“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure,
when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of
the people that these liberties are the gift of God?”
Not long ago Time magazine celebrated America with a special issue. Among the ornaments of this production was an essay by an ersatz “Tocqueville,” purporting to provide an account of what that wise observer would say today, were he to update his ruminations on democracy in America. The newfangled Tocqueville ob served that the old Tocqueville had been wrong in his prediction that America would be characterized by an ever-increasing “tyranny of the majority.” To the contrary, apparently on the evidence of vast numbers “doing their own thing,” he could find no American majority at all.
But, of course, hordes of the other wise indistinguishable, individualizing themselves by adherence to varying fads, do not disprove Tocqueville. Rather, they fit in exactly with what he expected. In the same issue of Time was an extended paean to what the editors consider one of our most salient national characteristics, a pervasive and inescapable popular culture (which, they did not say, trivializes and debases our land and much of the rest of the world as well). And Time itself, with its compulsive weekly emissions, straitjacketing the proliferating mystery and variety of life into a pat formula, precisely calculated to gull the rootless half-educated into believing they are being made party to some insider’s insight into reality, is as good evidence as anyone could want for the sad truth of the wise Frenchman’s prognostication of a ubiquitous conformity of mind.
As we begin to contemplate the approaching bicentennial of the United States Constitution, Tocqueville seems more and more apposite. He was, of course, concerned not so much with the American Constitution as with the American constitution. It is among the virtues of the two books at hand that they recognize implicitly that the two phenomena, though distinct, are ineluctably interrelated. They share the further virtue of explicit acknowledgment that neither the upper-nor the lower-case phenomenon can properly be discussed without reference to a moral dimension.
In American Political Theology, Charles W. Dunn, professor of political science at Clemson University, has admirably fulfilled his modest and useful intention to provide in textbook fashion a dispassionate exposition “of how, why, and when” politics and religion intersect This is no small feat in treating a subject so vast, undefined, and fraught with intense conflict, and the work can be of consider able usefulness to teachers at any level who need a clear historical and theoretical analysis of the intersection as it has presented itself in the experience of our country.
Four sections present periods of theological-political tension in American history by means of exposition of background and an evenhanded selection of excerpts from primary documents. The four periods are the Founding, the Civil War, the Social Gospel and New Deal, and the present day confrontation of “human ism” and Christianity. Two additional chapters, “The Theological Dimensions of Presidential Leadership” and “A Theory of American Political Theology,” are less successful, though they do serve to clarify the conflict of liberal and conservative theologies and the interpenetration of theological with economic, political, and social concerns. Dunn’s work constitutes what an old-fashioned scholar would call “a real advance in science”—that is, it leaves the analytical state of the subject in au improved condition.
This analytical success is partly due to the shaping and delimiting provided by the concept of theology. Theology, morality, and ethics are of course not the same thing. They are analytically distinct considered in their political aspect, not to mention their personal application. In public discussion we often tend to conflate these concepts under a too imprecise rubric of “moral” considerations. I committed this conflation in my third paragraph above. If there is any fault to be found with The Moral Foundations of The American Republic, an excellent book of essays by 14 contributors, it is that the different senses of “moral” tend to be run together and to be treated as if all were synonyms for “democracy.”
Given the secularist and amoral terms of contemporary debate and the present moral condition of the Republic, a collection which focuses on the centrality of moral foundations is a great contribution and a good sign. The contributors are mostly political scientists, with a few historians thrown in. They include liberals of a thoughtful sort (Richard Hofstadter, Wilson Carey McWilliams, Robert A. Dahl) and moderate conservatives (Walter Berns, James Ceaser, and others, nearly all followers, apparently, of the late Leo Strauss). The essays are, for the most part, intellectually and ethically muscular and will well repay reading by anyone who is already fairly well grounded in the Founding. As appears from the learned and graceful introductory essay by Will Morrisey, the contributors play against each other advancing toward the truth in dialectical fashion: means vs. ends; public vs. private; principles vs. self-interest; equality vs. liberty; limited vs. pure democracy; character vs. intellect. All the right questions are defined by Morrisey without an ungentlemanly insistence on specific answers. Should any reader of Chronicles be so enterprising as to secure a large grant to organize a symposium for the bicentennial, I recommend Morrisey’s essay as an ideal outline for discussion.
The conservative contributors to this collection, while worthily exploring worthy subjects and usually besting their liberal opponents, seem regrettably limited by the conventions of Straussian political science. In assess ing the American Constitution, one of these conventions is the formula: Morality = Equality = Democracy. The equation is not true, either as a general proposition or as a description of the American tradition. The Founders were moral men, and they may have been, in some sense, egalitarians. But their moral sense, which rested upon revelation and tradition, was quite dis tinct from their egalitarianism, which was historical and circumstantial. To postulate the chief moral foundation of democracy in terms of equality is quite literally to flout all the wisdom of the ages and to universalize a particular modern tendency that was in fact foreign to the Founders. It is to make morality dependent upon democracy rather than the other way around. Even worse, it is to meet the liberal on his own treacherous ground and there fore restrict ourselves tO a limited and hopeless battle for the recovery of the Constitution, for it is precisely the impulse to make morality and egalitarianism equivalent that lies at the root of all serious deformations of the Constitution.
The grounds of my misgivings about The Moral Foundations of the American Republic can best be seen, perhaps, by comparing it with another, neglected work of a few years ago. The Theology of Christian Resistance: A Symposium (edited by Gary North; Geneva Divinity School Press, 1983), took up the same questions of the moral foundations of the constitution al republic. The scholars who contributed to that symposium, however, wrote from inside of a lived and felt constitutional and theological tradition; a tradition described by Dunn neutrally but with historical substance. The Moral Foundations of the American Republic, however, remains with in the bounds of the abstractions of 20th-century democratist political theory and nowhere seriously questions the secular Liberal Establishment.
[American Political Theology: Historical Perspective and Theoretical Analysis, edited by Charles W. Dunn; New York: Praeger]
[The Moral Foundations of The American Republic, third edition, edited by Robert H. Horwitz; Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia]