I should probably comment on the point of my last post.
A basic problem for a Catholic or any serious person in America is that he lives in a country people treat as a sort of religion. The reason for treating it that way is the need for social cohesion in an ethnically and religiously diverse society in which individual freedom and pluralism are promoted as the highest social goods. If you downplay normal social connections in that way you’ll need some sort of superprinciple to make up for them.
If America is a religion, no Catholic or serious person can be an American. It’s just too stupid. In the past religious people have often dealt with the problem by retreating into a sort of ghetto, non-religious people by cynicism, expatriation or generally weirding out. None of those approaches seems satisfactory. Nor does John Courtney Murray’s approach of claiming that the American order has a strong principle of self-limitation. It doesn’t seem to.
Today the most common response to the problem is just to shrug it off. If you asked the average American he’d be puzzled by the claim that America is a religion and see no conflict between loyalty to the United States and any normal kind of religious faith and observance.
Still, I think there’s enough of a problem there that some sort of solution would be helpful. If the problem doesn’t bother you, because America isn’t that tightly organized but just bumps along however it bumps along, the solution shouldn’t bother you either. Both are equally far-fetched.
Anyway, the point of the last post is to suggest dissolving the problem by noticing that America is not complete, self-contained, or ultimate in itself. It can’t possibly be viewed as a religion, and people who do so are just confused. Nor is it a demon or a random conglomeration of people, places and things with no special hold on us. Americanists, Anti-Americans and cynics are all wrong.
Instead, America is a particular complex human society of which we are part and on which we have to draw for help in living well and coming to know the Good, Beautiful and True. It doesn’t have a lock on those things, but it’s in touch with them and supports them in many ways. We know that’s so, because human life can’t be carried on without them and America does exist, and because we are Americans and there are many good things in our lives here.
It follows that what we owe to America is to understand, defend and promote the things that give it its reason for being and are essential to its function as a human society. Those are the things we depend upon to live well. It’s not equal freedom that is the basis of our common life, which would make no sense, but our common humanity and our common desire to live well.
Such an approach would mean a looser, freer and more realistic social order than the alternative. In practice, the claim that a social order is based on equal freedom means that government decisions must be based on the demands of freedom and equality or on technical considerations rather on the choice of one good over another. The result is that they get handed over to experts on doctrine and technique—judges and bureaucrats—answerable only to themselves and their fellow experts. There is no place for dissent, since if you oppose what’s going on you’re an ignorant interloper or an oppressor. Either way, no one should listen to you.
In contrast, it’s evident that a desire to live well does not solve particular disputes as to how to do so. Political discussion therefore becomes a clear necessity when government has to decide something. When disputes can’t be resolved some accommodation must be reached, which may be more or less principled. The result is likely to be less abusive and more in line with the concerns of those involved than a result determined by functionaries supposedly based on some superprinciple like equal freedom that no one can question. The necessity of reaching such accommodations is also likely to lead to political virtues such as caution and prudence.
In adopting such an approach we will, of course, put ourselves in opposition to years of propaganda about America—what she is and what’s owed to her. We will call things “essential to America” that others call “personal tastes,” “sectarian hang-ups,” or “abuses to be eradicated.” Too bad. That’s all the more reason for developing and insisting on our own view.