Saturday, February 12, 2011

State of the Nation.

Talk about a public philosophy for the American experiment strikes many today as nonsensical or utopian. In the view of numerous scholars and philosophers, for example, a common public discourse has been shattered, leaving only the shards of myriad “constructions of reality.” Abandoning the very idea of moral truth, politics is no longer the deliberation of how we ought to order our life together but is now, according to some, warfare carried on by other means. All politics is combat politics. There is no longer, we are told, a common American culture, and we should stop pretending that there is. There are only subcultures. Choose your subculture, take up its grievances, contentions, and slogans, and prepare to do battle against the enemy. Liberated from the delusion that opponents in the political arena can together say “We Hold These Truths,” we are urged to recognize the futility of being locked in civil argument and accept the fact that there is no substitute for partisan victory.

Such, it is said, is our unhappy circumstance, and many think it not unhappy at all. They relish the battle, with no holds barred, no compromise, and no goal short of the opponents’ unconditional surrender. Our circumstance is not entirely new. Today’s “culture wars,” as they are aptly called, bear striking similarities to the moral and political clashes that existed prior to the Civil War. [...]

In the half century since Niebuhr, Murray, and Lippmann, the churches that had been a primary bearer of the American story have been of little help in restoring a politics of democratic deliberation about how we ought to order our life together. Those Protestant churches that were once called mainline, and are now viewed as oldline or even sideline, have in recent decades planted the banner “Thus Saith the Lord”on the cultural and political platform of the left. The evangelical Protestant insurgency has planted the same banner on the cultural and political platform of the right. It matters little that those on the right have greater political potency. With notable exceptions, both undermine a religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment; both contribute to the political corruption of Christian faith and the religious corruption of authentic politics; both have forgotten that, as it is said in the Letter to the Hebrews, we have here no abiding city.

As for the leadership of the Catholic Church in this country, it oscillates between a touching desire to be accepted by the now faded oldline Protestant establishment, on the one hand, and cobelligerency with evangelicalism on great moral and cultural questions, on the other. There are also some Catholics, including bishops and theologians, who remember that the Church is to be the “contrast society” embodying Madison’s prior allegiance. As such a contrast society, the Catholic Church is not above the fray, but neither is she captive to the fray. Her chief political contribution is to provide a transcendent horizon for our civil arguments, to temper the passionate confusions of the political penultimate with the theological ultimate, and to insist that our common humanity and gift of reason are capable of deliberating how we ought to order our life together.

Richard J. Neuhaus, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile [pp. 52-55]

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