Rethinking the American Experiment

A review of "The Race to Save Our Century: Five Core Principles to Promote Peace, Freedom, and a Culture Of Life"

In the aftermath of a terrible civil war pitting brother against brother, the Theban ruler Creon ordered the body of the traitor Polynices, his own nephew, be left unburied outside the city walls, to be devoured by the vultures and jackals. By stealth, Polynices’ sister Antigone flouts this decree, giving Polynices the funeral rites she owes him as a female of his family. Even the head of state himself, Antigone proclaims, “has no right to keep me from my own.” Soon Creon learns of Antigone’s defiance, however, and sentences her to be entombed alive, niece or no: “Though she is my sister’s child or nearer to me in blood than any that worships Zeus at the altar of our house,” he resolves grimly, she “shall not avoid a doom most dire.” 

From there, the tragedy moves inexorably toward its catastrophic conclusion. By refusing to let go of his enmity for the dead Polynices, Creon offends the gods of the underworld; by denying Antigone’s claim to her own flesh and blood, he offends the Olympians who sanction such familial bonds as sacred. The result is disaster not only for Creon, but for all of Thebes.

Wherever else we might part company, I agree with John Zmirak and Jason Scott Jones, authors of The Race to Save Our Century: Five Core Principles to Promote Peace, Freedom, and a Culture Of Life, that Sophocles’ Antigone is a timeless work, one which deserves more attention. We also could agree on the general explanation for the tragic, catastrophic events of recent generations. Like Creon, modern leaders have succumbed to hubris:

How did we get here? Put simply and starkly, Western man tried to pursue a humanist project of understanding and uplifting human life, and in the process he identified God as an obstacle, even an enemy. So we tried to root him out. We tried to create consistent systems that preserved all the good things we take for granted in Western society, while denying God. That is, we tried to build the steeple on the church of humanity with steel ripped from its foundations. Predictably, the whole tower collapsed in the killing fields of the twentieth century.

In short, the West now attempts to treat human dignity as a premise rather than as a conclusion drawn from a particular vision of the world. With the classical Christian theological framework that justified and demonstrated it ripped away, the value of the individual now rests upon a nakedly fideistic affirmation. Per the secularist humanitarian, every man deserves consideration not because his soul is a marvel that reflects his good and glorious Creator, but—well, because. As Jones and Zmirak rightly note, the mere word because is hardly much of a reassurance for those of us who worry about modern trends.

Such worry leads Jones and Zmirak to scrutinize the decision to employ nuclear weapons against Japan during World War II. Archibishop Fulton Sheen’s opinion—one not widely publicized in America, as the authors point out—was that the “idea that freedom means having no boundaries and no limits […] began on the sixth of August 1945 at 8:15 am when we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.” Clearly sympathetic to Sheen’s position, the authors are nonetheless careful to avoid the smug, Monday morning quarterback tone employed by some critics of the bombing. While upholding just war principles, they are also sensitive to the fact that it is easier to noisily condemn decisions in retrospect than it is to actually make them, in the heat of the moment.

And readers may rest assured that the authors aren’t content to critique Harry Truman. Jones and Zmirak likewise take aim at a conceit that has irritated me for some time—the idea that feminism, unlike other -isms, bears no responsibility for any injustices. Such a claim can only be made by forgetting that leading feminists, including Simone de Beauvoir, collaborated with ruthless Communist regimes during the Cold War. And, for that matter, the case against abortion. The fetus is the new kulak, contend the authors, who then throw some pessimistic cold water on the project of Christian feminism:

The core feminist project of leveling the playing field for women, granting them the same erotic and economic freedom enjoyed by “emancipated” men, is simply unachievable without abortion […] Well-meaning attempts by faithful women to foster a “pro-life feminism” are doomed to fail, unless feminism is completely recast and purged of its corrosive fixation on power imbalances as the operative factor in every human relationship. That seems unlikely.

In effect, to “redeem” feminism would actually mean replacing feminism with an entirely different movement—one that repudiates revolutionary ideology, acknowledges human nature, and celebrates the particular virtues and roles of each sex, male as well as female. This would be rather like “redeeming” Marxism by coming up with a movement that acknowledges Church authority, national identity, and private property, and then dubbing said movement “Marxism.”

Worthwhile observations such as the preceding pepper the book. However, I must express reservations about other passages—those belittling American Southerners, for instance, or those which censure Greco-Roman authoritarianism. Far from representing an effort to take a fresh look at our situation and how we got here, such passages strike me as being hobbled by the conservative establishment’s safe, one-sided conventional wisdom.

While The Race To Save Our Century is occasionally quite penetrating, when taken as a whole it proves a prime example of what C.S. Lewis was talking about in his essay “On The Reading of Old Books”:

Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny […]

Where [modern books] are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill.

I would furthermore suggest that when Americans do read old books they should be scrutinizing liberal democracy by the light of the old book, rather than merely searching the old book for something that affirms the ideals of liberal democracy. I mention this because Zmirak and Jones, in their analysis of Antigone, note a truth that nine out of ten 21st-century American Christians could probably see on their own—that the tragedy testifies to the power of “a transcendent moral order” which encompasses friends and enemies alike—yet also miss just what nine out of ten 21st-century American Christians would miss. And that which most people miss is precisely what needs brought into focus: the aforementioned transcendent moral order mandates respect for tradition and for blood ties. What the misguided Creon learns too late is that the state may only incorporate, not replace, the basic stages of social development—the family, the tribe, the deme, the province—through greater communities. He learns that the ruler who rashly tries to neutralize fundamental, primordial networks of fealty and personal attachment ultimately undermines the very ground upon which his own rule rests. As Antigone herself makes explicit, her primary motivation is her sacred duty to her kin. Hence to imagine the play as a paean to individual human rights or civil disobedience as we understand it is to view it anachronistically.

To be fair, the authors do offer a fine, eloquent description of subsidiarity, which teaches that our power of empathizing with distant strangers and even enemies grows and is perfected, step by step, out of our natural affections for “those with whom one has shared upbringing and blood.” But the pessimist in me feels certain that the only theme the typical college-educated hipster will draw from this book is the one encapsulated by exhortations to “feel some solidarity with strangers halfway across the world whose village was swamped by a mudslide,” to “embrace every human being regardless of citizenship, race, or religion.” In other words, he will draw out from it the theme that has been pounded into him not only by saccharine television programming (consider Coca-Cola’s super-banal “America the Beautiful” Superbowl commercial) but also by sanctimonious newspaper editorials, manipulative politicians’ speeches, and leftist-controlled academia.

From Dick Cheney and Hilary Clinton to Glenn Beck and Marvel Comics, no major figure or institution of the Pax Americana regime seriously questions the moral unity of the human family. Indeed, the case can be made that the very drone wars and disastrous US-sponsored upheavals deplored by Zmirak and Jones are precisely the result of a devotion to the “universal rights of man,” insofar as promoting such rights justify an American drive to achieve total dominance over every last corner of the planet. What is glossed over by Western elites is not the brotherhood of all peoples, but the truth that the cultivation of brotherhood begins at home. Likewise what is glossed over by many Catholic leaders in our rootless, acultural, and deracinated era is the fact that “home” is no longer a category of the collective consciousness. For any really ambitious critique of contemporary culture, the focus must be upon the extent to which natural, healthy affections as such have been singled out for attack as primitive, atavistic, and retrograde, as blocking the way for a new egalitarian-universalist mentality.

Having rebelled against his Creator, modern man tries to reinvent himself as if he were not an organic being, as if he had no roots, no ancestors, no particular history, no heritage—as if he were a being of pure spirit, or a machine, or a standardized yet infinitely malleable pod-person grown in a laboratory. As he has “progressed” beyond a reverence for kinship that he deems barbaric, he doesn’t worry all that much when fathers abandon families, when mothers prioritize careers over having and rearing children, when elderly parents and grandparents are swept away into nursing homes, when paternal authority is made an object of mockery, when sexuality’s proper function of propagating nations has been publicly repudiated for the sake of sentimental hedonism. Those of us who worry about such evils—let alone about tyranny at home, or monsters abroad—need to first rethink the tellingly-named American Experiment itself.

The Race to Save Our Century: Five Core Principles to Promote Peace, Freedom, and a Culture Of Life
by Jason Scott Jones and John Zmirak
Crossroad Publishing Company, 2014
Hardcover; 192 pages

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About Jerry Salyer 56 Articles
Catholic convert Jerry Salyer is a philosophy instructor and freelance writer.