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Against the Political Atheists: On the Safety of the Dead Consensus

July 31st, 2019 | 10 min read

By Jake Meador

In his book Living on Fire the late Daniel Kelly tells the story of L. Brent Bozell, a Catholic writer, activist, and politician. Bozell began his career safely ensconced in the conservative establishment, writing at National Review with his brother-in-law and fellow Yale alum, William F. Buckley, partnering with Sen. Joseph McCarthy in his anti-Communist activism, and even ghostwriting Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative.

Though they would remain lifelong friends, the alliance with Buckley would one day fade. In 1966 Bozell would break away from National Review, launching a radical Catholic magazine called Triumph. In 1968, Bozell took to the pages of that brashly named magazine to repudiate the American Constitution. In all these ways Bozell is an interesting foreshadowing of the debates currently being had amongst American Catholics.

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You can identify aspects of Bozellianism in the recent evolution of First Things and in the launch of a new Catholic magazine, The Lamp, which cites Bozell’s Triumph in their crowdfunding pitch.

We are not obligated to respond to the current moment in the manner of Bozell. But even in the ’60s Bozell saw a problem at the foundation of the American project that we would do well to observe. Our current situation is less a departure from the problems of that moment and more an intensification of them as time has allowed the problems to announce themselves at an ever-increasing volume.

The crisis Bozell saw is that the American order did not have a coherent way of striving to order the polis toward a substantive account of the good. In most societies, this work would be accomplished by an interlocking network of communities and associations with government having a unique role to play as a protector against evil and a servant to the truth, structuring society in ways that reward the good, thereby making it easier for people to realize their rightful end, which is to know and enjoy God.

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In what eventually became the American solution to the problem, the government is a negative institution whose chief role is to preserve the individual autonomy of the citizenry and then trust the rest of society to order political life rightly, including the work of defining what “rightly” ordered political life would be. For all their many and significant differences today both Republicans and Democrats affirm a vision of politics that continues to operate in this constrained space.

To borrow from Never Trumper Ben Sasse, “Politics is not about creating heaven on earth. Politics is simply about preserving a framework for ordered liberty – so that free people can find meaning and happiness not in politics but in their families, their neighborhoods, their work.”

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Note the false dichotomy here—Sasse only recognizes the utopian project of ‘creating heaven on earth’ or the negative project of framework creation. He seems wholly resistant to the idea that anything else could be possible. And so real life, the things that make existence delightful and pleasant, happens in these other spheres, the little platoons of society. Politics is an add-on project whose only function is to protect those communities.

Though Republicans will likely disagree, this is in fact how many Democrats approach politics. They just have a different idea as to what kind of “framework” is necessary to enable people to find meaning and happiness in families, neighborhoods, and so on.

The arguments for same-sex marriage and an expanded set of protections for transgender people, to take two examples, are both about creating a society that recognizes various forms of personal identity and allows people with such identities to thrive. It is, in other words, merely a reprogramming of the framework so as to make it more inclusive. It is not in any real way a rejection of the framework. Indeed, it is actually a quite natural outworking of it.

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After all, it was not a progressive, but President Reagan who said that the American Idea is “the idea that you and I have within ourselves the God-given right and the ability to determine our own destiny.” It is a very short walk from that to Justice Kennedy’s mystical enthusiasms over the right to define one’s own concept of existence. Kennedy was, after all, a Reagan appointee.

Thus our contemporary political discord is simply about how to build the framework. That politics would be something other than a framework is seldom debated or even imagined.

But Bozell did imagine it. In a piece for National Review, Bozell argued that virtue is not advanced simply by guaranteeing maximal amounts of choices, or “freedom.” Rather, our political systems should support citizens in pursuing their ultimate end as human beings and particularly in cultivating virtue.

There is something scary in all this, of course. One of the reasons that the dead consensus has lingered for so long is that it feels safe to us. When politics are simply about creating a framework, the work of politics looks easier. If our political system can secure conditions that advance the modern idea of “freedom,” it has done its job. Questions of meaning, identity, and purpose can all be safely outsourced to the masses. But the government must remain neutral.

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Unfortunately, this idea does not work out in practice. If the government will not do the work of helping societies realize their rightful ends, then someone else will attempt that work because “defining what the good community is” is not a question that can be left unanswered in any society. It will be answered, either with the aid of government working alongside other social bodies or it will be answered exclusively by other softer forms of community—until those communities themselves fail.

The failure of those communities in our own time is precisely the problem, of course. Strong families, churches, and cultural norms that protect workers can all combine to do much of the work a rightly functioning government would be doing. But as they fail, there is nothing left to fill the void save big business.

So now it is business owners and corporations doing the work of defining what our life together will look like, ‘communities’ who have a great deal of money, which can become a kind of coercive power when the government refuses to do its job, and probably also a large army of lobbyists, who insure that the government will continue to not do its job.

It is no surprise, then, that the safety of the dead consensus is largely chimerical. The notion that the dead consensus is safer is premised in the idea that having governments define the trajectory of societies is dangerous and it is safer to leave that work for others. But we see how this works in practice. The dead consensus has not been safe for the unborn—though creating a world that is not safe for the unborn is very good for business according to the capitalists.

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It has not been safe for the many victims of our wars in the Middle East, including the many soldiers who came back from these wars with PTSD and their families who carried that burden with them. It has not been safe for the land or for American farms or for America’s small towns. The neo-liberal consensus has, indeed, primarily been safe for the wealthy and the politicians they keep on their payrolls because these are the people our political order is designed to serve.

This, then, is why we need a politics that aspires to being ordered to an explicit vision of social health. Neutrality is not possible. Healthy societies necessarily have a political aspect. That aspect will either be explicit and defined in the work of government or it will be implicit and left to the machinations of bureaucrats and corporations. But there will be a vision of social health.

The dead consensus felt safe, but it wasn’t honest. In rejecting it, we are, obviously, taking a risk. We’re playing with live ammo now. We are attempting the real work of politics rather than telling ourselves comforting stories of how the government is merely the person with the biggest gun who comes along to adjudicate our fights. What that means is we’re going for what politics actually is. It’s not safe. But it is good.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).