Michael Novak Says Why the United States Is Still Laudable

Interview with a Leading Catholic Intellectual

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WASHINGTON, D.C., NOV. 22, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Can the world still admire the United States?

Absolutely, is the answer of Michael Novak, one of the country´s leading Catholic intellectuals, and a firm believer in Americans´ generosity and religiosity.

The George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute recently gave this interview to ZENIT.

Q: The United States is identified as the world´s principal economic and military superpower, yet it embodies the main values of Western civilization and Judeo-Christian thought. Can you clarify what these values are, and why the United States is so imbued with them?

Novak: To think of Americans as materialists is to get things all wrong, upside-down, crazy. There are a few materialists among us, very few. Mostly, we believe.

To think of us as secular is to mistake the most vocal 8% for the religious whole. “The first political institution of the American republic is their religion,” Tocqueville wrote — I paraphrase.

From our religion we get our sense of the importance of the individual, our love for liberty as the deepest drive in the human breast (at the origin of inquiry, at the origin of love and friendship), our sense of equality before God, our fiery friendship for one another, and our willingness to die for our experiment in liberty.

And our religion teaches us that at its pure root is the conscience of each. Though we are each called to one community, the roads by which we journey to that community are many, often twisting and obscure, and in any case to be traversed by each man and each woman, and each community of faith, at an individual pace, in an individual way.

As the things of Caesar are not the things of God, they must not be given to the latter, nor the things of God to Caesar. So also experience shows that a pluralism of religious paths is best.

The God who wants our friendship will accept it only freely given, from the depths of the conscience of each. For the conscience of each, therefore, more than tolerance is due — respect. The same respect the Creator lavishes on it, with infinite patience for each.

All of us in America know in our ancestral memory — often not further back than two or three generations ago — what it was like to have lived in other lands.

We know that there we could have worked physically harder, and in the end had less to show for it. We know that there we would scarcely have been half as free as here. We would have had less than half the opportunity.

Here, we know we have no excuses. Here in America is the fairest place that ever was. We each have our chances. If we don´t use them, blame us. Don´t blame America.

2) Anti-Americans in Europe and elsewhere accuse the U.S. of the worst things. Their propaganda spreads far, in part, because few people know how much the U.S. contributes in the form of food and humanitarian aid, for emergencies and human rights struggles. Maybe you can give us some data?

Novak: Americans are a generous people. For each of the last 10 years, the U.S.A. has been the No. 1 contributor of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Before that, the last time we risked our soldiers in combat was also in protection of Muslims, in Kosovo.

Not long ago, after having rushed food aid and other supplies to Somalia in order to rescue millions from a terrible famine and ethnic bloodshed, American troops were viciously attacked and dragged through the streets when they tried, imprudently, to seize one of the warlords who were causing much of the suffering.

The point is, the last three major international interventions of Americans, putting our sons at risk, were on behalf of Muslims.

In my judgment, even the present struggle against terrorism is on behalf of Muslims everywhere, who in every Muslim country today live under the threat of violence, extortion and coercion by terrorist extremists. These extremists are subordinating the noble religion of Islam to their own extremist political agenda.

Fortunately, the Arab leaders of the Taliban in Afghanistan have disgraced their own ambitions, and live under a cloud of great unpopularity for their policies of torture and intimidation. Much the same is true of the reputation of the political extremists who took over Iran 20 years ago — their severe methods have made them very unpopular.

In the United States, Americans give hundreds of billions of dollars of their own money every year to universities, research institutes, clinics, private schools, churches and thousands of private charities — both local and international.

Just last week I was lecturing at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, one of the greatest of the more than 300 Catholic universities supported by private giving in the U.S.A.

There I learned that Notre Dame has raised $1.4 billion in private donations in their most recent fund-raising campaign. This is just one university out of the more than 2,000 private universities in the U.S.A.
I think there is nothing like this anywhere in Europe — indeed, anywhere in the world.

Americans do not like to rely on the state for financial help. They prefer to rely on private giving, as much as possible.

In Europe, churches receive funds for salaries of the clergy and for repairs on church buildings from the state; not so in America. Here we would oppose that mixing of church and state strenuously.

We protect our freedom by shouldering the burden of raising all funds for churches out of our own pockets. We consider it an honor, as well as an obligation, to give generously to our churches, universities, medical research facilities and other charities.

People in Italy will remember the aid that Americans sent during recent terrible earthquakes in the North. Other countries — Nicaragua, Rwanda, Bangladesh, El Salvador, Somalia, Bosnia, Taiwan, etc. — have also received similar disaster relief.

Judaism and Christianity have taught us that those who are blessed with abundance have an obligation to help out the less fortunate. That teaching is one of God´s greatest blessings, for which we give thanks by giving to others.

3) You have just written a book — “On Two Wings.” Can you tell us about its goals, its contents and its prospectives?

Novak: Contrary to conventional histories, the American Republic took flight on two wings: not only on the Enlightenment, but also on faith in the God of the ancient Hebrews, the God of liberty.

In “Jewish Metaphysics at the Founding,” I show that the God of the founders was not the God of deism. The public acts of the Continental Congress employ the Hebrew names of God and their implied metaphysics of open history, contingency, individuality and liberty. Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence and 38 signers of the Constitution, all but one or two were deeply influenced by the Hebrew Bible.

In Chapter 2, “Plain Reason and Humble Faith,” I show that by “reason” the founders meant the qualities of mind to which the Federalist addressed its arguments: sober reflection and calm deliberation; an ability to overcome passion and self-interest; a capacity to consider the larger picture; and a due regard for the long experience of mankind.

Faith is the habit of seeing things through the eyes of the Creator, as discerned in the Bible. James Wilson: “The law of nature and the law of revelation are both divine; they flow, though through different channels, from the same adorable source.” Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the least religious founder, often stated his belief in a Creator, Governor, Providence, and Judge to Whom all will answer after death.

As in classical Christian writing, the founders placed Lockean terms such as “state of nature” and “nature´s law” in a biblical context.

To the benefit of republican institutions, faith adds severa
l worldly strengths to reason: a cosmic stage for the drama of liberty; instruction in a watchful conscience; restraint of vice and gains in social peace; fixed, stable and general ideas on the meaning of life; a check on the downward bias of material interests; a conception of morality as a personal relation with the Creator; a motive for acting well even in secret; and the quiet regulation of mores in marriage, to undergird social trust in the larger polity.

Chapter 3 weaves together separate strands of American experience: the inalienable loneliness of individual conscience before the face of God; a new type of moral community; and a new religious architectonic.

Because human beings in pursuit of their own happiness have a propensity to trample on the rights of others, religious liberty is fragile. To block this abuse, the founders provided public pillars of moral strength in many religions, rather than one national establishment of one religion.

Three stories bring these strands together: how the young James Madison reacted to a posse that rode up on horseback, halted the sermon of a Baptist minister, and gave him a public whipping for not having license to preach; why the new Constitution of Massachusetts moved to provide universal religious education; and how the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights carefully refrained both from establishing a national church and from disestablishing the existing state churches.

These stories illustrate the new order of the ages: a community of free consciences, anchored in moral and religious seriousness.

James Madison had opposed a Bill of Rights, for fear such a Bill would weaken any rights left unexpressed. Under pressure from the Baptists, who wanted their religious rights written down — they did not trust the Virginia Anglicans — he masterfully guided the Bill of Rights through Congress.

The Congress designed the First Amendment — “Congress shall make no law” — not to indicate hostility or opposition to religion, but rather approval of it, as indispensable to the well-being of a free republic.

Chapter 4, “A Religious Theory of Rights,” highlights the founders deep sense of personal responsibility before the Divine Judge.

No human agency can interfere with that responsibility. Each man and woman has been created by God, and is called to be a friend of God, and will be held responsible for a personal response.

In this inalienable responsibility lies the ground of human dignity. Natural rights are grounded in faith in a Divine Judge. See “Madison´s “Remonstrance” and Jefferson´s draft for the Virginia “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom.”

From the beginning, Catholic travelers who came to America — Hector St. Jean Crévecoeur, Philip Mazzei, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, Casimir Pulaski, Le Marquis de Lafayette and Alexis de Tocqueville — expressed a powerful affinity for the American experiment, and found America closer to the Catholic vision of the good City than any prior regime in history, for four reasons.

One, in its very founding, as manifested in the ratification debates, this republic rests upon the classical activities of reflection and choice.

Two, the American synthesis of faith and reason rests more comfortably with the Catholic tradition than in the evangelical Protestant tradition.

Three, America is publicly open to the transcendent God, in the sense that the power of Congress cannot seal off the sphere of the Almighty: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Four, in honoring the natural and civic virtues, without ceasing to give thanks to God, American political culture honors both nature and grace.

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