Fifty-one years ago, John Courtney Murray, whose scholarly work on the history and political theory of religious liberty shaped the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 Declaration on Religious Freedom, published We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition — one of the best books ever written on what makes America America. In addition to limning the foundational truths that constituted the “proposition” on which the United States stood or fell, Murray (who borrowed the notion of an “American proposition” from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address) also asked a searching question: Who holds these founding and constituting truths in modern America? Who will carry them into the future and work them into the texture of our institutions of self-governance?
The Jesuit theologian wasn’t terribly sanguine about the future carrying capacity of the mainline Protestant churches, which had borne the truths of the American proposition since colonial times. At a midcentury moment when the National Council of Churches held the same seemingly secure position in American society as the American Bar Association and the American Medical Association, Murray sensed the theological confusion that would, over the next few decades, reduce the mainline to the oldline and eventually to the sideline (as Richard John Neuhaus, channeling his inner Jesse Jackson, once put it). Nor did Murray repose much confidence in the American academy, then in thrall to utilitarianism, pragmatism, and the kind of technical reason extolled by JFK in his 1962 Yale commencement address. American academic life, Murray wrote, had long since bidden a quiet farewell to the idea that there are deep truths embedded in the world and in us, that we can know these truths through the arts of reason, and that, in knowing them, we can discover how to build free and virtuous societies.
So where, then? Where was the American community — intellectually sophisticated, willing and able to defend the truths of the American proposition, and with sufficient purchase throughout the multilayered texture of American society — that could carry the cultural torch once held up by the churches of the liberal Protestant mainline and the American academy? That was the question of the hour, Murray suggested, and his answer was a provocation. At a moment in American history when powerful forces were insisting that the United States was and must be a Protestant nation — and were doing so with a passion as great as that of any Falangist convinced of the essential Catholicity of Spain — Murray argued that it was the Catholic community, long suspected of divided loyalties, that could pick up the torch lit by the truths of the American proposition and carry those truths into the future, infusing all society with their glow.
Murray, I suggest, was entirely right about the incapacities of liberal Protestantism and the American academy to sustain and nurture the nation. In the second decade of the 21st century, the former is an irrelevant chaplaincy to Occupy Whatever. And since Murray’s day, too much of the latter has deteriorated into deeper and more toxic self-absorption, riding the slippery slope down from John Dewey’s pragmatism to the culturally corrosive post-modernism of Richard Rorty and the Modern Language Association.