My wife and I both love Garrison’s Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days for its humor and insight into small-town life. It often resides near our bedside table, so it is with great frustration that I cannot find a particular passage that immediately resonated with me years ago. Keillor writes about the vapid predictability of his elementary school history lessons about George Washington (and his best friend Abraham Lincoln) and fantasizes about shaking things up just to relieve the boredom. “I imagined,” Keillor writes (but here I am working from memory and not quoting directly), “fighting for the British, and calling Washington a traitor. Yes, a traitor! There I would be, scouting the woods, finding the rebels, taking potshots at the great general. Firing on the Father of our Country? Why not — yes!.”
It was in this spirit that I initially approached Christopher Ferrara’s Liberty: The God that Failed. Ah ha! Here is something different, clearly written from a very defined point of view in a polemical spirit. Liberty, that treasured American possession, will get exposed as a nothing, or less than nothing! It sounded like great fun regardless of whether or not it persuaded me.
But something more meaningful also encouraged me to read this, for the author pledged to critique both the modern liberal and conservative/libertarian approaches to liberty. The problems with modern America lie not so much with Republicans or Democrats, or any particular president, or era in our history, but instead within our very DNA as a Nation — Garrison Keillor’s daydream made real.
Before delving into the book’s arguments, I can say that it lives up to its promise. He writes crisply, and the arguments roll like a freight train. At 650 pages it’s a surprisingly quick read. He has a voluminous bibliography. But Ferrara tries to shoot everything and demolish every sacred cow, and thus sets the bar perhaps a bit too high for himself. In the first half of the book I recognized many reputable sources from authors like Gordon Wood, Bernard Bailyn, and Joseph Ellis. By the book’s end he repeats himself, and his discipline seems to crack (I noticed a couple “.com” footnotes later in the work, inappropriate for a book of this weight). Still, though perhaps about 200 pages too long, Ferrara gives the reader much to ponder.
The book begins with brief summary of the heritage of Greek philosophy after the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.). After the idolatrous parochial worship of their own political communities (see Appendix below) that started that devastating conflict, Plato and Aristotle saw that the state needed a foundation beyond itself. Neither of them conceived of the state in Christian terms, but both saw that when the state merely served as a mirror for the populace, disaster resulted. The state should aid in the living of the good life, which is the life of virtue. The state should have no other legitimate purpose. In other words, do we want the state to enable injustice and destroyed lives? In the wake of Rome’s fall, medieval Europe picked up on this idea, and struck a new course. They would have agreed with Jacques Maritain, who wrote in the mid 20th century that,
We must affirm as a truth . . . the Church’s supremacy . . . over all terrestrial powers. On the pain of radical [earthly] disorder, she must guide the people towards the last end of human life, which is also that of states.
Without rendering justice to God, we cannot practice justice to others.
Of course the medievals did nothing new in this regard. Every civilization that has ever existed before the Enlightenment linked the public recognition and worship of God/gods and politics. Certainly most of the Reformers thought likewise, as Calvin’s Geneva or Puritan New England attest, among other examples. Only since the Enlightenment has western man tried the novel experiment of severing themselves from looking at anything but themselves to guide their politics.
Ferrara continues with a brief defense of Christendom itself, which we can pass over quickly. He notes that contrary to received myths with Enlightenment origins that continue to this day, Christendom had
- Great cultural achievements (Gothic cathedrals, Sistine Chapel, etc.) that can only come with true artistic freedom
- Economic freedom
- Limited government, and therefore
- Limited wars and violence
Ferrara recognizes wisely that defending Christendom stands outside the scope of his thesis, so he moves on from this quickly — perhaps it could have been left out, for it raises many unanswered questions.
By chapter four, he begins to lower the boom.
John Locke had a enormous influence over the founders. Locke himself may have been either a deist or a Christian, but that, for Ferrara is beside the point (Thomas Hobbes also gets attention, but Locke had far more influence over our founders). Locke’s “blank slate” metaphysics undermined much of the foundation for mankind knowing eternal ideas “in a state of nature,” contra Romans 1. Since man has no shared foundation in the eternal, mankind must root government in the consent of the governed. This is such a truism for us that we hardly give it a passing thought, but this means that “every man has the executive power of the law of nature (Locke, “Two Treatises on Government).” Locke later states that “Virtue and vice are names pretended” based on the conventions of the day, and all this follows naturally on Locke’s view of the world. All this forms Locke’s view of sovereignty as essentially a tautology referencing nothing but “the consent of the governed” to determine its will.
Certain places in colonial America based their societies on something like an idea of a Civitas Dei, i.e. the New England Puritans. But with Locke the emphasis had changed, and America the nation, founded on Locke’s principles could never be a “Christian nation” and doomed itself to moral chaos. Though other thinkers besides Locke had their role to play, most, like Montesquieu and Bayle drank deeply from Enlightenment thought. Thus, the myth of an essentially conservative American Revolution designed to protect an already existing social order has no foundation. The founders were revolutionaries in every sense of the word, and radically reoriented the basis of their society (I like Edmund Burke and his view of the problems between England and America, which Ferrara challenges. This needs further consideration for me). Ample citations show that men like Madison, Adams, Jefferson, and Washington saw themselves in this way.
The main problem with the American Revolution as Ferrara sees it, is not the concept of liberty in itself, but how our founders defined the concept. Borrowing from Locke and others, liberty got defined either as . . .
- A mere “freedom from” constraint from others, where, to quote Locke, “individual consent is the only proper basis for all man’s organizations, civil or ecclesiastical,” and,
- The freedom for a people to define one’s own community, one’s own laws. But the only possible basis for this under Enlightenment thought is “the consent of the governed,” or — “the opinion of most people.”
The end result of this ideology would make “Liberty” into a form of Power, the power to rule others, make laws, on the fly, with no reference to any eternal truth. This proposition forms Ferrara’s central thesis.
Did the American Revolution play out this way? At the crucial point of our history, did we turn towards a Civitas Dei or make Liberty our God, and thus make it a demon?
The book goes into some detail to show that many Founders had membership as Masons, and that Masons, by “faith,” were dedicated to deism. The book references early modern and medieval constitutions that had explicit foundations in Christian belief and practice. The Enlightenment changed this to “Great Architect of the Universe,” or other such vague references to a distant God. This means that the so called “moderate Enlightenment” actually brought radical change to how our founders saw the world. Again, ample evidence exists of this, i.e. Madison’s quote in “Federalist 14” that “our revolution has no parallel in the annals of human history.” Gordon Wood also comments that the revolution, “fundamentally altered the character of human society.” So the Revolution happened not to preserve an existing order, but create a new one.
We see the revolutionaries, just before and after the Revolution itself, impose their will to change society. The Boston Tea Party is a good example. Rather than let the “market”/people decide whether or not to buy the tea, the Sons of Liberty destroyed it (which happened after they failed to persuade the populace not to buy it, at least in Ferrara’s interpretation). Liberty meant power over others, and it the revolutionary view of Liberty had pagan roots. Ferrara perhaps goes a bit too far here, but does cite numerous examples of totems such as the Liberty Tree and Liberty Pole, and the resurrection of the Roman goddess Libertas, “invoked far more often than the Judeo-Christian god.” This may seem too much for some, but Ferrara cites several 18th century sources, including the widely read and hugely popular Thomas Paine, to show that Liberty became a worshipped idol, and like all paganism, a source of power and manipulation.
The Sons of Liberty used this power to control the press during the Revolution, and tax and sometimes even arrest Tories for their support of England. Jefferson, famed for his defense of freedom, made loyalty oaths compulsory while serving as Governor of Virginia. Americans love to believe in the benign nature of their revolution compared to France, but our revolution produced 24 political exiles per thousand, while at the height of the Jacobin terror, France only had 5 refugees per thousand.^ Ferrara cites Murray Rothbard, a great admirer of the Revolution, who writes, “The revolutionaries moved to suppress crucial liberties of their opposition–an ironic but not surprising illustration of the conflict between Liberty and Power.” “Jefferson,” Ferrara writes, “venerated as an icon by so many libertarians, was really just another statist.” Maybe Rothbard is wrong. Maybe no conflict really exists between American “Liberty” and power.
Liberty as Power continued after the revolution, where in Shay’s Rebellion the offenders had no right of habeus corpus. Many were hung, and we see the “statist” power of Liberty on the rise. By contrast George III never so much as arrested any revolutionary before the war. Big government began right after the war’s conclusion with increased taxes and an army of public servants. Could personal rights exist apart from the declared sovereign power of the people?
Deism, Ferrara argues, forms the natural religion of state grounded in Liberty. It allows for God to create, and then nicely removes Him to the sidelines. So we have the Treaty of Tripoli (1797) unanimously approved by the Senate, which included Article XI:
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of [Moslems] . . . it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
As John Adams later wrote, “[our government] was contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.”
Ferrara continues on. . .
Liberty as Power had perfect expression in chattel slavery. Many slave owners, in fact, explicitly defined liberty in terms of slavery. They used the, “you can’t tell me what to do,” defense, but also went further and claimed that their personal exercise of liberty required slavery, i.e. more slavery = more freedom/more ability for me to live as I like. We rightly cringe at this today, but in fact the founders had no logic within their framework to contradict them, and slavery not only remained, but expanded. Ferrara wants us to harbor no illusions — America from the American Revolution onwards was in no way a Christian country. Nowhere does the Constitution recognize God as such, nowhere is any particular religious belief required. We openly allowed for the oppression of blacks, and violated all laws and treaties to oppress the Indians as well under the same logic that allowed for slavery. In other words, we had no law but the law of self, the idolatry of the self, or the consent based parochial community. “We said it, it must be true.”
By this point the reader may grow faint, but not Ferrara. Looking for a good guy in the Civil War? Don’t bother. Southern romantic myths about “genteel society,” whatever truth lay in them, rest on the foundation of slavery. He exposes Southern myths about their so-called recovery of limited government. The Southern constitution replicated the North’s almost exactly. It formally recognized no Christian God (and if they had it would have been blasphemous anyway). What about the North? Nope — Lincoln expanded his power in ways George III never dreamed of, such as the draft, suspension of habeus corpus, and the like. The North had the greater amount of power, so they won, and we in turn went to worship at Nebuchadnezzar’s statue.
Ferrara continues on, but I can’t. Suffice to say, the growth of liberty as a means of power over our fellow man continues as his theme. His writing grows more scattershot, his sources get weaker. But he does close on a fascinating and revealing note by examining Justice Kennedy’s “heart of liberty” section from his majority opinion in “Planned Parenthood v. Casey,” which overturned Pennsylvania’s abortion laws. Kennedy wrote,
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the state.
Many “conservatives” cried “foul” to Kennedy’s ruling, yet it bears remarkable resemblance Locke’s reasoning in his enormously influential Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In his dissent, the “conservative” Justice Scalia argued that the decisions on these questions belonged to the state legislatures, to persuasion and the counting of votes — not judges. Though seemingly on opposite sides, both Scalia and Kennedy drank from the same Enlightenment source, which is the essence of American political conservatism. For both, it is consent, be it from an individual or group, that determines justice. Thus, no real barrier exists to things like pornography, abortion, homosexual marriage, and the like, provided the votes are there. America’s very DNA means that we float along with whatever wind comes about by “consent.” Our Constitution, far from constructing a limited government,** created a structure that would allow for this very thing. Why would it not? We should expect the Constitution to reflect Locke’s (and Montesquieu’s, and Bayle’s) views because our founders believed him. Capitalism in this environment would only contribute to the growth of power, both in terms of big corporations, and in enabling whatever immoral choices we wish to make.
Well, what shall we say about Ferrara’s thesis?
I am a fan of some of John Le Carre’s earlier spy fiction, especially Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I remember reading a review of the book from an actual spy. He praised it, but cautioned against anyone thinking that “this is what the world of spies really looks like.” If as much backbiting and infighting existed as Le Carre depicts, no spy program would ever have any success.
Part of me feels this way about this book. America surely has had some success and done some good, right? And the good we have done must have some good roots? Must we burn every single thing down?*
I think Ferrara would counter that yes, we have done good at times, but that good is only the result of our consent based society sometimes aligning itself with eternal truth. When we do so, however, we get “lucky,” and should not assume “that’s America.” This may be a fair riposte. I will reserve final judgment for now. But all in all, I found him persuasive on the inheritance of Western-based consent societies, especially when we remember the Napoleonic Wars, the Civil War, W.W I, II, and the fact that Nazi Germany, Maoist China, and Soviet Russia were essentially western rooted societies that acted for “the people.”
Part of the validity of his thesis can never have the requisite proof. What would have become of medieval kingdoms and principalities with modern technology? Would their wars have been as bloody? Would certain kings have abused their power like a Stalin even with the more direct presence of Christianity?
We can guess, but never know. The book also avoids certain key questions. Would a Christian Commonwealth that Ferrara hopes for allow for freedom of speech, press, etc.? If yes, what would be dimensions of those freedoms, and if no, would the cure be worse than the disease? Or is “free speech” yet another idol of Liberty? He never considers such things. To be fair, I already stated that the book is too long, and his purpose in writing was to critique American foundations, not put up something definite in its place. Still, we must face these questions to fully understand the implications of his thesis.
Some may object that even if Ferrara’s is correct, his point has no relevance. Returning to the Civitas Dei will absolutely never happen now. Yes — but this doesn’t mean we should seek to understand exactly what we’re dealing with. We should call spades spades.
While his ideas may lack immediate political relevance, they have great relevance for education. So much of how we teach American history assumes significant possible divergence for various “hinge points” in our history with the War of 1812, Civil War, or with this president or that. Ferrara tells us that many of the choices we think significant are only different shades of the same color. The real path, the real decisions, got made in the 1760’s. It’s almost as if we need to tell the story twice to do justice to both Ferrara’s ideas and the traditional approach.
This book should also speak to the Church. Again, assuming he’s correct, the Church will not influence American politics directly without playing the “power” game. If our system operates not by virtue but by votes, we may have to appeal to principles we really don’t believe in to accomplish our will. Ferrara certainly does not believe we have any genuine Christian roots to which we can direct an appeal.
But the greatest value in Ferrara’s exciting, intriguing, but probably too ambitious work lies in how he gets us to rethink the concept of Liberty. “Individual liberty is individual power.” So said John Quincy Adams. Isaiah Berlin gave the classic dilemma of negative (freedom from constraint) or positive liberty (freedom towards an end). It appears that in the modern framework, negative liberty becomes an idol to self, positive liberty extended creates totalitarianism. Ferrara splits the horns of the dilemma by reformulating the concept. Liberty should mean freedom to do as we ought, not as we want, and without this understanding, our nation will float rudderless.
^We should consider, however, that in the “height of the Jacobin Terror” Robespierre’s government seemed much more concerned with executions than forcible exile. Thus, while the American Revolution had its political compulsion, they preferred exile to execution.
*Perhaps ironically, part of Ferrara’s (a staunch Catholic classicist) work coincides nicely with Howard Zinn’s “radical” and “leftist” interpretation of American history. Zinn is cited at least once, and probably more, in the footnotes. In the review above I never delve into Ferrara’s critique of “Liberty” based capitalism, which he argues fosters immorality and at times, oppression and exploitation. On the “oppression/exploitation” (one that admittedly Ferrara hardly develops) point we see another connection with Zinn.
**Ferrara briefly looks at the 10th Amendment, on which many proponents of limited government pin their hopes. Ferrara argues that the 10th Amendment is a mere sop and has no actual teeth, not in practice, but in reality. Those that designed the Amendment had no real belief in limited government in the first place.
Appendix: A.J. Toynbee, “The Idolization of the Parochial Community”
Unhappily, Polytheism begins to produce new and pernicious social effects when its domain is extended from the realm of Nature-worship to a province of the realm of Man-worship in which the object of worship is parochial collective human power. Local worships of deified parochial communities inevitably drive their respective devotees into war with one another. Whereas Demeter our common Mother Earth is the same goddess in Attica and in Laconia, the Athene Polias of Athens and the Athana Chalcioecus of Sparta, who are the respective deifications of these two parochial communities, are bound to be rival goddesses in spite of their bearing the same name. The worship of Nature tends to unite the members of different communities because it is not self-centred; it is the worship of a power in whose presence all human beings have the identical experience of being made aware of their own human weakness. On the other hand the worship of parochial communities tends to set their respective members at variance because this religion is an expression of self-centredness; because self-centredness is the source of all strife; and because the collective ego is a more dangerous object of worship than the individual ego is.
The collective ego is more dangerous because it is more powerful, more demonic, and less patently unworthy of devotion. The collective ego combines the puny individual power of each of its devotees into the collective power of Leviathan. This collective power is at the mercy of subconscious passions because it escapes the control of the Intellect and Will that put some restraint on the individual ego. And bad behaviour that would be condemned unhesitatingly by the conscience in an individual culprit is apt to be condoned when it is perpetrated by Leviathan, under the illusion that the first person is absolved from self-centredness by being transposed from the singular number into the plural. This is, however, just the opposite of the truth; for, when an individual projects his self-centredness on to a community, he is able, with less sense of sin, to carry his egotism to greater lengths of enormity. ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’;5 and the callousness of committees testifies still more eloquently than the fury of mobs that, in collective action, the ego is capable of descending to depths to which it does not fall when it is acting on its individual responsibility.
The warfare to which parochial-community-worship leads is apt to rankle, sooner or later, into war to the death; and this self-inflicted doom is insidious, because the ultimately fatal effects of this religion are slow to reveal themselves and do not become unmistakably clear till the mischief has become mortally grave.
In its first phase the warfare between deified parochial states is usually waged in a temperate spirit and is confined within moderate limits. In this first phase the worshippers of each parochial god recognize in some degree that each neighbour parochial god is the legitimate sovereign in his own territory. Each local god will be deemed to have both the right and the power to punish alien human trespassers on his domain who commit a grievous wrong against him by committing it against his people; and this consideration counsels caution and restraint in waging war on foreign soil. It tends to prevent war from becoming total. The bashful invader will refrain, not only from desecrating the enemy’s temples, but from poisoning his wells and from cutting down his fruit trees. The Romans, when they had made up their minds to go to all lengths in warring down an enemy community, used to take the preliminary precautions of inviting the enemy gods to evacuate the doomed city and of tempting them to change sides by offering them, in exchange, honourable places in the Roman pantheon. When a local community has been exterminated or deported in defiance of the local divinity and without regard to his sovereign prerogatives, the outraged parochial god may bring the usurpers of his domain and scorners of his majesty to heel by making the place too hot to hold them except on his terms. The colonists planted by the Assyrian Government on territory that had been cleared of its previous human occupants by the deportation of the Children of Israel soon found, to their cost, that Israel’s undeported god Yahweh had lost none of his local potency; and they had no peace till they took to worshipping this very present local god instead of the gods that they had brought with them from their homelands.
Thus the conduct of war between parochial states is kept within bounds, at the start, by a common belief in the equality of sovereign parochial gods, each within his own domain. But this belief is apt to break down, and, with it, the restraint that is imposed by it. They break down because the self-worship of a parochial community is essentially incompatible with the moderation commended in such maxims as ‘Live and let live’ and ‘Do as you would be done by’. Every form of Man-worship is a religious expression of self-centredness, and is consequently infected with the intellectual mistake and the moral sin of treating a part of the Universe as if it were the whole—of trying to wrest the Universe round into centering on something in it that is not and ought not to be anything more than a subordinate part of it. Since self-centeredness is innate in every living creature, it wins allegiance for any religion that ministers to it. It also inhibits any living creature that fails to break away from it from loving its neighbor as itself, and a total failure to achieve this arduous moral feat has a disastrous effect on social relations.
A further reason why it is difficult to keep the warfare between parochial states at a low psychological temperature is because parochial-community-worship wins devotion not only by ministering disastrously to self-centredness. It wins it also by giving a beneficent stimulus to Man’s nobler activities in the first chapter of the story. In the histories of most civilizations in their first chapters, parochial states have done more to enrich their members’ lives by fostering the arts than they have done to impoverish them by taking a toll of blood and treasure. For example, the rise of the Athenian city-state made life richer for its citizens by creating the Attic drama out of a primitive fertility-ritual before life was made intolerable for them by a series of ever more devastating wars between Athens and her rivals. The earlier Athens that had been ‘the education of Hellas’ won and held the allegiance of Athenian men and women, over whom she had cast her spell, for the benefit of the later Athens that was ‘a tyrant power’; and, though these two arrogant phrases were coined to describe Athens’ effect on the lives of the citizens of other Hellenic city-states, they describe her effect on the lives of her own citizens no less aptly. This is the tragic theme of Thucydides’ history of the Great Atheno-Peloponnesian War, and there have been many other performances of the same tragedy that have not found their Thucydides.
The strength of the devotion that parochial-community-worship thus evokes holds its devotees in bondage to it even when it is carrying them to self-destruction; and so the warfare between contending parochial states tends to grow more intense and more devastating in a crescendo movement. Respect for one’s neighbours’ gods and consideration for these alien gods’ human proteges are wasting assets. All parochial-community-worship ends in a worship of Moloch, and this ‘horrid king’ exacts more cruel sacrifices than the Golden Calf. War to the death between parochial states has been the immediate external cause of the breakdowns and disintegrations of almost all, if not all, the civilizations that have committed suicide up to date. The decline and fall of the First Mayan Civilization is perhaps the only doubtful case.
The devotion to the worship of Moloch is apt to persist until it is too late to save the life of the civilization that is being destroyed by it. It does break down at last, but not until a stage of social disintegration has been reached at which the blood-tax exacted by the waging of ever more intensive, ferocious, and devastating warfare has come palpably to outweigh any cultural and spiritual benefits that the contending parochial states may once have conferred on their citizens. . .