How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization — on TV

EWTN is airing a 13-part documentary based on Tom Woods’s 2005 book How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. Catch it Wednesdays at 6 p.m. Eastern (or Thursday mornings at 2 a.m.).

Tom also has a new book out, which I haven’t read yet, called Sacred Then and Sacred Now: The Return of the Old Latin Mass. He discusses the book here. I’m going to have to track down a copy.


Falwell Dies, and the Robert Taft Club Takes a Hard Look at the Religious Right

Next Wednesday (May 23, that is) at 7 pm in Washington’s, D.C.’s Lounge 201 (map) the Robert A. Taft Club will be holding a symposium on “The Religious Right and the Conservative Movement,” featuring Michael Tanner, Doug Bandow, and Jim Russell. We’ll not only be taking a look at the big picture of the relationship between religion and the right, but also at how the politics of Christian conservatism mingles with the issues of big government, immigration, and war. The Taft Club likes to keep things interesting.

The first half hour or 45 minutes is usually schmoozing and boozing, so don’t plan on the panel starting at 7 sharp. Goes until 10 pm. RSVP to Marcus Epstein if you plan to attend.

Fusionism (pt 1 1/2)

I’d meant to post some thoughts on Frank Meyer over the weekend but got a little sidetracked. My recent American Conservative article on fusionism and “liberaltarianism” is now on-line here, however, and I’ll comment on Meyer sometime in the next several days.

Even better, TAC has also put online articles by Andrew Bacevich (on the Baker Reportand the surge) and Darryl Hart (on developments within the Religious Right). Check ’em out.


Former First Things editor Damon Linker‘s new book criticizing his old boss, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, is starting to pick up media notice. My review of The Theocons appears in the forthcoming (in about a month) December issue of Reason, along with my take on Patrick Hynes’s In Defense of the Religious Right. In the meantime, Adrian Wooldridge of The Economist (and The Right Nation) reviewed it for the New York Times earlier this week, and Commonweal editor Paul Baumann has covered it for The Washington Monthly. Wooldridge and Baumann offer very different takes on the book, though they agree (with me, too) that Neuhaus and company are not nearly as powerful as Linker makes them out to be.

Also weighing in is Russell Arbens Fox of the In Medias Res blog, which includes a bit at the end that’s worth a quote:

There are, in fact, many of forms of deep and serious (even “conservative”!) piety that are obviously public but not in any sense driven by populist pre-occupations; populist sentiments themselves are, I think, quite abused when taken out of their subjective contexts and turned into an objectively accounted crusade. Among other things, that’s when populism is most likely to become warlike, exclusionary, paranoid–qualities which I do not at all agree with Damon in thinking always characterize public religiosity, but which admittedly have graced the pages of First Things a fair amount lately, especially as things have turned bad for their champion, George W. Bush.

There is a religious discontent with modern liberal secularism in this country; this Damon knows. He would have rather the theocons had, at the first signs of that discontent, rejected public religiosity entirely, embraced the liberal account of secularism as not only correct but a wise compromise, and preached solely private resistance to changes in our culture. I’m glad they didn’t; they have done good things with their influence, they’ve put issues on the agenda that might never have made it there otherwise. But now, with them fixated, at least as Damon persuasively presents them, on their current path of preaching unity between moral truth and popular power and partisan success, I think they need some serious correction. If Damon’s book can help provide it, more power to him.

Church and State as Seen From Glastonbury Tor

At the denouement of Auberon Waugh’s novel A Bed of Flowers (about a hippie commune set up on a Somerset farm by a drop-out businessman and his ex-Jesuit spiritual advisor), a certain Fr. Rasputian officiates at a triple wedding on the Glastonbury Tor. The nearby ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, despoiled by Henry VIII in the 16th century, elicit some thoughts from him on the prospects for Church and State:

There are those, of course, who maintain that the only thing which has really happened is that the State has won the argument; the Church as an institution now disintegrates before our eyes, while the State goes from strength to strength. Do not be deceived by appearances, my brothers and sisters. All that has happened is that the Church, with greater wisdom than our political masters can show, has decided to go underground. There are those who complain about the new order of services. The Mass, or what passes for the Mass, is now meaningless, ugly and an affront to religious sensibility. Nobody has yet understood that this may, through the ancient wisdom of the Church, be intentional, its purpose to discourage people from the empty gesture of church attendance, to drive them back on their inward spirituality, where all hope for the Church’s survival must reside. This is an age of formal distintegration, which the Church realises and the State does not. The State cannot realise it, since the State has no existence outside its form, unless you adduce the self-important and obsequious longings of a few indivdiuals as evidence of a soul. The Church is now engaged in a process of voluntary, formal distintegration, while the State is fighting the irresistaible forces of distintegration with more and more hyperbolical measures, unfounded in human aspirations or convenience, towards greater cohesion. Nobody can know what violence and what suffering will attend the State’s final disintegration, or for how long the wretched people who exercise their authority and feed their self-importance through the machinery of the State will manage to delay the moment, but of one thing we can be sure: when the moment of disintegration comes, the Church will re-emerge, through the will of the poeple and in response to their needs.

It’s a satirical novel, and this monologue is delivered by a character named “Rasputian” at that. Nevertheless, there’s good reason to think that at least a little of Auberon Waugh’s own view is reflected here. And there’s something to be said for it.

Religion and Conservatism

NRO’s Corner is all atwitter about Heather Mac Donald’s piece for The American Conservative‘s sympoisum on Left and Right. The NROdniks seem especially exercised about the notion that conservatism nowadays might be crippling itself by alienating atheists and agnostics. For my part, I certainly hope something cripples nationalist “conservatism,” though I don’t think it’s likely to be a lack of appeal to secular folk. After all, religion and nationalism in the United States sometimes appear nearly synonymous. [“What Tocqueville found in America in 1830,” Robert Nisbet once wrote, “was in almost equal parts Christian (Puritan specifically) and nationalist. Christ the Redeemer and America the Redeemer Nation existed side by side.”]

Historically speaking, religious belief and actual Burkean conservatism have not been so closely aligned. As Robert Nisbet — who was not a believer himself, as I recall — shows in Conservatism: Dream and Reality, it is established, institutional religion that Burkeans have traditionally defended — defended, that is, against radical disestablishmentarian Protestants as well as Jacobin types. Many of the greatest conservative thinkers and leaders of the past have not often been noted for their religious zeal. How religious was John Adams? Burke’s degree of belief and Disraeli’s remain open to question. (Again, they took Christianity seriously as an institutuion, but not necessarily as a body of dogma.) Robert Ingersoll, one of the most noteworthy Republicans of the 19th century, was equally noteworthy and outspoken as an agnostic. The leading New Humanists, Paul Elmer More and Irving Babbitt, were nonbelievers (though More became increasingly appreciative of Christianity late in life). William Graham Sumner and Albert Jay Nock had both been Episcopal priests but lost their faith and did write as believers. Mencken, of course was agnostic. Oakeshott and Weaver were rather idiosyncratic Christians and very far from being Religious Right types. As far as politicians go, Goldwater was spiritual but not religious, and Ronald Reagan did not regularly attend church. Few of these men were professed agnostics — none, by my count, called himself an atheist. Yet all of them were far removed from the religiosity that is central to the political philosophy of such latter-day Christian conservatives as James Dobson and Richard John Neuhaus.

Nisbet wrote in Conservatism: Dream and Reality about the relationship between conservatism and religion:

Religion is acceptable: it is indeed a good thing provided it is not made the base of the intrusion of personal beliefs into the public body of the nation. Doubtless no conservative, in the Burkean sense, has ever lived who could look out on today’s Moral Majority with equanimity, what with its so often brazen and calculated confusion of the secular — as manifested by intrusive laws and constitutional amendments — and the transcendentally religious.

Shakespeare the Catholic?

Probably not. A few days back, Tim asked if I would solicit Paul Cantor’s opinion on Clare Asquith’s arguments for a crypto-Catholic Shakespeare. Professor Cantor said he hadn’t read her book but has been skeptical (to say the least) of the claim whenever it’s been made by others. He referred me to one of his pieces from the Claremont Review of Books (actually, two of his pieces, but I don’t think the other is on-line) for some of his thoughts on the matter — particularly his thoughts on the anti-Catholic themes of Measure for Measure. He suggested that one reason even left-wing scholars sometimes jump onto the Shakespeare-was-Catholic bandwagon is that it might be the only way they can claim him for a minority group.

A Law Against Blasphemy

The Senate is proposing a constitutional amendment to prohibit blasphemy — that is, flag-burning, blasphemy against the one true all-American faith, “our nation and its values.” The Washington Post reports:

Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) cast the debate in loftier terms. “Many Americans have come to see the flag as a sacred symbol of our nation and its values,” he said. “Those who dislike American values have the right to express their opinions even when they are offensive. But I do not believe that the right to desecrate a symbol like our flag belongs in the same category.”

I read that shortly after reading this passage from John Lukacs’s The End of the Twentieth Century and the End of the Modern World:

The great threat to religious faith in our time (more precisely, to the quality and meaning of faith) is populist nationalism. The democratization of the churches has led to that; but that is only a secondary consequence, inseparable from the democratization of entire societies. The primary element is simpler, and more important. It is that the religion of the nation, the sentimental symbols of the nation, are more powerful than religious faith, especially when they are commingled. Nationalism, I repeat, is the only popular religio (religio: binding belief) [legally binding, if Frist and the Republicans get their way — DM] in our times.

… When in the 1950s I asked my then orthodox and rigidly catechized American Catholic students, “Are you an American who happens to be a Catholic, or are you a Catholic who happens to be an American?” all of them chose the former, not the latter.

Dwight Macdonald on the Catholic Workers

I nominated Dwight Macdonald as my first Reactionary Radicals draft pick the other day, in a post that also cited John Lukacs contrasting Henry Kissinger, the famous war criminal, and Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement. To bring things full circle, here are a few passages from Macdonald's own essay on Day and the Catholic Workers, from The Memoirs of a Revolutionist (and first published in two issues of The New Yorker in October 1952):

Politically, the Catholic Workers are hard to classify. They are for the poor and against the rich, so the capitalists call them Communists; they believe in private property and don't believe in class struggle, so the Communists call them capitalists, and they are hostile to war and to the State, so both capitalists and Commmunists consider them crackpots. … Being as a general rule pacifist, most Catholic Workers refuse to serve in the army, to work on war industries, and to pay federal income taxes (since most of the budget goes for war purposes) even on those rare occasions when they have enough income to pay taxes on.

Despite that, Macdonald reports, they met surprisingly little official resistance. "'I'd as soon arrest the Holy Father himself!' exclaimed one uniformed co-religionist" charged with breaking up a strike.

How does such a group survive?

Under Miss Day's guidance, the Catholic Workers have devised an inexpensive and effective technique of fund-raising: they pray to Saint Joseph, their patron saint.

Macdonald was a non-believer, but there's no condescension in his essay. The humor is dry but respectful, too, as when Macdonald relates movement's co-founder Peter Maurin's plan for reforming prostitutes — "He thought a lot about it and finally proposed a double-barreled solution: Settle prostitutes and male alcoholics on Catholic Worker farms and let them marry and rehabilitate one another. Nothing much came of it, however."

The Catholic Workers have always been aware of their own limitations: Macdonald cites one columnist for the Catholic Worker newspaper writing frankly, "I dislike writing, due to my lack of talent. … It kills you when you haven't got it. Right now, I feel cheated by having to meet a deadline with this tripe when I could be listening to the first game of the World Series." This self-understanding extended to Day herself, naturally enough:

…she is a leader whose chief worry is that her followers have too great a tendency to follow. "Low in mind all day, full of tears," she wrote one evening in 1936 in a journal she has kept since she was a girl. "What with Easton, New York, Boston, Ottawa, Toronto and Missouri groups all discouraged, all looking for organization instead of self-organization, all weary of the idea of freedom and personal responsiblity — I feel bitterly oppressed. I am in the position of a dictator trying to legislate hismelf out of existence. They all complain that there is no boss. Today I happened to read Dostoevsky's 'Grand Inquisitor,' most apropos. Freedom — how men hate it and chafe under it, how unhappy they are with it!"

She persevered; so has the movement. As for Henry Kissinger, pray for him, too.