Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Fr. Barron on Ross Douthat's "Bad Religion"

Paul Adams

A good discussion of a mostly good book.  But the criticism of George W. Bush and the conflation of his foreign policy with Providence needs to be balanced with a critique of the ludicrous messianism associated with the cult of Obama in 2008, which is still not entirely dead - see the embarrassing quotes from normally sane people assembled by the site that asks, Is Barack Obama the Messiah?  Bush's military adventures need to be balanced with Obama's.

Bush made possible withdrawal from Iraq by means of a successful "surge" that was much criticized at the time, by Obama among others.  Obama copied this surge strategy in Afghanistan despite warnings, from his vice-president among others, that the cases were not equivalent and it would not work.  He makes extensive, legally and morally dubious use of predator drones to assassinate people in other countries.  He led the U.S. into playing a major military role in the attack on Libya.  (For a consistent anti-interventionism, opposed as much to Republican hawks as to liberal imperialism, think of Ron Paul or The American Conservative.  We forget that throughout the last century it was liberal Democrats who led the U.S. into every war, just and unjust.  The neoconservative approach to foreign policy is a continuation of the liberal Democrat internationalist hawkishness associated with Scoop Jackson.)

Nationalism has been a deadly heresy when entangled with religion, as in the Reformation and Thirty Years War.  The American form includes the admixture of utopianism that Fr. Barron describes, a tendency to impose our will on others for their good rather than just ours in the belief that doing so will make the world a better place.  This is the Wilsonianism that led not to a program of acquiring colonies in the old imperialist vein from Greece and Rome to the British, French, and Dutch empires of the nineteenth century. but to the League of Nations.  It is a pious do-gooding form of liberal-Christian imperialism captured wonderfully in the character of the American business leader Charles Gould in Joseph Conrad's great novel, Nostromo.  

But in addition to the important distinction made by internationalist marxists between the nationalism of the oppressor and the nationalism of the oppressed - subject for another post - there is also the need to distinguish a proper patriotism from its near and far enemies, to use Buddhist terms.  That is, patriotism, rightly understood, is as Alasdair MacIntyre argues, a central moral virtue.  It involves special affection for one's own country, a sense of personal identification with the country, special concern for the well-being of the country and a willingness to sacrifice to promote the country's good the love of one's own country.  (For more on this question, see MacIntyre's (1984) Lindley Lecture, "Is Patriotism a Virtue?" and the entry, with references and links, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Patriotism.

Like other virtues, patriotism is a golden mean between two extremes.  One is the heresy to which Douthat and Barron point, conflating the good of one's country with Divine Will or Destiny.  The other, much more common among liberal elites and in the academy, is a kind of cultural self-abasement or self-loathing.  In the name of some utopian cosmopolitan moral high ground, it rejects love of country altogether and tends to support or identify with or at least excuse those who, for whatever reasons, hate the U.S.  This kind of anti-patriotism is also common in Europe, though less directed at one's own country than taking the form of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism.

Recognition of the importance of the transcendent to the American Founders, of acknowledgment of the Creator in the declaration - "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" - does not entail a belief in Manifest Destiny or an immanentizing of the Eschaton in the form the United States as shining city on a hill.  It is not nationalism as heresy though the heretical tendency was present from early on and persists today.

It does, however, imply recognition of John Adams's point about the limits of even the best constitution:
We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

Douthat's book is a sweeping argument full of insights and a brilliant diagnosis of the heresies in American religion (and "not-religion-but-spirituality").  I think it is largely right but it has some serious blind spots that are revealed when journalistic put-downs substitute for serious and fair-minded analysis.

The problems with Douthat's book are most evident in his grossly unfair treatment of Michael Novak, whom he includes  in a chapter on praying and growing rich and who also has written much on the importance of the American Founding and its principles.  Novak offers no nostrums for getting rich.  He is concerned with economic development and acknowledges that capitalism has lifted more of humanity out of poverty and done more to enlarge human freedom than all previous systems put together.  Novak's concern is with reconciling a Catholicism that was historically anti-capitalist and anti-liberal (for good historical reasons) with a liberal capitalist order that offered the best prospect in a fallen world for human creativity, freedom, and innovation.  He stands in the tradition of Tocqueville, Acton, and JP II, none of whom is concerned with making money, though all recognized the potential of liberal, democratic capitalism, rightly understood, to require and develop the virtues required for a vibrant, free society.

Douthat pretends to be anti-capitalist, quoting some prelate to the effect that capitalism is flawed or sinful in its DNA.  What does that even mean?  Economic systems don't have DNA, so it can't be taken literally.  And what other economic system is not the flawed expression of a fallen humanity or is less so than capitalism?  Slavery, feudalism, socialism?  Douthat ducks a serious argument with a quote from a cardinal.

In the same way he quotes Novak quoting Ken Lay and then reveals, in a gotcha line (p. 207), that Novak was quoting the founder of Enron.  So what?  It was early in the Lay/Enron story, but what in any case is wrong with what Lay says in Novak's quote from him?  It is not about getting rich but creating "an ethical environment in which every individual is allowed and encouraged to realize their God-given potential" (Douthat, p.207, quoting Novak quoting Lay).  Isn't that a worthy goal, inconceivable under slavery, serfdom, or 'actually existing socialism'?  So what's the point?  That Lay didn't live up to his own ideals?  Novak is as aware as Karl Barth that we are fallen creatures, and the fact that Lay had feet of clay hardly invalidates what he says here.  (Nor does Douthat even bother to argue otherwise.)  It reminds me of what a Buddhist teacher said to me about a world-famous meditation teacher from Tibet who engaged in all kinds of womanizing and corrupt behavior:  "The Dharma [teachings] come through him as clear as a bell.   But he cannot hear them."

In my view, the Catholic tendency to condemn liberal capitalism - a product of the bitter and lethal hostility of European liberals in the 19th century to the Church - was a serious problem that made it very hard over decades for the Church to respond adequately to the new developments of urban, capitalist modernity and the collectivist alternative.  The ambivalences in Catholic social teaching reflect this need for theoretical development. Novak rose to the challenge and did some very important work to resolve the inadequacy.  His classic, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, was read clandestinely all over Eastern Europe and guided key figures there in forging a path from communist totalitarianism to democratic capitalism.  His work was what enabled JP II to make the distinction in his great social encyclical, Centesimus Annus (1991).  Asking whether capitalism was the model which shd be proposed, as the alternative to statist totalitarianism, to Third World countries searching "for the path to true economic and political progress," JP II responds that the answer is obviously complex:

"If by capitalism is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative....  But if by capitalism is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative."

It seems to me absurd and grossly unfair to reduce Novak's great work in this area to a variant of the gospel of wealth, to a Mammon over God heresy, etc.  (By the way, Douthat was attacked by a liberal Catholic reviewer, Michael Sean Winters in the Atlantic, for being an uncritical "comrade" and fellow neocon of Novak.  Douthat defends himself by distancing himself further from Novak and pointing to the Lay quote.  One can only tremble at the thought of what degeneration is in store for Douthat as he continues to work with the denizens of the NYT.

But I do think that, Douthat's mistreatment of Novak notwithstanding, the book is pretty good.

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