law making, it remains true that the First Amendment is something a Christian nation, or at least a Christian America distinctly needs--at its deep core.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Today’s Quote: November 7, 2006

“In secularist theory there can be only one society, one law, one power, and one faith, a civic faith that is the ‘unifying’ bond of the community, whereby it withstands the assaults of assorted pluralisms.

"The secularist has always fought his battles under a banner on which is emblazoned his special device, ‘The Integrity of the Political Order.’ In the name of this thundering principle he would banish from the political order (and from education as an affair of the city) all the ‘divisive forces’ of religion.”

John Courtney Murray: ‘We Hold These Truths’

Secularists vs. Pluralists

Murray’s insight is that of the four contending religious ‘pluralisms’ in the US, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Secularist, the secularist is the only one that rejects pluralism even in theory. In America, by the latter half of the twentieth century, only the secularists were triumphalists.

This seems quite true to me, but I missed it until very recently. And it was very specifically realizing that secularists reject pluralism that caused me to stop thinking of myself as a political conservative and begin thinking of myself as a political Christian.

For a very long time, I assumed that when secular liberals used the word ‘tolerance’, they meant something like what most people mean by pluralism. And therefore it seemed to me that if we could show liberals how certain conservative initiatives to decentralize political decisions, or even move them out of the realm of politics altogether, were advances for pluralism we could win their support. (School vouchers are the paradigm, but many, even most, conservative initiatives fit the pattern.)

In brief, I thought that if we could show liberals that in America subsidiarity was almost a synonym for pluralism, they would endorse it. When they refused I tended to attribute their refusal to a hidden motive such as the Democratic Party’s fealty to the teachers unions or a deep anti-Catholic bigotry they could not admit to. This was unfair. For their motives were not hidden at all.

Because, as Murray knew, their word ‘tolerance’ did not mean pluralism at all. For the secularist, ‘tolerance’ specifically means not only denying religion a place in public life but denying religious belief or morality a place in the public conversation.

Murray died almost forty years ago (in 1967). ‘We Hold These Truths’ was first published in 1960. In his day Murray could still describe the secularists as at most a dissenting voice. Back then the Protestant faction still appeared to be the country’s most powerful, and the acrimony between Catholics and Protestants still the most important tension within the American pluralism.

Today the secularists, while still not the largest faction, are unquestionably the most powerful, largely because the terms of the debate have been skewed in their favor. The secularist war on pluralism comes closer to victory every day.

So I stopped being a conservative and became a Christian Democrat because there is no pluralism--or peace--to be had with secularists. They want to win it all. They are unhesitant about imposing their values on us by the power of the state. Their ambition is naked and unembarrassed. Our only choice is to go for the gold, not as Catholics and Protestants of course, but as Christians, with as many Jews along for the party as we can convince to come.

Of course this is already happening. I am late to the party. But if a newcomer is entitled to an opinion, I’d say the one thing this party may need is, well, a Party, or something very like it. If what we want is a Christian country—and our only other choice now is a secularist country—then we should fight under a Christian flag.

As between Christian and secularists, the civil language of pluralism, (which in the past required us to call by other names the Christian principles upon which America was founded) is now a lie. By continuing to adhere to the lie we confuse and demoralize ourselves and, in our lack of frankness open ourselves to the slanders of the secularists. And we cede to the secularists their greatest weapon, control of the terms of debate.

As among ourselves, let an ever more amicable pluralism, and as much genuine ecumenism as we can manage, with God’s help, be our commitment. But as between the secularists and ourselves let us not be deceived, we fight to win, as they have been doing all along.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Today's quote: Nov. 6, 2006

"This is perennially the work of the barbarian, to undermine rational standards of judgment, to corrupt the inherited intuitive wisdom by which the people have always lived, and to do this not by spreading new beliefs but by creating a climate of doubt and bewilderment in which clarity about the larger aims of life and the self-confidence of the people is destroyed..."

John Courtney Murray, 'We Hold These Truths'

Murray, whom I am just now reading for the first time is surprisingly unlike his popular reputation, and very good so far--RV

Friday, November 03, 2006

Today's quote

“[R]ealization of the good presupposes knowledge of reality.... The pre-eminence of prudence means that so-called “good–intention” and so-called “meaning well” by no means suffice. Realization of the good presupposes that our actions are appropriate to the real situation…and that we therefore take this concrete reality seriously, with clear-eyed objectivity.”

“Only one who previously and simultaneously loves and wants the good can be prudent”

Josef Pieper, 'Prudence: The First Cardinal Virtue'

Passion for the Prudent

Obviously I have been reading the Pieper book on Prudence (thanks to a suggestion from my Holy Family Parish friend Jim Jacobs). At some point I hope to do a precis for this space if I can keep it short enough. For now I wanted to say something about today’s two quotations, by way of distinguishing an American Christian politics from both today’s liberalism and today’s conservatism.

The first quote, about good intentions not being enough, was at the heart of the post-War conservative movement. The great fault of liberals in those days—and the reason they were skewered so easily by, e.g,. my boyhood hero and later friend and mentor Bill Buckley—was that for them politics seemed to be wholly a matter of motive. If, for instance, you were a good person and wanted to help the poor you favored an expansion of welfare programs. If you favored the working man you favored the minimum wage.

The obvious corollary to this simple-minded view was that anyone, e.g. conservatives, who demurred must therefore hate the poor and wish ill to the working man. For liberals this world view had two results. They did not govern very well—because they were too little interested in the unintended consequences of their programs. And they began losing elections because they could not to take seriously the arguments of their adversaries, whom they dismissed as moral lepers.

So I joined up with the clear-eyed conservatives. Conservatism in those days was the best available political expression of the realist tradition in philosophy, and thus represented a commitment to prudence, the particular virtue of statecraft.

But that brings us to the second quote “Only one who previously and simultaneously loves and wants the good can be prudent…” The heart of Pieper’s argument is that in the Christian tradition prudence is not mere tactical skill and certainly not mere reticence or moral miserliness. The prudent man is not Odysseus “the great tactician.” The prudent man is the man who, knowing the good for man in general, also understands the concrete reality of a given set of circumstances well enough to know how to choose for the good in those circumstances.

It is on this point, being willing and able to paint a picture of the good life for man that conservatives tended to fall short. I think this was forgivable under the circumstances. Socialism, was alive and dangerous, at home and abroad. And we had no prospect of winning political power. Naturally we focused on reducing the slice of life addressed by politics rather than on expanding a political vision. Conservative causes like school vouchers or, more broadly, strict adherence to the Constitution’s text, were all efforts at replacing acrimonious politics with pluralism or what Bob Bork famously called “neutral principles.” Tax cuts in those days were not mostly about boosting GDP, but about shifting resources from public ideas of the good to private ones.

We may have been right at the time. But what does seem clear to me is while a Christian politics must differ from liberalism in its embrace of prudence, it differs from conservatism in that its first, highest, and even most political (or evangelical) work is to paint the picture.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Thunder and Lightening

The purpose of a Christian Democracy is to make it easier for people to lead good lives and achieve eternal salvation. Since virtue is the fulfillment of nature what we mean by this is to make it easier for people to lead truly human lives, to be more like what we are meant to be.

This is hardly a grim prospect. Even the most glancing look at Christian doctrine suggests that a people trying to live the teachings of Christ would belikely to treat each other quite decently, even pleasantly.

Nor is there any reason to presume that the first resort, or perhaps even the last resort of a program of “making virtue easier” would be to punish vice. A Christian government certainly might, oh, crack down on internet pornography if this seemed a prudent course of action; but it might just as well think it prudent to legalize prostitution (as St. Thomas Aquinas famously suggested).

The last couple quotes of the day have been from Josef Pieper’s short book. Pieper, no liberal to be sure, eloquently denounced the casuistic moral theology that “becomes a science of sins instead of…a theory of the Christian idea of man….If such a casuistic doctrine of sin is combined with the moralism of isolated “observances” and “abstentions”…there arises that phenomenon (which was, after all, not completely invented by Nietzsche) of a rather vindictive and insubstantial nay-saying which serves at best to prey upon the consciences of the immature…”

No says Pieper, the orthodox Christian understanding of virtue, or even of the benefit of individual good acts, is rather focused on becoming something than doing something. “The ethical deeds of man are not more or less fixed manual techniques, whose end is the shaping of some work, but steps toward self-realization.”

The proper goal of a Christian democracy is not to pillory the man who rejects virtue but to ease the path of the man who aspires to it; not to compound the misery of men in the grip of their vices, but to build a society in which it is a bit harder for the vices to breed in the first place.

The urgent work of the Christian Democrat is to announce not denounce; to say what we are after--not who we are after.

But if we thus propose restraint compared to the usual habits of the state, this is not from timid moderation or merely passive tolerance. It is not indifference, it is not dullness, it is not the meaningless of saying 'we all really mean the same thing.' What we announce is thunder and lightening. It’s just that our thunder and lightening is Good News.

Quote of the Day

" the mold and mother of all virtues, the circumspect and resolute shaping power of our minds which transforms knowledge of reality into realization of the good."

Josef Pieper, 'Prudence: The First Cardinal Virtue'

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Who are you going to arrest first?

In the current political climate if you announce that what you want is a Christian nation, even a Christian Democracy, the first thing you will be asked is something on the order of "Who are you going to arrest first?", "Which ordinary human pleasures are your top targets for extinction?" and of course "Who will run your Inquisition?"

I am sorry to say these silly questions actually require a serious answer directed not only to obvious adversaries, or hoped for friends, but even to ourselves. Even those few Christians who allow themselves guilty fantasies of a Christian politics are often demoralized by the deep rooted assumption that a Christian politics must be a politics of busybodies and worse, moralistic, and repressive at its core, and thus of course un-American.

There are two answers, one positive and one negative. The positive answer is the answer to the question "What should a Christian democracy actually do," which is what this blog is largely about and entails an ongoing discussion.

The negative answer, however, is simply that there is no justification for the assumption as an assumption. It may prove true that some future Christian government would prove authoritarian and bullying even by the standards of governments generally. It may prove true--but the reasonable assumption runs the other way. It might be true, as so many people seem to believe, that Christendom when it existed scored very high on the historical index of repression, but it would need a close look at the history to prove it.

It would need a close look, because a quick look says just the opposite. We have just survived a century in which 100 million people more or less were slaughtered by atheism. We have just lived through an era in which all totalitarian regimes were agreed in their ambition to destroy religion, or at least any religion that retained a God capable of challenging the state. Almost all the history we really know, the history we don't have to read because we or our parents and grandparents lived through it, goes directly contrary to the standard assumption that Christian governments are more disposed to repression than secular regimes.

What is true of history is even more true of philosophy or theology. A first glance at Christian doctrine leads rather to the assumption that Christian governments would be more likely to respect basic human rights for the simple reason that Christian governments, unlike secularist governments, can actually offer some reason for believing in those rights. A rebuttable presumption to be sure, but the ball is in the anti-Christian court. And until they can hit it more impressively than they have to date, there is no reason for Christians to be demoralized about their ability to govern--as Americans.

Quote of the Day

"The highest and most fruitful achievements of Christian life depend upon the felicitous collaboration of prudence and charity."

Josef Pieper, 'Prudence: The First Cardinal Virtue'

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Quote of the Day

"There is no such thing as fighting on the winning side: one fights to find out which is the winning side."

G.K.Chesterton, 'What's Wrong with the World'

What this blog is about

The source of our very first quote of the day is one of my favorite Chesterton books, “What’s Wrong with the World.” The book is devoted to a single idea: too much political debate is about “how” and too little is about “what”. Too much about what policy we should pursue and too little about the end toward which we are pursuing it.

This is a wicked old world and no doubt those who say we will never get all we want from politics are right. But why start the game by giving up on the goal? It makes a lot more sense to start the game by stating the goal and then seeing (since we are talking Democracy) whether anyone shows up?

It was not until I was almost 50 years old that I was able to see clearly that what I want is not any of the policies and strategies and clever end-runs and slow retreats and pluralist compromises with the Left (in which the Left was never the least bit interested) I spent a couple of decades advocating as a professional conservative.

The first question of politics should always be: "What do we want?"

What I want is to live with my family in a Christian community, which implies a larger Christian society and culture, which implies in turn a Christian nation, specifically a Christian Democracy.

But following Chesterton’s advice, the first task is not to figure out how to get there but to paint a picture of what it might be like.

So that’s one thing, the main thing, this blog is about.

On the other hand, the “vision” thing doesn’t mean this place is restricted to high theory. I had some doubts actually about the title, A Christian Democracy, because I was afraid it might be too pompous and pious to sustain raucous debate. But the less pompous variants were already taken.

In any event Christian charity does not oblige us to tedium, and the number of saints with sharp tongues in their heads is not small. And they do say that sainthood is a universal calling…