There is a consequential debate going on right now in intellectual Catholic circles that ought to interest all Catholics. It can be found in the (often digital) pages of First Things, Law and Liberty, Public Discourse, and other places. To simplify drastically, the battle is between two sides, one pro- and the other anti-America. Some of these exchanges are highly technical and academic, while others are accessible to a wider audience. Robert Reilly’s America on Trial falls in the latter category, though it doesn’t completely avoid fine-grained historical and philosophical analysis. For a synopsis of the central issues in the debate and a powerful argument for the pro-America team, America on Trial is the place to go.
Reilly immediately provides context for his examination of the American Founding by describing the motivation for his book. There are things about contemporary American culture that distress all serious Catholics. (As the author of Making Gay Okay, Reilly’s bona fides as a critic of current trends are well in order.) All parties in the debate share an aversion to a culture of entitlement, hedonism, disrespect for human life, and religious apathy. The difference between the two sides hinges on the question: is the current American malaise a corruption of the American Founding order, or is it a fulfillment of it?
Answering this question is no easy task, for it implicates a vast array of contested issues such as the nature of liberalism and natural law, the relationship between church and state, and the role of religion in the Founding. All of these have intertwining historical, philosophical, and theological threads. With admirable clarity and concision, Reilly elucidates the issues and offers his own, well-informed conclusions.
I write “his own,” but they aren’t his originally or exclusively, because he’s borrowing from others. To say this is not to diminish his achievement, nor is it to say anything that Reilly doesn’t himself admit in the course of the book. The fact is that these debates have been going on for a long time. You can find them in similar guise in this country in the 1950s, and you can find them in less direct parallel during the Enlightenment, the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, and even the early centuries of the Church. Participants include the Apostle Paul, Constantine, Pope Gelasius, Thomas Aquinas, Pope Gregory VII, Charles Carroll, Orestes Brownson, Jacques Maritain, and John Courtney Murray.
Reilly knows this history and draws on it to illuminate the contours of the current debate. The villains of his narrative are William of Ockham, Martin Luther, and Thomas Hobbes, all of whom undermined the natural law-based faith/reason synthesis that evolved over the course of Christian history and culminated in medieval scholasticism. Reilly correctly observes that, although the central debate about will and intellect sometimes maps onto the Protestant/Catholic divide, the demarcations are not identical. Many Catholics have embraced nominalism and many non-Catholics have rejected it.
In the latter group, Reilly insists, are the American Founders. Calling Hobbes “the path not taken by the Founders” (172), Reilly shows that the fundamental split between the medieval natural-law approach and the modernist primacy-of-the-will approach persisted through the Enlightenment. John Locke is a key figure and, as Reilly rightly notes, something of a chameleon—his appearance shifts from classical natural law to modern voluntarism and back again. Be that as it may, Reilly convincingly argues, the Founders perceived and relied on the natural-law Locke.
The current debate not only reflects a long history; it also reaches across ideological and political borders. Reilly’s argument explicitly engages the conservative Catholic world, but a similar division has rankled other segments of American thought, including the secular left. One can see it, for example, in the long struggle for civil rights for African Americans. Reilly briefly notes the radical views of the 19th-century abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who publicly burned copies of the Constitution and called it an “agreement with Hell.” The division between pro-America and anti-America camps persisted. Martin Luther King, Jr., the recognized leader in the Civil Rights Movement’s heyday, drew on natural law, the country’s founding documents, and Christian morality in making his case for an end to racial discrimination. He believed his country was essentially good and that reform of the nation’s laws and attitudes would be adequate to realize his dream of racial harmony. But there were (and remain) other voices, such as the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers, who criticized King’s conciliatory approach, saw America as irredeemably corrupt, and, in some cases, preached racial separation and revolution to overturn the white-dominated structures of power.
Similarly, the American left today is split. Some believe that a market economy and representative democracy are fundamentally sound and that moderate reform is the path to continued progress. Others insist that radical change, a throwing over of the established order, is necessary.
Thus the debate Reilly engages confounds conventional lines of division in intriguing ways. Progressives agree on the chief problems of American society: inequality, poverty, discrimination. Conservative Catholics also agree with each other on the problems: the coarsening of public mores, family breakdown, declining religious belief and practice. Yet within both progressive and conservative circles there is disagreement about the best path forward. One group sees the American project as rotten at the core; the other believes that it provides a solid foundation on which to build a better society.
These debates—religious and secular, right and left—matter, because they reflect fundamental attitudes about whether and how to attempt to fashion a common, beneficent American society. Late in the book, Reilly identifies precisely the negative consequence of promulgating the anti-America viewpoint: demoralization. Students who imbibe this view “feel they no longer have a country they can love and should wish to serve” (317).
Yet the primary reason to stand with Reilly in this quarrel is not because of the practical ramifications of letting the other side win. It’s because he’s right. It must be conceded that American laws, customs, and culture have always been contested. Anti-natural law, anti-Catholic strains have always been present. But the main thrust of the Founding was compatible with the Catholic faith in exactly the ways Reilly outlines. Our current problems are not primarily due to a logical working out of essentially corrupt founding principles. They are the deplorable result of abandoning those principles.
There were flaws in the Founding, and those flaws have been exploited. Some of the founders were excessively fearful of the influence of churches (Roman Catholic in particular) and they left the door open to the nonsensically anti-Christian jurisprudence that has plagued much of our federal court system. But most of the Founders were far more concerned that religion continue to flourish than that its influence be limited. On this and many other counts, contemporary American law and culture is a distortion, not a fulfillment, of the original American proposition.
We should not dismiss the warnings of the anti-America Cassandras. It is possible that American society will become fundamentally incompatible with genuine Catholic life and Catholics will be compelled to disengage. It has happened, at one time or another, in places such as Mexico, France, England, and Germany. There are powerful forces pulling in that direction, even now, and their influence is manifest in, for example, the marginalization of Catholic adoption agencies over the issue of homosexual adoption; the persecution of the Little Sisters of the Poor over the issue of contraceptive insurance coverage; and the absurd “reasoning” of decisions such as Roe v. Wade and Obergefell. Should we reach the breaking point, our country and our culture will be given up for dead and we will retreat to our Catholic ghettos, build our hideaways for priests, and hope and pray for the reconstruction of a better society after the old one has fallen into ruin.
Reilly asserts—and I agree—that we aren’t there yet, and I hope we don’t live to see it. But it will come more quickly if Catholics withdraw from the fight. Reilly has not. May many Catholics read his book and gain intellectual and moral sustenance for the days ahead.
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