Postmodern Conservative

Do We Need to Be More Christian (Catholic) than the Pope?

First off, I continue to think that attacking or defending the Confederate battle flag has made people unhinged. To both sides: “Let it go.” There’s more than one “neocon” who’s saying something like Reconstruction was a failed effort at nation-building because not nearly enough troops were deployed. A real Reconstruction would have forced that flag from the public square and our political imagination. There is some truth to that, actually, but only some. On the level of national symbols, the magnanimous and generous decision of so many political leaders from the Northern states was to accord equal status to the heroism of Union and Confederate veterans. It even was to regard the whole issue of secession as almost a matter of understandable controversy.

The Southern states made an understandable mistake concerning the meaning of the Constitution that had to be resolved (as it was decisively) on the field of battle. Secessionism, after all, wasn’t just a Southern thing in those antebellum years, and the Constitution was more than a trifle confusing in the way it seems to divide sovereignty. Jeff Davis wasn’t tried as a traitor, in part because the general view was that the case could not be made beyond reasonable doubt in court.

So those who want to extend their war beyond public display of the Confederate flag and purge our country of all schools and roads named after Lee and Davis and so forth want to, in effect, keep Reconstruction going to some extremely logical but rather inhuman conclusion. The last necessary phase of Reconstruction surely was the great civil-rights achievements of the 1960s, and the case against segregation and so forth is no longer controversial. But let’s not push for the comparison of Confederate with Nazi warriors; you can highlight the race-based injustice of the Southern cause without going anywhere near that far. Let me repeat that we should be about seeing how we can combine what’s good about Northern justice and Southern honor both white and black. (That’s not to say Northerners aren’t honorable, but just look at the composition of our armed forces.)

And: After reading Damon Linker’s Machiavellian (Straussian/libertarian) caricature of Christianity, I’m all for siding with the pope, meaning the part of the encyclical that reaffirms the anthropology about the personal logos developed by his immediate predecessors. It’s Saint Augustine, after all, who showed us that from the point of view of the personal theology of the Christians, each of us is not a part of nature or the city. It’s that insight that’s a large part of the tale of modern liberation, even with that insight distorted by the Cartesian error that it’s possible to be personal without being relational. Our friend Father James Schall makes the fine point that Aristotle speculated that slavery (which he accepted publicly while deconstructing it esoterically) might actually wither away if we had machines to do more of the work that civilized people need done. And the withering away of slavery in the modern world owes something to the Christian insight of the equality of all men and women under God and something to modern techno-mechanization.

The modern idea of freedom is typically unreasonably exaggerated, and it’s from that unrealistic point of view that Christianity has been dissed.

I’m with Father Schall that one problem with the encyclical (that has good stuff) is that it’s not Christian or Augustinian enough. And Damon’s quoting caused me to think it’s too Heideggerian, with a resolute “decision” being required to free us from the thrall of the omnipresence of technology. And so Damon is sort of right that it’s unrealistic and incipiently tyrannical to think that — on the level of politics — said decision could free us from being enslaved to some extent to sin, beginning with ordinary human selfishness that is usually most effectively curbed with incentives. So what the encyclical is very short on is Augustinian irony about every human project and even about this world (even as natural world) being our true home. Well, the impending catastrophe coming with the out-of-control climate might be understood, in some measure, as the result of sin. But any response by some global political authority will be dangerously sinful too.

Father Schall also makes the Augustinian point that the encyclical is too much about creation and not enough about personal redemption. A better balance there might make our reflection focus more on the fate of persons and less on the possible extinction of our species. That extinction, for Christians, would be neither a cosmic nor a personal catastrophe. Imagining that it’s likely, however, might be the result of a shortage of faith in the living personal God and even in the ingenious creativity of those made in the image of the personal Creator.

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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