Posted: July 31, 2017
Trump and the Party of Lincoln
To add briefly to Charles Kesler’s insightful essay on pre-New Deal antecedents of Trumpism (“The Republican Trump,” Winter 2016/17), I note that Franklin Roosevelt famously compared the pre-New Deal Republicans to Nazis toward the end of his 1944 State of the Union Address. FDR’s party continues in this demagogic tradition.
One more pre-New Deal element Trump seems set on reviving is to restore the Republican Party for black Americans as the party of Lincoln. There are significant clues in his campaign speeches. (See, for example, his Charlotte, North Carolina, speech on October 26 but also his earlier North Dakota energy speech on May 26. See as well the opening of his February 28 speech to Congress, where he noted the significance of Black History Month.)
In Ben Carson President Trump has a cabinet member and senior who is a hero to many African Americans—a figure incomparable to any who served recent Republican presidents. (We’d have to go back to Frederick Douglass for a parallel.) As we have seen in the early days of the Trump Administration, the president has courted individual black politicians and the Congressional Black Caucus. He has refrained from attacks on affirmative action.
Trump’s speeches about the black condition recall those by Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, and are a necessary part of his overarching goal of the “safety and happiness” of the American people.
Whether this strategy works remains to be seen. Trump may have to use the tools of progressivism in order to achieve the destruction of the regnant progressive coalition, which would surely collapse if it were to lose enough black votes. That he dares to try shows the boldness of his administration, its extraordinary opportunities, and the extent of Trump’s ambition.
American Civil Religion
To have one’s book reviewed by a famous polymath like David P. Goldman (a.k.a. “Spengler”) in a prestigious journal like the Claremont Review of Books would have been gratifying if only the review were not so dyspeptic (“Neither American, Nor Civil, Nor a Religion,” Spring 2017). Perplexed why The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy pushed all his buttons, I read Goldman’s How Civilizations Die (2011) in search of clues. What I discovered just magnified my confusion since I completely agreed with his arguments and thought them quite compatible with my own.
For instance, I agree that political science “is uniquely ill-equipped to make sense of a global crisis whose ultimate cause is spiritual,” which is why I myself examined U.S. diplomatic history through a spiritual lens. I agree that “when we worship ourselves, eventually we become the god that failed,” which is what I argue Americans risked once they began to play God. I agree that lumping Judaism, Christianity, and Islam together as the “three Abrahamic religions” is bogus, because I too am an adult convert to orthodox Biblical faith. I agree that post-Reformation churches made their peace with “pagan nationalism,” thus mortally wounding Christianity in Europe. I agree that American Calvinism gave way after the Civil War to “the avuncular God of Social Gospel,” whereupon Progressives undertook “political tinkering and social engineering” at home and (I argue) abroad. I agree that “America’s civic religion always will remain separate from the myriad of contending sects.” I even agree with his foreign policy prescriptions which he describes as “Augustinian realism.”
Why then did Goldman despise my book? Perhaps because it struck him “as a defeatist screed.” His American glass is half-full. Mine is half-empty and leaking. Yes, the United States may still brim with power, wealth, life, and hope compared to the demographic sinkholes in Europe, the Islamic world, and East Asia. But U.S. fertility is at an all-time low, its culture corrupt and decadent, its government $20 trillion in debt, and its military victimized by imperial overstretch—all (I argue) in the name of what has become a heresy of the original civil religion.
That is what Goldman appears not to have understood about my book. He claims I argue that civil religion has always been malignant. I do not. I argue that Classical American Civil Religion (think Washington’s Farewell Address) inspired benign grand strategy. He claims I trace ACR back to the Puritans. I do not. I trace it to all four “cradle cultures” in the 13 colonies and all four “spirits of English expansion”—rural capitalism, anti-Catholicism, imperial ambition, and a right of eminent domain over undeveloped lands—which the colonists invoked against Crown and Parliament to justify their “holy war” for independence. He claims I stress continuity from the American Founders to George W. Bush. I do not. I describe serial shifts in U.S. foreign policy inspired or justified by theological lurches in the ACR, especially during the Progressive Era. He claims: “One might well regard the Social Gospel as a heretical turn away from the religion of America’s founding, but McDougall sees a fundamental continuity.” I do not. In fact I explicitly call it a heresy. He claims I am unable to explain why Americans “traded one version of ACR for the other.” In fact, I carefully parse the causes of shifts from Classical to Progressive, Neo-Progressive, and Millennial ACR.
A reviewer is free to rebut or reject an author’s interpretations, but he ought at least to notice them.
Walter A. McDougall
University of Pennsylvania
David P. Goldman replies:
Professor McDougall is generous to acknowledge my broad agreement with his perspective on American foreign policy. In fact, I applauded his project, writing, “McDougall has done us a great service by asking students of political philosophy to wrestle with questions about the state and the sacred.” My objections had to do not with intent but execution, in particular his failure to address important recent research in the field. This, I believe, contributed to lapses and lacunae that weaken his account. He raises questions of the greatest moment for America’s future, and it is important to get them right.
For example, Eric Nelson’s well-regarded and widely-reviewed work on the religious content of the Puritan political philosophers draws a bright line between the theorists of the American Founding and what McDougall calls “Anglo-American exponents of Whiggish country-party philosophy.” McDougall of course is entitled to his own view, but I was disappointed that he ignored the pertinent literature.
Whether the American Founding perpetuated Whig political culture or represented a radical break is the critical question. Questions of theology which to us seem abstruse had existential importance for the founding. Are Americans truly a different kind of people? I do not believe the question can be addressed adequately without reference to John Selden or John Milton, names which nowhere appear in McDougall’s book. The Puritans’ rejection of monarchy as well as established religion can be seen as a radical departure from English precedent and the beginnings of a radically different concept of nation and people. That bears on the practical question of whether the American system of government can be turned into an export industry.
Without clarity about America’s faith at the founding, it is hard to explain how the Social Gospel of progressive Protestantism superseded the Calvinism of the First and Second Great Awakenings. McDougall, as I wrote, is hard put to explain this metamorphosis, and resorts to citing a list of possible causes, none of which quite accounts for the phenomenon. He ignores work by Louis Menand (among others) that offers a more robust explanation. His narrative sags at its most important moment.
The break in American religion is one part of the story; another is the practical temptations that led America to abandon the foreign-policy forbearance of the Federalists and John Quincy Adams for interventionism. Again, McDougall makes no mention of relevant scholarship by Robert May and Matthew Karp arguing that the expansionism of the slave interest fostered foreign-policy interventionism.
Walter McDougall’s undertaking is admirable, and his portrayals frequently are vivid, but his latest book doesn’t fulfill its purpose.
The State vs. Parents
I am grateful for James Stoner’s generous, thoughtful review of my book, To Whom Do Children Belong? Parental Rights, Civic Education, and Children’s Autonomy (“Teach Your Children Well,” Spring 2017). In his review, Stoner suggests that grounding my account philosophically in the so-called “new natural law”—and in particular, by accepting the view that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”—is in tension with what he characterizes as my claim that “the ‘oughts’ of parental care and instruction seem to follow from the fact of procreation.” Yet on my view parental duties are not derived from the mere fact of procreation, but rather from the unique and intimate relationship between parent and child, and the personal dependence of children on their parents for the ideal fulfillment of their developmental needs. My account involves no jump from fact to value; rather, it establishes that the biological parent-child relationship is an instance of a fundamental human value—namely, an intimate personal relationship—and analyzes the nature of that relationship to determine the obligations to which it gives rise.
Further, while Stoner is right to point out that many of the premises and conclusions of my argument are in line with the classical liberal tradition—indeed, I draw on liberal authors past and present throughout the book, including William Galston, John Stuart Mill, and Alexis de Tocqueville—my point about the natural obligations of biological parents challenges the fundamental liberal assumption that we can acquire obligations only by consent. On my view, the web of relationships in which one finds oneself is a fundamental determinant of one’s obligations, regardless of whether one is in those relationships by choice or—as is the case with many family relationships—by circumstance.
Finally, Stoner wonders whether my argument may unravel “because the natural community of the family points beyond itself to the naturalness of the political community, which may in turn have a duty of moral instruction.” Here, again, Stoner is missing my fundamental point about the fact that parental authority derives from parents’ special, non-transferable obligations to their children. Another way of putting this point is to say that the family is a natural authoritative community with autonomy over its internal affairs, primary among which is the procreation and education of children.
The political community is natural, too, but it is a community of communities, and its role is to foster the common good by creating the conditions within which the individuals and communities within it can pursue their own proper goods. Thus, the state has a right to impose minimal requirements to ensure that children receive an education which will enable them to be law-abiding and productive citizens. When it comes to state interventions in education undertaken not in the name of the common good but in the name of the proper good of children, however, the state should use only non-coercive measures, because parents, not the state, are the ones who have primary responsibility for (and therefore authority with regard to) the proper good of children. The only exceptions are real abuse and neglect, because in those cases there is a clear and serious abuse of authority on the part of parents which justifies the intervention of authority at a higher level.
New York, NY