Appeared in Winter 1996, Vol. XXII, No. 4

To continue reading, download the PDF here.

In this essay I would like to reflect on the role of pluralism, especially religious pluralism, in what I take to be the failure of the American experiment in ordered liberty. My argument is that, examined from the vantage point of the turn of the millennium, American claims to exceptionalism and superiority, clustered around the idea of ordered liberty, have proven unjustified. Enough American history has passed to see how the instability, internal incoherence, and inadequacy of the founding American assumptions about God, man, and society daily make the dream of ordered liberty ever more remote. The evidence of profound social disorder, of disordered liberty, lies all around. The jibes against Europe, that in America a fresh historical beginning, freed from Europe’s burdens and mistakes, would sustain something better than Europe had known, a novus ordo seclorum, seem now premature and naive.1

In America it is most uncommon to admit this. Awareness of the manifold signs of disorder which mark one’s daily life rarely results in acknowledgment that there might be something wrong with the experiment itself. Indeed, the pseudo-scientific language of “experiment,” especially William Penn’s sacralized language of “holy experiment,” puts off indefinitely any day of reckoning, for one can always say not enough evidence is in on whether the American experiment “works.”2

In the past fifty years the logic of older forms of liberalism, both French and Anglo-American, central to the American Founding has been revealed in a radical liberalism unafraid to embrace what always had lain in liberalism’s premises. I use “liberalism” in an etymological way, to describe any politics to which the quest for liberty in its evolved modern sense of “freedom from” is central. As Alasdair Maclntyre pointed out, liberalism, although originating historically in attack on tradition and aiming at a social order founded on “universal, traditionindependent norms,” has itself become a tradition.3In it an intially deficient idea of human autonomy, in which insufficient attention was paid to the relations between the individual and both other human beings and the cosmos generally, has worked itself out in an arbitrary freedom which takes the form of moral relativism and utilitarian and hedonistic domination of others. Similarly, an initially deficient idea of man, endemic to Protestantism but much exacerbated by the Newtonian idea of techne, in which man is not recognized as first of all a contemplative being, has unrolled itself in an almost completely mechanistic view of life in which man is interiorly empty and exteriorly manipulative.4

Even were somehow the developments of a half century to be rolled back, we would be left with the earlier liberalisms, which continue to exist, and their flawed views of the nature of human autonomy and man’s relation to God. This would give us as little warrant for hope as were we spectators at a rerun of Daedalus’ experiment. Jose Casanova may well be right that a worldwide rebellion is taking place against the privatization or marginalization of religion which accompanied modernization and secularization.5Still, wherever it has occurred, such rebellion has hardly done other than to reassert older cultural forms without engaging the historical quandries which helped generate modernity in the first place. Thus the public reemergence of Evangelical Protestantism in the United States beginning in the 1980s seems aimed at something like recovery of the hegemonic status of nineteenth-century Protestant civil religion. Nineteenthcentury civil religion feared (and late twentieth-century Evangelicalism fears) unabated pluralism especially religious pluralism and, while unable to eliminate a primary datum on which America was founded, attempted to reduce its most deleterious effects. In America, a country in which the need to facilitate the coexistence of differing religious views has been primordial to all constitutional arrangement from the beginning, the worthy goal of “deprivatization” of religion, which is really a name for attack on or restriction of deep pluralism, can only develop in quite constricted limits.

I have written elsewhere on the distinction between cultural pluralism and deep pluralism, the latter of which might also, following John Gray’s brilliant critique of Isaiah Berlin, be called “value pluralism.”6Although these two shapes of pluralism constantly invade each other’s territory, I have suggested that at least in principle we can distinguish between a cultural pluralism which enriches life together and a deep pluralism which, because embodying irreconcilable views of the good, true, and beautiful, undermines the possibility of a shared life. I have suggested that Americans have not been very open, indeed probably not very self-conscious, about the logic of their experiment, insofar as it involves pluralism. Some writers have, for instance, written as if the various religions in America could indefinitely share in public life while retaining their distinctive identities. This seems to me a religious form of the national myth, e pluribus unum, that a meaningful unum is possible which allows the pluribus from which it was constructed to live on. Such an idea is not fully historical. It seems to me, rather, that to the degree a shared life is achieved, deep pluralism, here including the pluralism of real religious differences, recedes.7To the degree that deep pluralism advances, the unum recedes. Perhaps this is not obvious to many Americans because they do not see how profoundly the American experience has remolded the historical religions. That is, to the extent that an unum has been achieved, it falls under the categories of civil religion, the flag, the Fourth of July, the American Way of Life. In America-and of course not only AmericaClassical Calvinism, Classical Lutheranism, Dogmatic Catholicism, hardly exist: what has replaced them for most is American civil religion, the religion of the American Way of Life itself This is not deep pluralism, but an emptying of an earlier real variation between religions into a kind of suburban religion of sameness.



Cultural pluralism, involving such things as the foods and habits of different cultures, commonly enriches life, but deep pluralism, involving incompatible world views and morality, normally rooted in religious difference, renders all shared social existence problematic: always ways are found to limit it. My argument is that at the center of American history lies the attempt, while praising various pluralist phenomena, especially religious freedom, to do everything possible to tame, constrict, or domesticate these. A Catholicism loyal first to the pope is feared, a Catholicism loyal first to America is praised. Americans have had as many apprehensions about deep pluralism as have had other societies, but, as in so much else, have deceived themselves about their defensive strategies against that which they praise.

I have no structural reformation to propose which if followed would let the American experiment proceed. It seems to me that, for both good and ill, peoples generally live out the logic of their basic assumptions about life to the end. “Honor,” for instance, is at the center of all that is most glorious and most sad in Spanish history, playing the role that “liberty” does in American history. The goals of cultural criticism must be more modest, to examine assumptions, to show how these assumptions have affected history, and by the very discussion of such matters, to give people some power to brake, accelerate, or redirect the tendencies of their times. My point of view is that of the Spanish social analyst, Juan Donoso Cortes (1809-1853), who in his mature, post-1848 thought saw that every great political question is wrapped up in a theological question.8 Cortes did not mean by this that one could ignore economic or political analysis, but that such analysis was most incomplete until one had grasped how the great questions of theology repeat themselves in the political order. This is the approach of John Paul II when he looks at the evidence of disordered liberty strewn across the social order and describes it as a “culture of death.” For a culture of death to form, individual evil choices must be made, but there must be more than this. Pace liberalism, which is congenitallydishonest on such matters personal sin comes, in the shape of badly ordered ideas, to shape the life of the mind in general, and institutions take on a “structure of sin.”‘

If there is a sense in which the American experiment was doomed from the first as a form of “magic-thinking,” that does not mean that America is doomed in some near future: one goal of cultural criticism should be sober assessment of what a future shorn of belief in exceptionalism might realistically be. It is extremely difficult to separate the good from the bad effects of any set of ideas so that the one may be encouraged, the other discouraged, but this is our goal. Even now, in America as elsewhere, mingled with the “culture of death” is another culture, that of “love and life,” which crosses most party labels and is in some measure willed by virtually every camp, giving reasons for hope.” It is becoming a commonplace that in the Church itself a long generation of priests and bishopsin which there were many who were, in matters sexual, disciplinary, or doctrinal, accomodated to the world and unwilling to teach or themselves live by the full Gospelis aging and being replaced with younger priests formed by the pontificate of John Paul II and willing, for instance in the matter of celibacy, to live counter-culturally as signs to the age.11

While attacking liberalism’s evil fruits, we encourage the good things it has promoted, among them certain forms of medical and technological advance, the search for alternatives to war as a means of conflict resolution, and economic and political institutions capable of resisting the more overt forms of tyranny. Still, when all is said and done, because we cannot deny that much has the smell of death about it, Catholicism should impart a deep sense of the limitations of the American experiment. American Catholics need to spend less time underwriting that experiment and more time helping Americans understand the predicaments in which it has placed them. Possibly on the other side of such criticism, for those with hearts to understand, lies development of some of the things American culture has undervalued from the beginning.

Because it has been the religion of immigrants who have longed above all for acceptance, Catholicism in America has not lived up to its potential as an instrument for raising Americans to self-consciousness about the true nature of the dilemmas which face them. Like Jews, Catholics in America have had to work especially hard for social acceptance, and have in the process come to be among the prime boosters of what since the 1930s has been called “the American way of life.”12 The greatest political gift Catholic criticism can give to America is critique of its Enlightenment, Protestant, and democratic assumptions. A sense of the limitations of received views of the world is not a bad thing. It can liberate from tasks not worth pursuing in favor of effort well expended.

America has been called a melting pot of peoples. American historians quarrel among themselves as to whether this is an appropriate metaphor, noting the tenacity of some American subcultures, continuing regional variation, and the persistence of ethnic boundaries in many large American cities.13This quarrel is partly a debate about, often a taking of sides over, the outcome of choosing one or the other of two paths open to every immigrant: assimilation to the main stream or conscious retention of a distinctive cultural identity. Probably most immigrants have wanted it both ways, to be accepted by American society and successful by American standards, while retaining some degree of cultural distinctiveness, often founded in religion. As long as we view the surface and the middle depths, they seem often to have gotten their way, and America may be described as a cultural mosaic bonded by very widely shared common beliefs originating in the years surrounding 1776. Yet, if we leave aside those brought to America as slaves and view the story of immigration over as short a period as a century, we see that it overwhelmingly has been about assimilation.

Immigrants such as Irish-Americans commonly have passed in no more than three generations from being despised to being, with Catholics generally, among the best educated (by the conventions of American society) and financially most successful of Americans. A good many immigrants have come to America with an indifferent level of religious practice. Presumably to some degree in reaction to a hostile Protestant majority, nonProtestant immigrants often subsequently practiced their religion more seriously than they had in the country of their origins. But as assimilation proceeded, most either shed their religion or radically adjusted it to the larger culture. John F. Kennedy may be taken as a symbol of a late stage of this process, of a sentimental attachment to ethnic ways loosened from religion and subordinated to making one’s way in the world. He was the hero of a generation of Catholics who saw in his success their acceptance.

Those groups which have stood or been pushed aside, say the Amish or some Native Americans, in a real sense are hardly part of the American story: they simply have a different story to tell, one infringed at every point by the dominating story. At one level this is but to say that America is not exempt from larger patterns. All religions and ways of life adapt to the cultures they enter by some degree of assimilation or what today is called inculturation.14Consciously to try to avoid all syncretism is with the Amish to opt for social isolation. A full-bodied pluralism, were that possible for very long, would depend on the isolation and marginalization of each of society’s components-the lack of a syncretic spirit. Otherwise, a deep pluralism in which there are not shared core beliefs among the various social groups must tear society apart. If there is to be a shared life in society, deep pluralism must by definition give way to a pluralism more of the surface, to the relative homogenization attendant on assimilation. Deep pluralism on the one side is the enemy of any religion or morality taken seriously, and on the other of shared life in society. In a society of relative homogenization, “civility” becomes not just a prime social virtue naming the ability to negotiate between common belief and whatever remains distinctive to one’s own group, but acceptance of some such distinction as likely permanent. The agreement not to discuss religion or politics at parties must be enforced as “good manners” in the degree that one’s religion or politics is genuinely of the depths. Always the truly pluralistic must be marginalized. Let me reiterate: many Americans have not been very honest about this process, claiming in effect that the American experiment is about both a common faith and a vibrant pluralism, without observing the ways in which the one necessarily works against the other.

Of course Americans are not alone in their lack of candor here: Witness the thought of Jurgen Habermas. Indeed, in some ways America presents an advanced case of Habermas’ “communicative interaction” and “discourse ethics” at work.15 The goal is social integration achieved by discussion and struggle between points of view. This integration however is not through a “common good” suited to all human beings, universally true, and deserving obedience, but through assent to the momentary configuration of the ever-shifting normative structures of an unending debate. This sounds very much like the American notion that the common good is the will of the majority. We might call it democratic fascism, for, in the degree itlacks a transcendental standard for judging truth, social integration is by the “soft fascism” of majority rule. Evangelium vitae (nn. 20, 23) observes that a “supremacy of the strong” can lead democracy “toward a form of totalitarianism.” As in all positions which lack or are deficient in an idea of natural law, agreement is for its own sake rather than for the sake of truth. If I may draw out the tautology, to the degree deep pluralism is present in a society, agreement about unchanging moral principles is impossible and non-philosophical categories such as civility and force-physical or procedural-must provide whatever level of social cohesion is achieved. Conversely, if there is an objective good to be known and adhered to, to the degree a society does this it will abandon deep pluralism. In American history the phrase “we hold these truths” initially marked the point beyond which pluralism was rejected, and every society will have such a point or it cannot survive. Even a liberalism which reduces all social questions to matters of procedure still must insist that all play by the same rules, its rules.

In a sense the quarrel over which metaphor best describes America, melting pot or stew, is more an argument about the surface than about the depths. Because especially the democratic and Enlightenment beliefs on which America is founded are intrinsically unstable, each calls forth its counter. As much as Pericles in his “Funeral Oration,” trying to justify Athenian bids to exceptionalism and superiority, had in fact to scurry from one unbalanced claim to its rhetorical counter-weight, from the claim of equality to the claim of merit, from advocacy of free circulation of ideas to respect for “unwritten laws,” so does virtually all American political rhetoric. Since freedom is at the center of what is sought, the anxiety is that agreement and cooperation between individuals will be impossible. Thus, as night the day, the principle of freedom calls forth its counter in the myth and aspiration e pluribus unum. This is but to say that from the beginning, Americans at least instinctively realized that centering political life on the Enlightenment principle of liberty exacerbated the problems of pluralism with which all political regimes must come to terms.

The expression “ordered liberty” itself linked ideas tugging in different directions. All but the most despotic regimes, regimes which suppress one of the terms, must seek to link order and liberty. To do so is one of the great, worthy tasks of politics. But in America, because so much weight was laid on “freedom from” and the possibility of a dissolving pluralism was so real, special emphasis had to be placed on a counter-balancing consensus formed around the principles expressed in the founding documents, raised virtually to the status of inspired Scripture. Precisely because Americans had so many religions and cultures, they had to have one faith, and that in America itself. The American Faith demanded the loyalties which elsewhereexcept where establishment also ruled (for in America there is an established religion, the cult of liberty or liberalism)–were reserved to religion. In time the First Amendment insured that no faith could be established in America but the American Faith. That is, despite the pervasive role of religion in American life from the beginning, the problem of pluralism was dealt with by placing the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights at the center of national life and increasingly marginalizing all religious institutions qua institutions as threats to the unum.16The various forms of Christianity, which normally supported the National Faith, were useful bulwarks of society, and religious practice indeed one of the chief ways by which one manifested loyalty to the American way of life.

The great question was whether this kind of common faith could sustain the “order” which liberty, if it were to be more than untrammeled license, needed, i.e., the ordering of liberty to truth. Though America was founded in rebellion and has always been marked also by the selective “flight from authority” of Protestantism, the Founding Fathers generally understood freedom not simply as “freedom from” or as an end in itself17Freedom generally for them was a condition for pursuit of goods rooted in the natural order of things. These goods might have a distinctly commercial flavor-“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”-but they were not for that completely closed to transcendence, to the idea of a life ordered to truth and to God. The constitutional documents assumed that liberty had ontological roots in universal rights of man above and beyond the touch of any government. It followed that the order to which liberty aspired was not one of force, simple negation, or a merely worldly flourishing. In some measure, a true way of life was the goal.

Such an idea had its historical roots in natural law thought, of which the doctrine of natural rights was at once a development and, in some respects, diminution. Protestantism in all its forms was raised on the rejection of natural theology and natural law, but especially Calvinism, the most influential form of Christianity in America, reintroduced with one hand what the other had withdrawn. Calvin himself, in defiance of his own epistemology, had retained certain Stoic understandings of the natural and natural law, of a “general revelation” which enlightened those who had never received the “specific revelation” of Christianity. The question, in the United States as elsewhere, was whether Protestantism, with its antinomianism and radically diminished notions of the natural, could in the long run in any form sustain an ontological ordering of liberty to truth. The radical liberalism of the last half century, with its notion, now esconced in a number of Supreme Court decisions, of the unencumbered individual who forges her own morality, seems only one of the most distasteful of the answers to that question. In America the so-called mainline Protestant churches themselves have now largely been captured and destroyed by their complicity in the denial of universal moral norms, and place very few limits on freedom. What ontology there was in the American founding documents and in Protestantism into the twentieth century has been insufficient to sustain an objective order at which freedom aims. One must be very glad for those who instinctively react against such developments, such as many Evangelical Christians; but, in spite of the acute analyses occasionally coming from such circles, one can expect little help dealing with philosophical questions from traditions so markedly aphilosophical.18

Seen over time, the American story as almost all historians and the general populace have conceived it has centered on those who have assimilated, those who have abated the problems of pluralism by adhering to a shared set of beliefs. True, recent historians have increasingly placed their scholarship in service of an agenda which stresses and promotes (a not usually very clearly defined) cultural diversity, and one can reasonably doubt whether the historic road to assimilation is as open to African Americans or to Muslims as it has been to others. However, there is little reason to believe that the advocacy of diversity will have any effect on the already socially marginalized other than to keep them marginalized, slowing or stopping assimilation. For most the story will continue to be about assimilation. In spite of certain advantages of geography that will presumably indefinitely feed Hispanic immigration and lengthen the period needed for any given generation to assimilate, it is unlikely that the story of the assimilation of recent Hispanic immigrants will have a very different outcome from that of earlier immigrants from Europe. They will come to have as their first loyalty, the unum of “the American way of life.” If they are Catholic, they will, like an overwhelming proportion of earlier immigrants, come to think of themselves as “Americans who happen to be Catholics” rather than “Catholics who happen to be Americans.” In spite of an initial culture shock which will continue to lead a certain proportion into the evangelical or charismatic camp, and in spite of regional variation related to the relative density of Latino population, to judge by the years since Vatican II, their Catholicism will be, like themselves, increasingly suburban, middle class, and innocuous, at no great distance from the generic Protestantism that has long stood at the heart of the American way of life.