The Summer 2015 CRB includes an essay by Senior Editor William Voegeli, “That New-Time Religion.” It discussed two books whose authors have kindly agreed to pursue some of the essay’s questions about the culture wars. Joseph Bottum, author of An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, is the former literary editor of the Weekly Standard and former editor of First Things. His work has also appeared in the Atlantic, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. Andrew Hartman, author of A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, is associate professor of history at Illinois State University. His previous work, Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School, was published in 2008.
Bottum: It would be churlish to do much else than thank William Voegeli for his account of recent books on the political sociology of contemporary America—a difficult genre about which to write. Most of our national sociology, Norman Mailer once quipped, is the desperate attempt to find something to say about America that Alexis de Tocqueville hadn’t already said back in the 1830s, and Tocqueville was as prescient about the topics I cover in my book, An Anxious Age, as he was about everything else.
Still, I have to object when Voegeli writes, “A Roman Catholic with a doctorate in medieval philosophy, [Bottum] considers mainline Protestantism’s intellectual ambitions and accomplishments modest.” There’s a certain irony here, since Voegeli’s phrase “Roman Catholic” is itself a remnant of the old Protestant ascendency—a (mostly) Anglican effort to signal rejection of the universalist claims of the Catholic Church by insisting on its sectarian nature as Roman Catholicism. Admittedly, some Catholics accepted the English phrase, in the same get-along-with-the-Protestant-majority spirit that led them to accept the Protestant clerical substitution of “Reverend” for “Father.” In language, at least, we are all the unwitting children of times gone by, and even as we marvel at the collapse of the mainline churches that once defined the American experiment, we still speak the words they gave us.
More to the point, the simple truth is that those old mainline churches have no greater cheerleader in America than me. Some Protestants may not much want my cheering for their denominations (I’m thinking here of, say, my brilliant friend Alan Jacobs). But since I’m on record as ascribing to the Anglosphere forms of Protestantism huge portions of both modern political history and modern art, it’s hard lines to accuse me of Protestant bashing. Since I’m on record as arguing both the Protestant roots of the American Founding and the Protestant roots of the literary form of the novel, the central art work of modernity, it’s disheartening to find myself lumped with the disdainers of Protestantism. The intellectual coherence of American Christendom was weak, as Tocqueville saw, but the faith and the accomplishments of American Protestantism were far, far from modest.
I mention this not because my reputation as an admirer of historical Protestantism particularly matters, but because America’s theo-political situation proves more of a puzzle than it needs to be for William Voegeli in his review essay. Discussing what I called “the Poster Children,” the post-Protestant grandchildren of the once-dominant Mainline churches, for example, Voegeli writes of liberals holding “a belief system that is simultaneously latitudinarian about some questions, and righteously intolerant about others.” That’s right—but it’s not necessarily a raw contradiction, any more than any other of the badly sewn seams in the liberal agenda are.
They derive, in fact, from the multiple paths down which Protestantism moved in America. History is important here, and we shouldn’t erase the difference between the Puritans of New England and the Protestants of Upstate New York, ignoring the systematic assault An Anxious Age was attempting to make on the centrality of Boston in the standard college courses offered as “American Studies.” The text of my “Erie Canal Thesis” is that American history is Protestant history, but the subtext is that the Puritans were only one strain of American Protestantism, and not the most important after the 1830s, however much Nathanial Hawthorne stuck the idea of the Puritans in our heads.
It’s a notion I got in part while thinking about Whitney Cross’s classic 1950 historical study, The Burned-Over District—and in part from recognizing that the real importance of the sadly faded sociologist Digby Baltzell (coiner of the term “WASP”) lay in his recognizing multiple streams of Protestantism in the founding culture of America with his 1979 study Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia: Two Protestant Ethics. This is something that Tocqueville missed, even while he traveled along the banks of the Erie Canal. Just from the Burned-Over district of Upstate New York, font of nineteenth-century religion, other streams beside the Social Gospel flowed out to the nation. I actually had a section for the book that read the Romney/Obama election cycle as two branches of wild Upstate religion in battle with each other, Romney as the Mormon heir of Joseph Smith, vs. Obama as the liberal heir of Walter Rauschenbusch, but it got so deep in the weeds of the trivial and ephemeral details of the 2012 campaign that I cut it from the book in exasperation. A mistake, probably.
Even the revolutions against the perceived conformity of the 1950s that Voegeli cites had their radical Protestant elements—like “eleven long-haired friends of Jesus in a chartreuse microbus,” somehow mixed among the rebellious truckers in C.W. McCall’s hit 1975 anti-government convoy song. The Jesus Freaks were counter-cultural, yes: “The intelligence that one’s runaway daughter had given her life to Christ, been baptized in a bathtub, and taken up residence with a bunch of barefoot, long-haired, guitar-strumming, tongues-speaking twenty-year-olds in a place called Maranatha House,” as the wonderful writer Sally Thomas once observed, “was only marginally less disturbing to the average Methodist mother than the news that the same daughter had moved in with a professional tabla drummer and changed her name to Windflower.” But they were looking not for political change so much as personal, individual, ontological change. They were hunting for their salvation and for certainty about that salvation.
That hunger for certainty about salvation has always had cultural consequences, as Max Weber argued in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, one of the lodestars for my own work in An Anxious Age. But those consequences are effects, unintended results flowing from a prior commitment to metaphysical claims about the universe—and it’s here that we find the real problem of political science’s approach to the puzzle of national religion.
These days, in our Church of Christ Without Christ, the problem is not morality. The problem is ontology. The tide of dissociated Christian ideas that washes over our culture comes from the desire of people not to do good but to be good. The Poster Children have inherited from Protestant America a hunger not for virtuous deeds but virtuous existence: the fellowship of the redeemed. This is why I suggest they are better understood as “the elect,” rather than “the elite.” No moral contradiction can touch them because the point is to find a being of goodness, confident in itself.
And that metaphysically aware analysis, as a kind of sociology of soteriology, helps us understand, I think, our culture’s current obsessions with race, with gender, and with our symbolic and deadlocked politics, in ways that political theory cannot do. We live in a spiritual age, I argue, when our ordinary political opponents seem not merely mistaken, but actually evil. We dwell in mystical times when we expect our attitudes toward social questions to determine our goodness and our salvation.
Hartman: I am heartened that Dr. Voegeli included treatment of my book, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, in his thoughtful and provocative essay on the tropes of what we now call liberalism. I am also encouraged that even though I make no bones about being a left partisan, Voegeli calls attention to the fact that my book “offers narrative and analysis with limited polemic.”
It is my hunch that some conservatives may appreciate my history of the culture wars because I rather agree with how they characterize the cultural history of the United States since the 1960s. Indeed Voegeli and I agree with Mark Lilla and Robert Bork that the ethos of the ’60s liberation movements—the ethos that has seemingly revolutionized American culture—was baked into the cake of American democracy. As Bork argued in rather heretical terms, the individual freedoms enshrined in the Declaration of Independence set into motion a society dedicated to permanent cultural revolution.
How does one set limits on the proposition that “all men are created equal”? Against the assumptions of those who signed the Declaration, “all men” eventually came to include, in fits and starts, non-property holders, slaves and former slaves, blacks and other people of color, immigrants from strange lands, Catholics, Jews and other non-Christians, atheists, women, gays, lesbians, and the disabled. Viewed in this way, the ’60s liberation movements made manifest an ethos that dated to the nation’s founding.
So Voegeli and I agree in our description. We also both agree that it would be better to live in a society grounded in foundational norms that define what it means to be a “good person.” Where we disagree is in prescription. Voegeli implies that such norms can only be found in the moral certainties of the type of religious faith that dominated American culture for the good part of its history. I find this stance problematic in at least two ways.
First, to the millions of Americans who find the new dispensation more liberating than the old one, such a sensibility often has less to do with liberty in its narrowly individualistic sense and much more to do with the ways in which pre-1960s normative America was discriminatory. No amount of complaining about the undeniably shallow shaming proclivities of those who currently preach the anti-racist creed will change this fact. Thus the burden is on those who would return to a religiously infused normative America to prove that such a society would not once again be sadistic.
Second, if we are indeed to reconstitute American society based on shared norms we must recognize that the most powerful antinomian force working against such an objective is capitalism. Even though conservative culture warriors often couched their critique of liberalism in anti-statist terms—such as when Christian Right leaders like Phyllis Schlafly contended that public schools and welfare agencies, in league with feminists, weakened the traditional family structure—it has become increasingly clear that capitalism has done more to pitilessly destroy the values they held dear. Capitalism, more than the federal government—Mammon, more than Leviathan—has rendered tradition passé. Capitalism sopped up ’60s liberation and, in the process, helped dig the grave of normative America.
Thus I would argue that the two people who have the best handle on how to reconstruct shared values are Pope Francis and Bernie Sanders. Their focus on the immorality of economic inequality shows that common ground can be found in timeless values like fairness and dignity. But given that Voegeli introduces his essay by celebrating the fact that the right has the upper hand in economics even as it is losing the culture wars—given that he counts the existence of the Tea Party as consoling—I am certain that we disagree on this matter.
Voegeli: An Anxious Age and A War of the Soul of America are valuable, stimulating books, and I appreciate their authors’ participation in this forum. For this reason I, too, don’t want to be churlish, and will endeavor to make “That’s not what I meant!” a minor motif in my response to them.
For the record, I don’t believe that Joseph Bottum bashes or disdains American Protestantism. I do believe, still, that the characterization of it in An Anxious Age as “all the Christendom we had in America” and the source of a “vague but vast unity,” sounds closer to two than three cheers. That ours might be a less anxious age if America had had a less vague, more robust Christendom seems likes a reasonable inference.
Similarly, I feel that Andrew Hartman overstates the congruence between my essay’s arguments and his book’s. Setting limits on the proposition that all men are created equal is indeed a problem, but not setting limits on it is an even bigger one. The signers of the Declaration of Independence “did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects,” Abraham Lincoln said in 1857. “They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity.” The core of equality, he continued, is the belief that people are equally possessed of the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This interpretation argues that for the journey begun at Independence Hall to arrive at Woodstock Nation was more detour than destiny. If the happiness we pursue is understood as the satisfaction justly derived from a life well lived, one constructed in accordance with our natures, then the truth that all men are created equal excludes rather than validates the assertion that all lifestyles are created equal. It follows, contra John Rawls, that the adherents of each lifestyle are not equally entitled to receive material support and nonjudgmental encouragement from a just society.
As Hartman expects, I will also decline his invitation to join the ranks of capitalism’s opponents. For one thing, the weakening of shared norms about what it means to be a good person is a challenge not just for those who want to sustain capitalism, but for those who want to reform or replace it. The final pages of Hartman’s recent book make this point explicitly. “[W]ithout a common culture, it is extremely hard to build the solidarity necessary for social democracy,” he wrote. “Perhaps, then, it is no coincidence that the modest American social welfare state—the New Deal state—was constructed during an era of unusual cultural stability.”
Others who would like to rely on markets less and government more have a similar lament. In the “presence of diversity,” sociologist Robert Putnam told an interviewer in 2006, “we hunker down. We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined.” The Bruce Springsteen song “We Take Care of Our Own” was played at the 2012 Democratic convention, and at campaign events for President Obama. Few noticed the implications: we don’t take care of those who aren’t our own; and we reserve the right to specify and apply the criteria that determine which people qualify as our own. Communitarians exhort us to fortify our communities’ interiors, but communities can’t have interiors unless they have exteriors. This boundary need not be defended sadistically, but it does need to be established clearly and resolutely.
There’s a second difficulty. Those who want to reform or replace capitalism need social solidarity, but also to offer a plausible alternative. Capitalism’s defenders, conversely, do not need to demonstrate that relying on markets is the best set of economic arrangements imaginable, just that it’s the best available. As one leftist philosopher, Richard Rorty, wrote in 1998, the Left has never settled or said “what, in the absence of markets, will set prices and regulate distribution.” The “voting public,” he argued, wants to know “how things are going to work after markets have been put behind us,” and capitalism’s adversaries can’t or won’t answer this basic, legitimate question.
Two other philosophers who describe themselves as leftists, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, made the same point in Nation of Rebels (2004). “The amount of intellectual energy that has been dedicated to the task of searching for an alternative to the market in the past century is staggering,” they wrote. “And yet no matter how you run the numbers, the answer always comes out the same. There are essentially two ways of organizing a modern economy: either a system of centralized, bureaucratic production (such as was found in the former Soviet Union), or else a decentralized system, in which producers coordinate their efforts through market exchange.” The policy alternatives that result from this dichotomy are constraining: “Central planning works fine for the military, or some other organization where members are willing to accept a standardized allotment of clothing, food rations or housing and to be assigned specific jobs to perform. But in a society where individuals hope to pick and choose among a range of lifestyle opportunities, there is no getting around the need for a market.”
The notion of pushing a shopping cart down the lifestyle aisle, picking and choosing from the available options, brings us back to Joseph Bottum’s point about ontology. In fashioning a life, the gratifications we seek include holding a good opinion of ourselves with confidence. I agree with Bottum that the desire to be among the elect—the redeemed—is as powerful in societies where religious attachments are weak as in ones where they’re strong. Holding and vigorously expressing the right political opinions and social attitudes becomes, for many, the outward sign of an inward grace.
This is a more serious matter than what Hartman describes as “the undeniably shallow shaming proclivities of those who currently preach the anti-racist creed.” It’s a problem when the Left defines social justice in ways so exacting and urgent as to rule out the possibility that decent, reasonable people might be opposed to, or merely skeptical about, the leftist project. Better manners by the anti-racist creed’s preachers are unlikely to solve this problem.
But it’s also a problem for the Right when, as I noted in “New-Time Religion,” liberal democracy depends on the cultural capital it consumes but does not replenish. If we assess this problem with maximal pessimism, we’ll follow Christopher Lasch and Daniel Bell in concluding that an irresolvable cultural contradiction besets modern, liberal, pluralist, secular democracies. We would expect such societies to collapse under the weight of this contradiction, even if no one offers a more appealing alternative set of arrangements.
I’ll conclude this post, as I concluded the essay, with the suggestion that the situation may be serious rather than dire. This would be the case if the cultural contradiction were nothing more severe than a tension, challenging rather than dooming the American experiment. This possibility is consistent with the late Harry Jaffa’s belief that “the American founding was dominated by an Aristotelian Locke—or a Lockean Aristotle.” If so, freedom and virtue fortify rather than attenuate one another, and properly constituted liberal societies are well disposed to the religious beliefs and practices that make freedom and virtue practically possible and ontologically grounded.
Hartman: Voegeli disagrees with my dictum that it is nearly impossible to set limits on the Declaration of Independence—on the proposition that “all men are created equal.” Instead he argues that the journey from Independence Hall to Woodstock was “more detour than destiny.”
Voegeli’s Woodstock, which is meant to represent the feel-good ethos in which anything goes—the antinomian ethos of the 1960s counterculture—is a red herring. The “all that is solid melts into air” sensibility of modernity has been present in our culture for well over a century. But most people never noticed, especially most white, middle-class Americans.
Many Americans only felt their worlds coming apart once they experienced chaos as a political force, as a movement of peoples previously excluded from the American mainstream. They only grew wary of “an assault on Western civilization” after the barbarians had crashed the gates. The radical political mobilizations of the 1960s—civil rights, Black and Chicano Power, feminism, gay liberation, the antiwar movement, the legal push for secularization—destabilized the America that millions knew. It was only then that many Americans, particularly conservatives, recognized a threat to their once great nation.
This is not to minimize the effect of the counterculture. Nor is it to argue that conservative wariness about Woodstock Nation is merely a symptom of racism or sexism. But we should note that widespread concern about the direction of the nation’s culture only emerged after previously excluded people took up the flag of liberation. This historical context needs to be stated and restated again and again.
Voegeli contends that the nation’s Founders set strict limits on access to happiness since the price of admission was “a life well lived, one constructed in accordance with our own natures…” I admit that this statement rings hollow. But I also admit that as a professional historian my epistemological conditioning is no doubt at odds with someone who reads and writes for the Claremont Review.
Even the most conservative among historians is loathe to resort to hoary notions like human nature as an intellectual defense for anything political. We are too indebted to philosophical pragmatism. Indeed, when William James made his famous antifoundationalist claim—“‘the truth’ is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as ‘the right’ is only the expedient in the way of our behaving”—he also created the air that historians breathe.
An eighteenth-century view of human nature is not likely to inspire many people outside an increasingly small set of conservative intellectual and religious circles. Voegeli might argue that Natural Rights do not have to be popular to be right, which is fair enough. But as historian David Sehat argues in his brilliant new book The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible, the world of the Founders has long been dead, and invoking them in our rhetoric dumbs down our political discourse. This includes Natural Rights rhetoric. The Founders’ sense “of a life well lived” was predicated on a life of slavery and drudgery for many millions of people. For this reason alone there is no going back to that world. There’s no ripping “a life well lived” from that context.
Voegeli is correct that even a leftist vision of the world needs solidarity, and that such solidarity will be difficult to achieve in a nation where our various religious, racial, ethnic, and sexual identities are deemed primordial. This is the problem, and there is no easy solution. But one thing seems clear to me. If solutions are to be found they will be found in the present and the future not the past. The pragmatic injunction is to face the world as it is.
Bottum: Andrew Hartman is in something of a bind, arguing that we will find no solution to our national dilemmas in hoary abstract philosophical notions like the three-centuries-old idea of human nature—and we know this because we are told so by the hoary abstract philosophical notion of the one-century-old idea of pragmatism. If John Locke’s datedness makes him a creaky platform from which to view the world, how then shall William James fare?
As I wrote in the chapter on James in my Anxious Age book, the American philosopher was a genuine liberal and no political radical. But his own delicately balanced liberalism proved as beautiful, and as ephemeral, as the dying colors of a New England fall, and his successor John Dewey would quickly show how easily pragmatism becomes little more than a handy tool whenever radicalism wants to hold itself out as a sort of hard-headed political realism (and thus Hartman claims for himself the pragmatic ideal of facing “the world as it is”). Of course, it’s a tool just as easily discarded whenever radicalism wants to assume the moral high ground of idealism (and thus Hartman claims for himself the views of such non- and even anti-pragmatists as Pope Francis and Bernie Sanders in embracing “timeless values like fairness and dignity”).
Does William Voegeli’s two-cheers optimism provide a better answer? Without the old Protestant Mainline—the great cultural Mississippi that once poured through the center of the nation—I think not. It’s an old but useful image, to picture the American experiment as a three-legged stool: capitalism, democracy, and religion all pushing against one another to support a wobbly seat for national identity. The natural extravagances of each are corrected by the pressures of the others. Yes, capitalism corrodes religion and democracy, but democracy in turn battles the prudishness of religion and the excesses of capitalism.
And as for religion, well, think of it this way: After all the false gods condemned in the Old Testament—from Baal to Moloch—it’s a little surprising that the gospels warn against only two false gods: Mammon and Caesar. In my more abstracted moments, I sometimes imagine that an entire history of America could be predicted from that fact alone. (And see, by the way, the historian Mark Noll’s new and important work from Oxford University Press, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492â€‘1783.) Just as capitalism and democracy strained against the two other legs of the American stool, so the biblical religion of Mainline Protestantism pushed against both the power of money and the power of the state. And without that third leg, how shall the stool balance?
At first glance, I thought Hartman and Voegeli were ignoring the history of American religion in important ways, both seeing the nation in what they perceive as only the two-legged battle of American capitalism struggling against American democratic government. And since culture will never be stable in the way they desire when balanced on only the fight between Mammon and Caesar, their efforts seemed to me (again, at first glance) both naive and fruitless.
As I study them more, however, I realize Hartman and Voegeli are each seeking, within their traditions, for a third leg: for a means of cultural stability, extra-political identity, and ontological futurity, a goal for history and the self. In the case of Hartman, we have a thinker forced, by his tale of progressive liberation, to dismiss the Founders as slavers and elitists whose very memory retards the institution of the permanent revolution. And thus “timeless values like fairness and dignity” must somehow be cobbled up with the uncertain instrument of liberation’s opposition to material wealth.
In the case of Voegeli, the answer must be found in the intersection of political governance and economic freedom. For anyone who studies the matter, the Founding Fathers represent the high point of an early modern tradition of liberal political theory: that Lockean Aristotelianism to which Voegeli alludes, a maximizing of liberty within a metaphysics of human beings both as actualities in which rights inhere and as potentialities in which virtues can develop. And thus Voegeli, a good American political theorist, looks to the Founders for moral inspiration—even though they, in many ways, assumed the Christian morality they sought to inculcate and preserve with their political theory.
In both cases, what’s missing, I believe, is the metaphysical and moral structures that religion provides—that a biblical Protestantism, in particular, gave us in America. Hartman has to damn the past, Voegeli has to cheer it, because neither has the resources of the third leg of the national experiment, which would allow, without contradiction, both condemnation of a national condition (slavery, in the case of the abolitionists; drunkenness, in the case of the prohibitionists) and praise of the nation as a City on a Hill: an experiment in freedom in a new world veiled (as Madison once mused) from Europe by God’s providence till mankind was ready to attempt it.
Voegeli: William James, it seems, has become the central figure in our discussion. This development should not surprise. Joseph Bottum devotes a chapter of An Anxious Age to James. Andrew Hartman quotes his aphorism about what’s true, good, and expedient twice in A War for the Soul of America, and returns to it here: James’ axiom provides the air professional historians breathe and is the source of their epistemological conditioning.
The argument James made in Pragmatism (1907) is worth quoting more fully:
‘The true,’ to put it very briefly, is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as ‘the right’ is only the expedient in the way of our behaving. Expedient in almost any fashion; and expedient in the long run and on the whole of course; for what meets expediently all the experience in sight won’t necessarily meet all farther experiences equally satisfactorily. …
[W]e have to live today by what truth we can get today, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood. Ptolemaic astronomy, Euclidean space, Aristotelian logic, scholastic metaphysics, were expedient for centuries, but human experience has boiled over those limits, and we now call these things only relatively true, or true within those borders of experience. …
The present sheds a backward light on the world’s previous processes. They may have been truth-processes for the actors in them. They are not so for one who knows the later revelations of the story.
In the century since this argument appeared, critics have vigorously disputed it. Their rebuttal has concentrated on two problems: the logical force of James’s contention; and its practical implications. Concerning the former, the question James’s detractors have posed is whether the statement that the true is only the expedient is, itself, true. In other words, is James’s assertion true only in the sense that it is expedient? Does it cease to be true if it becomes inexpedient, or become less true whenever it is found to be less expedient?
The logic of James’s position seems to dictate that the answer to these questions is “Yes.” But that answer, in turn, means that we have no reason to accept what James says. What Hartman calls his “famous antifoundationalist claim” does not and cannot have any foundation. If, however, we proceed as though James’s contention is true because it’s true, and remains true even under circumstances where it proves inexpedient, then there is one truth that is true, regardless of its expedience or inexpedience. But if there can be one, then we admit the possibility there can be more than one, a possibility that also requires rejecting James’s statement about truth and expedience.
We see this problem more clearly in the second argument against James. The practical implications of contending that “the right” is only that which is expedient in our way of behaving are, to say the least, troubling. These difficulties confront us as soon as we ask, “Expedient for whom? And for what purposes?” Consider a famous passage from Chief Justice Roger Taney’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857):
In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument. …
They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic whenever a profit could be made by it.
If we play by the rulebook James provides, Taney’s argument is—and can be—false and wrong only to the extent we find it inexpedient. The proof is in the pudding, and nowhere else. This means that if some people think the pudding tastes fine just the way it is, there’s no basis on which to convince them that their favorite pudding recipe is sickening rather than nourishing.
James suggests the material for a more robust critique of Taney when he says that, “of course,” the true and right must be expedient “in the long run and on the whole.” By this standard, one could say that Taney’s error was to consider the question in a short-term, narrow way, rather than extensively and inclusively. Contending that blacks had no rights whites were bound to respect may have been expedient for the South or white Americans for a time, but rejecting that proposition would have been expedient for more people over a longer time.
A more recent anti-foundationalist, Richard Rorty, reiterated James’s central point—“no sharp break divides the unjust from the imprudent, the evil from the inexpedient”—but qualified it in a much less elliptical way. The object of the “moral struggle,” he wrote, is “devising ways of diminishing human suffering and increasing human equality, increasing the ability of all human children to start life with an equal chance of happiness.” Rorty’s elaboration allows for a clearer, more decisive refutation of Taney than does James’s. Not even the most strenuous interpretation of Dred Scott could maintain that Taney cared about, or sought to effect, less suffering and more equality.
The problem is that Rorty’s generous, inclusive sentiments about giving all children an equal chance of happiness are codicils arbitrarily tacked onto the proposition that injustice equals imprudence and evil equals inexpedience. Anti-foundationalists can endorse social reforms only by appending their idiosyncratic personal preferences to the anti-foundationalist enterprise. As political scientist James Ceaser has written, the anti-foundationalists’ “shared values are the values of the modern Left, which include ‘social justice’ and the alleviation of suffering. These values represent the consensus position among the most enlightened thinkers. If enough of these thinkers tell themselves and those who follow them that something is ‘true,’ then it must be so.”
An anti-foundationalism that took itself and its audience seriously, by contrast, would not indulge the comforting fantasy that nihilism must have a happy ending, or that people anti-foundationalists find uncongenial won’t have different, darker preferences. Hartman’s conviction that solutions “will be found in the present and the future, not the past” is congruent with James’s argument that there are no truths, only “truth-processes,” which gradually and reliably lead to greater understanding and decency. But the pragmatic injunction to face the world as it is cannot be oblivious to the logical difficulties, and historical, anthropological, and psychological evidence, which argue that reducing the right to the expedient lends itself to elevating whatever someone finds expedient to what’s right. Roger Taney, for example, found perpetual slavery so expedient as to assert that its beneficiaries included those who were enslaved.
James says we must live today by what truth we can get today, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood. If the proposition that all men are created equal is detached from its roots in hoary notions like human nature, then we may anticipate moving onward and upward to a superior understanding, one which would hold that some men are not created equal. This was the moral victory proclaimed by James’s contemporaries in the eugenics movement. The jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes anticipated James’s views on truth and expedience when he wrote, in 1881, “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” As a Supreme Court justice he applied this rule in Buck v. Bell (1927), which held that a Virginia statute requiring the compulsory sterilization of the intellectually disabled did not violate their constitutional rights. In an opinion best known for the phrase, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” Holmes revealed some of the interesting destinations we may visit when guided by the belief that “the right” is merely expedient behavior: “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”
To put the point another way, Hartman believes that the Declaration’s assertion that “all men are created equal” defined an ethos that was manifested in a succession of social movements for liberation and equality. Those movements are hard to understood, however, if we view them as animated by the belief that human equality was true only insofar as it was expedient. In his “I Have a Dream” speech, for example, Martin Luther King quoted the Declaration of Independence in expressing the hope that “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” But if the true meaning of our creed turns out to be that the right is just the expedient, then we end up endorsing the view Thrasymachus propounds in Plato’s Republic: justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger. In that case, the various social movements Hartman celebrates were naively or cynically invoking principles of justice while actually engaged in the pursuit of power. The rhetoric about the nation becoming fairer was window dressing to help a particular demographic group become stronger. And since the right is only what is expedient, any and all who found the prospect of additional advantages for previously marginalized groups inexpedient would qualify as faithful anti-foundationalists when opposing, by any means necessary, the social movements Hartman applauds.
I disagree with Andrew Hartman more than with Joseph Bottum, so I can respond to the latter quasi-concisely. Because I don’t consider myself one of the three-legged stool’s detractors, I’m not sure I disagree with Bottum at all. His account of how capitalism, democracy, and Protestantism checked and balanced one another, to the benefit of the republic, is highly persuasive:
Democracy grants some participation in national identity, an outlet for the anxious desire of citizens to take part in history, but it always leans toward vulgarity and shortsightedness. Capitalism gives us other freedoms and outlets for ambition, but it, too, always threatens to topple over, eroding the virtues it needed for its own flourishing. Meanwhile, religion provides meaning and narrative, a channel for the hunger of human beings to reach beyond the vanities of the world, but it tilts, in turn, toward hegemony and conformity.
Through most of American history, these three legs of democracy, capitalism, and religion accommodated one another and, at the same time, pushed hard against one another.
Nor do I dispute his contention that American Protestantism’s dramatic decline over the past 50 years has weakened the third leg of the stool and thereby imperiled the whole experiment. What isn’t clear—at least to me, from reading An Anxious Age—is whether this decline is better understood as something that happened or as something that had to happen. Anxious carefully assesses the social gospel put forward a century ago. (Its strongest advocate was theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, Richard Rorty’s grandfather.) A “loss of faith in Jesus was a possibility built into the social gospel,” Bottum writes. But was the weakness of the three-legged stool a possibility built into it?
Democracy (or, more generally, the spirit of equality) and capitalism (or, more generally, the spirit of liberty) are always locked in a tense, complicated relationship. A third force that tempers each, and tempers their competition, is highly desirable. For the French Revolution it was fraternity. But fraternity, cut off from any ontological foundation by the anti-clerical Revolution, proved as amorphous as Hartman’s “timeless values of fairness and dignity.” The third leg of America’s stool was sturdier. Protestantism, Bottum writes, gave “a characteristic shape to the nation: the centrality of families, the pattern of marriages and funerals, the vague but widespread patriotism, the strong localism, and the ongoing sense of some providential purpose at work in the existence of the United States.”
But not sturdy enough, Bottum makes clear. “Mainline Protestantism has lost the capacity to set, or even significantly influence, the national vocabulary or the national self-understanding.” If it did so because of contingencies that might have played out differently—if, for example, a more devout nation had rejected the social gospel at the outset by realizing it would lead to post-Protestantism—then we have one kind of problem. We could respond by trying to hold the republic together while waiting for the next Great Awakening, or by seeing if a two-legged stool can be rendered unexpectedly stable.
On the other hand, we have a different kind of problem if Mainline Protestantism’s decline was essential rather than accidental. Perhaps liberty and equality proved so strong that any religion would have been unable to moderate or withstand them. Or perhaps Protestantism’s defining reliance on faith and conscience, as opposed to ecclesiastical authority, meant that sooner or later conscience and convenience would align to produce today’s post-Protestants, who say they are “spiritual but not religious,” and mean, according to Bottum, that it is “somehow more Christian not to be a professing Christian.” If America’s post-Protestantism was destined from the outset, then the availability of that third stool leg for nearly two centuries after the Declaration of Independence was a happy accident, but also a non-recurring phenomenon.
If that particular third leg was both indispensable and irreplaceable, then the American experiment will not succeed and cannot survive. Arriving at that conclusion requires patriots to think about what should come next, and how the transition to it can be kept minimally traumatic. If, however, a third leg is necessary but a different one is possible, then we can explore the possibility that liberty and equality, rightly understood and rendered, encourage the moral development necessary to sustain a republic.