Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Religion, the Church and Politics in America

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 23, 2009

One of the contrasts frequently drawn between American and European culture is that to attend church in Europe is to make a countercultural statement, whereas in America belonging to a church is a means of joining the cultural mainstream. Partly for this reason, immigrants to the United States very quickly affiliate themselves with a particular church. To them this seems to be part of what it means to be an American. We see the same pattern among our political leaders, who generally make a point of belonging to some church, and also of making it known that they attend church with considerable regularity.

This cultural fact is often cited as evidence that Americans are far more religious than Europeans, and while I do not wish to contest that point, I do wish to question its political importance. The collective European religious memory, despite the multiplication of churches after the rise of Protestantism, is dominated not by “churches” but by “the Church”. The Catholic Church has always claimed to be the body of Christ Himself, a body to which one is attached (generally involuntarily) through baptism, and a body which possesses a highly institutional form and a sacramental system which touches its members deeply, at least at key stages of their lives. Anyone grafted onto that body takes on the identity of “Catholic”; in some measure, his understanding of both himself and his role in both the sacred and secular orders is altered by this indisputable fact of his existence. He is a Catholic, and if he decides he does not wish to be a Catholic any longer, his identity is almost certain to be at least partially defined by his rebellion against the Church. Widespread rebellion, not without fault on the Catholic side (especially through clericalism), is the very definition of European secularism.

Religious Voluntarism in America

But most Americans do not sense any such organic relationship with their church, a relationship which exists, like their national citizenship, more or less whether they like it or not. In Protestant America, religion is intensely voluntaristic. A church is something you join because that particular church helps in some way to fulfill your own understanding of your spiritual needs (with no guarantee, of course, that this understanding is even remotely accurate). Thus a church is mostly an association of the like-minded, in many ways an extension of the self, frequently changeable, and seldom viewed as a sacred institution, an independent force, an essential fact of existence. In America we have “denominations”—religious groups created through a process of choice, differentiation and naming—and there are hundreds of them, each independent of the other, each representing an association of individuals who happen to have certain spiritual ideas in common.

Denominationalism has its analogue in Catholicism. When the Church is healthy, the process of denomination, if you will, is expressed in the various spiritual groups and associations within the Church which Catholics can participate in as extensions of their particular forms of piety. When the Church is healthy, such groups and associations are never confused with the immense fact of the Church herself, which contains and transcends them all, and to which each member first of all belongs. But wherever the Church has been weakened, and has been more than usually co-opted by the surrounding culture, various priests and parishes (and even dioceses) become centers for differing “styles” of Catholicism which actually supplant the Church. In our own day, lay people frequently choose their parish based on the style they prefer. Priests and laity (and even some bishops) also pick and choose with apparent impunity among the doctrines of the Church, creating (as much as possible) havens for the like-minded. We call this “cafeteria Catholicism.” Of course, one can never quite escape the institutional “otherness” of Catholicism; the Church is never experienced merely as an extension of our individual Faith. But even the Catholic Church is in some ways adversely affected by the enormously powerful strains of individualism, voluntarism, and associationism which characterize American culture.

Indeed, these strains are so strong that Americans simply start new churches when they don’t like what is already on offer; or sometimes they “change the rules” for the church they’ve got. Religiously, we tend not so much to define ourselves according to our religion as to redefine our religion according to ourselves.

This circumstance is profoundly important for American culture in general and for American politics in particular. It is one of the most important reasons why Americans cannot bring a coherent religious point of view to bear upon any public issue. No matter what position one wishes to adopt, one can find many individual Christians and even whole churches which support that position. Every position, therefore, can be described as motivated, informed or at least not contradicted by religion. Every position is compatible with love of God; every position is what Christ Himself wants. In America, faith is intensely privatized and almost infinitely malleable. Everybody can seize the moral high ground.

And everybody does. In a recent interview in Time magazine, Hugh Hefner asserts: “I am on the side of the angels and always have been.” Many of the claims made by our politicians are equally blind and no less ludicrous. But who or what is to say they are wrong? Protestantism, by its very nature, is incohesive (in religious terms, it is separatist), and so cannot speak with a unified voice, let alone an authoritative one. Insofar as Catholicism makes claims that are more transcendent and authoritative, these claims are weakened by the same infection of individualistic voluntarism which has shaped our culture as a whole. These two groups account for nearly all religiously-affiliated persons in the United States. As a rule, Americans simply do not see religion as something that transcends themselves. Where politics is concerned, religious arguments are mostly mere self-extensions, which makes them—in a word—self-serving.

The Weakness of Democracy

One of the great weaknesses of modern democracies is that they tend to ignore the importance of intermediary or countervailing institutions. Politically we tend to think that freedom exists in direct proportion to suffrage. If everyone has a vote, then everyone is free. But this simply isn’t true. In fact, such a view fosters totalitarianism. When you have the state on the one hand and an uncollected series of individual voters on the other, more and more power will ultimately accrue to the state. The writers of the American constitution attempted to deal with this problem by separating the branches of government and insuring that representation was filtered in various and potentially conflicting ways, but of course they saw local and state governments as important intermediary institutions as well—far more important on major questions than they are now. Political parties represent another effort to create intermediary institutions which can empower collections of individual citizens to resist and influence the state.

But there are few intermediary or countervailing institutions in America, and those that we have tend to be part and parcel of the political machinery, possessing no independent existence of their own. Large corporations are an exception; these are economic entities which influence politics far beyond the power of individual uncollected voters, but it is difficult to view corporations as institutions which represent the interests of large numbers of people. During a relatively brief period of American history, unions performed such a role. Far away and long ago, guilds, towns, universities, lesser nobility and of course the Church were all intermediary or countervailing institutions which held “state” power in check precisely because they played powerful roles in the social order for ends that were not necessarily aligned with those of the supreme political authority. Perhaps the university still possesses a little of its ancient clout. But in the modern bureaucratic state, which stands institutionally almost alone, the lives of citizens are far more closely regulated, by distant rulers and without their consent, than they ever were, for example, in a medieval monarchy. This may ring false to Americans, who have been carefully taught to equate monarchy with tyranny or even with totalitarianism; it is nonetheless a fact that emerges not from a particular form of government, but from the presence or absence of significant intermediary institutions in the social order.

The family is the first and most natural of all intermediary institutions. This alone is enough to make the constant redefinition of the family in modern times frightening. When an isolated individual runs into any kind of problem—when he is ill, impoverished, victimized by crime, or embroiled in legal or political trouble—he is far more vulnerable than the member of a family. A father, brother, mother, sister or child will help in almost any difficult circumstance, even to the point of pressing for justice if a family member is wrongly accused, sentenced or imprisoned. Strong families are absolutely critical to free, productive, and socially just societies.

Now what of the Church? The Church is not properly an intermediary institution, for an intermediary institution is, by definition, an institution which occupies significant influential space between the individual citizen and the highest powers of the state, while still being subject to the state—like a family, a town, a labor union, a corporation, a university, or even a lobby. Rather the Church is a true countervailing institution. She is not properly under the authority of the state, but she has a significant social institutional presence ordered to ends which very frequently constrain or conflict with the ends of the political order. For this reason, the Church most often naturally tends to contain and control the aspirations of the state. The Church may be weaker and her leaders more culture-bound or more sinful in one time than in another, which always creates problems; nonetheless, the Church provides—always in theory and often in practice—one of the strongest levers for both preventing and displacing totalitarianism. But where the Church is weak, we are increasingly vulnerable.

An Influential Case in Point

Our own “peculiar institution” is a case in point. Slavery was far more total, far more severe in English America than it was in colonies and countries under the sway of Spain. The Catholic Church had an enormous formative influence on Spanish culture and Spanish political leaders, such that both the Spanish Crown and the Church significantly mitigated the evils of slavery in Spanish America. Slaves were not mere property there—the chattel slavery of North America was unknown. Slaves had some rights; they could earn money and purchase their freedom. It was a very strange combination, of course, but the countervailing pressures of various key institutions in Spanish life tempered the interests of the large estate owners, ameliorated the condition of the slaves and, in the end, brought about a peaceful end to slavery in those lands. The point is not so much which institutions were at the root of the problem (this can vary) as that there were intermediary and/or countervailing institutions on hand to make peaceful reform possible.

But in America no such countervailing institutions within the same social setting could be found. The northern churches which condemned slavery were countered by the southern churches which condoned it, and both cited Scripture to seize their moral high ground. The Catholic Church scarcely existed at all in the South. What was there within southern American society to work at cross purposes against those who held regional political power (which was still believed to be the ultimate power in the federation of states)? For many years all questions of federal authority had to be settled by strange compromises to ensure equal influence by both slave and non-slave states, and when the balance of federal power finally shifted to the economically stronger north, the result was one of the bloodiest wars in history—a war which had the long-term effect of breaking what had originally been envisioned to be an intermediary authority on the part of the several states which could ameliorate any later tendencies toward tyranny on the part of the federal government.

So now we have the American state on one side and we have the people on the other and we have almost nothing in between. Even if some issues have in the past been settled by civil war, it is difficult to see how such a conflict would be possible in an age of massively expensive and massively destructive arms, with no significant intermediary political institutions. It is true that the military has a significantly different culture than our political elites. In fact, the military is probably the only potentially countervailing institution that can presently stand between the people and their government. The military resisted Bill Clinton’s efforts to fully integrate gays into military life, though it is not yet clear how it will deal with the same question under Obama. In any case, it is very foreign to the American military tradition to take sides in civilian affairs. It is also very dangerous, for the military is in important ways more separate than intermediary, since only a very small percentage of Americans are part of it. Moreover, its ascendancy implies external rule by force rather than change through true intermediation. In the end, it is almost impossible to overstate the problem posed by the lack of intermediary and countervailing institutions in American society.

The Bright Side of American Voluntarism

Having said all this, there is a bright side to American individualism, voluntarism and associationism. These impart to the American character a reluctance to have one’s political superiors (i.e., the state) make all the decisions, a reluctance which may be waning but is far from entirely dissipated. The typical response of Americans to almost any kind of problem—unlike that of Europeans—is to organize a group “to do something about it.” This associational self-reliance also tends to foster an us vs. them attitude, a social and cultural gulf between those “inside the Washington beltway” and the rest of us. This sort of associational voluntarism keeps political parties bubbling and fosters frequent changes in the ruling party. Politically, it receives tremendous aid and comfort from the fact that our gargantuan modern bureaucratic states are almost impossible to run well. Things will go wrong and, when they do, it provides an opportunity to throw the bums out.

But this is pretty thin gruel compared with the existence of organic, living intermediary and countervailing institutions that are something more than mere ad hoc associations. Such institutions, beginning with strong families, are in short supply. In fact, the only institution that any longer even claims such a role is the Catholic Church. Though a majority of Americans do not belong to the Church, the percentage is large enough that, were the Church healthy—were she gradually purged of the excessive individualism and voluntarism of her weaker members—she could do again in practice what she has always done in theory. She could stand as an organic social institution ordered to spiritual ends which often conflict with and constrain the ends of the state.

It may sound strange to say that the most important thing we can do politically in America is to strengthen our families and strengthen the Catholic Church. But because of the critical political nature of intermediary and countervailing institutions, it is also true. Though such a statement does not begin to exhaust the value of either family or Church, strengthening the family and strengthening the Catholic Church are profoundly constructive political acts.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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