Matt C. Abbott
June 17, 2012
'Liberty, the God That Failed'
By Matt C. Abbott

Attorney-author Christopher A. Ferrara, president and chief counsel of the American Catholic Lawyers Association, Inc., and contributor to traditionalist publications such as The Remnant and Catholic Family News, has a new book out titled Liberty, the God That Failed: Policing the Sacred and Constructing the Myths of the Secular State, from Locke to Obama.

Below is the publisher's note as well as substantial excerpts from the book's introduction. Thanks to Mr. Ferrara and to John Riess of Angelico Press for allowing me to reprint this material.

Liberty, the God That Failed can be ordered from Amazon.com (click here).



What has gone wrong with the grand American experiment in "ordered liberty"? The liberal's answer is that America has failed to live up to its full promise of inclusiveness and equality — likely the result of corporate greed and white male ruling elites. The mainstream conservative or libertarian's reply points to the Warren Court, the 1960s, a denial of "states' rights," or a loss of Constitutional rectitude.

Christopher Ferrara, in Liberty, the God That Failed, offers an entirely different answer. In a counter-narrative of unique power and scope, he unmasks the order promised as a sham; the liberty guaranteed, a chimera. In his telling, the false god of a new political order — Liberty — was born in thought long before America's founding, and gained increasing devotion as it slowly amassed power during the first century of the nation's existence. Today it reveals its full might, as we bear the weight of its oppressive decrees and experience the emptiness of the secular order it imposes upon us.

To many of the West's cultured despisers, religion as personal motive and social force is inextricably bound up with violence. In the tale modernity tells itself, the secular state saved the West from the depredations of religion, and thereby sowed fertile ground for the boundless achievements of liberal modernity. This myth is tenacious, its unmasking a long, continuous struggle, for the secular state has constructed this story to mask its own violent origins and ongoing displays of force.

Ferrara destroys this myth with a relentless uncovering of truths hidden by both liberal and conservative/libertarian accounts of what has gone wrong. In this brilliant retelling of American history and political life, the author asks us to open our eyes to harsh realities, but also to the possibilities for a rightly ordered society and the true liberty that can still be ours. To read this book is never to think about the modern West and American history in the same way again.



Introduction to Liberty, the God That Failed (excerpted, sans footnotes)

The renowned Anglican convert to Catholicism, Henry Edward Cardinal Manning, once observed that "All human differences are ultimately religious ones." This is a truth even secular reason is forced to recognize. As the proto-anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a professed admirer of Satan, admitted in his Confessions of a Revolutionary: "It is surprising to observe how constantly we find that all our political questions involve theological ones." In reply, the renowned Catholic counter-revolutionary of the mid-nineteenth century, Don Juan Donoso Cortés, wrote: "There is nothing in this to cause surprise, except it be the surprise of Proudhon. Theology, being the science of God, is the ocean which contains all the sciences, as God is the ocean in which all things are contained." Recently the Anglican scholar John Milbank has remarked the urgent need to "reassert theology as a master discourse," the only discourse "able to overcome nihilism itself."

The history of Western civilization over the past three centuries is a chronicle of the decline of men and nations in consequence of a theological decision with profound political effects. That decision was the definitive refusal to conduct the art of politics according to the fundamental theological premise that an almighty and eternal God has revealed Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. What confronts us now is the prospect of life in a terminal civilization that has rejected the ancient dictum, in force throughout the West for more than a thousand years, that "Christianity is the law of the land." We are the victims of what Christopher Dawson described as "the reversal of the spiritual revolution which gave birth to Western culture and a return to the psychological situation of the old pagan world..."

The collapsing societies of the West groan under the consequences of what one liberal commentator has characterized as "a fundamental orientation toward politics chosen by early-modern Europeans in order to free themselves from the intellectual and spiritual influence of the Catholic Church..." That is, the condition of contemporary Western civilization reflects the final destruction of the Christocentric social order that endured in one form or another from Imperial Rome under the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century until the fall of the Imperial House of Hapsburg under the Emperor Charles I at the dawn of the 20th century. By Christocentric social order is meant civil society with its organs of government, commonly referred to collectively by the modern and misleading term "the State." A brief explanation of our unavoidable use of that term is in order.

A Problematical Term

For purposes of this study, we shall use the term "State" — as opposed to "modern state" or "modern nation-state" — to refer to the civitas (political community or civil society) or res publica (republic or commonwealth) of Greek and Catholic political philosophy comprising the bimillenial Greco-Catholic tradition of political thought. Although it is of relatively modern derivation (around the 13th century), "State" — a foreshortening of the Latin status rei publicć or "state of the republic" — has supplanted the traditional terminology in all modern translations of the works of Plato, Aristotle and Saint Thomas, as well as vernacular translations of papal encyclicals treating of the civitas/res publica and its just constitution. We are thus compelled to adhere to the modern usage "State," but understood strictly as referring to the classical concept so as to avoid libertarian caricatures of what is under discussion....

The Subject Defined

One of the great triumphs of the new "fundamental orientation," otherwise known as "classical liberalism," is to have banished from the mind of contemporary Western man the memory that Christendom was the form and pattern of our civilization for nearly all of its history. In place of a civilization ordered to Christ, the forces of liberalism — rather recently in historical terms, and by force of arms at each critical juncture as we shall see — established a new order with a new god whose name is "Liberty."

We ought to call Liberty a god (as many of its early followers literally did) because, like any idol that man sets up for himself, its claims are deemed to surpass those of the God who made him and presented Himself to His own creatures as the Word Incarnate. Whereas Christ declared that His apostles were to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost" and teaching them "to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you," Liberty declared, on the contrary, that the age-old baptism of nations was to be annulled and the Christian commonwealth abolished. Whereas Christ taught that political authority descends to man from God (even in the case of the procurator who unjustly sentenced Him to death), Liberty decreed that political authority ascends from the "sovereign will" of the people, so that even God's law could be subjected to popular repeal. Whereas Christ taught that His truth will make men free, Liberty insisted upon a previously unknown conception of social freedom: the mere absence of restraint on human action, save for that necessary to prevent violence and to protect the ownership, use and enjoyment of private property in the pursuit of whatever each individual deems to constitute happiness. Without the conformity of human law to divine law, the term "violence" inevitably contracted while the terms "property" and "happiness" expanded in proportion to what unrestrained human weakness and popular consensus demanded. Hence today human life in utero may, at the option of its "owner," be destroyed and disposed of as waste, or extracted and inventoried at the embryonic stage for sale as a consumer good. And not even the Christian opponents of these crimes against humanity are willing to oppose them on any ground but appeals to the same "sovereign" popular will that put Liberty on its pedestal and maintains it there by the religious devotion of its followers, Christians included....

That these principles would destroy the foundations of our civilization was always self-evident. Only forty years after Leo, Pope Pius XI observed that "With God and Jesus Christ, excluded from political life, with authority derived not from God but from man, the very basis of that authority has been taken away, because the chief reason of the distinction between ruler and subject has been eliminated. The result is that human society is tottering to its fall, because it has no longer a secure and solid foundation."

But perhaps not even Leo and Pius could have imagined the full extent of the civilizational debacle Liberty has wrought: not only the abortion holocaust, but an epidemic of divorce, the universal practice of contraception, the depopulation of Western nations, the relentless advance of homosexualism, the destruction of the family, the spread of orgiastic consumerism in a morally unbound "free" market, the debasement of art, literature, music, architecture and Western culture as a whole, and finally the emergence of a veritable neo-pagan social order in which resistant Christians increasingly face persecution for heresies against the orthodoxy of Liberty and not even the stoic virtues of the pagans of Greco-Roman antiquity are evident....

This study, therefore, presents a counter-narrative of the origin and progress of what contemporary man calls Liberty. It is necessary at the outset to fix the meaning of this notoriously nebulous term whose contours we have just noted. What, precisely, do we mean by Liberty for purposes of our discussion? We mean:

First, the supposed emancipation of the body politic from monarchy and from the perennial alliance, in one form or another, between civil and religious authority.

Second, the resulting separation of Church and State, and thus of political life from the precepts of revealed religion and ultimately from even the dictates of the natural law, beyond the bare prohibition of bodily or pecuniary injury that interferes with property rights, "public peace" or the "pursuit of happiness."

Third, the corresponding loosening or abandonment of traditional legal injunctions prohibiting adultery, divorce, contraception, abortion, sodomy, obscenity, libel and slander, prostitution, usury, commerce on the Sabbath, public blasphemy and profanity, idolatry, heresy, and other offenses whose traditional legal proscription was rooted in what Western man once recognized as the Law of the Gospel.

Fourth, the "emancipation" of the individual, with his "individual rights," from all but the most minimal legal restraints, leaving him "free" to do, say or claim to be whatever he pleases (even purporting to switch sexes) without regard to the moral, spiritual and social consequences to himself or others — including spouse, children and neighbors — so long as he avoids violence or harm to the property or other purely temporal interests of his fellow citizens and allows them the same "freedom" he demands for himself....

In sum, the following pages will present the case for the heretical proposition that Liberty has not made men free, but rather it has relentlessly opposed and driven from the life of the State the very Truth that makes men free. In consequence, as Francis Fukuyama has put it: "The liberal state growing out of the tradition of Hobbes and Locke engages in a protracted struggle with its own people." We are witnessing that very struggle today in the conflict between ever-more-powerful central governments and popular resistance movements, such as the Tea Party movement in America, which are hopelessly handicapped by their acceptance of the very principles that ensure the dominance of the modern nation-state: majority rule and the separation of "secular" politics from contrary "religious" principles.

The Plan of this Book

As should be perfectly obvious already, this book has been written with an unconcealed polemical intent, in recognition of the indispensable preparatory role that the militant polemicists of the so-called Enlightenment played in the radical de-Christianization of Western civilization that afflicts us today. It is a polemic in the full classical Greek sense of the word: polemos or war. Just as the advance of Liberty was preceded by a war of words in the treatises and tracts of the Enlightenment (as we shall see on these pages), so must any attempt at a recovery of the vast territory we have lost commence with a polemical counter-attack. These pages are but a modest contribution to a rapidly growing body of recent, more or less traditionalist critiques of the liberal "meta-narrative" of Western history.

Hence this book will treat of philosophy, theology and historical fact not as subjects for "neutral" academic discussion but rather as elements of the arguments it develops. The case presented does not pretend to be (nor could it be) the work of a professional philosopher, theologian or historian, although in building a conceptual and factual framework it relies upon the admissions and analyses of recognized scholars in these disciplines from the respectable academic "mainstream," many of whom would no doubt be entirely adverse to the conclusions to be drawn here. There is no attempt to balance "differing perspectives" — an academic exercise that implies precisely a relativization of the very truths the book presents as indispensable absolutes, the abandonment of which has meant disaster for the West. These pages were written from a perspective on political modernity that is both Christocentric and ecclesiocentric and is defended as simply true. Critics who would subject this work to the standard of "academic neutrality" would be misplacing their attentions.

The book is divided into four sections that are essentially four short studies linked by central themes. The first is a sketch of the historico-philosophical background necessary to appreciate the falsity of the liberal meta-narrative and in particular its "Whig narrative" thread, according to which the American Revolution was a "moderate" Enlightenment adaptation of classical Western thought that opened the way to essentially conservative regimes of "ordered liberty" and "limited government." The "moderate" Enlightenment is shown to be a radical break with the perennial Greco-Catholic tradition of the Western world as embodied in the Christian commonwealth, which is briefly defended against common prejudices in Chapter 2.

The second section presents a survey of the American Revolution and early history of the Republic, leading up to the Civil War, while the third section examines the Civil War as the second American Revolution. In these two middle sections the historical facts presented are related to the historico-philosophical background of the "moderate" Enlightenment to demonstrate the objectively radical nature of the "American experiment" and the consequences of the new politics it engendered. In the process, numerous golden legends of the mythos of Liberty as "conservative" tradition are debunked and its secular saints redimensioned to human proportions. These sections also demonstrate the thesis that beneath the glorious "official" account of the rise of "individual rights," "personal freedom," "government by consent of the governed" and the "illumination" of once enslaved masses, lies the reality that Liberty is just another name for Power, albeit Power that knows none of the bounds intrinsic to the Christocentric social order relentlessly destroyed in the wave of revolutions of which the American was the first.

The American historical survey is pointedly limited in its focus to the period c. 1776 to c. 1877 (with appropriate relation forward) in order to demonstrate that the current state of America is not the result of a 20th-century defection from the "vision of the Founders," nor the wartime tyranny of the Lincoln presidency, as the conservative/libertarian narrative holds. This study vigorously contests the romantic mythos of the Jeffersonian Paradise Lost and the closely related Lost Cause of the Confederacy as true heir of Liberty. It will be apparent that we stand today at the end of a sociopolitical trajectory — the trajectory from Locke to Obama — whose inevitable downward path was determined by the "moderate" Enlightenment principles of the Founding, as numerous conservative Protestant critics warned from the very dawn of the republic (cf. Chapters 17 and 22).

The fourth and final section surveys the process by which Christianity was politically subordinated and neutralized as a social force in the new nation, provoking early predictions by concerned Protestants and some of the disillusioned Founders themselves, that a "Christless, godless" America, and with it the whole Western world, would suffer a collapse of the moral order with catastrophic results (cf. Chapter 17). The final section concludes, however, with indications (including recent surprising developments in predominantly Catholic countries) of how we might regain the path from which our civilization was diverted during the age of democratic revolution. Here we explore the real potential of democracy itself for social metanoia, thus answering the predictable demagogic criticism that this book is a brief for a quixotic restoration of medieval Catholic monarchy.

As for the anticipated banal objection that what is advocated here is the "impossibility" of a reconversion of the Western world, the final section responds that the time has come to recognize this "impossibility" as the only reasonable course of action to save a dying civilization which, after all, is still composed predominantly of baptized Christians. (We shall see that the currently reigning Pope has intimated as much in an address to which the final pages make reference.) In the midst of a civilizational debacle no one can seriously deny any longer, anyone who calls himself a Christian should at least be willing to make an effort to examine our situation from the frankly Catholic perspective to be presented here. This will require standing outside the framework of liberal premises whose adoption was no less an act of the will than the common faith that sustained Christendom (with the aid of divine grace, of course) for century upon century. As Milbank has observed, the governing assumptions of secular social theory "are bound up with the modification or the rejection of orthodox Christian positions. These fundamental intellectual shifts are... no more rationally 'justifiable' than the Christian positions themselves."

This case to be presented, then, will proceed on the ground of reason in the hope that, for the skeptical, faith will follow. Even in the absence of faith, however, reason alone ought to impel the thoughtful reader to confront with eyes wide open the self-evident reality that Liberty is an idol whose reign has oppressed and corrupted us all in one way or another. That conviction was the motive for this work.

© Matt C. Abbott

 

The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)

Click to enlarge

Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication, Media and Theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He has been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR and WLS-TV in Chicago, and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.

(Note: I welcome thoughtful feedback from readers. If you want our correspondence to remain confidential, please specify as such in your initial email to me... (more)

Subscribe

Receive future articles by Matt C. Abbott: Click here

Latest articles