Americanism as a Problem for Realistic Solutions to our Problems Today

Archbishop Charles Chaput recently delivered an interesting address at Brigham Young University. Its underlying theme was how Mormons and Catholics could and should work together to renew the American idea:

“At its best, America is an exceptional nation. It’s a country built on limited government, the rule of law and economic opportunity. Personal rights and liberties still actually mean something here. And our public life, while non-sectarian, is—or at least was—founded and grounded in a broadly biblical morality.”

That being the American idea, what seems quite obvious to some of us disenchanted Americans and Catholics is the way this ideal no longer has much standing today. Any notion of limited government is long gone, the rule of law is quickly becoming obsolete, economic opportunity is no longer a realistic hope for the less educated poor, and not even a broadly biblical morality grounds our public life anymore

Archbishop Chaput really only touched the second and fourth of these aspects of the American ideal in this speech, the problem of the order of law and the breakdown of moral foundations, a topic he has spoken about often in the past. Perhaps the econiomic opportunity issue was simply too complex for this setting but it was very interesting to me that he said little or nothing regarding the massive expansion of government, which is obviously posing a serious threat not only to individual citizens but also to the Church as an institution.

However, I suspect that this omission may well have something to do with the fact that the Catholic Church itself, at least in this country and perhaps universally, no longer places much value on limited government. Not only has the bureaucracy of the Church itself virtually exploded since Vatican II, but the hierarchy almost universally seems to favor the expansion and centralization of governments everywhere.

Of course this expansionism is not a matter of social doctrine or direct practical teaching, but nonetheless many of the Church’s political interventions, for instance of our Bishops Conference, can only be implemented by a vast expansion of government. For instance, the universal support for government guaranteed universal healthcare, and our Bishops’ enthusiastic support for Obamacare, obviously can only be accomplished by a massive increase of centralized governments and a massive increase in their intrusion into personal lives of their citizens. While our bishops were certainly disappointed with the immediate intrusion into the lives of religious believers opposed to contraception and abortion, and the trampling on their religious freedom, many if not most of the American bishops are still quite in favor of universal healthcare.

Another instance of support for government expansionism can be found in all the various welfare programs the bishops have enthusiastically supported over the years, with no apparent concern for how these programs would impact the personal freedom and dignity of the growing numbers of welfare clients of the expanded government.

The Archbishop is one of the more insightful and scholarly members of our hierarchy, and I find his writings always interesting. He is in fact very good at analyzing problems in our society, in comparison to most of his brother bishops, but I’m afraid I find his responses to those problems less inspiring. Perhaps his hesitancy to take on the expanded government issue is because he knows that his fellow bishops are firmly committed to these expansive programs, and bishops don’t like to take on other bishops when the cause is lost.

However, I really think there is an underlying problem in Archbishop Chaput’s thought that can be seen in this speech. The Archbishop is himself a true believer in what he calls the “American idea.” He sees this “idea” as quite exceptional, but is not very clear as to what actually makes it exceptional. Surely the ideal of limited government, the rule of law, and economic opportunity is not something limited to the United States today, if it ever was. To think otherwise reflects a kind of mythic Americanism that is hard to shake.

In this regard, I would tend to agree with Charles Murray, interestingly quoted by Archbishop Chaput in this speech, who he says “argued that ‘the American project, as originally defined [by the Founders], is dead’ not dying, but dead. Those are strong words. They pretty well take the air out of the room.” However, I suspect that Archbishop Chaput doesn’t really buy into this argument of Murray, given what he says in the rest of his speech. His Americanism is too rooted to believe the ideal is dead.

ther, Archbishop Chaput thoughtfully looks into possible options for addressing our grave problems and finding a way to bring the ideal back to full life. He speaks first of the so-called “Benedict option” which he says “involves finding a way to preserve people from the most dysfunctional elements of the secular world—either by building new communities or withdrawing mentally, or even physically, from the public culture around us.” He sees this as interesting and to be respected, but it’s obviously not his option.

The good Archbishop prefers rather what he calls the Augustine model of response, which is “to witness our love for God and for each other in the time and place God puts us. That means we have duties—first to the City of God, but also to the City of Man.” And then he adds this, It means working with all our energy to make our nation whole and good, even as we keep our expectations modest…” (my emphasis)

In other words, Archbishop Chaput thinks that the “American project” as Murray calls it, or the “American idea” as he puts it, is worth committing “all our energy” in order to make our nation “whole and good” again, even if the results, as he admits, are likely modest. Only a true believer in this American exceptionalism and a true disbeliever that it is now effectively dead, could suggest such a total commitment of our energies to reviving this ideal or project. He never really questions whether the ideal itself was perhaps mythical or flawed from the beginning or is worth reviving at the expense of “all our energy.”

Early in his speech, the Archbishop recalls a conversation with a close friend who was very proud of his son who graduated from West Point, and who very much admired the ideals of that academy, then. Yet he told his fried Archbishop Chaput that today, “he would never send another child to a service academy. He simply doesn’t believe that America, as it currently stands, is the same country he once loved. And, in his words, it’s not worth risking a son or a daughter to fight for it.”

That comment draws a very practical line for me in the discussion. For this man, the grave errors of today’s America, even if they might be somehow and somewhat “resolved” down the line by our good example and our more often than not fruitless political efforts which we pour all our energies into, he would not want his children to sacrifice their lives today to prop up this corrupt culture and our out-of-control government.

Similarly, the “Benedict option” folks are desperately looking for concrete ways to save their children today from the poison of this decadent and dying culture and its governmental promoters. They can’t just wait for good example and modest political victories to do this. They want to disengage as much as practically possible, which does not necessarily mean total abandonment of the public square. They are not Amish, but Catholics. It’s a matter of conservation of energy as it were, shifting the balance from the public to the private sphere of their lives. And they need more support than what the Augustine approach seems to offer, efforts which the Archbishop admits in this talk are “things [that] sound like pieties, and that’s all they are.” Precisely.

Fr. M. Pilon

 

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