At The American Conservative, Rod Dreher has a very lengthy post critiquing Matthew Walther’s recent column at The Week arguing that the Catholic alliance with evangelicals has not worked out to the benefit of Catholics. We note by way of parenthesis at the outset that Walther’s column for The Week is consistently one of the most entertaining and provocative columns out there. Anyway, in the context of the imbroglio over Paul Ryan firing and unfiring the House chaplain, Jesuit Fr. Patrick Conroy (hired by John Boehner, a longtime friend of the Jesuits), Walther makes some very pointed remarks about the effects on Catholics of their political alliance with evangelical protestants. We agree with Walther, for the most part, but Dreher doesn’t. Dreher’s point is basically this: so what if American Catholics have gone wobbly on the Church’s social teaching because of this alliance with evangelicals?
It is worth thinking about this exchange because it provides a perfect example of what we have talked about before, and that is what Jake Meador (a protestant) has rightly called a parting of the ways between Catholics and protestants. Both Catholics and protestants are engaged at the moment in a project of ressourcement. Catholics in particular are presently engaged in rediscovering the Church’s anti-liberal, integralist tradition and thinking about how best to implement the anti-liberal, integralist teaching of the Church in American political life. This makes the consensus that made projects like Evangelicals and Catholics Together to name but one less tenable than ever before. Indeed, we have seen in recent regrettable incidents that institutions devoted to the consensus typified by Evangelicals and Catholics Together are hostile to expressions of, for example, the anti-liberal, integralist Catholic tradition. It will be clearer, we think, in short order that Dreher (among others) does not understand this moment in American Christianity as well as he thinks.
Here’s the problem. As Dreher eventually gets around to arguing, the forces of secular liberalism—implacable in their opposition to Christianity—don’t actually see much of a difference between faithful Catholics and faithful evangelicals. Moreover, it is clear that Dreher doesn’t actually see much of a difference, either. Whatever drift there has been in American Catholics’ views, he thinks it was baked in from the beginning. In support of this proposition, he argues (1) that Americans are simply protestantized at a baseline level and (2) that Americans are basically indifferentist. In any event, he does not think it’s all that big of a deal to suggest that Catholics and evangelicals should cooperate on certain issues. What is needed, Dreher concludes, is for Christians to downplay their differences and present a united front in defense of religious liberty.
Even if indifferentism isn’t baked into American religious expression, Americans should adopt it, Joe Carter of the Acton Institute tells us as he weighs in, arguing, based on the thought of 19th-century Dutch protestant and household name around the world Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper, Carter tells us, believed that Catholics and protestants have creedal confession and morals in common. More than that, on the points where secular society is most hostile to Christians, Kuyper argued that Catholics and protestants were in agreement. This is a funny assertion, not least because Catholics and protestants disagree pretty vehemently on articles of all of the creeds of undivided Christendom. Moreover, it is only by equivocation that a Catholic and a protestant can profess belief in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, since it is clear that a Catholic means one thing and a protestant another. On this point, one wonders what response Carter would get from his Southern Baptist brethren if he told them that when they pray the Nicene Creed, they confess the same creed in the same way as St. Pius V or St. Pius X. Levity aside, it seems odd to us that Dreher or Carter would offer what amounts to indifferentism as a way forward.
Part of the reason why indifferentism seems like a strange solution is because it has been what Acton and other institutions have been advancing for some time now, without any appreciable success. In this, we are reminded of Brent Bozell’s “Letter to Yourselves” from an early issue of Triumph. The splendid site Incudi Reddere reprinted the essay yesterday in the context of a Twitter discussion along these lines. Bozell was writing to an audience of conservatives in 1969 in the wake of Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968. After discussing the decision by conservatives to support Nixon despite the fact that Nixon really did not represent the conservative position by 1968, Bozell makes this devastating point:
I think this experience can be described even more sharply. Secular liberalism has lost its war for historical existence, but it has not lost any of the battles it has had with you. On every front where your program has confronted secular liberalism’s, you have been beaten. Consider (against the background of one of Nixon’s press conferences) your campaigns against big government, against Keynesian economics, against compulsory welfare; your defense of states’ rights and the constitutional prerogatives of Congress; your struggle for a vigorous anti-Soviet foreign policy; your once passionate stand for the country’s flag and her honor. Is there a single field which the secular liberals have had to yield to the secular conservatives? That is one side of the coin. The other is that secular liberalism has, nevertheless, died—and for causes apparently unconnected with your ministrations. Some say it succumbed from existential wounds, an inability to cope with reality. Do you deem yourselves sufficiently close students of reality to have helped significantly to inflict the wounds? Others lay the failure to an organic weakness or “sickness,” a self-contained fault of the system. Has your criticism of secular liberalism persuasively diagnosed this sickness? Still others say the basic cause is in the order of ideas. Do you claim to have located the fundamental errors, or to have corrected them? I do not mean, with these questions, to chide you; I concede that men are hard to find in our time who ought to feel any more comfortable with them. The point is simply that, taking both sides of this coin together, it is not surprising you should neither be called, nor offering yourselves, as secular liberalism’s heir—that it is not surprising you are disillusioned.
(Emphasis supplied.) What was true in 1969 remains true in 2018. One might cavil with this assessment and say that Bozell was writing to secular conservatives, not religious conservatives. Okay. How many battles have the religious conservatives won? The most recent major defeat—dealt by the Supreme Court in Obergefell—was so devastating to Dreher that he now proposes anything a sort of strategic regrouping (in its weakest form) to a retreat to the bayou (in its stronger form) for Christians.
This is a painful point for many, not least Dreher. However, when one says that Catholics and evangelicals should put aside their “small differences” to fight the liberal order, one has to point out that they’ve been doing that for a while—and losing. Perhaps this time will be different. It is true that the liberal order is seen to be struggling at this moment, even if the reasons are not always so clear. Christian conservatives have, unlike the secular conservatives, a real ethical and metaphysical critique of liberalism that, in the case of the critique advanced by the Church, carries divine authority. One sees this even today, in Francis’s great anti-liberal encyclical, Laudato si’, which is clearly an authoritative critique of modern liberalism. That counts for something, to be sure. Nevertheless, when a united Christian front for religious liberty is discussed, one ought to hear Bozell intoning, “Secular liberalism has lost its war for historical existence, but it has not lost any of the battles it has had with you.”
This is, we think, Walther’s point. Catholics have made accommodations for the sake of presenting a united front with other Christians on other issues, only to be defeated in each fight. Walther writes,
What has been the result of this abandonment of principles? Forty years of infanticide, economic exploitation, and spoliation of the Earth as the forces of capital and technology disrupt all our settled customs, habits, convictions, and affections, at an increasingly rapid pace. Think tanks have been founded, fellowships have been granted, journals have been founded, and symposiums held. A whole new conception of politics has emerged out of what ought to have been a limited prudential alliance — but the clock has not been turned back a minute. “All that is solid melts into air,” as Marx put it, and Catholics and evangelicals stand together with their paper cups trying to catch a few drops of the precious liquid to put back in their broken refrigerators.
(Emphasis supplied.) One is justified in asking, then: was it worth it? Was it worth setting about half of Centesimus annus and about six paragraphs of Rerum novarum against the rest of Rerum novarum, Quadragesimo anno, Mater et Magistra, Pacem in terris, Gaudium et spes, Populorum progressio, Laborem exercens, Sollicitudo rei socialis, the other half of Centesimus annus, Caritas in veritate, and so on? (To say nothing of the social magisterium beginning with the apostles and the fathers down to Leo XIII!) Was it worth deciding that Dignitatis humanae, Unitatis redintegratio, and Nostra aetate blotted out the Church’s entire thought on its relationship with the state and other faiths?
Moreover, can we say that it was worth it as Catholics are actively engaged in recovering this tradition? As we say, the real problem is that Dreher does not understand this moment in American Christianity. He suggests that the vision of Evangelicals and Catholics Together is dead, right before making basically the argument advanced by that project. Jake Meador, as we have mentioned before, recognizes that both Catholics and protestants are recovering substantial aspects of their respective traditions that make it less and less possible to engage in the sort of ecumenism represented by Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Consider, for example, the ongoing recovery of the Church’s anti-liberal tradition. There is an increasing realization—at least on the Catholic side of the line—that the sense that the Church threw open the doors to liberalism at Vatican II is not quite correct. To be sure, Dignitatis humanae and Gaudium et spes show more openness to liberalism than, say, Syllabus or Leo XIII’s Libertas praestantissimum. But one must be careful not to read more into the documents than is actually there. At The Public Discourse, for example, Professor Joseph Trabbic has a lengthy essay arguing basically that. He demonstrates convincingly that the Church’s normative political position—even today—is that of a Catholic confessional state. We could go on, though we won’t, about the revival of integralism going on today.
The point is this: Catholics and protestants are recovering their traditions. The Church’s tradition is integralist and anti-liberal. Protestants are working on their own traditions, and they are finding their own reasons to be suspicious of the ecumenism Dreher advances. One might say that the only interesting work being done by Christians on the right—which is very nearly the same thing as saying the only interesting work being done by Christians—is being done in this area. This work makes the sort of cooperation that Dreher urges less and less possible. An integralist Catholic is not going to see the political goals advanced by Dreher as all that worthwhile, except as potentially an intermediate step toward a Catholic confessional state, and he is certainly not going to want to make the compromises—even rhetorical—necessary to work with evangelicals toward such a goal. Likewise, the protestants engaged in their own ressourcement are not going to be excited about coalitions with integralist Catholics.
Today, Incudi Reddere posted another piece from Triumph by Brent Bozell. It concludes, in part:
The something else we must do, then, is to be Christians. The first words of Genesis establish the precedence of being over doing: fiat lux. The goal of the Christian tribe, like that of the city which Christians could once hope to build, is to establish temporal conditions hospitable to the Gospel life. But first the tribe must be. It is a matter of consciousness. Am I an American? a Spaniard? an Englishman? Or am I a Christian? It is also a matter of presence. Here and on every other continent Christians must be visible, not in any city disguise, but openly in their apostolic role as teachers sent to the ends of the earth.
We submit that part, a large part, of being a Christian is being an orthodox Christian—that is, a Catholic. We would not deny, however, that protestants are acting in good faith when they say that being an orthodox Christian means being orthodox by the lights of their sect. However, the point is this: there is an emerging sense Bozell is right and the first step toward a political solution is being an orthodox Christian. As this sense emerges, the idea, advanced by Dreher and Carter, that Christians should gloss over significant differences in theology, ecclesiology, metaphysics, and ethics so that they can fight one more losing battle against secular liberalism becomes less and less tenable.