Monday, January 07, 2013

George Will and the Problem of History

RECENTLY, I attended a lecture given by political journalist George Will, in Graham Chapel at Washington University in Saint Louis, where he argued favorably about the importance of religion in civic life. Following a glowing introduction from former United States Senator John Danforth, Mr. Will, despite being a prominent conservative, received a warm reception from the crowd in this university known for its liberalism. Will's style is professorial and not argumentative, and he presented his case using factual evidence, not lowering himself to using ad hominem attacks; in his genteel manner, he seems much like his mentor, the late William F. Buckley, Jr., and rather unlike the conservative — but quite confrontational — talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

Washington University, in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA - Graham Chapel

Graham Chapel, the venue for the lecture. Although called a chapel, this building is not set apart for sacred worship, but is used mainly for concerts and lectures. The university was founded by liberal Protestant clergy and wealthy businessmen. More of my photos of architecture on the campus can be seen here.

Will talked about how progressivism differs from conservatism. Initially he focused on the person of Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States (1913-1921), and leading Progressive, who radically expanded the role of government in the republic. According to Will, the Founding Fathers of the country feared the tyranny of majorities in a democratic state, and so placed in the Constitution a system of checks and balances to protect the rights of minorities. According to Will, thanks to the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli, Martin Luther, and Thomas Hobbes, the author of the book Leviathan, the Founders knew how to put together a good government (despite all three being highly problematic authors, especially for Catholics). It seems that history, to George Will, started in the Renaissance, and nothing from the age of Christendom seems to be of value to him. The progressives however, ignore history as irrelevant, and thought that the process of evolution, shaped by democracy in the U.S., had bred-out the bad tendencies of human nature, and that there should no longer be a fear of the majority or of strong leaders.

Mr. Will repeated the belief of the Founders that a good republic rests on civic morality, which is promoted by religion, and therefore we ought not fear the influence of the religious on political culture. England, he noted, was ravaged cheap gin, but it was not politics but rather John Wesley and Methodism that saved her. Will — when responding to a comment about the possibility of the religious Right turning the U.S. into a theocracy like Iran — stated that religious conservatives in the U.S. traditionally are ‘quietist’ regarding politics, until they are forced to become politically active to protect their rights. Indeed, religion once had an influential role in the political life of the U.S., but led by liberal Christians such as Wilson and Martin Luther King.

But to Will, an agnostic, it seems that any religion will do, and he backed up his belief in indifferentism by a number of quotes from the Founders. [However, a friend of mine who also attended the lecture knew of contradictory quotes from the same men, who rather seemed to think that any Christian religion would do.] Recall that the Founders feared the tyranny of the majority: they particularly feared a majority of any particular religion; so while they promoted religion in general, they wanted a radical Protestant kind of religion, one that was unorganized and chaotic, and therefore, not a threat to the State.

Religious liberty is often promoted as a core belief of the American republic, but precisely what this liberty means to the political elites of the country is questionable. The Left typically defines this as ‘freedom from’ religion, similar to the French policy of laïcité, which seeks to free the people from the burdens of morality and “superstition,” which we see here. To the Left, it is the duty of religion, if it is allowed to exist at all, to conform to the desires of the State, and the State is more than willing to regulate or exterminate religions to reach these goals.

But the attitude of the elites of the political Right, if we consider Mr. Will's opinions to be common, is more benign but also harmful. To them, the role of religion is limited to building up the civic virtue of the citizenry, and so therefore is a means to an end instead of something valuable in itself, and as we have seen, no one religion is allowed to become an majority. It appears that a divide-and-conquer strategy is used often, typically by splitting religions along political lines, as has occurred often in U.S. history. Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8), is instead seen as a changeable political hack.

Both the Left and Right encourages infiltration of religions: nonbelievers are strongly encouraged to be members of a church, and to take an active part in governing them, despite their lack of faith. This is seen as being respectable, traditional, or even conservative or progressive according to various viewpoints. In my youth, I even recall government-sponsored public service announcements that encouraged people to “attend the church or synagogue of your choice.”  Historically, the non-believer Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were regular church attendees, as is our current president, who according to his autobiography is also a non-believer. Former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter actually started their own religion, the New Baptist Covenant, although I know nothing of these men's religiosity. However, the most conservative president in recent memory, Ronald Reagan, did not attend church at all. Coldness is perhaps better than being lukewarm (Rev. 3:16)?

The U.S. is a good place to be a member of a small or fringe religion, for the kind of freedom of religion found here allows small groups to flourish with little explicit pressure either from government or from the culture in general. Orthodox Christians, Jews, small Protestant sects, and even New Age religionists find themselves here a pleasant land where they can do as they will. Unlike other countries, they do not have to register with a department of government (although they might have to submit paperwork to be recognized as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization), nor do they normally have to deal with hostile, violent crowds.

But what is good for a small religion does not work for Catholicism, which claims universality. Offering services once a week is a simple thing that is barely regulated (unlike what is found in Canada or China). Doing other things, things which we are compelled to do out of love of neighbor, such as education and health care, are not so simple, and the State has been grasping for these, first with the public schools and now with the health care mandate. In this, conservatives and progressives agree: the Church must be restricted. Be aware that the state cared little about these until the Church brought them to these shores, and the public school system was created specifically to counter the Catholic schools. But as Catholic schools declined, the state-owned schools also declined with them, and if Catholic hospitals are allowed to fall, then health care in general will also fall. Few of those who rule the State know why these things are good and what they are for. Reproductive ‘health’ (meaning abortion on demand) and the economics of chronic health care are not valid or moral reasons for state control of hospitals.

Many traditional Catholics long for the days when powerful monarchs, such as the Kings of France and Spain actively promoted the Faith, especially since atheistic regimes now rule much of the world. But realize that these monarchs often tightly controlled the Church, by appointing her bishops and regulating her religious orders, and the situation was even worse in Russia, where the Tsars took over the role of the local Patriarch of the faith. When atheists took control of those states, they continued the policies of state control over religion. Even to this day, the secularistic government of France has a role in the selection of Catholic bishops.

In history, the ultramontanes strongly supported the role of the Papacy over local sovereigns. But some asked, why should Catholics support a weak Pope when they had a king who was powerful enough to get things done?  We find this attitude even among the faithful today, putting too much trust in the princes and powers of the world. But the ultramontanists were right, as was affirmed by the First Vatican Council. An unrooted Christianity will soon find itself subverted to one political ideology or another, even in the United States, but an ultramontane attitude, leading to an integral and activist Catholicism, is the best remedy.


  1. "the most conservative president in recent memory, Ronald Reagan, did not attend church at all."

    Supposedly, Reagan refrained from attending church not out of unbelief but because he felt his prescence would be too distracting and disruptive to other worshipers (since he would have to be accompanied by Secret Service agents and whatever church he attended would be under constant surveillance).

    Also, Reagan's father was Catholic while his mother was Protestant (Disciples of Christ); he was raised in his mother's faith while his brother Neil was baptized and reared in their father's church, and remained Catholic all his life.


  2. Dear Mark

    thanks for your interesting overview of state-chruch relation in historical perspective as inspired by the the lecture of Mr Will. The tension between state and church was always present over centuries, quite stron in Middle Ages. You referred rightly to Russia where in XIX century up to February revolution in 1917, the church was tightly controlled by the Tsar civil servants, many of them agnostic or atheists. This was magnified to extreme during bolshevik revolution and Soveit Union. The better periods for th chruch came only when the state was in trouble (in 1942 when whole Sviet Union was under threat of being conqured by Natzi Germany, Stalin allowed some religious freedom and started to refer religion. An interesting episode that perhaps you might not know is the following: In the most difficult days for the defence of the Soviet Union in December 1941, when German troops have the same capital, Stalin inspired by Orthodox monks who manged to get through to him message that Our Lady will rescue Russia, he – being an atheists (though former seminarian in early days in Georgia in Orthodox seminary) - sought refuge in the Mother of God. During the siege of Moscow, Stalin ordered a special plane flown by a copy of the icon of Our Lady of Kazan on board.

    Best regards and God bless you for your blog

    Piotr Bednarski
    Kanie, near Warsaw, Poland