Appeared in Winter 1995,  Vol. XXI, No. 4

Twentieth Anniversary Issue

Download the PDF here.

All three of the volumes under review are exceedingly important in that they usefully address the central religious, moral, intellectual, and social policy issues of contemporary American civilization. They belong in all Catholic libraries, both institutional and personal, and should be read, reflected on, and discussed. I state this despite some significant qualifications and disagreements I have with the Hunter volumes that arise from my embrace of a Catholic sociological perspective.

In Culture Wars, Hunter does an excellent sociological job of analyzing the contours of the general cultural battle taking place in America. In his sequel, Before The Shooting Begins, he provides many valuable insights regarding its fulcrum, i.e., the war over abortion. However, Hunter’s analyses are deficient because he ignores or rejects the only viable solution to ending the war and saving the civilization from not only physical dissolution but, more importantly,spiritual rot. The solution-which is the focus of the brilliant volume of essays edited by Donald J. D’Elia and Stephen M. Krason-is the reassertion of the reality and the centrality of the natural law in the life of the American Republic. Put another way, Hunter’s “communitarian” solution that is hinted at in the first volume but explicitly proposed in his sequel, that is, the institutionalization of what he terms “substantive democracy” (based on political philosopher Benjamin Barber’s concept of “strong democracy”) is inadequate on several counts. First, it assumes, perfunctory disclaimers to the contrary, a fundamental a prioriequivalence between the moral visions competing within the American democratic framework. Second, it assumes that some sort of common ground can be forged between incommensurate moralities and worldviews. Relatedly, he assumes that the method to forge compromise and agreement-to-disagree is through reforming American civic institutions. While such reform is-to say the least- necessary, institutional tinkering cannot provide a bridge capable of spanning our present cultural divide. Third, the communitarian “solution” conveniently ignores or, at the very least, downplays the paramount issue of fidelity to a transcendent order of Truth.

His feigned “neutrality” to the contrary, Hunter is, personally, a believing evangelical Protestant and a quite decent human being. However, the philosophical position that he accepts, that is, that reality is simply constructed through social interaction, is inherently modernist and therefore lends itself, at worst (albeit, I believe, unintentionally), to the secularist, abortionist side of the barricades.2At the very best, his “solution” helps to maintain, in the short run, a hybrid compromise of a procedural nature that can keep a presently unhealthy American social order intact.

It is at this point that the D’Elia and Krason volume can and should intervene and serve as a corrective to Hunter’s implicitly liberal Protestant analysis. We Hold These Truths and More is devoted to the intellectual arguments propounded by many outstanding Catholic intellectuals as to the historical adequacy and contemporary applicability of Father John Courtney Murray’s proposition, published in his famous 1960 book, that the founding of the American Republic was grounded in the natural law.

To cut to the chase: my position is that the Republic was founded on natural law principles, although significantly attenuated by Enlightenment influences. Furthermore, I believe that, sociologically, the degree of effective impact of the natural law depends significantly on the state of the surrounding culture that inevitably mediates it. Following D’Elia, for instance, it can plausibly be argued that the original cultural base of theRepublic was Calvinist. It follows that the natural law message did serve as a leaven to the early and middle republic, but only imperfectly (as is testified, for instance, by early America’s history of violence and economic exploitation of the working classes as well as through its peculiarly harsh slavery system). Today, the reality of the natural law is denied because of the secularist monopoly in the American public sphere institutions of government, the economy, education, the mass media, and the arts.

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I would maintain – following Frederick Wilhelmsen and Regis Martin among others – that the natural law as such has never fully taken root in American society. The closest our nation has come to a “Catholic moment” in which the natural lawwas, relatively speaking, effectively operational was, in my opinion, in the immediate post World War II era – the same era, not coincidentally, in which Father Murray wrote. Moreover, I assert that the only authentic carrier of the natural law is the Catholic faith as supported by a comprehensive, internally consistent, and doctrinally orthodox Catholic “plausibility structure.”3Finally, I accept the position of Wilhelmsen and Krason (and outside of the D’Elia and Krason volume, of Charles Rice) that the Pope is the ultimate interpreter of the natural law.

Contrary to Hunter, who would see Catholics and other orthodox religionists engage in fruitless “dialogue” with an almost totally foreign modern worldview or, more likely, (albeit, again, unintentionally) would have Christianity dilute itself in democratic and “ecumenical” dialogue within a non- and anti-Christian social context, the solution to America’s problems, both social and spiritual, is the rebuilding of the Catholic Church and the eventual evangelization and inculturation of the faiththroughout American civilization. Ironically, then, the furthering of both Catholic evangelization and a legitimate ecumenicity resulting from a widely and fully accepted natural law consciousness among the American people ultimately are dependent on intimately related processes.

Hunter’s Culture Wars

Although the overall thesis of this lucidly written volume is not originally Hunter’s, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America richly deserves the classification as the standard reference on the subject.4His analysis is not so creative as it is exhaustive in presenting the panorama of specific cultural conflicts in the United States that are intimately tied into the overall culture war. The author’s ability to assimilate and make intelligible issues, debates, and controversies regarding all sectors of American society by utilizing not only sociological thinking but a multitude of disciplinary perspectives is truly impressive. His methodology is also usefully multifaceted as he skillfully integrates a broad range of historical studies, survey research, intensive interviews, and theory.

The subtitle of Hunter’s work could have been “just about everything that you would want to know about the internal struggles of contemporary America.” He states that the useful social demarcations in America today are no longer Will Herberg’s “Protestant,” “Catholic,” and “Jew,” operant in the 1940s and 1950s. Today, rather, the relevant divide is secularism and progressive Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism, on the one hand, and conservative Protestantism, orthodox Catholicism and Judaism, and Mormonism, on the other. All the major organizations and interest groups and all the prominent individuals who, at the national level, are involved in the culture war are seemingly incorporated into the author’s discussion.

However, Hunter also usefully understands that the battle is not just between groups and personalities but between highly articulated moral visions or worldviews. Moreover, these visions and worldviews are understood and accepted seriously by only significant slivers of society. The largest single sector of American society consists of a “muddled middle” in which ambivalence, indifference, and contradiction reign supreme. Furthermore, says Hunter, those in the middle who represent voices of calm, civility, and possible compromise are drowned out, not only by the monopoly of attention given to the extreme Left and Right, but also by the ability of the extremes to unfairly distort each other’s messages through thesophisticated technology of the mass media. Following one of his mentors, Peter L. Berger, Hunter recognizes that one major sociological dynamic at play is that of socio-economic class, with the upper-middle class dominately leaning in the secularist direction and the lower-middle class significantly sympathetic to traditional religion. Hunter then proceeds to demonstrate just how cultural conflict plays itself out specifically in the social institutions of the family, education, media and the arts, law, and electoral politics.

Hunter must be criticized, however, on two important issues. For most of his volume, Hunter makes it appear that there is an equivalency in both the power and sincerity of the Left and Right. Underplaying the power advantage of the Left-which is so well established in the American public sphere-and overplaying the altruisticsentiments of an essentiallymaterialistic Left appears too conveniently “even-handed.” Whether this adjustment to the sociological truth at hand constituted a concession Hunter made in order not to get lynched in the secular academy in which he resides is an interesting speculation.

Hunter ends his volume by, finally, gingerly indicating the political advantage of the cultural/political/religious Left which is, at this late point in his analysis, now seen as partially being offset by both the raw numbers and conviction of the religious, cultural, and political Right. While not optimistic about the prospects of the major participants of the culture war ceasing to talk past each other, Hunter nevertheless concludes by arguing that any chance for fashioning a workable public philosophy to keep the existing minimal peace, and to bring about a lasting peace, presupposes two key concessions, one from the Left and one from the Right. From the Left must be conceded that there are definite limits to moral pluralism; that, in essence, it is not true that “anything should go.” From the Right must be conceded that it is impossible to reimpose, through public policy, a moral ethos that was essentially frozen earlier in the history of the Republic. Regarding the latter concession, Hunter argues that:

One of the central characteristics of modern rationality is its autonomy or self-groundedness. Arguments must stand on their own logic. They must be self-sufficient. Arguments based upon an external authority, such as church or tradition, and arguments based upon inherited office, property, or force or violence are therefore ruled illegitimate from the start. Thus, the exclamation of the believer that homosexuality is a sin is insufficient; pronouncements from ecclesiasticalauthorities that abortion is murder are not enough; proclamations from religious ideologues declaring secular humanism the unofficial religion of the state are inadequate. Given the assumptions of modern rationality, these kinds of authority are the fraudulent substitute for “serious” argumentation. By contrast, the only legitimate grounds of argumentation are the tools of logic and empirical evidence (p. 306).

Here Hunter has missed the boat, probably because his Protestant worldview has blinded him to the eternal reality and continuing relevance of the natural law. While no form of thinking can ever be completely autonomous or self-sufficient as in the prevailing liberal Protestant or secular fantasy, the natural law is both logical and capable of providing persuasive empirical evidence to defend its conclusions about such matters as the act and consequences of abortion and active homosexuality. It is not that the natural law is a time-specific historical reality but that modern conceptions of rationality are themselves time-specific aberrations.

Before the Shooting Begins

As sequels go, Hunter’s follow-up to Culture Wars is a useful volume. I assert this despite my judgment that Hunter has failed in his central purpose which is to articulate and develop the concept of “substantive democracy” and demonstrate that it can provide a way to “find a working agreement on the common good in a public culture as fractured as ours” (p. 19). For Hunter:

The crucial premise to the substantive democratic option is that consensus or moral agreement should not necessarilybe the first and most urgent priority of a social and political order, particularly if such consensus is achieved by compelling people to compromise their most passionately held beliefs and commitments. In principle, this is recognized in the constitutional insistence that matters of conscience are out of the reach of the state’s authority … The priority in sustantive democracy … is to find not the “middle ground” of fast moral compromise but rather a “common ground” where the particularities of people’s beliefs are indeed recognized as sacred to the people who hold them (and, therefore, as nonnegotiable), but common problems can nevertheless be addressed (pp. 34-35).

In the abstract, Hunter’s formulation seems to merit attention and consideration. Empirically, however, he offers no compelling illustrations as to how his conception could practically play itself out. Regarding the central focus of the volume, that is, the issue of abortion, he ends his volume by airily stating that “we may discover that the question is not about women versus unborn children, but about what kind of society is it that creates this kind of forced selection to begin with. The choice between alternatives may, in the end, be a false choice … It is only in the renewal of substantive democracy, however, that we will find out” (pp. 243-244).

Is Hunter kidding? Does he really believe that any significant percentage of feminists will let their bodies be “appropriated by men” by allowing pregnancies to come to full term and then giving up the babies to social/religious/statesupported orphanges? Does Hunter really think that feminists who reconceptualize human life as mere “fetal tissue” will ever agree to such an alternative?

Hunter is guilty, again, of “freezing history” and, as such, the present range of competing moral visions. The ultimate answer is neither to debate abortion nor to seek a non-existent or untenable compromise with those deeply engrained with a secular mentality. Rather it is to attempt to reach the future generations of American civilization through evangelization, thus leaving the 1960s generation and their heirs to the dustbin of history.

However, Hunter’s sequel makes a useful contribution in at least three ways, the first two dealing with his call for reform both in professional social agenda organizations and in supposedly more universal civil associations. The first contribution is his analysis of the distorted rhetoric and hidden economic, status, and power concerns of the organizations that partake in the ongoing culture war. The second contribution, similarly, is his analysis of the highly politicized and partisan involvement in the culture war of those social institutions of civil society (e.g. the press, education, professional associations like the American Bar Association, the Public Opinion Research Establishment and the major religious denominations) that are supposed to mediate between individuals and the State, but that have presently degenerated into defacto interest groups. However useful are these two contributions, he still must be taken to task for positing, more or less, a basic equivalence between the goals and activities of the Left and Right. Altruism and a concern for intellectual truth and social justice reside much more firmly within the orbit of the defenders of the Judaic-Christian heritage.

Hunter’s greatest contribution, however, lies in the material presented in his chapters that deal, respectively, with the anatomy and ambivalence of American attitudes toward abortion. The insights are simply too varied and voluminous to present fully in this review. However, he provides evidence, for instance, that 33% of the American population are “consistently pro-life” with 19% “secretly pro-life” (not wanting to be identified with the pro-life movement), 14% “conveniently pro-life” (being pro-life philosophically but not necessarily personally), 7% “reticently pro-choice” (not absolutely sure about the morality of abortion thus “pro-choice” by default rather than by conviction), 8% “personally opposed pro-choice” (pro-choice in philosophy but pro-life in personal practice) and finally, 16% “consistently pro-choice.” Thus, 66% of Americans, with the proper qualifications, are, at root, on the pro-life side with only 31% basically on the abortionist side. Put even more favorably, only 16% of all Americans have no moral qualms about the act of abortion. Such data leads Father Richard J. Neuhaus to an optimistic conclusion “that the present situation almost certainly cannot be sustained…. The state cannot be neutral in matters pertaining to the public good, especially when the good is so elementary as human life, and the question so basic as who belongs, and who does not belong, to the protected category called `the public’.”5

Another terribly important finding of Hunter is that the debate over abortion is being conducted in a state of fundamental ignorance about what the Roe v. Wade decision actually allows, i.e., abortion through the full three trimesters of pregnancy. As Hunter states, with a sense of unbelief, “The majority of Americans say they want to keep Roe intact, but they also favor proposals that would restrict (some severely) what it currently allows, if not undermine it altogether” (p. 87).

Finally, and perhaps of utmost importance, Hunter argues that the “muddled American middle” takes its position on abortion (or any of the other issues in the culture war) not based on well thought out theological or philosophical reasoning but rather on subjective “sentiment” and privatized “conviction,” the latter producing the now-too-familiar “I don’t have the right to `impose’ my values on other people.” Thus David Bruckbauer disagrees with Father Neuhaus’ optimistic reading of Hunter’s volume. For Bruckbauer, Hunter’s large “muddled middle” gives no indication “of an obligation which has publically binding authority on others … We talk about the culture war as if it’s something `out there’, or as if our opponents can be viewed as somehow different from us. It’s something of a shock to realize that those on `the other side’ are our own family members. The even more basic insight may be that the culture war is a struggle within our own hearts. How many of us truly represent what the Church means by a unity of life? To what extent have we internalized the truth?”6Hunter puts all of this well: “Without a base of knowledge about the law, without traditions of moral understanding to draw upon, and without cohesive communities within whose values, norms, and ideals our lives are patterned, all we have left are our emotions” (p. 148). Hunter’s data and insights call for, I argue, a decidely un-Hunter-like solution. It is for the Catholic Church to revitalize herself and the nation and push back the negative and pervasive effects of the now reigning “therapeutic” mentality by resurrecting an internally consistent and doctrinally orthodox “plausibility structure” or set of mutually interlocking institutions capable of successfully socializing individuals into authentic and systematically linked faith and practice.7   

The key claims of Hunter’s that are out of line with a Catholic sociological analysis are his positions that, contra Father Murray, there is no such thing as the natural law and, as such, the natural law played no constitutive part in the formation of the Republic. Also inconsistent with the Catholic position is Hunter’s historicism, arguing as he does that traditional conceptions of reality (like the natural law and a common Judaic-Christian heritage) can never regain saliency and plausibility inany modern context. For Hunter:

The early architects … (including John Locke and the leading lights of the Scottish Enlightenment) and its actual builders on the American scene (Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and others) operated within a crudely synthetic moral framework that owed as much to biblical revelation as to Enlightenment reason. To be sure, there were differences among them; at root, though, they conceived of the world as a rational and transcendent moral order that embraced both public and private spheres equally. As such, it could allow for an infrastructure in which reasoned debate between competing interests could occur … We know now just how unique and historically contingent this formulation was. In the present culture war, that formulation has all but completely unraveled: deconstructed by post-modernist philosophy and social science, and rendered practically implausible by pluralism itself. To the extent that a moral center does exist, it has been effectively silenced by the acerbic rhetoric of the extremes. In the end, the older formulation is all but useless in constructing our notions of the social order (p. 32).

Hunter continues:

The “center” can no longer hold; the older faiths-Judaic Christian and classical-that once amidst great diversity provided a set of common, if not always coherent, assumptions for the ordering of public life …no longer play. And those imagining that we recreate and reimpose these older “traditional” agreements are simply deluding themselves … The central premise of this essay is that in a democratic society the unum cannot be imposed from the top down but must be generated from the bottom up, in the dialectical process of generating new working agreements out of a serious confrontation with our deepest differences (p. 228).

Hunter is wrong; what God has written into the heart of man is not socially constructed but eternal. What is socially constructed is the surrounding social context that can make it either easier or harder for individuals to grasp the design and plan of God for themselves and for the society in which they live. So what must be done is to rebuild a Catholic plausibility structure and commence with evangelization in a serious way. Natural law thinking will stage a big comeback and American society will move closer to its stated goal of an ordered liberty.

We Hold These Truths and More

The D’Elia and Krason volume is dedicated to examining, objectively and from within an orthodox Catholic framework, the Murray thesis, published in 1960, that the founding principles of the American Republic were based on the natural law and also the issue of the continuing relevance of that thesis (or lack thereof), for American society. In the words of the editors:

Was the Murray thesis correct in the first place? Did Murray’s analysis of our historical and philosophical background justify his conclusions? Was the thesis something that was merely a reflection of the attitudes prevalent about Catholicism at Murray’s time, an exercise in empty optimism? How have developments in the thirty years since We Hold These Truths-whichhave been sweeping and corrosive of our national well-being-altered its plausibility? Have they, in any way, altered the American Proposition, the fundamental principles our political order stands for? (p. viii).

There are six sections in the volume. They are: Part One, “The Background of the Murray Thesis;” Part Two, “Criticism of the Murray Thesis;” Part Three, “Defense of Murray and the Murray Thesis;” Part Four, “Murray and Religious Freedom;” Part Five, “Murray’s Thought in Light of Recent Developments;” and Part Six, “America, Catholics, and the Murray Thesis: The Future.” Sixteen outstanding Catholic authors contributed their valuable insights to the volume (only some of which will be briefly and inadequately referred to given the logic and purpose of this review essay).

In part one, James Hitchcock perceives an irony in Murray’s thought: treating papal encyclicals from a historicist perspective yet justifying the American minimalist, pluralist, and democratic state as a creative adaptation of basic Catholic principles. The second section is opened by Frederick Wilhelmsen who, arguing that the Church is the final arbiter of the natural law, notes that Murray’s analysis would sever that special relationship (and it is on account of this relationship that I am calling for a resurrected Catholic plausibility structure). John A. Gueguen presents the case that Murray’s project of suggesting the compatibility of the American and Catholic experience was, at base, an ingenious attempt at mythmaking. A comparison between Christopher Dawson and Murray is provided by John J. Mulloy who argues that the former’s analysis is the better guide to American civilization; modern American culture is not fundamentally characterized by pluralism but by a monopoly of secularism in the American public sphere (this point is the basis for my criticism of Hunter, in Culture Wars, underplaying the power advantage of secular elites over Christian America). That Murray’s project overemphasized the Enlightenment rationalism of the Jeffersonian minority and, conversely, underplayed the more representative, at the time, political theology of the Calvinist thinker, Benjamin Rush, is the theme of Donald J. D’Elia’s contribution, a contribution that also emphasizes the point that a supportive religio-cultural environment is necessary to make natural law thinking effective in any particular society.

In part three, Robert Reilly argues that Enlightenment ideas were not predominant during the Founding and it was only later social developments such as cultural relativism that have tended to make natural law thinking appear obsolete. Peter Augustine Lawler makes the case that Murray modified the Enlightenment-based individualism of the Founding Fathers by expanding it and securing it on the far more stable rock of the medieval natural law tradition. That Murray’s thinking on religious freedom, which diverged from traditional Catholic thinking, did notinvolve dissent on a matter of theological doctrine is the case made by Monsignor George A. Kelly.

In part four, Gerard V. Bradley argues that, stated intentions to the contrary, Murray’s thought has encouraged the privatization of religion and an indifference to the issue of the validity of the perspectives that have vied for inclusion into the American public square. Father Brian W. Harrison observes that the final draft of Vatican II’s declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, was firmly based on traditional Catholic thinking and, footnotes to the Abbott translation to the contrary, rejected Murray’s endorsement of the American model of state neutrality toward religious groups. Robert P. George provides a rationale for why a society, for its own welfare, should promote religion and religious liberty.

In part five, John J. Carigg notes that Murray’s work warned Americans against any idolization of democracy and a misguided foreign policy myopically focused solely on anti-Communism. Stephen Krason explainsthe contemporary widespread prevalence of the unspeakable crime of abortion not in terms of any deficiency in either natural law thinking or in Murray’s understanding of its historic role in the founding and maintenance of the Republic,but rather in cultural developments and social trends that have unfortunately occurred over the past thirty-five years since the publication of We Hold These Truths. Krason’s “solution” to the contemporary culturewar over abortion and other issues as discussed by Hunter is mine: the building up of the doctrinal and institutional integrity of the Church and the reinstitutionalization of the natural law under its ultimate arbitor, the Pope.

In the final part, Dominic A. Aquila argues that only the Catholic interpretive tradition can provide an authoritative understanding of texts like the Declaration of Independence and the First Amendment and, furthermore, that the advocates of our present day interest-group society-unlike those concerned with a conception of the “common good”-cannot legitimately seek justification in Murray’s thesis. Given that God must be the foundation of any state, American society, for Regis Martin, must be fully remade and restored in Christ, a point that he argues Murray did not stress (and on account of which I assert that Catholic evangelization and the institutionalization of natural law thinking are concomitant processes). In the concluding essay, L. Brent Bozell argues that the world of politics can be influenced by mysticism but this presupposes our conversion, our total love of Christ and the other in the Mystical Body.

Concluding Note

The line of argument that I’ve tried to develop in this essay will not, of course, attract any support from non-orthodox Catholic circles. It will also not be accepted by neo-conservatives who have it in the interest to provide “acceptable” solutions to American elites (whether or not such “solutions” are realistic). It will also not be uniformally received well within orthodox Catholic circles as some will undoubtedly claim that my decidely unecumenical message will not sell in the public square and hence is impractical and imprudent. My response? The message will not sell initially. But it is the truth. It is not impractical or imprudent because the attempt to restore all things in Christ is the only theological and sociological option available for American Catholics who both understand the demands of their faith and the sad state of contemporary affairs within the Church and society.

 

Notes:

1A review essay on: James D. Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Basic Books, 1991), xiii + 416 pp., $15.00 (paper); James D. Hunter, Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America’s Culture War (New York: The Free Press, 1994), ix + 310 pp., $22.95 (hardcover); and Donald J. D’Elia and Stephen M. Krason (Editors), We Hold These Truths and More: Further Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (Steubenville, Ohio: Franciscan University Press, 1993), xvii + 263 pp., $15.00 (paper).

2Both Dr. Hunter and I were students of Peter L. Berger, co-author of The SocialConstruction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (New York: Doubleday, 1966). Unlike Hunter, I have made the argument that one can accept a social construction of reality position onlyif it can be made compatible with a natural law analysis. See my “Sociology, Feminism, and the Magisterium,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review (Volume LXXXIX, Number 10, July, 1989).

3For a discussion of what is meant by a Catholic “plausibility structure,” see my “A Catholic Plausibility Structure,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review (Volume LXXXIX, Number 2, November, 1988).

4The contemporary culture war thesis was anticipated previously by many authors but none so important as Peter L. Berger, who analysed the development of the “new knowledge class” of secular intellectuals, bureaucrats, and social activists. Much of my own work on the culture war depends on Berger but has a specific focus on the battles between the progressive and orthodox factions of the Catholic Church in America. See, for instance, my “To Empower Catholics: The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights as a Mediating Structure,” Nassau Review (Volume 5, Number 4, 1988);”The State of the American Catholic Laity: Propositions and Proposals,” Faith and Reason (Volume XIII, Number 2, Spring, 1987);and The Catholic and Politics in Post-World War II America: A Sociological Analysis (St. Louis,MO: Society of Catholic Social Scientists, 1995).

5See Father Richard J. Neuhaus’ review, “Combat Ready,” of Hunter’s sequel, National Review, May 2, 1994, p. 55.

6See David Bruckbauer, “Internalizing the Truth,” The Wanderer, June 29, 1995, p. 10.

7See my “The Failure of the Therapeutic: Implications for Church and Society,” Faith and Reason, forthcoming.