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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Posted by 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 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).

6 Comments

  1. The ending riff from Lewis’ Aslan is good proof that this post is dabbling in fantasy. Empty words don’t actually imagine or breathe life into anything. I hope your book isn’t so cliche filled, banal, and uninteresting.

    Reply

    1. Jordan J Andlovec August 1, 2019 at 1:48 am

      Jake deserves your respect, not your snide comments.

      Reply

      1. Respect for what? A string of post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc fallacies formed around an a-historical notion of politics, all for the purposes of making an idealistic point that doesn’t actually point to anything? It’s frustrating because it’s another case of self-professed Christian intellectuals sounding as hackneyed and dim-eyed as WSJ and NYT op-eds.

        Reply

  2. Do you really think that Sasse understands ordered liberty as simply individual autonomy?

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  3. 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.

    Implicit here, but unsaid, is that Bozell, and probably Jake, are sure that they know Capital V “Virtue” is, and that any political system that supports “Virtue” will basically tell people to (make people??) do what Bozell and Jake think it’s virtuous, and push away from what is not virtuous.

    Of course, that exactly what the Iran Ayatollahs would tell Jake they are doing, making sure the political system rewards virtue, and true religion. Hence, “unvirtuous” people, like Christians, for instance, need to be restrained, less their influence results in others ceasing to cultivate virtue.

    I very much doubt Bozell or Jake would be satisfied being told to, essentially, embrace Muslim virtue, or step into your Christian closet, because your presence otherwise hinders the virtue of others.

    Those who want the state to chose which side is virtue, and put their finger in the balance, always assume they they are in the prevailing side, and it’s their finger the one doing the pushing. Very few people come up and say “I want others/the government to tell me what to think”

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  4. I’m likely missing something here. That isn’t surprising as I’m not really adequately educated to argue with people like Jake Meador.

    I navigated to this article from his extremely helpful article, “Orbanism & the Revolution”, in which I learned that the Protestant answer to a coercive and unloving Christendom (of the sort that provoked the French Revolution), doesn’t foster a decidedly secular political order but instead (loosely paraphrasing Meador) ‘relocates God as the authority we submit to and relocates Scripture as the norm that governs our lives” – and does that, not through a “fixation on hard power” but through its ability to plug into realities which in themselves (whether or not recognized by existing political structures) are authoritatively good for mankind. In Meador’s opinion, being able to wed true moral authority to political power can still be liberal when it “recognizes its own fallibility and limitations”. (I hope I’m not fatally flawed in my re-statement of his argument.)

    It’s hard to disagree with that. It’s the kind of political fix/theory/approach that we all know will work as long as the people involved do what they’re supposed to do.

    But the distinctive thing about the American experiment is that, as far as was possible, it tried to make the project fool-proof by making everyone involved see that it was in their best interests long-term to judge righteous judgments, to avoid stacking the deck, to use just weights, to not accept gifts. I gather the founding fathers never believed their system WAS fool-proof, it’s just that it had the chance to be more consistently fool-proof than other systems which chronically dabbled in colossal failure.

    Meador is critical of the illiberal right when it attempts to mark change in a series of retaliatory mandates, legal maneuvers, and populist manipulations that give short shrift to the slow, but truer work of persuasion. And I’m in complete agreement with that. But Meador’s argument against both neo-liberals and the post-liberal right seems to be that the first is not honest about the non-existence of neutrality, while the other is not honest about the corruption that attends embracing power. What I don’t understand (and what Meador seems to admit is difficult) is how you construct a vision that embraces a liberal order with decidedly non-neutral views about man’s being and purpose, AND make that last more than the life of a prince, the orthodoxy of a particular church, or the term of an elected leader. I suspect that a regular practice of ‘recognizing your own fallibility and limitations” degenerates more quickly into a dishonest use of hard power than the continual attempt to keep the public square somewhat responsive to competing non-neutral interests.

    All this makes me ask myself why we should abandon the dishonestly neutral experiment, since every other experiment will inevitably end in dishonesty as well? I don’t think our liberal order has been any worse than more honestly non-neutral political orders, and at least we have some rule of law to make differences which are sometimes more than marginal.

    Reply

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