The Storm Before the Calm Before the Storm

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by Church Militant  •  •  June 10, 2017   

Our "Protestant republicanism" has suffered from schizophrenia from the outset

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By Timothy Gordon

On June 5 at The American Conservative, insightful 21st-century prophet Rod Dreher wrote a very important article called "The Storm Before the Storm." Dreher's article is about what's to be done in our "post-Christian" republic, within which he restricts his entire pre-mortem prescription strictly to the private sphere. That is, he dismisses the notion of focused action to be taken in what remains of the American public sphere. While his prescription for private life, the Benedict Optionis dead on, his Christian-in-the-public-sphere retreat probably accrues to his failure to parse what sort of a post-Christian republic we are: a post-Protestant one. In this nuanced technical error, an ostensibly meaningless mis-substitution of genus for species, lies a world of difference. In it lies the public solution to the decay of the American republic.

Although Dreher correctly identifies the Religious Right with "politicized white [Protestant] Evangelicals," and although at other times he correctly identifies the Secular Left with politicized intellectual grandchildren of the Enlightenment, he whiffs big-time by failing to point out two corollaries. Firstly, all the American natural law precepts embraced by the shrewder members of the Religious Right are derivatives of the natural law, so where does the world's number one exponent of the natural law, the unmentioned Roman Catholic Church, fit into all this? Secondly, and more devastatingly, starting five centuries ago, the parent ideologies of America's Religious Right and Secular Left, respectively the Reformation and the Enlightenment, together rejected all three major aspects of the natural law, so why expect the grandchildren of either party to rehabilitate natural law republicanism today?

Dreher's rightminded answer is that he doesn't expect it. But this is not enough.

The great American secret is that our "Protestant republicanism" has suffered from schizophrenia from the outset. One ought not to expect a secularized post-Protestant republic, which has always claimed yet rejected the natural law to continue to operate for a third century on the political and cultural basis it has always claimed and rejected. Insofar as his doubt goes, I find myself in agreement with Dreher. In the private sphere, the best option is something very near to Dreher's Benedict Option. So, we agree there as well. But in the public sphere, namely the realm of America's political and cultural institutions, which have been so deeply secularized since World War II, Dreher suggests the passive hope for a miracle, a legitimate but insufficient ground for hope. We do not agree on this point.

The realistic basis for hope and the as-yet-unbegun work to be undertaken in American public life is that of intra-American communication/conversion/communion of/to/with the Roman Catholic faith, which alone informs those political and cultural institutions whenever they work properly.

No one, including Dreher, has solved or even clearly posed the sphynx's riddle of American life: How can one claim and doubt the natural law at once? Protestantism, right alongside the Enlightenment, rejected the tripartite view of nature as:

  • free-moral
  • intelligible
  • teleological  

And if, as Robert R. Reilly stated, the "great discovery" of the pagan Greeks — perfected by the Scholastic Church — was that of nature as such, then 16th- and 17th-century Protestant and secular thought certainly "undiscovered" it, going forward, which bears undeniable ethical and political implications. Shamelessly proceeding as if this modernist "undiscovering" had never been effectuated by their own people, the Protestant-Enlightenment American Founders and Framers, deeming themselves the "New Whigs," premised both the Declaration and the Constitution on natural-law political precepts, which ought to have been unavailable to them.

The great American secret is that our 'Protestant republicanism' has suffered from schizophrenia from the outset. 

Protestant-Enlightenment "New Whiggism" should have meant preclusion of political precepts like 1776's "natural rights" and "popular vigilance" principles and 1788's/1791's "liberty as subsidiarity" and "liberty as federalism" principles — all being political-institutional creatures of the natural law. In other words, how do these vital incorporations of natural law square with the long-held Reformation view (from the 1619 Canons of Dort) of civics that "so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring man to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion that he is incapable of using it aright even in things civil and natural?"  

They don't. And that's why American political institutions are tortured.

Moreover, countless American Founders and Framers rightly expressed, as Dreher rightly insinuated, that these political precepts depended for survival on indispensable cultural precepts. The legal regime — Declaration, Constitution and ordinary legislation — cannot put forward what the people disbelieve, after all. Such cultural precepts of the natural law, those enabling political regimes, are also inescapably Catholic. Read: anti-Protestant in America:

  • virtue ethics, whose Aristotelianism-Thomism the Founders could neither abandon nor embrace;
  • a sacred concept of personhood that comes exclusively from a sacramental concept of Church. Protestant America never had "personhood problems" with slavery, segregation, internment, abortion or euthanasia
  • free enterprise reigned in by family, fatherhood and free will, not by some "Protestant work ethic" or Calvinist wealth-means-grace check
  • a cultural embrace of natural law science that neither fears (Protestantism) nor deifies (Enlightenment) technology.

Dreher asserts that "contemporary American life is corrosive ... in many ways, not all of which are understood by the Christian Right at the moment, mostly because they still confuse Christianity with the American Way of Life." Dreher's use of the words "contemporary" and "still" render unclear whether or not he believes that American's Protestantism was ab initio corrosive of its natural law institutions or whether that doom was spelled sometime after 1776.

Thus, what Americans can do to preserve the life of the Republic — besides pray fervently for a miracle, as Dreher suggests — is to actively inform other Americans that such republican institutions are "circular squares" on the basis of anything besides the Roman Catholic cosmology. This "active informing" used to be called evangelization. We should look ourselves to it, even if our troubled 2017 Church is embarrassed by our proud legacy (the pejorative outlook of which constitutes a major part of today's crisis in the Church). But that's another story.

Timothy J. Gordon, Ph.L., J.D., M.A., studied graduate philosophy at "the Greg" in Rome. He also holds degrees in literature, history and law. He has lectured on or instructed Logic, Church History, Ethics and Constitutional Law. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Central California. His book Why America Will Perish Without Rome will be released in late 2017.




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