When I delivered Liberty: The God That Failed into the hands of my publisher, I did so with no little trepidation. Supported entirely by Protestant, secular academic, and other non-Catholic sources, including the work of numerous historians of the first rank, its detailed, 700-page counternarrative of the rise and fall of what the moderns call Liberty was carefully designed to avoid any accusation of Catholic special pleading. Yet I knew that reactions to the book would fall basically into two categories: on the one hand, careful consideration of its amply supported contentions by those who would be surprised, as I was, by the truths hidden by the golden legends that make up the story political modernity tells about itself; and, on the other hand, angry rejection and gratuitous invective on the part of those who would not take the time to give the work a careful and dispassionate reading. Clyde Wilson, I am sorry to say, falls into the latter category. And I say with this great respect for his work and for Chronicles, one of America’s premiere intellectual journals. Indeed, I was honored to see R. Cort Kirkwood’s favorable review (“Liberty: The God With Feet of Clay,” December 2013) of Liberty in these pages.
Dr. Wilson’s letter to the editor (“The Book That Failed,” Polemics & Exchanges, January) gratuitously asserts what may be just as gratuitously denied: that Liberty is “afloat in rootless abstractions and unfounded judgments” and is a “useless nonbook” that “matches the fantasy interpretations of the Straussian cult.” He is clearly intent on preempting anyone from reading the book by launching a fusillade of pejoratives at it—a sure sign that his reaction to it is visceral rather than rational. (I wonder if Dr. Wilson is willing to debate me publicly on one or more of my “unfounded judgments,” of which he can take his pick. His silence will be our answer.)
In his closest approach to the merits of the book, Dr. Wilson reveals that he hasn’t read it very carefully, if at all. He writes, “Nobody despises more than I do the New England Puritanism and its spawn, but that does not account for all of American Protestantism, about which the author seems to have very little solid information.” It seems he has overlooked an entire chapter, in which I present the prophetic testimony of American evangelical Protestants, from the dawn of the Republic to the aftermath of the Civil War, who warned with one voice that America’s then utterly novel “godless Constitution” and her embrace of the Lockean errors of the “social compact” and the “sovereignty of the people” would mean certain spiritual and moral disaster for this nation.
As the Protestant-led National Reform Association (NRA), whose presidents included a retired Supreme Court justice, William Strong, declared in its 1874 proceedings,
our grand Revolutionary fathers left us the legacy of [the Civil War] in the ambiguities of thought and principle which they suffered in respect of the foundations of government itself. . . . [T]hey organized a government, such as we, at least, have understood to be without moral or religious ideas; in one view merely a man-made compact . . . Proximately our whole difficulty is an issue forced by slavery; but if we go back to the deepest root of the trouble, we shall find that it comes by trying to maintain a government without moral ideas, and concentrate a loyal feeling around institutions that, as many reason, are only human compacts . . .
In 1872, the NRA’s publication Christian Statesman deplored the juridical reality—apparently lost on Dr. Wilson—that
[t]he Constitution makes no acknowledgment of Almighty God, the author of national existence; nor of Jesus Christ, who is the Ruler of Nations. . . . It dishonors God. . . . It has introduced, or furthered, views and measures which are now struggling for baneful ascendancy in State and national politics: such as, That civil government is only a social compact; That it exists only for secular and material, not moral, ends.
The remedy the NRA proposed was the submission to Congress of a “Christian amendment” to the Constitution, which had the support of three senators, reflecting precisely what the Framers had ignored—the Social Kingship of Christ:
We the People of the United States, [humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations, his revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government, and] in order to form a more perfect union . . .
The amendment was never allowed to come to a vote, and the NRA’s prophecy concerning the moral and spiritual fate of the Republic whose organic law rejected civil authority’s explicit submission to divine authority has been fulfilled:
[T]he written Constitution must be amended to conform to the facts as they have actually been evolved. If this be not done, the Constitution will in time conform everything to itself. The facts, the usages, the legislative and judicial actions, everything, in a word, that is out of harmony with the written instrument, will give way before its moulding and controlling influence, and disappear.
The result, just as the NRA predicted in 1872, is that American politics would become “a pure, unbelieving, irreligious, Christless, Godless blank.”
Perhaps it is Dr. Wilson who lacks “solid information” concerning “all of American Protestantism.” I commend to him Chapter 18 of Liberty, where he will find laid out in great detail an evangelical Protestant diagnosis of the errors of political modernity that could have been lifted verbatim from the antiliberal encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII.
Dr. Wilson asks why, if America “was so tainted in her founding that such aberrations as abortion and homosexualism are inevitable . . . the traditionally Catholic countries of Europe show many of the same symptoms.” I find it hard to believe that he does not know the answer to his own question: These traditionally Catholic countries are no longer Catholic because, in a wave of violent revolutions following the American Revolution, beginning with the French Revolution and culminating in the final triumph of mass democracy during and after World War I, the Christian commonwealths of Europe were destroyed and replaced with exactly what the NRA had decried: the secular state. Dr. Wilson also wants to know why, if the American founding was tainted with the errors of the Enlightenment, “the weight of the Church has been mainly on the left wing of American politics for over a century.” Does not the question answer itself? Here I would recommend Chapter 20 of Liberty, which explains how the American model, more or less replicated throughout the Western world, has “tamed” Christianity, liberalized churchmen, and suppressed the public witness of the Church, as even John Courtney Murray was forced to admit.
Dr. Wilson harrumphs that “I don’t think any moderately sensible person would be comforted by Mr. Ferrara’s work.” I did not write the book to comfort people but to inform them. Then again, once informed, people who have read Liberty with an open mind have been kind enough to tell me how they are indeed comforted by an understanding of our situation they did not have before they read it. It was an understanding I myself developed in the process of researching and writing Liberty.
Finally, my thanks to Chronicles and Mr. Kirkwood for a fair review of the book based upon Mr. Kirkwood’s obviously attentive reading of it. That is all an author can ask for.
In an adjoining letter to the editor, Kirkpatrick Sale, quoted in Liberty, takes exception with my use of his words in the context of the contention “the Tenth Amendment does not supersede the Supremacy Clause.” That is not quite my argument. On paper, the Supremacy Clause may not trump the Tenth Amendment, but in practice it inevitably did, as the Antifederalists warned from the beginning. And that is exactly what Mr. Sale argued in the passage I quoted from his article “Getting Back to the Real Constitution?”:
Let’s wake up these “real Constitution” die-hards and the ardent “Tenthers” and tell them that it’s a waste of time to try to resurrect that document in order to save the nation—because the growth of government and the centralization of power is inherent in its original provisions [a]s the anti-Federalists were trying to say all along from the very beginning of the ratification process. . . . [W]e have a big overgrown government because that’s what the Founding Fathers founded . . .
Mr. Sale goes on to advocate secession as the way out of our situation. I will leave it to the reader to consider the morality and practicality of that solution. The last time it was attempted, nearly three quarters of a million Americans lost their lives. I doubt the result would be more favorable today. Suffice it to note what Robert E. Lee wrote to his son in 1861 (before he rather expediently changed his position on the subject): “Secession is nothing but revolution.” Catholics don’t do revolutions and do not recognize Locke’s nonexistent “right to revolution.”
Dr. Wilson Replies:
Grandmother always said never to discuss religion with people you don’t know. She was right about that as well as about a lot of other things. Mr. Ferrara is understandably not happy with my somewhat barbed criticism of his work. Indeed, these are matters on which almost limitless disagreement is possible. I see nothing in his comment to refute my two primary points: that he most of the time deals in abstractions that don’t touch American dirt, and that he could use more understanding of Protestantism. As I read him, Mr. Ferrara accepts the liberal/nationalist description of history that reads the French Revolution back into the War of Independence and sees the founding as a commitment to a Christless society dedicated to individual license. Most Americans celebrate this history. Mr. Ferrara deplores it. I don’t like it either, but I don’t think it is a true history and see no need to throw out the baby and keep the dirty bathwater.
It is unfortunate that the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution (unlike the far better Confederate Constitution) did not ask for divine blessing. However, this proves nothing, as Mr. Sale’s comment suggests, because the Constitution did not found a society but was only a contract between 13 already existing societies, each of which in its own way had divine supplication in its founding. The history of American Protestantism is like Joseph’s coat, certainly. Mr. Ferrara shows some distance from the topic by his many references to “evangelicals.” Who knows what this means? It is not one thing but more like the blind men’s description of the elephant. The Protestants that he cites are not necessarily invoking the same role for Christianity that he wishes. I am not convinced by those people who wanted to get Our Lord into the national system during the diseased period of Reconstruction. That was the last gasp of New England Puritanism that had been trying to dominate all Americans since the 17th century. They were upset because they thought victory in the Civil War would establish “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but instead brought “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” They did not represent the mainstream of American Protestantism at the time.