Friday, November 16, 2012

Christopher Ferrara, Liberty, The God that Failed

Christopher Shannon, "A Declaration of Catholic Independence" (Crisis Magazine, October 30, 2012):
G.K. Chesterton once described America as a “nation with the soul of a church.” Many have wrongly interpreted this statement as Chesterton’s way of saying that America was a Christian nation, or that Americans were especially pious and devout people. Chesterton meant something rather different, and not especially complementary. America is like a church in the sense that it has often understood citizenship in terms of assent to a creed. One becomes an Englishman or Frenchman through history, through coming from a family that has lived in a particular place for generations. In contrast, one can theoretically become an American simply by assent to certain abstract principles, the American creed. Chesterton’s characterization of America as a creedal nation came to mind as I passed an election sign for the Romney-Ryan ticket that read, “Believe in America.” What could this possibly mean? Is America a god? What precisely are we supposed to believe in? In a word, liberty. And make no mistake about it, liberty is a god.

That, at least, is the argument that Christopher A. Ferrara makes in his important and timely new book, Liberty, the God That Failed: Policing the Sacred and Constructing the Myths of the Secular State, from Locke to Obama.The title references the 1949 work The God that Failed, a famous collection of essays by ex-communists describing their disillusion with the utopian ideology of communism. Liberal and conservative American political thinkers share a common characterization of communism and fascism as irrational, secular religions against which the American political tradition stands as a model of reason and moderation. It is just such a conceit that Ferrara sets out to expose as a delusion. At a time when the American bishops are calling on Catholics to defend the American tradition of religious liberty against state coercion, Ferrara argues that religious liberty itself has been the main ideology through which the modern state has sought to redefine and control religion. This is a difficult and challenging argument, one that goes against the common sense of American political thinking. It is an argument based on a very different kind of common sense that comes from traditional Catholic understandings of the public nature of Church authority.