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American propositions

I was looking at We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (1960) by John Courtney Murray. For those who don’t know much about him, Murray was a Catholic priest and theologian who

was especially known for his efforts to reconcile Catholicism and religious pluralism, religious freedom, and the American political order. During the Second Vatican Council, he played a fundamental role in persuading the Church to adopt the Council’s ground-breaking Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae. [Wikipedia]

He’s a big deal among liberal Catholics: John Kerry once claimed he was a John Courtney Murray kind of Catholics, while his episcopal critics evidently weren’t. I was struck though by how reactionary Murray’s views were by contemporary standards. Some quotes:

“The question is sometimes raised, whether Catholicism is compatible with American democracy. The question is invalid as well as impertinent; for the manner of its position inverts the order of values. It must, of course, be turned round to read, whether American democracy is compatible with Catholicism.”


“The first truth to which the American Proposition makes appeal is stated in that landmark of Western political theory, the Declaration of Independence. It is a truth that lies beyond politics; it imparts to politics a fundamental human meaning. I mean the sovereignty of God over nations as well as over individual men. This is the principle that radically distinguishes the conservative Christian tradition of America from the Jacobin laicist tradition of Continental Europe.”


“Because it was conceived in the tradition of natural law the American Republic was rescued from the fate, still not overcome, that fell upon the European nations in which Continental Liberalism, a deformation of the liberal tradition, lodged itself, not least by the aid of the Lodges. There have never been ‘two Americas,’ in the sense in which there have been, and still are, ‘two Frances,’ ‘two Italys,’ ‘two Spains.’ Politically speaking, America has always been one.”

So he says that Catholicism comes before America and democracy. That’s enough to make him a rightwing fundy theocrat today.

More substantively, the views about American society that enabled him to reconcile 100% Americanism with 100% Catholicism became irrelevant soon after he expressed them. Like the Vatican II generation in general, he was amazingly bad at reading the “signs of the times.”

Any “American Proposition” to the effect that God is sovereign over nations was rejected in the school prayer decisions, which came down only a couple of years after Murray’s book came out. No respectable person disputes that result now. And there have been two Americas since the ’60s, the radical-secularist one and Jesusland, with the latter continuously in decline. (From news reports it appears that there’s only one politically-significant France now, the radical-secularist one.)

The same problem comes up with Murray that I’ve noticed with Nisbet, Roepke, and Guardine: books written before the 60s that are somewhat conservative and count as relative classics tend to rely essentially on views that are now undiscussible. That’s true even when the writer counted as a liberal at the time. It seems that one reason no conservative book has achieved public importance recently is that conservative ideas can’t be talked about.



I’d guess that it doesn’t help that American propositionalism was never explicitly Christian, let alone Catholic.