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Am I American Enough?

May 25, 2011, 11:06 AM
Peter2

Here's a pithy, gracious, thoughtful, and fairly accurate review of my most recent book by another conservative.  In the spirit of shameless self-promotion, I'll give you a generous taste:

In this stimulating collection of essays written while he served on the President's Council on Bioethics, Peter Augustine Lawler proves himself again one of liberal democracy's most perceptive friendly critics.....

In a culture of self-absorption built on doubts about our own self-worth, we desperately attempt to make ourselves appealing to others--dieting, exercising, nipping, and tucking--and appear as young, beautiful, and useful as all the bodies and faces that fill our magazines, billboards, and television screens. Biotechnology promises even more dramatic changes. 

He traces our unease to the father of liberal democracy, John Locke, and to his claim that what nature provides for us is "virtually worthless," becoming valuable only when mixed with our labor. If nature is worthless (though Locke never quite said this), then even our ownbodies are worthless unless we can make them appear productive, and nature itself offers no guidance for our pursuit of happiness....   

In a superb chapter on John Courtney Murray, Lawler defends the American founders' "implicitly Thomistic" liberalism (from which we've strayed), which, despite its debt to Locke, retained a conception of rights firmly grounded in natural law. Following Murray, he credits aCalvinist influence with tempering the founders' own liberal impulses, allowing them to build "better than they knew." He hopes that perhaps our politics may again experience a similarly fruitful tension between today's evangelicals and secularists.  

Ultimately, however, Lawler finds mere political goals--particularly "veneration" of the American founders--inadequate, implying that only "the perspective of genuine believers" can effectively secure human dignity. But these days it seems challenging enough to persuade 300 million of our fellow Americans to embrace the dignity of citizenship again without trying to convert them as well to Christianity. That we must leave to God's grace.

Most of you BIG THINKERS are wondering what's going on in this display of an intramural conservative dispute.  There are some conservatives who believe that we should teach the American founding as embodying absolute truth and worthy of a kind of religious veneration.  Through a kind of civic religion, we can restore the dignity of citizenship in the modern world.  My book, for the record, talks a fair amount about the dignity of citizen--and even of the nation--against the postpolitical fantasies so prevalent among our theorists and in Europe. 

But a big problem with using our Founding to establish the dignity of citizenship is that our Founding theory is mostly Lockean.  And Locke was pretty darn critical of civic consciousness and civil theology.  Locke was right, of course, that, deep down, we're not citizens, and a very close reader of Locke can notice that his articulation of the inwardness of personal identity actually supports the Christian insight that we're more than merely citizens.

I never say in the book or anywhere else that an adequate defense of who we are as free and dignified beings requires conversion to Christianity.  I do say that the Lockean view of who we are isn't adequately relational.  Such a criticism is often expressed on BIG THINK in the Darwinian mode.  I would prefer to say that Locke is right that we're free, and Darwin is right that we're social animals.  And there's a lot to be learned by letting Locke (or autonomous individualism) and Darwin criticize each other. Locke is better on the pursuit of happiness, Darwin on happiness itself. But  they both have their limits: For a Lockean, words, finally, are weapons for the enhancement of individual liberty; for Darwin, finally, they in some sense serve the flourishing of the species.  For us Thomists, the being with complex language is open to the truth about all things, including (incompletely) the truth about himself.  And being "conscious" in that sense is being relational--or knowing with others.

For me, one problem with teaching our Declaration of Independence as absolutely true is that it itself was the product of legislative compromise.  The Lockean draft of Jefferson and Franklin was modified by the more Calvinist or Christian members of the Continental Congress.  So the Deistic "past tense" God of nature of Locke became also the providential and judgmental "living" God of the Bible.  Our Declaration is a kind of accidental Thomism.

 

Am I American Enough?

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