In his neglected mid-century essay “The Direct Glance” Whittaker Chambers sought to understand the smugness of the West and America regarding Soviet Communism. The struggle against it was marked, Chambers thought, by a “boundless complacency” rooted in the West’s belief in its material superiority. And this failure of understanding left the West, Chambers argued, listless and without appeal.
Coming just prior to the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the announcement that the U.S. embassy to the Vatican would be moved into the Rome embassy grounds struck many American Catholics as yet another insult by the Obama Administration. In fact, the Vatican Embassy is not being closed—though several former Ambassadors to the Vatican have criticized the change. (Ronald Reagan was the first President who authorized an Ambassador to the Vatican, so the move may be as much anti-Reagan as anti-Catholic.) But in reviewing the Kennedy record, we discover that the only Catholic President had campaigned against having an Ambassador to the Vatican.
In previous posts I’ve looked at what Raymond Bruckberger, formerly of the French Resistance turned student of American Constitutionalism, John Courtney Murray, and Willmoore Kendall have had to teach about the American commitment to modern republicanism and its theoretical and practical commitments for effectuating it. We should affirm Murray’s notion that
Civilization is formed by men locked together in argument” and then connect this to the American Proposition and its components of human dignity, constitutionalism, government limited by law as given to America by the common law tradition, self-government as faith in citizens to exercise the duties of moral judgment in basic political decisions, and the constitutional consensus that forms the Proposition and serves as the basis for rational argument and the compromises that it forges. This is the deep background that enables “the deliberate sense of the community” effectuated by our republican institutions to be reasonable.
To do so permits a process of compromise, animated by principles while also informed by property and interests, history and legends, under a distinctive bond of reason that can be seen in the arguments over the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the state constitutional ratification debates, and the debate in the First Congress over the content and wording of the Bill of Rights. These debates display the compromise and the synthesis of the American constitutional tradition, and these foundational debates help achieve the constitutional consensus that can then be further debated and developed. The question stalking our tradition now is the resolute or ideological manner in which central questions are answered and the institutional mechanisms chosen to implement them. Put differently, our politics is war-like, and the answers for difficult social and socioeconomic questions are seen as too significant to be settled by the deliberate sense of the community.
How can reasonable men and women reclaim equality over and above egalitarianism? The first principled step is to get right with our compromised Declaration of Independence. This Declaration both affirms equality in self-government and reconciles our deeply contrasting Lockeanism and Calvinist Christianity as the basis of our liberty. This is an American Thomism of sorts, a reconciliation of seemingly opposed principles on the head of deliberative republicanism. It’s probably our best hope.
We should, however, look even deeper into our compromising. In doing so, we can recover John Courtney Murray’s notion that “Civilization is formed by men locked together in argument.” I offer Murray’s account to underscore his American Proposition. Its components are human dignity, constitutionalism, government limited by law as given to America by the common law tradition, self-government as faith in citizens to exercise the duties of moral judgment in basic political decisions, and the constitutional consensus that forms the Proposition and serves as the basis for rational argument and the compromises that it forges. This is the deep background that enables “the deliberate sense of the community” effectuated by our republican institutions to be reasonable.