For Robert Wuthnow, the purpose of democracy is not to arrive at some perfectly blessed country but instead learn how to contest—not resolve—our differences through organizing, argument, elections, and voting. Fair enough. But that seems too thin a conception of democracy, one that really puts too much faith in the democratic process as such.
Pillar: Politics & Law
The third pillar of a decent society is a just system of politics and law. Such a government does not bind all persons, families, institutions of civil society, and actors in the marketplace to itself as subservient features of an all-pervading authority. Instead, it honors and protects the inherent equal dignity of all persons, safeguards the family as the primary school of virtue, and seeks justice through the rule of law.
In the 303 Creative case before the Supreme Court, Colorado officials assert that all proprietors who open their services to the public have a duty to serve any potential customer on demand. But public accommodation laws do not give customers a general right to be served. Proprietors may terminate a customer’s license and refuse service for any good reason, as long as it is rationally related to the purposes of the business and not an arbitrary or inherently illicit classification, such as race.
For too long we’ve imagined the rights of parents, rights of conscience, and religious freedom in overly-individualistic ways, which has encouraged a privatization of these rights. But the rights of the natural family and the rights of the Church are among the most important rights. Therefore, the rights of the natural family quite easily trump the claims made by the pornographers and drag queens to access the public library.
We should celebrate Dobbs—but cautiously, for it is only the beginning of the project of constitutional restoration that needs to be done. If Dobbs is to stand, American society must move away from the stifling, tyrannical concentration of national power that we are experiencing now and begin a return to the balanced government of the Founders’ Constitution.
As the United States becomes increasingly divided over aid to Ukraine, it is more important than ever that the national conversation begin with the understanding that Ukraine is “the good guy” in this fight. The ability to view the Ukraine crisis with moral clarity is essential, not just for crafting a successful foreign policy, but for reaffirming America’s own principles.
Take Lincoln’s words so that we will remember to speak frankly about what we consent to, and what we do not; take them, so that we march, not to hangings and burnings, not to cancellations and silencing, but to public forums and to ballot boxes, those altars of democracy.
Imagine if every GOP politician gave interviews explicitly detailing why elective abortion is not a health-care procedure and is never medically indicated—why, indeed, abortion isn’t beneficial to women’s health at all. The Republican choice not to develop such a strategy so doesn’t prove that the pro-life message has failed; it proves only that Republicans have failed to articulate that message.
While the minority stress theory has been effective in helping advance an “ideological agenda” for “social change,” it has been much less effective in explaining the negative health disparities found among sexual minorities, disparities which remain despite ever-broadening social acceptance. Invoking minority stress theory is not about protecting LGBT-identified people from harm. It’s about stamping out dissent and vilifying those who disagree.
In the face of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt’s independence of spirit—her reluctance to attach herself to a partisan or intellectual movement—exemplified precisely the sort of political action that she believed to be the foundation of freedom. In our own age of polarization, she stands as a powerful reminder of the necessity—and even the nobility—of political engagement.
By making the false ideal of independence the basis of our political and social order, we end up denigrating actual, dependent human lives. But life begins in dependence and remains inseparable from unchosen obligations. We have responsibilities to others, for which we have not signed a contract.
As the American story enters its fifth century, the list of those who have earned the right to be called fathers and mothers of our country grows ever longer. As we retell our national story to each generation, we will of course continue to argue about whether some of the characters were really heroes or villains—a debate that is part of every nation’s storytelling. But unless we can recover a certain generosity towards those who came before us, we will find ourselves with nothing to pass on to those who come after.
Conservatives must be patriots—it is not possible to be a conservative and say that there is nothing valuable or worth preserving from your own nation’s cultural tradition. The desire to fight for the integrity of your own country has got to come from a visceral love for your country or else it will not seem worth any struggle against its corruption.
Liberalism cannot survive as a political philosophy capable of fostering human flourishing if it abandons its supposed virtues of protecting freedoms of religion, speech, and commerce. Yet, as we observe the march of the left on human sexuality, we see an incredible Javert-like intensity in hounding those who offend its sensibilities. We’ve forgotten that liberalism means winning incomplete victories and living with disagreement.
Philip Muñoz’s new book helps illuminate the “social contract–natural rights” style of reasoning that was undoubtedly influential at the Founding. But I find it hard to follow—or, for that matter, to fathom—when this sort of reasoning from fictions is deployed normatively to justify contemporary prescriptions that would otherwise seem unjust or undesirable.
According to Steven Smith, it’s meaningless to speak of our inherent natural rights. He dismisses the Founders without properly understanding them. A return to the Founders’ natural rights constitutionalism may not offer the best alternative to protect religious liberty today. But we cannot even entertain the possibility that it might if we do not understand the principles of justice or the practical meaning of the philosophy that originally animated the Constitution.
In Religious Liberty and the American Founding, Phillip Muñoz believes that there is a kind of natural rights logic that leads to his minimalist version of religious freedom. His central premise is that the Constitution should be interpreted according to the “natural rights” logic that was prevalent in the Founding period; and he tries to follow this logic to its conclusions, come hell or high water.
If Hittinger does not think that the Church is meant to keep herself uninvolved with temporal politics, or that the temporal polis is meant to keep itself uninvolved with the Church, then his separationism does not conflict with integralism at all. This would be welcome news for Hittinger’s many integralist admirers. But it would also mean that Hittinger’s lectures, although rhetorically situated—and marketed—as a corrective to integralism, offer no such thing.
A healthy culture, nearly every Public Discourse reader would agree, needs strong families. There is a growing number on the right—and I count myself among them—who recognize the family as possessing an inherent economic logic, in addition to its essential culture-shaping role. Families are influenced by market forces, starting from the very fundamental decision of whether to form a household or not. This requires some amount of getting our hands dirty in the nitty-gritty of politics and policy design.
The source of disagreement between the integralists, as represented by Mr. Urban Hannon, and Dr. Russell Hittinger is at root Christological. If God in fact achieved the separation of his Kingdom from temporal politics in the person of Jesus—as St. Augustine, Pope St. John Paul II, and Ratzinger claim—then Hittinger’s lecture is not only correct, but also profound. Recognizing such separation really would be the beginning of wisdom.
Although social contract theory is a prominent feature of the American founding, it is both unsound and harmful to a proper understanding of politics. This fact presents a challenge to any form of conservatism that is based on protecting and promoting the principles of the American founding.
William McCormick, SJ, has written a new and welcome interpretation of Thomas Aquinas as a political thinker. His reading of Aquinas suggests that the political common good, as an intermediary between human and divine things, is a subject for ongoing inquiry, sensitive to the exigencies of a fallen world. McCormick holds that the “pedagogy of politics” unfolds teleologically as a community—in and through common deliberation and action—comes to greater knowledge of itself and its own ends.
Even the healthiest patriotism does not address whether America’s political regime ought to re-main basically neutral about whether its citizens flourish. If what our politics can give us is fair procedures for resolving disputes, and protections for speech and property, and a broad enough distribution of power that tyranny has difficulty taking hold, that is remarkable and we should be grateful. That still isn’t living well.
National Review midwifed and nurtured the modern conservative movement into being. Conservatism today is in a very different situation from the one that Bill Buckley confronted in 1955. There is this vast conservative enterprise now; it’s kind of hydra-headed. But the basic need is, first, to think about the circumstances in which we find ourselves and how to apply conservative principles to them—or a conservative disposition, if one prefers—and second, how to build a coalition that is large enough to take these ideas off of the shelf.
In the last decade or so, various strands of the “new right” have fallen prey to the lures of governmental consolidation. But despite these conservatives’ attempts to justify bold state action in the name of the common good, subsidiarity remains an indispensable guide. Subsidiarity is perhaps the greatest expression of a polycentric approach to the common good.
Although a committed progressive, through his novels, Todd Gitlin hedges his commitments by both recognizing the limitations of his worldview and portraying the merits of his political adversaries. No matter one’s own views, Gitlin’s intellectual virtues and fairmindedness displayed in his work are deeply instructive.