A Catholic Showdown?

Peter Lawler draws some attention to the quirkiness of the American tradition, to defend it from being stereotyped as so much Lockean atomism. He is uncomfortable to be put on his side of the “Catholic showdown” recently touted by Patrick Deneen. Lawler:

We’re not “Americanists” if that means America in some sense the standard by which we judge the truth of what we think and believe.  We certainly don’t think America is the “best regime.”  Christians don’t think in terms of “regimes”; that term, drawn in its classical form from Plato’s dialogue called politeia, implies all sorts of false premises about the primacy of the political.  All political arrangements, devised as they are by sinners, have within them the seeds of their own destruction.  It’s the City of God, not the City of Man, that’s sustainable over the infinitely long term. Still, Christians have the duty not to be too alienated from their country, and to do what they can to be of service to their fellow citizens by loyally encouraging what’s good and could be better in the political place where they live.  America, we southerners know especially well, is the easiest place in the world to be both at home and homeless, to enjoy the good things of the world without forgetting that our true home is somewhere else.

When it comes to Catholic political theory in America, I have two hunches. The first hunch is that the influence of Locke upon the cultural outlook of 21st century Americans is brazenly overstated by breathless historians of ideas who lack time to think carefully about method. The second hunch is that any number of Christian political theories could hold individualism and communitarianism in a productive tension, affirming both absolute individual conscience rights and the primacy of the common good over individual desires.




4 responses to “A Catholic Showdown?

  1. I think Lawler scores a point when he brings up Deneen’s mentor: “Patrick’s great teacher, Carey McWilliams, was just as harsh as he is in criticizing America’s techno-indifference to virtue or genuinely dignified egalitarianism, but he also never failed to mention that he was grateful for American freedom…” McWilliams emphasized the importance of an Augustinian “second voice” in the American political tradition that tempered liberalism. Deneen seems to increasingly (and shrilly) simplify things: Locke=America.

    • Dave, see my praise for Charles Taylor’s method here: http://thesweepblog.com/2014/03/02/gregory-macintyre-and-genealogical-method/

      How do big ideas come “down” out of intellectual history and shape commonplace worldviews? What structural features of society, technologies, etc., change and distort their reception? Wars, race, class… how do these murky waters refract Enlightenment? These sorts of concerns underpin my comment about method.

      Taylor seems to thinks more closely about this than many others who build philosophical arguments on the edifice of the history of ideas.

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