Is the United States a revolutionary ideological state? If so, what does that mean for Catholics?
Those can be hard questions to answer, partly because Americans have usually thought of their country as middle-class and middle-of-the-road, and partly because classification of something as big and messy as America is a difficult problem—especially when you try to do it from within.
Part of the problem is language. “Ideology” most often means “political view I don’t agree with.” Even when used in a more objective sense it has a variety of meanings. So to be clear, I’m using it to mean a simplified view of man and society developed chiefly with political and social consequences in mind. A revolutionary ideology, then, is one that calls for transformation of social life. And a revolutionary ideological state is one that believes it has a mission to carry forward such a transformation.
In short, a revolutionary ideological state is what you get when you give a radical movement the powers of government. The Soviet Union was such a state. In contrast, the pre-Constantinian Roman Empire was neither revolutionary nor ideological, since it lacked a comprehensive vision of its own and left pre-existing gods, philosophies, and customs in place.
Nor were traditional Catholic monarchies. They weren’t revolutionary, since they didn’t feel called to transform the world. The Church had that responsibility, and she was theoretically and practically independent of the king. And in any event she’s not ideological, since she’s more concerned with the truth of doctrine than its social effects.
But how about the United States? It’s evidently an ideological state. Chesterton notes that it’s founded on a creed, and most people would agree that the creed is some combination of freedom and equality. As such it contains some objective truth, since we are indeed free and equal in basic ways. Even so, treating those principles as supreme—without regard, for example, to truth, virtue, and ordinary human connections—is evidently an ideological simplification of reality. And the United States is ever more clearly treating them in just that way.
Nonetheless, it’s surprising to think of the United States government as revolutionary. After all, America is a long-established consumer society with free speech, free markets, and free elections. So it seems our institutions and social life would already reflect the outlook and aspirations of our people. How could a government that wants radical transformation win elections in such a country? Wouldn’t people prefer to keep things more or less as they are?
The argument seems persuasive, but it collides with reality, since American government has been growing increasingly radical. For proof, consider the recent advances made by causes like gay marriage, transgenderism, and the demand for ever more permeable borders. The first is now treated as part of the Constitution, the second is apparently becoming so, and the third must increasingly be accepted on pain of being treated as irredeemably bigoted.
Why is this happening?
Lincoln considered equality our national creed. A feature of that creed is that its demands multiply endlessly. That is why Ralph Waldo Emerson commented that “every reform is only a mask under cover of which a more terrible reform, which dares not yet name itself, advances.”
Over the years the demands of equality have therefore become more radical. Beginning in the 1960s they came to include not only legal equality but legally-enforced eradication of social distinctions related to personal identity. So it is now thought that all identity groups—which are increasingly defined subjectively, as in the case of transgenderism—ought to be equally present and equally honored in all settings.
That aspiration, which implies a profound continuing revolution in institutions and human relations, is increasingly enforced legally. To dispute it even in limited ways is more and more to be considered a bigot unfit to participate in public discussion or even hold a job. The result has been cascading demands for diversity, inclusiveness, gay marriage, transgenderism, safe spaces, breaking of glass ceilings, confronting of microaggressions, abolition of white privilege, mandatory preferred pronoun use, demographic transformation through immigration, denial of platforms to dissidents, and so on.
Nor is that all. How we understand our position in the world depends on what we think the world is like. The Supreme Court has therefore read equal treatment of philosophical outlooks into our constitution. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey it told us that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
Each of us must therefore be able to create his own meanings, and none can be given preference. Anything else would be equivalent to creating an established religion, and that would marginalize people who don’t accept it. That is why, for example, American law can’t treat an unborn child as a human being with a right to life, or homosexual and normal sexual relations as different in significance: many people don’t look at things that way, and their outlook must have equal status.
All this is anti-Catholic, anti-social, and anti-reality. Catholics hold that some concepts of existence, meaning, the universe, and the mystery of human life are correct and others are false. They hold, for example, that there is a natural way for the world to work, and consequently a natural law that—among other things—distinguishes men and women, and says that unborn babies shouldn’t arbitrarily be killed. If enforcing public acceptance of a contrary view is a necessary government policy because it’s part of fighting bigotry and that’s a basic responsibility of government, then Catholics are enemies of the state. And that is increasingly the position in which we find ourselves.
But the United States is not the Soviet Union. Government efforts at social transformation are ultimately dependent here on election returns. The hierarchical nature of modern social organization, the dominance of progressive elites in education and the news media, and the growing importance of judicial decisions and bureaucratic determinations in government have greatly reduced the importance of that point. Even so, recent events demonstrate that it’s still very much a factor. The election of Donald Trump, with his apparent imperviousness to the influence of his presumed betters, and his consequent doubts about causes such as abortion, transgenderism, and perpetual demographic transformation, demonstrates continuing popular opposition to the ruling ideology.
The distraught response of respectable public opinion to that event, and the varied efforts to get rid of the man, confirm the continuing deep hold of radical ideology on our public life and institutions. The problem is that it’s very difficult for America today to do without ideology. A diverse country of continental size awash in electronic pop culture and culturally disrupted by continuous mass migration from everywhere can’t understand itself as a traditional sort of country: a particular place inhabited by a particular people who deal with their common affairs through a government set up in accordance with the beliefs and customs accepted among them. We need a general principle to keep us together that has enough content to guide public life and is viewed as intrinsically binding on everyone in the country.
That principle isn’t going to be a complex system of speculative truth like Catholicism or natural law theory. America is much too chaotic for that. Under the circumstances, it’s hard to see what it could be other than an ideology—a simplified view of the world created and propagated for political and social purposes. And it’s hard to see what that ideology could be based on other than freedom and equality—everyone’s equal ability to get what he wants, consistent with the needs of the system as defined by those who run it.
Hence the extreme difficulty of the Church’s position. She finds herself in an increasingly ideological society whose ideology is ever more anti-human, anti-Catholic, and compulsory. The only recent event that seems to give her hope for breathing room is the election of Donald Trump. But Trump’s resistance to the continuing revolution seems likely ultimately to fail, if only because influential public thinkers and actors overwhelmingly oppose the man and everything he stands for. Anyone who wants to think seriously about Catholics and politics at the present time needs to give that predicament its full weight.
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