Faith and politics in the United States

Cherished principles of the American revolution include religious freedom and the separation of Church and State. These principles should have benefited Catholics, who sought refuge from the persecution of the formally established Church of England. Catholics, however, could only vote in Pennsylvania and Maryland after the founding of the United States. Despite the original purpose of these principles, they have now falsely come to mean popularly that religion should have no role in public life. Not only did the Founding Fathers not intend this, but the Church also calls us to active engagement in political life by living out our faith in society. A number of books published in the last few years shed light on this call.

Josef Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, Faith and Politics (Ignatius, 2018)

This volume collects a number of distinct writings on the topic of politics from the life of the retired Holy Father. It addresses some of the most foundational elements of society: the relation of personal freedom to truth, how human dignity undergirds law and justice, and how faith gives reason a more expansive view of the goal of human life. Ratzinger explores the relation of faith and politics in the early Church for insights into the problematic secularism that now dominates our political life. In the end, he proposes that society depends upon an ordered freedom that directs government toward the fulfillment of shared goods. We need a genuine freedom that contains “the ability of the conscience to perceive the fundamental values of mankind that concern everyone” (101).

Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived (Crown Forum, 2017)

Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia represented a strong Catholic voice in the public square, though not without controversy. This volume offers a collection of his speeches, dealing not only with law, but also with education, the arts, virtue, and friendship. In his talks touching on faith, he contrasts Jefferson’s supposed sophisticated rejection of miracles with the wisdom of St. Thomas More; encourages us to live a distinct and even weird life in the eyes of the world; exhorts Catholic universities to fidelity; navigates the thorny issue of separation of Church and State; speaks on the importance of going on retreat, and the necessity and limits of faith in public life. He advises: You must . . . not run your spiritual life and worldly life as though they are two separate operations” (147). A Catholic justice, he clarifies, fulfills his office not by seeking to legislate opinion or belief from the bench, but by interpreting the Constitution and the law with integrity and precision. These speeches capture his living voice, in a compelling and accessible manner, which can continue to inspire Catholics to enter public service.

Daniel J. Mahoney, The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity (Encounter Books, 2018)

Mahoney, a professor at Assumption College, examines the trajectory of politics since the French Revolution and proposes that a humanitarian religion has supplanted the Christian faith and undermined the integrity of local, participatory politics. Favoring an abstract globalism that promotes individual rights and autonomy, “we increasingly despise meditation and the political expression of our humanity. In truth, human beings experience common humanity only in the meeting of diverse human and spiritual affirmations and propositions that arise from the concrete human communities in which we live” (8). This abstraction has also entered the Church, as Christians “increasingly redefine the contents of the faith in broadly humanitarian terms. Christianity is shorn of any recognizable transcendental dimension and becomes an instrument for promoting egalitarian social justice” (13). Mahoney draws upon key thinkers who have pointed to the dangers of humanitarianism — Brownson, Soloviev, Solzhenitsyn, Ratzinger — and the book is worth reading simply as an introduction to their thought. He concludes that in embracing the Church’s rich tradition of faith and reason, we can also return to a genuinely human political life, through “the humanizing discernment made possible by conscience” (124).

Timothy Gordon, Catholic Republic: Why America Will Perish without Rome (Sophia, 2019)

Gordon’s thesis seems to follow Mahoney’s in that Catholic Republic argues that the Catholic faith is necessary for the future of the American republic. Insofar as the flourishing of any republic depends upon an acknowledgement of the truth and virtue for its realization, Gordon’s thesis is correct: The Church can and should help our society to reach its true good. The details of Gordon’s assertion of a crypto-Catholicism underlying the Constitution and American life, however, overplays its hand. He contends that a so-called Catholic Natural Law, the Church’s development of the law of reason accessible to all people, uniquely supplied the vision for American government. In this, I find that Gordon overlooks the unique (and problematic) contributions of the Enlightenment to the American founding, as well as how the Catholic tradition teaches natural law and good politics as natural realities, not something that the Church owns and transmits in an exclusive fashion. While Gordon does note some instances of indirect consultation of Catholic sources, there are too many jumps of assertion that require more detailed explanation and proof. The book would have worked better as an exhortation to approach American politics from a Catholic perspective rather than a largely unproven accusation of plagiarism.

COMING UP: Banned books: Pushing back against the new ideology

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How would you know if you were being brainwashed? When something plainly false — contrary to common sense and right reason — is so constantly forced on you and you are not allowed to question it, it’s a good indication. This is the nature of ideology: imposing a position without truly establishing it or allowing it to be criticized. We have seen that something clearly opposed to the basics of scientific fact, such as the nature of sex as male and female, can be forced quickly upon American society through the influence of media and public education. And, perhaps not too surprisingly, even something as clear as 2+2=4 has been called into question by progressive educators, such as Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez, turning it into a sign of alleged oppression.  

In our time, dystopian novels have become reality. George Orwell best described the use of ideology in modern political regimes through doublethink, newspeak, and thoughtcrime. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character, Winston Smith, is coerced to accept that 2+2=5, showing his allegiance to ideology over reality. Orwell speaks of the way ideology gains power over the mind: “The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them.” This domination does not broker any opposition: “It is intolerable . . .  that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be.” If the truth can circulate freely, then ideology will fail.  

You might ask how the acceptance of ideology differs from accepting the mystery of faith, which requires our obedience to God. A key difference is that God’s revelation makes sense even while beyond reason. God does not shut down our thinking but wants us to ask questions and continue to come to know him and his creation throughout our lives. Faith cannot contradict reason because they both come from God, from his gifts of revelation and creation. You know you are facing ideology, however, when it refuses any discussion of contrary views. Catholics have been accused of hate for refusing to go along with the new ideology of human sexuality. This ideology claims to speak truly of the reality of human life, although it doesn’t add up, contradicting itself and the clear facts of science. The fight for the future focuses on speaking the truth. Without the ability to think, discuss, and read freely, it will be hard to respond to the ideological wave overwhelming us. 

Throughout the country, however, great books and humanities programs are being shut down for their emphasis on the Western tradition. Cornell West, an African American philosopher at Harvard, writing with Jeremy Tate, speaks of the spiritual tragedy of one American university closing down its classics department: “Yet today, one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired [Frederick] Douglass, [Martin Luther] King and countless other freedom fighters. . . . Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture.” For West and Tate, cancelling the Western canon shuts down the central conversation of the pursuit of wisdom that touches every culture.  

Canceling the pursuit of wisdom hits at the integrity of our culture itself, as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, another dystopian novel, focused on saving books from the fire set on wiping them out, explains: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.” Books proved hostile in this all-too-real futuristic American society portrayed by Bradbury, undermining the state of contended distraction provided by an omnipresent virtual reality. The fight for truth necessarily entails the books we read and teach.  

In our current cancel culture, Catholics too are being silenced for speaking about reality. Amazon recently cancelled Ryan T. Anderson, who studied at Princeton and Notre Dame and now directs the Ethics and Public Policy Center, blocking the sale of its book on its platform for questioning transgender ideology. The book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement (Encounter Books, 2018), provides a well-researched and thought-out response to the movement overturning common sense and millennia of acquired wisdom. Even more than that, Anderson shows how we are experimenting on our children, subjecting them to practices of hormone therapy and surgery that have not been proven safe or effective. Anderson provides evidence of ideology at work, through its coercive attempt to force us to accept what contradicts clear scientific evidence: “At the heart of the transgender moment are radical ideas about the human person — in particular, that people are what they claim to be regardless of contrary evidence” (29).  

Anderson does not deny the need to help those who suffer from gender dysphoria, although the heart of the books focuses on whether or not we are willing to accept reality and to help others to do so. As Anderson explains, “determining reality is the heart of the matter, and here too we find contradictions … Is our gender biologically determined and immutable or self-created and changeable? … At the core of the ideology is the radical claim that feelings determine reality. From this idea come extreme demands for society to play along with subjective reality claims. Trans ideologues ignore contrary evidence and competing interests; they disparage alternative practices; and they aim to muffle skeptical voices and shut down disagreement. The movement has to keep patching and shoring up its beliefs, policing the faithful, coercing the heretics and punishing apostates, because as soon as its furious efforts flag for a moment or someone successfully stands up to it, the whole charade is exposed. That’s what happens when your dogmas are so contrary to obvious, basic, everyday truths” (47-48). Not only philosophers like Anderson, but many educators, doctors, scientists, and politicians have been cancelled for standing up to the blatant falsehoods of this ideology. 

Does 2+2=5? Is a man a man and a woman a woman? No matter the effect of hormones and surgeries, every cell in the body points to the biological reality of sex, along with a myriad of other physical and emotional traits. Shutting down study and debate does not get to the heart of the matter, the truth of reality and the way to help those who suffer. The ideology does not truly focus on tolerance of others or creating reasonable accommodations, as it seeks to impose itself and coerce us. The reinterpretation of Title IX manifests an “Orwellian fiat” by which sex discrimination, meant to protect women, now becomes a means to discriminate against them: “The Women’s Liberation Front highlights the strange transformation of Title IX into a means to deny privacy, safety, education opportunity, and equality to women” (190). Anderson’s book provides an essential overview of the goals of the transgender movement and how to respond to it from a philosophical and scientific perspective. We should not allow the book to be cancelled! 

The goal of this new ideology is not simply to accept and tolerate a particular position, but, as Orwell recognized, to change us. It constitutes an attempt to redefine what it means to be a human being and to change the way we think about reality. Anything standing in the way will be cancelled or even burned. The quick success of this movement, and other ideologies as well, should make us pause. Do we want our children to think freely and wisely or simply to conform to what is imposed on them without question?  

As Catholics, we are called to think in conformity with faith and reason, upholding the truth, even when inconvenient. We are called to continue to form our own minds and accept the reality of how God made us and how he calls us into relationship with him, as the true source of overcoming suffering and difficulty. If you are uninformed and unable to judge rightly and logically, you are more likely to become prey to the new ideology, especially as enforced by government control and big business. We need Catholic freedom fighters, those willing, with charity, to stop the burning of the great ideas and the cancelling of our own faith.  


Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash