If one is interested in a counterpoint to the received wisdom about the plight of the white working class, look no further than to Manchester by the Sea, the finest film I have seen this year.
The usual narrative is that the white working class is in decline because of economic stress. But Manchester by the Sea focuses on its spiritual causes. It is a post-Christian film in two senses. Its structure returns to greatest pagan art form—Greek tragedy—and its content concerns the spiritual void left in places like New England by the decline of Christianity—a decline that also undermines one of the sources for self-discipline needed for flourishing in a republic.
The protagonist of the story, Lee Chandler, is pursued by furies—the Eumenides of Greek tragedy– because of a negligent act shown in a flashback by which he destroyed his young family. Chief among the furies was his now ex-wife who said terrible things about him in the aftermath. Many people in Manchester are furies as well: they don’t want him around and he has left his ancestral home to work in Boston. But the greatest furies are the demons within his own mind. Not only do others not forgive him, he cannot find forgiveness himself.
This is the last in a series of posts excerpting my speech at the Federalist National Convention, arguing that only religious freedom, not pervasive religious sentiment, is necessary to civic virtue under our constitutional order. Here I show that periods of greater religiosity do not coincide with greater constitutional fidelity:
One test of whether religion is necessary to preserve the constitutional order is whether periods of greater religiosity coincide with greater fidelity to the Constitution itself. And if we look at the course of American history, we do not find a high degree of correlation, let alone a causal connection, between periods of greater religiosity and fidelity to the Constitution. History also fails to show a positive correlation between secularism and constitutionality. Rather, it underscores the great dangers to our constitutional order can come from either religious enthusiasm or secular utopianism. Both share an ecstatic approach to politics that finds the Constitution inconvenient, as its constraints protect a society generated by the spontaneous order of freedom. It is not that only that the Constitution can be preserved by the liberal order it encourages, but it can be destabilized by demands for government-enforced morality that is too encompassing.
In a very interesting recent book, The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution, John Compton makes the persuasive case that living constitutionalism—the theory that upends our written Constitution—has its beginning in the evangelism that originated in the second great awakening. These evangelicals and their religious descendants became unhappy that the Constitution as written facilitated such vices as alcohol and gambling by protecting interstate commerce and vested rights in property. They therefore promoted legislation that empowered the federal government, as opposed to the states, to regulate morals despite the limitations of the enumerated powers. They also wanted to destroy property used for immoral purposes despite the protection of vested rights.
The precedents set by this movement became key for progressive arguments. Just as the Constitution could be transformed to permit moral reform on a grand scale, so it could justify federal control of the economy.
At the Federalist Society Convention I had a debate with my friend, Professor Robert George, on a famous quote by John Adams: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” In the next three posts, I will excerpt my speech. And then I will add a postscript on Washington’s Farewell Address. Here is the beginning:
John Adams famously said “Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” His claim assumes that we can afford to have the limited government created by the Constitution because the people are already possessed of an abundance of virtue—indeed crucially virtues fortified by religion. But the Constitution itself reflects a very different faith: that a people blessed with a constitution like our own are likely to develop the virtues of self-restraint and social trust needed in order to thrive.
Religion can certainly help actualize virtues but so can other kinds of culture and practices. And the Constitution is premised on the enlightenment view that its very design can create the necessary virtues for civic life from elements of human nature, including raw self-interest. The constitutional structure thus maintains itself and does not necessarily depend on any religious system.
We have actually contrived to invent a new kind of hypocrite. The old hypocrite, Tartuffe or Pecksniff, was a man whose aims were really worldly and practical, while he pretended that they were religious. The new hypocrite is one whose aims are really religious, while he pretends that they are worldly and practical.
G. K. Chesterton
A somewhat quixotic friend whom I’ll call Gus dropped by the other day to reprove me for recurring error. “Don’t take this wrong, Steve,” Gus said. “You know that you and I agree on a quite a few things. But I’m concerned. I have to object.”
“Object to what?” I asked.
“In your last book,” Gus explained, “and in a number of recent articles, and in a blog post just a day or so ago, you describe the current cultural conflict that is tearing up America as one between traditional ‘religion’ and a conflicting movement that you describe as ‘secular.’ ‘Secular egalitarianism,’ you sometimes call it.”
“Okay. And the problem is. . . ?”
“The problem is that this is a fundamental misdescription.”
The latest discussion on Liberty Law Talk is now available. In this podcast, I speak with John Witte of Emory Law School about his classic work From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition, which was recently reissued in a second edition. The podcast traces the book's invaluable account of the changing legal, social, religious, and political status of the institution of marriage beginning in the late Roman Empire and then considers the revolution in thought launched by the sacramentalization of marriage beginning in the early Catholic Church, which is then carried to completion in the…