Church-State Relations in America and Europe (Part 3)

Robert Kraynak on Catholicism and Americanism

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HAMILTON, New York, MARCH 27, 2005 ( Catholicism in the United States is in tension with both the anti-papist theology of original Calvinism and the social forces of democracy that are independent of Calvinism.

So says Robert Kraynak, professor of political science at Colgate University and author of «Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World» (Notre Dame).

Kraynak shared with ZENIT how, despite tensions, Catholics have contributed to the vitality of American democracy by keeping alive the natural law tradition of the American founding that most Protestants never fully appreciated and that modern skeptics now denigrate.

Part 2 of this interview appeared Saturday.

Q: What role did Catholics such as Charles Carroll play at the American founding? How have Catholics such as Orestes Brownson, John Courtney Murray, S.J., and Michael Novak contributed to the continuing vitality of American democracy?

Kraynak: Despite the tensions mentioned above, most Catholics have a deep love for America. The anti-Catholicism of Protestant America did not prevent Catholic immigrants from Europe and Latin America from feeling gratitude to America for its economic opportunities and religious liberty, even if meant living in separate Catholic ghettos or neighborhoods.

In fact, many Catholic leaders and intellectuals eventually came to believe in an essential harmony of Catholicism and Americanism.

Charles Carroll, for example, was a member of a prominent Catholic family in Maryland and also a signer of the Declaration of Independence who became a personal friend of George Washington.

Orestes Brownson was a lively 19th-century intellectual who converted to Catholicism. In his book, «The American Republic,» he argued for the unity of the republic based on a higher law that was more fundamental than a social contract of the states.

Likewise, John Courtney Murray argued in the 20th century that the American experiment in self-government is based on the higher law of the Declaration of Independence — on God-given natural rights that find their fullest expression in Catholic natural law and its teaching about the dignity of the human person.

Michael Novak follows in Murray’s footsteps, arguing that Catholic natural law is the true basis of America’s «democratic capitalism» with its voluntary associations of free persons.

I think these Catholics have contributed to the vitality of American democracy by keeping alive the natural law tradition of the American founding that most Protestants never fully appreciated and that modern skeptics now denigrate.

At the same time, Catholics have insisted that the natural law tradition of America must go beyond its Enlightenment roots in Lockean liberalism and be supplemented by the natural law teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas which directs freedom to the higher ends of virtue and the common good.

The split among Catholics is whether the elevation of American natural law to Thomistic natural law is easy or hard. The figures mentioned in this question think that the fit is relatively smooth and harmonious, while others think that inherent tensions between Catholicism and Americanism mean that the best that one can achieve is a prudent alliance.

Q: Francis Cardinal George has said that the United States’ cultural and political heritage is «Calvinist» in orientation and that there is a tension between Catholicism and the American Experiment. Is this an accurate view from your perspective?

Kraynak: The relation between Catholicism and Americanism is a complicated story, although it usually boils down to two schools of thought. One school views the relation as inherently harmonious, the other sees inherent tensions.

The school of «harmony» is very popular and includes influential figures such as John Courtney Murray. The school of «disharmony,» however, is gaining adherents and includes Francis Cardinal George, David Schindler of Communio and many traditional Catholics.

While I lean to the second school, I disagree with Cardinal George about the causes of the inherent tensions. He dislikes the competitive individualism of America because it seems incompatible with Catholic notions of solidarity and the common good, and he rejects a consumer-entertainment culture that trivializes spiritual life. He traces these tendencies to the «secularized Calvinism» of America.

Certainly, Calvinism is a crucial part of American history because the early Puritans were Calvinists, and their theology was intensely anti-Catholic — many Puritans viewed the Pope as the Antichrist.

But Calvinism is not the best explanation for the social trends that disturb Cardinal George because Calvinism, even in its secularized forms, is not especially individualistic or materialistic. The Puritans favored a theocratic Christian society that emphasized America’s national covenant with God — a New Israel — and the rule of the «visible Saints» — God’s predestined elect.

Cardinal George seems to equate Calvinism with Max Weber’s «Protestant work ethic» in order to explain America’s obsession with competitive individualism, economic success and materialism.

But these features are not so much products of Calvinism as of modern democracy, as Alexis de Tocqueville shows in «Democracy in America.»

In fact, Tocqueville praises the Puritans for creating strong local communities, and he traces the weakening of Puritan communalism to the democratic idea of «equality of condition» — which causes Americans to seek upward mobility through economic competition and to withdraw from public into private life.

I agree with Tocqueville in seeing individualism and materialism as products of the mass culture of democracy, which means Catholicism is in tension with both the anti-papist theology of original Calvinism and the social forces of democracy that are independent of Calvinism.

Q: The religion clauses of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution have been celebrated as the reason that religious activity flourishes in the United States. However, recent Supreme Court decisions based on these clauses have greatly limited public religious practices. Could these clauses do more to hinder religious expression than allow it to flourish?

Kraynak: The religion clauses of the First Amendment make two claims — that Congress cannot make laws «respecting the establishment of religion» and that Congress cannot prohibit «the free exercise» of religion.

Most of the drafters and ratifiers of this amendment understood the two claims to be complementary: Congress could not establish a national church in America — such as the Church of England — so that religion could be freely exercised by the separate states, local communities and individuals according to their consciences.

This allowed public roles for religion in state and local governments, in public schools, in expressions by magistrates, military chaplains and even by judicial personnel — thus «In God We Trust» has been used on currencies and in courtrooms without causing First Amendment challenges.

The American founders were also friendly to religion in general because they believed that rights were God-given and republics needed civil religion to promote virtue in addition to rights. This view of the First Amendment has been called «benevolent accommodation» by the Catholic legal scholar Christopher Wolfe.

It prevailed in American legal history for the first 160 years of the republic, but the courts have chipped away at it in the last 50 years — although they have not been entirely consistent in their decisions.

In 1947, the Supreme Court severely limited the separate states from promoting religion by «incorporating» the First A
mendment into the Fourteenth Amendment. Prayers in public schools were also ruled unconstitutional in 1963, but the Supreme Court has allowed Nativity scenes in public parks and seems reluctant to touch the Pledge of Allegiance’s words «one nation under God.»

Despite these accommodations, the dominant tendency of judges, lawyers and intellectuals of the «elite culture» is to view the First and Fourteenth Amendments as virtual bans on religion in public life, erecting a high wall of separation between church and state.

This is opposed by most Americans who still believe in the «benevolent accommodation» of the Founding Fathers — a case where the people are much wiser than the educated intellectuals.

Unfortunately, the decadence of the intellectual classes — and thus of judges — is probably inevitable; but the American people are healthier and more reluctant to push personal rights to extremes. My hope is that the will of the people — the «red states» of America — will prevail in the long run and will even encourage the educated intellectuals to rethink their position.

Q: What role should religion play in a modern democracy, and how should Christians apply their faith to the problems of public policy in a modern democratic society?

Kraynak: The primary role of the Church and indeed of all Christians today is to remind people that there is a higher realm than politics and economics.

The modern age of democracy tends to deny spiritual transcendence and to create a one-dimensional world where activism in politics, careers, material consumption, sports and entertainment occupy all of our time and energy.

Such activism even distorts the Christian faith by emphasizing social justice over holiness, sacramental life, contemplative prayer and monasticism. The most important «policy» of Christians is to remind themselves and others that spiritual life directed toward eternity is more important than temporal life.

In other words, we need to recover the distinction between the Two Cities — the city of God and the earthly city — and to live as citizens of two worlds rather than of this world alone.

The second point to remember is that even in the earthly city — whose goal is the temporal common good — Christianity permits a variety of legitimate regimes. We tend to assume that democracy is the sole legitimate regime consistent with Christian ideas of human dignity and universal love. And compared to totalitarianism or dictatorship, even a degraded democracy is a good regime.

Better still is a constitutional democracy under God that does not marginalize religion and that cultivates civic virtues as well as personal freedom.

But even the best democracy is hostile to the principle of hierarchy and tends to level the distinction between higher and lower goods; these tendencies undermine the structure of the Catholic Church as well as the proper order of the soul by treating all lifestyles as equal.

Democracy also promotes popular culture that glorifies the tastes of the masses, mostly adolescents, and has a perverse effect on intellectual elites, who lose confidence in high culture and then become subversive agents of cultural decadence.

Thus, regimes combining hierarchical and democratic structures are better for the temporal realm than pure democracy. In the present age, we need to respect the will of the people where it is healthy and re-educate the decadent intellectuals to respect the true hierarchy of being.

Third, Christians need to pursue policies in their democratic societies that follow the natural moral law in regard to family life as well as in regard to the weak, the poor, and the vulnerable.

We need laws protecting marriage as a union between a man and a woman, as well as pro-life legislation protecting the unborn. And we need laws that creatively help the chronically poor and under-insured to attain a decent standard of living without undue dependence on the welfare state.

All of these policies together make up the temporal common good that requires applying natural law with prudence — the greatest of the political virtues.

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