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Two Revolutions, Pluralism and a Catholic Understanding of the U.S.

February 28, 2014

It is no coincidence I find myself becoming acquainted with the writings of the profound Jesuit priest, theologian, scholar, and political philosopher John Courtney Murray in such times. In the span of a few weeks: Andrew Cuomo performed his best Stalin imitation, the United Nations declared war upon Catholicism, the Justice Department will now recognize same-sex “marriage” even in states that do not do so, and a National Football League draft prospect “came out” to applause and national acclaim.

One of the themes considered by Murray is the origin, purpose, and intent, not merely of pluralism broadly considered, but of American pluralism. Specifically, the interplay of religion and pluralism in the United States is investigated at length: “We come therefore to the second question. It concerns the American solution to the problem put by the plurality of conflicting religions within the one body politic…. ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….’ What then is the Catholic view of this constitutional proviso?” For what is the push for acceptance of murdering the unborn or homosexual “marriage,” among other things, if not a push for national establishment of religion? Admittedly it is a religion of one’s own ego and desires, a renunciation of anything as definitive, but a religion of sorts regardless.

As part of his analysis of this question, Murray juxtaposes the American and French Revolutions:

The first truth to which the American Proposition makes appeal is stated in that landmark of Western political theory, the Declaration of Independence. It is a truth that lies beyond politics; it imparts to politics a fundamental human meaning. I mean the sovereignty of God over nations as well as over individual men. This is the principle that radically distinguishes the conservative Christian tradition of America from the Jacobin laicist tradition of Continental Europe. The Jacobin tradition proclaimed the autonomous reason of man to be the first and sole principle of political organization…. In the Jacobin tradition religion is at best a purely private concern, a matter of personal devotion, quite irrelevant to public affairs.

During the vice-presidential debate in October 2012, Joe Biden echoed the Jacobin sentiments of the French Revolution when he declared a refusal to “impose” his “personal beliefs” regarding abortion “on Muslims, Jews… and others.” And yet, the State is forcing its dismissal of organized religion (read: Catholicism and historic Christianity) upon the citizenry. As was the case of revolutionary France, under the leadership of the Obama’s and Pelosi’s, the United States has professed the “primacy of the political, the principle of ‘everything within the state, nothing above the state.’ ” To suggest this is antithetical to the American Proposition is to experience intimidation and discrimination, not to mention the subsequent propagation of slander and libel. Thenceforth, to profess “nothing above the state” implies the State is answerable to no one. Logically, the next intellectual step is the implication that government bequeaths unalienable rights, which means they are arbitrary things subject to abrogation on a whim. And if there is no authority to which the State is answerable, then it is free to become tyrannical, oppressive, and erode the inherent worth and dignity of the individual. (It is wise in this matter to excogitate on Alexis de Tocqueville’s prescient warning for the United States.)

Contrary to this view, as Murray asserted, the American Proposition was founded upon the notion of a virtuous citizenry. Concomitant to virtuous government is a moral people freely consenting to the rule of law, but more to the point, to a “higher law.” As he notes:

The American experiment reposes on Acton’s postulate, that freedom is the highest phase of civil society. But it also reposes on Acton’s further postulate, that the elevation of a people to this highest phase of social life supposes, as its condition, that they understand the ethical nature of political freedom. They must understand, in Acton’s phrase, that freedom is “not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” The people claim this right… in the face of government; in the name of this right, multiple limitations are put upon the power of government. But the claim can be made with the full resonance of moral authority only to the extent that it issues from an inner sense of responsibility to a higher law.

In September of this year, the Jesuit publication America disagreed with this conclusion drawn by Murray, remarking, in part, “Father Murray got the story of American Catholics wrong. The United States is not unique among modern states. It is not providentially blessed in the way he supposed.” And yet, if the assessment proffered by America were accurate, how would it explain the stark contrast between the formation of the United States and seemingly all other nations, including other Western polities? In keeping with Murray’s argument, compare the respective founding documents of the American and French republics; namely, the Declaration of Independence, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The American colonists were rather explicit as to the defense of their collective action:

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident:

That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness….

We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name and by the authority of the good people of these colonies solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES….

Unlike their American counterparts, the French fail to mention any law or authority beyond their own “autonomous reason” as rationale for revolution:

The representatives of the French people, organized as a National Assembly, believing that the ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments, have determined to set forth in a solemn declaration the natural, unalienable, and sacred rights of man, in order that this declaration, being constantly before all the members of the Social body, shall remind them continually of their rights and duties; in order that the acts of the legislative power, as well as those of the executive power, may be compared at any moment with the objects and purposes of all political institutions and may thus be more respected, and, lastly, in order that the grievances of the citizens, based hereafter upon simple and incontestable principles, shall tend to the maintenance of the constitution and redound to the happiness of all.

We could additionally add the U.S. Constitution to this comparison as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen serves a similar function. Notably, the Rights of Man decrees:

No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.[1]

Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights.[2]  

It is evident how unlike the United States and French republics are in these documents. In such language contained within the Rights of Man can be seen the justification for the aforementioned remarks of Governor Cuomo, the United Nations, and the “marriage equality” movement, whereas little supportive words can be found in originating American thought; we can see why Tocqueville expressed his strenuous warning for the American people. Unlike America magazine’s critique of Murray, the evidence affirms that the United States is undoubtedly unique among nations, at least in its philosophical pretext.

If there were still any doubt of Murray’s thesis, consider the words of three influential figures of the founding generation as a representative sample (myriad more could readily be added): James Madison, John Adams, and George Washington.

Man’s duty of honoring God is precedent both in order of time and degree of obligation to the claims of civil society. - James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessment

Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. - John Adams, October 11, 1798, to the First Brigade of the Third Division of the militia of Massachusetts

It is substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who, that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric? - George Washington, "Farewell Address" 

Thus we see, not a government propped up by ego and desire in a rejection of objective truth as occurred in revolutionary France and the present-day European Union, but rather, a government certainly acknowledging the divisiveness of theologies, yet nonetheless operating in accordance to the natural law that undergirds even the discrepancies between Transubstantiation, Consubstantiation, “Soul Flight,” et al. Which brings us back to the original question presented by Murray: how do Americans reconcile plurality with very real differences in worldview and religion?

Referencing both Roger Sherman of Rhode Island and Pope Pius XII, Murray cites Matthew 13:30 (“Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn”) to posit:

[I]n American circumstances the conscience of the community, aware of its moral obligations to the peace of the community, and speaking therefore as the voice of God, does not give government any mandate, does not impose upon it any duty, and does not even communicate to it the right to repress religious opinions or practices, even though they are erroneous and false.

Superficially, some may read this to mean a “live and let live” mentality, yet this is inaccurate. As Murray (and our founders) indicated, our first obligation, even before the “peace of the community,” is to God. All other obligations are secondary. As such, no matter how disruptive it is to the “community,” or what it personally costs us, Americans have a responsibility to condemn abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, homosexual “marriage,” and the like. Americans have theresponsibility to hold government at both the state and federal levels accountable for the policies they are promoting as they relate to these matters.

Historically speaking, the American Revolution was a success while the French Revolution failed. The American Revolution, predicated upon the Judeo-Christian comprehension of God, paved the way for the United States, whatever its sins and failings, to nevertheless become a light unto its people and other nations such has never before existed. The French Revolution, predicated upon the “Enlightenment’s” deliberate disavowal of the Judeo-Christian comprehension of God, paved the way for Paris’ streets to run red with blood and an eventual dictator in Napoleon Bonaparte to assume control of the country. What we are experiencing today as Americans is a reversal: a repudiation of our revolution in favor of the one that failed.

[1] The Declaration of Independence cites God as the source of all rights; the Rights of Man cites the State as the source of all rights.

[2] There is a significant difference between “all men are created equal” and “enjoyment of the same rights.” The former implies the Judeo-Christian recognition that all men and women have inherent worth and dignity as beings created in the image and likeness of God, but still grasps there are natural differences and compatibilities between men and women, as well as people generally (try as I might I’ll never have the talent to be the starting center fielder for the Red Sox). The latter rejects this implication; ergo, marriage does not reflect the intrinsic compatibility of Man and Woman because everyone should have the “same right” to “marry.”

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