In discussions of religion in modern society, commentators of all political persuasions often share a common assumption that Americans are generally more religious than their European counterparts, indeed more religious than any other people in the industrialized world. This assumption is apparently substantiated by surveys showing a higher percentage of Americans professing belief in a God who answers prayer, in the special creation of the universe, and other putative benchmarks of religious belief. The vast majority of Americans still identify themselves as Christians, and tens of millions of these regard themselves as “evangelical” or “born-again” or “charismatic,” giving the misleading impression that the United States is a veritable bulwark of Christianity against modern secularism, much to the chagrin of secular liberals and the praise of conservatives.
This picture of religion in the United States is fundamentally flawed, and does not adequately take into account those qualities of American religion which depart radically from traditional Christianity and other ancient concepts of religion. When we consider these heterodox qualities in full detail, we can only conclude with Harold Bloom that, “Most religious Americans are not Christians in any traditional sense.” There are several aspects of mainstream American religion that are fundamentally incompatible with historic Christianity or any other traditional form of religion. As a derivative of its pietistic origins, American religion has reduced the locus of divine activity into the domain of human emotion, resulting in a subjectivist, pseudo-psychological, fideistic belief system that is divorced from the historical claims of the Scriptures and the Church, as well as from external rituals and hierarchical authority. This tendency goes beyond even the most extreme sects of the Reformation era, as the psychotherapeutic aspects of religion have assumed an importance previously reserved for the revelation in Scripture. This emphasis on the therapeutic aspects of religion effectively inverts the basic order of religious worship, as now God serves man instead of man serving God. In order to reconcile the new theology with the Bible, most mainstream Christians have adopted an essentially Gnostic approach to the New Testament, claiming to have found a secret meaning of the Gospel that somehow eluded the Christian church for most of its history. Even the more "conservative" Christians have little qualms about retrojecting modern notions of democracy, social egalitarianism, and feminism into a first-century document.
We will find that the tendencies just described are rooted not only in Protestant pietism and its philosophical offshoots, but also in the political culture of the United States, which was the first nation in Christendom to emphatically exclude the Christian religion from the constitution of its form of government. The anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment is so firmly entrenched in the American civic religion, that to oppose it would be considered an unpatriotic act. This has forced the ancient churches to suppress or even amend their teachings on the relationship between church and state, in order to conform to the First Amendment principles which Americans believe to be among their greatest contributions to civilization. The problem is particularly acute in the case of the Catholic religion, whose pontiffs have repeatedly condemned the American idea of church-state separation.
In the last half-century, all of the above-mentioned problems have become accentuated due to a radicalization of American individualism extending to all moral and social concerns. Religion, like almost everything else in modern America, is understood in terms of personal choice. Since a religion needs only to be helpful to people in their individual concerns, it does not necessarily have to explain the cosmos, so it need not be true for everyone. The extension of individualism has also radicalized interpretations of the First Amendment. The Constitution is now generally understood to require a "separation of church and state", interpreted in a way that forbids any civic manifestation of religion even in its most generalized form.
In sum, the mainstream American concept of Christianity, and religion in general, is circumscribed by deistic, pietistic, and consumeristic ideas that are arguably every bit as subversive of traditional religion as open atheism. It is therefore a calamitous mistake for social conservatives to advocate the American model as the world's best hope for Christianity, when the “Christianity” professed is of such dubious authenticity. This advocacy can be especially ruinous when well-meaning “conservative” American Christians, ignorant of historic Christianity, attempt to “correct” the pious practices of traditional Christians from other cultures, and impose on them the bastardized American form of Christianity as though it were the more authentic form. In such instances, American hubris dovetails with evangelical zeal to produce disastrous results.
In any treatment of a social phenomenon, it is often necessary to paint with broad strokes. Naturally, there are still many Americans who adhere to Christianity in one of its historic manifestations, and even among those who do not, there are many who seek historic Christianity but fail to find it, due to innocent ignorance or cultural influences. For the latter, this discussion may help sharpen their thinking, and appreciate a clearer distinction between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man which is preached by far too many pseudo-Christians.
Several important aspects of American Christianity can be traced to seventeenth-century England. As the Catholic religion was violently suppressed by the monarchy, an increasingly Protestantized culture eliminated nearly all loci of the supernatural save God Himself, as beliefs in the apparitions of saints, angels, and demons, as well as the effects of sacraments and other rituals, were harshly derided as papist superstition and priestcraft. In a significant departure from continental Protestantism, English theology, following Berkeley, came to focus on the act of belief rather than God in history. Arguments for the existence of God followed the stoic philosophers instead of Aquinas, using the argument from design, which relied on subjective perception instead of objective metaphysics. English religion became grounded in subjectivity, rather than objective historical or philosophical claims. This was a dangerous approach, as it made no appeal to the continuity between generations responsible for the perpetuation of a common sense of duty, truth and goodness.
At the end of the seventeenth century, a more intensely subjectivist form of Christianity known as “pietism” arose in Germany, when Lutheran preacher Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705) proclaimed a radically antidogmatic and antiecclesiastical Christianity, which was condemned by Lutheran churches. Spener's emphasis on the “attitude” and religious “sentiment” of Christians as more important than any formula for belief or ecclesiastical organization was foreign to any major form of Christianity that had hitherto existed. Here was born the familiar American evangelical idea that Christianity is essentially and primarily a “relationship,” not a "religion," and that this relationship is more important than dogmatic orthodoxy or ecclesiastical obedience or ritual orthopraxis. Intellectually barren pietism did not succeed in Germany, but one of its offshoots, quakerism, found fertile soil in the United States. Pietism also found favor among some of the eighteenth-century English, in the form of Wesley's Methodism, which focused on emotional responses as proofs of spirituality, so that the educated classes regarded Methodists as fanatics. Methodist fervor was famously satirized in Wuthering Heights in the character of the Rev. Jabes Branderham, though we can see that Methodists still had a strong belief in objective norms of behavior, their professed anti-dogmatism notwithstanding.
The widely influential German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), raised in a Pietist household, turned religion completely inward toward the realm of human subjectivity, appealing to man's supposedly innate capacity to sense the Infinite. His thought has had a profound effect on religion in the English-speaking world, which has largely retreated into fideism and abandoned the project of expounding the objective reality of religious truths. Most have adopted Kant's belief that religious feeling and ethics are more important than cosmological explanations and ritual. Kant was so convinced that the human mind was the only locus of the divine on earth, that he would not enter a Catholic church, because he was convinced that the Sacrament was the one place where God was not. Ironically, many American Catholics, while assenting to the Real Presence, nevertheless espouse a Kantian form of religion that, carried to its logical conclusion, would restrict divine action to the human soul.
The theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) went a step beyond Kant, and removed religion even from the moral sphere. For Schleiermacher, 'essential religion' consisted not in ethical norms, but in a mystical contemplation beyond analysis. In Schleiermacher's cosmology, morality pertained to the practical sphere of man's life, while the contemplative life was ruled by science, leaving only the domain of emotion and feeling for the religious. This fideistic capitulation to the pretensions of atheistic philosophers relegated religion to an anti-intellectual ghetto, where piety is nothing more than consciousness of one's dependence on God, or being in relation to God. According to Schleiermacher, the superiority of Christianity with respect to other religions consisted simply in its greater emphasis on man's absolute dependence on God. His theology has had far-reaching influence among English-speaking Christians, even penetrating Catholicism in the late twentieth century.
Schleiermacher's concept of religion discreetly makes God the servant of man, serving the function of fulfilling man's emotional needs. This sort of religion is precisely the opiate that Marx said it was. The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) took this theology to its logical conclusion, “God is essentially a being who fulfills man's desires,” in particular the desire not to die. Feuerbach, effectively an atheist, considered nature to be the first object of religion, and that the mastery of nature caused the replacement of pagan gods with monotheism.
While few Anglophone Christians would extend their theology to the extreme of Feuerbach, mainstream Christianity in North America and Britain carries tendencies in this direction. Reducing God to a means of fulfilling man's desires, the new Christianity is essentially paganism with the benefit of personal immortality. This sort of religion was ridiculed by Kierkegaard as 'tweaking God's nose', living as self-indulgently as any pagan, yet looking forward to the additional reward of Christian immortality. This desire to have your cake and eat it too dominates contemporary American religion, which is permeated with the expectation that God will pardon even those who not repent of their self-indulgent ways. It is only natural, therefore, that many more Americans believe in heaven than in hell. Those who believe only in heaven are essentially agnostics who fear death, and Feuerbach's critique describes their religion accurately.
Since the founding of the United States, the nation's cultural development has been heavily informed by the bourgeois ethics of liberal capitalism, a system of political economy developed in direct opposition to traditional Christian institutions. Ironically, the most "conservative" elements in the United States tend to advocate liberal capitalism most strenuously, so that American conservatism founders on an internal contradiction. The same people who strive to preserve traditional culture, society, religion, and ethics also advocate the most culturally corrosive agent in existence. Liberal capitalism, the belief that human relations should be primarily defined by market relations, has done more to destroy traditional religion than any dictatorship. The Christian in the United States faces an extraordinary challenge, since in his country the ethics of capitalism is practically taken for granted.
Economic liberalism first developed among the Protestant nations, particularly England, where the monarchy was especially weak. The liberals, or Whigs, were opposed by aristocratic interests who sought to control commerce through corporations possessing privileges from the state. The American Revolution essentially represented a triumph of Whig politics in the American continent. This was reflected by the complete abolition of corporations, trade guilds, and aristocratic titles or privileges. By dismantling traditional means of regulating the economy, the way was opened to allow market relations to dominate society. Prior to the eighteenth century, the regulation of prices and wages to an amount that was "just" was a universal phenomenon. With the feudal system dismantled, a new form of coercion developed through unbridled competition.
In the United States, laissez faire capitalism did not reach its full potential until the last half of the nineteenth century. During the Civil War era, most of the Revolutionary-era prohibitions against corporate entities were abolished, enabling the creation of a new privileged class which entrenched itself through the ruthless logic of the markets. This was the era of classical liberalism, when economists unashamedly asserted that a bare subsistence wage was the "natural wage" for unskilled labor, and large market shares allowed massive corporations to drive competition out of business. Entire towns were built by companies for their workers, who spent their meager wages at company stores. This neo-feudal culture lasted until the trusts were broken up at the turn of the century.
The end of the robber baron era did not put an end to its cultural legacy. To this day, many of its giants are remembered as philanthropists. The legends of these millionaires rising out of poverty have evolved into the modern myth that all wealth is rightfully earned. More importantly, the close relationship between the government and the business community that developed during this era remained long after the trusts had been abolished. This corporativist political system has successfully retarded the development of workers' rights compared with the rest of the industrialized world. Although American workers have far fewer rights than their foreign counterparts, they are much less likely to protest or strike, and, on the contrary, more likely to defend the capitalist system in its present form.
The ultra-capitalist culture of the United States renders non-economic forms of social organization less relevant, and tends to reduce social relations to self-interest. This facilitates what Christopher Lasch called a "culture of narcissism," a society that lives for the moment and for itself, not its predecessors nor posterity. This erodes any sense of continuity with the past, resulting in a breathtaking ignorance of one's own history and culture, and even the values of one's immediate ancestors. In terms of cultural amnesia, we are in many respects more primitive than the most barbarous cultures. Catholics have little inkling about Catholicism of only fifty years ago; the same is true for other subcultures. Even when confronted with the facts of recent history, people of this culture will reject them as irrelevant or outmoded; all that matters is here and now. If a distinctive characteristic of man is his ability to act in the present while considering the experience of the remote past and the consequences of the remote future, it must be admitted that our temporal horizon is collapsing to ever shorter intervals, converging to an almost ape-like consciousness. This forgetfulness of even the immediate past currently passes for enlightenment.
Liberal capitalism, considered as an ideology, and not mere relations of production, is subversive of Christianity in its detachment from social justice, its ethics of self-interest, its inherent subjectivism, its focus on the temporal present, and its utilitarian view of humanity and all social norms. When market relations are the dominant social relations, all values are negotiable. The Catholic will note that the liberal capitalist ideology was soundly condemned on doctrinal and rational grounds by the papal encyclicals Rerum Novarum (1891), Quadragesimo Anno (1931), and Centesimus Annus (1991).
In the United States, the capitalist religion is not effectively challenged by even the most "fundamentalist" Christian sects. Not only do most Christians try to reduce the saying about the rich man and the eye of the needle to a dead letter, but the churches themselves internalize capitalist ethics in marketing their denominations. Since there is no public recognition of any religion, the churches must compete for adherents as private institutions, seeking markets for anxious souls. The medicine showman and the preacher were scarcely distinguishable in their techniques in the nineteenth century, and the fastest growing sect of the end of that century was Christian Science, which began as a moneymaking scheme selling Christianity as a medical practice. Evangelical preachers in that era regularly employed therapeutic language, as though Christianity were a medicine or vitamin designed to cheer people up. This new Christianity without the Cross would filter its way into the mainline denominations in the twentieth century.
The saturation of the consumer market in the last fifty years has forced companies to create an infinity of fictitious needs to be satisfied for a price. Immersed in consumerism and bombarded by advertising around the clock, the modern American has learned to value most things in terms of what it can do for him or how it will make him feel. When such a mentality is applied to religion, it results in the exact opposite of religion, God serving man.
The striking contradiction inherent in the conservative American's capitalist ethos is most easily seen in the deluge of banalities and smut generated by the capitalist behemoth and exported abroad, while evangelical, Pentecostal, or Mormon missionaries in the Third World preach against the evils that their beloved free enterprise system has forced into foreign markets. In the "conservative" American gospel, one can indeed serve both God and Mammon, and in Calvinist fashion, wealth, power, and prosperity are proof of God's favor.
The United States of America was the first nation in Christendom to deliberately exclude the Christian religion from its political constitution. All the nations of Europe and America then recognized Christianity in some form. The King of England was the head of the Church of England. The King of France was the "most Christian king," while the king of Spain was the "most Catholic king," and the Holy Roman Emperor was the Protector of the Church. The United States consciously banished Christianity from its political identity, confirming this intention in the Treaty of Tripoli (1797): "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." This treaty was unanimously approved by the Senate and proclaimed by President John Adams.
While the revelation that the United States was not founded on Christianity may be scandalous to conservative evangelicals who would like to remake the Founding Fathers in their own image, it is not at all surprising to those familiar with the religious and philosophical beliefs of the Founders, who commonly indulged in deism and freemasonry. While few of them would have supported the radical secularism of today's liberal judges who ban any religious expression at public expense, they were all wary of institutionalized churches like the Church of England, and wished to prevent any sect from having privilege over others.
The result, of course, was that no church in America was ever powerful enough to challenge the authority of the state, which did not regard itself as bound by any Christian principle. This conceit infects even social conservatives, who do not consider constitutional interpretations to be bound by natural law, nor regard foreign policy as constrained by just war criteria. This political liberalism, espoused even by so-called conservatives, is the natural complement of economic liberalism. American culture is so thoroughly indoctrinated with the belief that religion ought to play no role in politics, that we are incapable of appreciating what a radically heterodox idea that was only two centuries ago.
Many Americans consider the separation of church and state to be among their greatest contributions to the world, as if it cured the problem of religious warfare. The reality is that religious wars had already ended by the early eighteenth century, while the secularist movement, begun in France, created untold bloodshed in the name of enlightenment and democracy. To this day, many nations in Europe and America give state recognition to one or more churches, yet none of these nations have had religious warfare in centuries. The religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were in large part the result of the ruinous principle that a people should follow the confession of its prince. This all-or-none approach to religious belief in a literate age was a recipe for conflict, so even the most theologically rigorous recognized the need to at least tolerate religious minorities.
The American model of church-state relations, or the lack thereof, is particularly at odds with Catholic teaching, and the history of American Catholic treatments of this question provides a revealing example of how traditional Christianity was forced to yield to the American civic religion.
Catholic bishops in America had long recognized a tension between the civic religion and Catholic moral teaching, particularly on such precepts as the uncensored freedom of speech and the press, without regard for natural or divine law. The church-state question was ameliorated by the fact that the U.S. government was not openly hostile to the Church, so it was licit for Catholics to vote in American elections. Such was not the case, for example, in parts of Italy, where supposed advocates of democracy resorted to assassination, coups, and other political intrigues to divest the Pope of his lawful authority over the papal states. The 1891 version of the Baltimore Catechism plainly affirmed that the Pope was unjustly deprived of his temporal authority (Q 540), which was necessary to his government of the Church and provided the material basis for many of the Church's good works. (Q 541) Catholics were encouraged to pray for the restoration of the Pope's temporal power in Rome.
In response to the nakedly violent and anticlerical spirit of the secular democratic movements of continental Europe, Pope Pius IX (reigned 1846-1878), formerly solicitous of political liberals, issued sweeping condemnations of the errors of liberal democracy in his encyclical Quanta Cura (1864), accompanied by a Syllabus of Errors which, despite its notoriety, is actually restrained in its scope, condemning only the more egregiously anti-ecclesiastical forms of liberalism. In the encyclical, the Pope condemns the principle, then called "naturalism," that "the best constitution of public society and (also) civil progress altogether require that human society be conducted and governed without regard being had to religion any more than if it did not exist; or, at least, without any distinction being made between the true religion and false ones."
The Pope also condemns, as contrary to Scripture, the Church, and the Fathers, the belief that it is best for civil society when the civil government has no duty "of restraining by enacted penalties, offenders against the Catholic religion, except so far as public peace may require." While a religiously neutral state is tolerable, it is to be regarded as inferior to a Christian state, and it is heretical to assert that the Church was wrong to ask the civil government of Christian states to punish heretics, on the historically false assumption that this was an innovation of the Middle Ages. Indeed, the use of civil force against religious offenses is as ancient as civilization, and the idea that such practice is always inherently unjust was the innovation of anticlerical philosophes of the eighteenth century.
Pope Pius' teaching was thoroughly consistent with that of his predecessors, as a cursory review of Western history would easily show, but the spirit of liberalism was so widely propagated by his time, that he seemed to be a reactionary. This venerable pope has been widely slandered as being motivated by a thirst for temporal power, when in fact he forsook the opportunity to become the constitutional ruler of all Italy for the sake of his principles, as he refused to attack Catholic Austria, bravely resisting the racial nationalism of the day. On the other hand, the throat-slitting cabals of the Italian revolutionaries have been forgiven and even praised for their service of the god Democracy, though all they served in effect was the ambition of the Piedmontese kings.
Pius' successor, Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), is best remembered for his social teaching and his advocacy of the legitimate concerns of the working poor against the tyrannical liberal capitalism that would rationalize everything under the law of markets. Those familiar with Pope Leo's social doctrines know the he was far from a simpleminded reactionary, so it is of especial import that he re-affirmed Pope Pius' teaching on church-state relations, declaring plainly in his encyclical Immortale Dei (1885):
It is not lawful for the State, any more than for the individual, either to disregard all religious duties or to hold in equal favor different kinds of religion. (Immortale Dei, 35)
Pope Leo confirmed that Pius' Syllabus was for Catholics "a light which they might safely follow" (34) to avoid error. Later in the encyclical, he elaborates:
The Church, indeed, deems it unlawful to place the various forms of divine worship on the same footing as the true religion, but does not, on that account, condemn those rulers who, for the sake of securing some great good or of hindering some great evil, allow patiently custom or usage to be a kind of sanction for each kind of religion having its place in the State. (36)
Although the Church can tolerate religious neutrality by the state, she rejects as incompatible with the Catholic faith the idea ("naturalism") that such neutrality is the preferable condition of civil society:
...the integrity of Catholic faith cannot be reconciled with opinions verging on naturalism or rationalism, the essence of which is utterly to do away with Christian institutions and to install in society the supremacy of man to the exclusion of God (47)
Pope Leo even goes so far as to address the ill-informed slanders against the medieval Church in its relation to temporal rulers, praising the accomplishments of the Christian states of old:
The State, constituted in this wise, bore fruits important beyond all expectation, whose remembrance is still, and always will be, in renown, witnessed to as they are by countless proofs which can never be blotted out or ever obscured by any craft of any enemies. Christian Europe has subdued barbarous nations, and changed them from a savage to a civilized condition, from superstition to true worship. It victoriously rolled back the tide of Mohammedan conquest; retained the headship of civilization; stood forth in the front rank as the leader and teacher of all, in every branch of national culture; bestowed on the world the gift of true and many-sided liberty; and most wisely founded very numerous institutions for the solace of human suffering.
All of our most cherished values, including the love of peace, liberty, and civility, which we take for granted as though they were culturally universal, are the fruit of that period of Church-State cooperation, when laws were formed in conformity with Christian teaching. The noblest aspects of our culture are the residue of that legacy, and to the extent that we return to a purely "naturalistic" or "secular" form of society, we will become indistinguishable from the pagans from which we emerged. Consequently:
To exclude the Church, founded by God Himself, from the business of life, from the power of making laws, from the training of youth, from domestic society, is a grave and fatal error. (32)
The value of this teaching is amply proven by the fact that wherever the Church has been excluded from such roles, Christian mores have eroded. As the populace becomes more secular by virtue of its religiously-neutral civil government, the demand for distinctively Christian morals in public laws and education diminishes even further. This conclusion, so obvious in the light of the irreligion of our day, that challenges even the most basic tenets of natural law, was already foreseen by Pope Leo over a century ago:
To hold, therefore, that there is no difference in matters of religion between forms that are unlike each other, and even contrary to each other, most clearly leads in the end to the rejection of all religion in both theory and practice. And this is the same thing as atheism, however it may differ from it in name. Men who really believe in the existence of God must, in order to be consistent with themselves and to avoid absurd conclusions, understand that differing modes of divine worship involving dissimilarity and conflict even on most important points cannot all be equally probable, equally good, and equally acceptable to God. (31)
Consistent with his condemnation of religious indifferentism, Pope Leo confirms Gregory XVI's encyclical Mirari Vos (1832) in its denunciation of these "sophisms":
...that no preference should be shown for any particular form of worship; that it is right for individuals to form their own personal judgments about religion; that each man's conscience is his sole and all-sufficing guide; and that it is lawful for every man to publish his own views, whatever they may be, and even to conspire against the State. (Immortale Dei, 34)
Here the Church condemns so-called freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press, as understood in the liberal sense, without regard to any preference for the Christian religion. In summary, several of the most sacred phrases of the United States' Constitution's First Amendment "rights" are regarded as merely tolerable by the Church, whereas to uphold these rights as the ideal or preferred condition of civil society is expressly contrary to the Catholic faith, as defined by Scripture, Tradition, the Fathers and the Popes in their solemn dogmatic teachings.
Thus the Church in the United States was confronted with the problem that the principle of the radical separation of Church and state (for the Church perennially taught that the spiritual and temporal powers indeed have separate roles, but are not on that account to be denied interaction with each other), one of the most potent forces corroding Christian mores throughout the world, was practically upheld as an article of faith by all Americans, including Catholics. This was especially the case as immigrants assimilated to the mainstream culture, which had been shaped by Protestants, agnostics, and deists.
Protestants and the non-religious were acutely aware of the Catholic Church's general stance against the liberal Church-state dichotomy, and anti-Catholic polemicists often made reference to papal teachings in order to discredit Catholic political candidates as potential subversives who would usher in a papist theocracy, given the opportunity. In response to these slanders, Catholics were pressured to assert their unwavering loyalty to the Constitution and the First Amendment, and to downplay the importance of the papal teachings, and indeed, any sort of dependence on Rome. The Church also had to wrestle with the perception that it was a foreign entity, ruled from Rome and consisting of various immigrant groups of questionable loyalties.
In response to virulent anti-Catholic bigotry, Catholics defensively professed their reverence for the civic religion. The Third Plenary Council in Baltimore (1884) declared, "We consider the establishment of our country's independence, the shaping of its liberties and laws, as a work of special Providence, its framers 'building better than they knew,' the Almighty's hand guiding them." When Woodrow Wilson brought the nation into the First World War, the American bishops headed by James Cardinal Gibbons formed the National Catholic War Council in order to raise money and personnel for the war effort. This War Council was the precursor to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
After the war, Cardinal Gibbons could proclaim in a pastoral letter (Sept. 26, 1919) that Catholics had proved their patriotism and devotion to American liberties. Nevertheless, he faithfully asserted Catholic teaching on the desirability of including religion in political life, quoting Pope Benedict XV:
Let princes and rulers of the people bear this in mind and bethink themselves whether it be wise and salutary, either for public authority or for the nations themselves, to set aside the holy religion of Jesus Christ, in which that very authority may find such powerful support and defense. Let them seriously consider whether it be the part of political wisdom to exclude from the ordinance of the State and from public instruction, the teaching of the Gospel and of the Church. Only too well does experience show that when religion is banished, human authority totters to its fall. (Ad Beatissimi, 1914)
Despite the gentleness with which the bishops asserted Catholic social doctrine, nativist and anti-Catholic bigotry remained strong even after the war, as typified by the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Immigration became tightly restricted, reducing the influx of Catholics. Catholicism in the U.S. became more self-enclosed culturally, aided by its robust catechesis and parochial school system. It is against this background of anti-Catholic hostility and Catholic defensiveness that the events of 1927-1928 should be understood.
Alfred E. Smith, the governor of New York, became the first Catholic presidential nominee of a major party when he received the Democratic nomination in 1928. He was the target of anti-Catholic polemics in the vein described previously as early as 1927. This controversy brought Catholic social teaching on Church-state relations to the forefront of public discourse. While Smith's opponents often misrepresented and exaggerated the Church's teachings as advocating theocracy, even the authentic teaching of the Church represented a serious stumbling-block to popular acceptance of a Catholic candidate. Since many Catholics by that time had come to accept the American dogma of non-establishment of religion, the public discussion of these issues created conflict and confusion among Catholics. Smith himself did not seem to understand the doctrinal issues, but made clear that he upheld the American civic religion perfectly: "I believe in absolute freedom of conscience for all men and equality of all churches, all sects, and all beliefs before the law as a matter of right and not as a matter of favor. I believe in the absolute separation of church and state..." (Atlantic Monthly, April 1927)
Smith's protestation of civic orthodoxy was insufficient to overcome anti-Catholic paranoia, and he lost in a landslide to Herbert Hoover, losing even several Southern states that had been Democratic strongholds. Some campaign buttons by Hoover supporters read, "A Christian in the White House." It was clear from the Smith debacle that nothing less than total capitulation to the American civic religion would make Catholics acceptable to the general populace, and even that was no guarantee.
The bishops, rather than boldly proclaim the Church's authentic teaching in the face of what would have been a calamitous reaction, instead requested to be dispensed from imposing any teaching on this matter. Rather than risk Catholics being effectively excluded from political life, it was deemed preferable to assent to the American system until some later time when a clear assertion of the Church's doctrine would be practicable. In 1928, the American bishops received a dispensation from teaching some of the Church's doctrines on the unlawful (though tolerable) status of a religiously neutral state, without denying these doctrines. This was permitted as a prudential measure, due to the cultural circumstances just described.
Whatever the merits of such a prudential judgment, the suppression of the Church's teaching on church-state relations produced an entire generation of American Catholics raised in ignorance of this teaching, an ignorance which would be passed to their descendants. Understandably, many considered that the teaching of Leo XIII and his predecessors had been abandoned, not knowing that this doctrine continued to be taught in other Catholic countries. It also reinforced a more general sense that the United States was socially independent of Rome and indeed could teach Rome the error of its ways on matters of political philosophy. In approving this dispensation, the Holy Office departed from the advice of Pope Leo in Testem Benevolentiae (1899):
Far be it, then, for any one to diminish or for any reason whatever to pass over anything of this divinely delivered doctrine; whosoever would do so, would rather wish to alienate Catholics from the Church than to bring over to the Church those who dissent from it. Let them return; indeed, nothing is nearer to Our heart; let all those who are wandering far from the sheepfold of Christ return; but let it not be by any other road than that which Christ has pointed out.
In the 1880s and 1890s, the bishops of the United States had excelled in their obedience to Pope Leo XIII, proclaiming even the Church's more difficult doctrines in the face of cultural adversity. The concession of 1928 would be the beginning of a creeping sense of American exceptionalism among the bishops, akin to that "Americanism" which Pope Leo had condemned in Testem Benevolentiae. The social teaching of the Church regarding the temporal power was omitted from later versions of the Baltimore Catechism, such as the 1941 edition.
Another apparent compromise on Catholic social doctrine would come in 1941, when President Roosevelt proposed to give direct military aid to Joseph Stalin's regime, following Nazi Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union in June of that year. Many American Catholics were alarmed by this decision, since the late Pope Pius XI had prohibited direct aid to any Communist regime in his encyclical letter Divini Redemptoris (1937): "Communism is intrinsically wrong, and no one who would save Christian civilization may collaborate with it in any undertaking whatsoever."
Roosevelt appealed to Pope Pius XII to allay Catholic concerns, so Pope Pius authorized the Auxiliary Bishop of Cleveland, Michael Ready, to interpret Divini Redemptoris as not applying to the current action by the U.S. government, since the intention was to help the Russian people, not the Communist regime.
The attitude of the Holy See with regard to the Communist doctrine is and remains what it has always been. However, the Holy See has nothing whatsoever against the Russian people. It is now the Russian people, which has been unjustly attacked and is suffering greatly as a consequence of this unjust war. This being so, Catholics should not have any objections to collaborating with the United States government to help the Russian people by giving the latter such help as they need.
This interpretation was authorized by the Pope through his apostolic delegate in Washington, Archbishop Amleto Cicognani, but it had the unfortunate appearance of seeming to vindicate the idea that Catholic social doctrine ought to yield before American public policy. The American clergy's close ties with the Democratic party would drive it to increasingly untenable positions as the party drifted to the left.
The wisdom of Pius XI's admonition was proven by history, as the world paid a steep price for its collaboration with the Soviet Union. Eastern Europe suffered under the yoke of Communism for fifty years, while the rest of the world lived under the threat of total annihilation, during a decades-long war of attrition that cost millions of lives.
By the time John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, Catholic assimilation to the American civic ideology was practically complete. His candidacy was challenged by several of the same accusations of dual loyalty that troubled Governor Smith in 1928, but this time they were easily dismissed by the liberal senator, who unequivocally denied that Catholic teaching would affect his governance, in order to assuage his skeptics. From this point onward, the civic religion of the United States would take precedence over Catholic teaching for most Catholics, as the bishops as a rule did not dare contradict Kennedy's heterodox understanding of Church-state relations.
The American Jesuit John Courtney Murray attempted to promote the American concept of separation of Church and state in the drafting of the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae. Conservative bishops from the Spanish-speaking world blocked this effort, so the final text stated:
Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ. (Dignitatis Humanae, 1)
The teaching of the popes through Leo XIII was not to be repudiated, but to remain intact. Immunity from religious coercion was not a novel principle, but as ancient as the faith, for as St. Augustine observed, it would be impossible to compel belief even if it were lawful. This does not prohibit the Catholic Church from establishing itself as a state-sponsored religion, as in fact remains the case to various extents in many countries to this day. Thus the content of Dignitatis Humanae and the facts of recent history prove the Church has not adopted the American ideal of Church-state relations.
In recent decades, most American bishops have become too timid to impose even ecclesiastical penalties on Catholic politicians who openly defy Church teachings, much less adopt positions on civic matters. When John Cardinal O'Connor in 1984 merely criticized a Catholic politician who tolerated abortion, he was widely condemned as violating the separation of church and state, which was now interpreted in an even more radical sense, to forbid the Church from having any say on public morality. When Cardinal O'Connor in 1990 threatened pro-abortion Catholic politicians with the possibility of excommunication, he was even more widely denounced. The enthronement of civil government as the sole arbiter of public morality was by this point complete.
From the 1970s onward, left-wing social extremism became increasingly mainstream via a series of Supreme Court decisions, which reinterpreted several civil rights in a way that made the enforcement of traditional morality practically impossible. Some popular examples include the banning of school prayer and the display of religious symbols on public grounds, injunctions against laws prohibiting abortion, sodomy, and pornography, and draconian restrictions on indirect state funding of religious institutions. As some of these libertine and antiecclesiastical ideas became part of the Democratic Party's platform, many Catholics drifted to the Republican Party, where they risk becoming ensnared by that party's commitment to militarism and extreme economic liberalism.
The cultural challenges faced by Catholics in the United States might not have been so problematic were it not for the presumption of American exceptionalism, bordering on nationalistic messianism, that pervades the national discourse. It is only to be expected that this ethos should eventually creep into Catholicism, and we can only admire the fortitude of the Church in America to have resisted this tendency for so long.
This tendency to assume that the "American way" of liberal political economy was fully compatible with the Catholic faith was once given the name "Americanism." In the late nineteenth century, a French biography of the deceased American priest Isaac Thomas Hecker portrayed Fr. Hecker as espousing a number of heretical doctrines, including the disparagement of religious vocations. While it is disputable whether Fr. Hecker himself held the heretical views that were imputed to him, Pope Leo XIII took care to specify which of these beliefs were in fact untenable for Catholics. In his 1899 encyclical, Testem Benevolentiae, Pope Leo addressed several "Americanist" heresies, recognizing in these novel opinions a common principle:
...in order to more easily attract those who differ from her, the Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make some concessions to new opinions... even in regard to doctrines which belong to the deposit of the faith. They contend that it would be opportune, in order to gain those who differ from us, to omit certain points of her teaching which are of lesser importance, and to tone down the meaning which the Church has always attached to them.
Such opinions were clearly contrary to the teaching of the First Vatican Council:
For the doctrine of faith which God has revealed has not been proposed, like a philosophical invention to be perfected by human ingenuity, but has been delivered as a divine deposit to the Spouse of Christ to be faithfully kept and infallibly declared. Hence that meaning of the sacred dogmas is perpetually to be retained which our Holy Mother, the Church, has once declared, nor is that meaning ever to be departed from under the pretense or pretext of a deeper comprehension of them. (Constitutio de Fide Catholica, Chapter iv)
This notion that the Catholic Church must "change with the times" in matters of doctrine arises from the triumphalist American sense of human perfectibility through economic progress and political reform. This ethos, in which the new is invariably an improvement over the old, is in sharp contrast with the Catholic ethos of reverently preserving what has been handed down from antiquity.
The encyclical enumerates several specific heretical opinions which are grounded in this false principle. Among these is the notion that...
...external guidance is set aside for those souls who are striving after Christian perfection as being superfluous or indeed, not useful in any sense - the contention being that the Holy Spirit pours richer and more abundant graces than formerly upon the souls of the faithful, so that without human intervention He teaches and guides them by some hidden instinct of His own.
This excuse of ignoring ecclesiastical authority by direct appeal to the Holy Spirit is just pietistic Protestant presumption. As Pope Leo observes, no man can say whether the Holy Spirit is more or less abundant now than previously, for the Spirit is free to dispense grace as He wishes.
Another heretical opinion is that natural virtues are to be extolled above the supernatural virtues. This is the myth of "being a good person", in the form of philanthropy, industry, and love of family and country, as more important than the virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Along these lines, so-called "active" virtues are deemed more important than supposedly "passive" virtues such as the contemplation and mortification practiced by monks and nuns. This emphasis on the temporal, if taken seriously, would invert the divine order and makes the saints unworthy of veneration. This heresy would place the "kingdom of God" in this world, with salvation achieved through the Pelagian means of "being a good person."
It is easy to see that the Americanist doctrine of "being a good person" denies the reality of original sin and concupiscence and effectively makes man his own savior. This smug, self-satisfied form of Protestantism was mercilessly skewered by Mark Twain in The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg. It is a rich irony that a predominantly Protestant nation should succumb to a form of Pelagianism, but this only shows how much American culture had deviated from even Protestant "orthodoxy" in the nineteenth century.
Another Americanist opinion condemned by the Pope was the belief that men ought to have the freedom to think, say or print anything without regard to truth. This liberal principle, enshrined as a sacred democratic ideal, presumes that truth is unknowable or of no concern to the state. Such a principle, applied to matters of faith and morals, is inadmissible to a Catholic, for whom it is not lawful to propagate ideas contrary to the received deposit of faith.
The bishops of the United States assured the Pope that such heretical views were not common in their day. If they sound familiar to the modern Catholic, it is because several of these views have come to dominate Catholic discourse since the Second Vatican Council, under the pretext of being endorsed by that ecumenical synod.
For example, as noted previously, it is pretended that the American notion of "freedom of religion" (religious indifferentism of the state) was endorsed by the Council. In fact, the Council defined religious freedom as "immunity from coercion in civil society" in the matter of accepting religious doctrine. This freedom of conscience had been perennially taught by the Church, from St. Augustine through the Scholastic Doctors. Since this freedom only involves not compelling people to change their beliefs, "it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ." (Dignitatis Humanae, 1) To this day, the Church maintains concordats with numerous Catholic nations, in which the Church claims preferential treatment by the state, even to the extent of being recognized as the state religion, and receiving state funding for religious schools and the stipends of bishops.
None of the Americanist opinions, nor their underlying principle that religious doctrine (as opposed to discipline) should change with the times, can be found in the sixteen documents of the Second Vatican Council, but that has not prevented unscrupulous Catholics from promoting these views in the name of a fictitious "spirit of Vatican II." This "spirit" is really the spirit of Americanism, which, after a century of fermentation, has adopted bolder manifestations in the wake of post-conciliar relaxation of canonical discipline.
The legacy of pietism and Americanism can be seen in the fuzzy appeals to the "work of the Holy Spirit" to rationalize any repudiation of traditional doctrine or practice, the emphasis on "relationship," "community," and the "social Gospel" as being more important than traditional forms of piety, which are derided as sterile and antiquated. Most importantly, the American ethos of preferring novelty for its own sake, what Pope Leo called a "harmful and deplorable passion for innovation" (Immortale Dei, 23), has permeated the liturgical life of the Church and even the theological faculties. These modernist principles adopt a distinctively American character to the extent that the "American Church" views itself as being at the cutting edge of innovation, and even the teacher of Rome on how best to adapt Catholicism to the "needs of the people."
As a result of this assimilation to the general culture, Catholicism in the United States has lost much of its distinctiveness, as Catholics now divorce, abort, contracept, and stop attending church at the same woeful rates as their Protestant counterparts, when such was emphatically not the case only a half-century ago. If, as our Lord said, men are to be known by their fruits, we need only look at these trends, combined with the cataclysmic 90% drop in vocations and religious educators, to declare that the new church of pietistic Americanism is a failure as a Catholic Christian church. Just as the unbelieving Jews, followed by the Nestorians, Monophysites, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans and Calvinists all withered and decayed as they broke away from the trunk of Christ's fruitful olive tree that is the Catholic Church, so the Church in the United States has withered wherever it departs from the apostolic authority that is the only authentic means by which the Holy Spirit is received.
It would be very erroneous to draw the conclusion that in America is to be sought the type of the most desirable status of the Church. - Pope Leo XIII, Catholicity in the United States
As G.K. Chesterton observed, the United States sees itself as more than a nation, but as the incarnation of a political ideology that is to be a model for the rest of the world. Consequently, acceptance of that ideology is a requisite for all citizens, lest they be regarded as traitors or "un-American". Socialists, internationalists, and monarchists can be Englishmen or Frenchmen, but not Americans, because this last nationality defines itself by its political ideology. Traditional forms of Christianity, such as Anglicanism and Catholicism, or even the state-sanctioned Lutheranism of Scandinavia, also find themselves in fundamental tension with the American civic religion. In order to be accepted as Americans, immigrants who adhere to these faiths have sought to downplay or even compromise their doctrine to conform to the indigenous culture, with its peculiarly pietistic Protestantism and its deistic theory of political economy.
In the case of the Catholic Church, the tension is especially acute, as that Church has a transnational character and openly regards itself as superior to the temporal power. A true Catholic is enjoined to place his ecumenical religious identity above his national identity, but this creates an impossible contradiction in a country where national identity is conceived in almost messianic terms. Much worse, several of the most exalted tenets of the American civic religion are in direct opposition to the historic teaching of the Church. The fact that most American Catholics disregard the latter in order to fully embrace the former does not abolish the contradiction, but represents the superior command of national loyalty, as proven by the shaping of culture through increasingly liberal legislation in open defiance of the impotent churches. We have seen that this hostility to traditional Christianity is not some recent invention of the political left, but extends back to the founding. The conclusion that few American Catholics wish to face is that American culture, from the beginning, in its depths, in its marrow, is fundamentally hostile to Catholicism.
In some respects, it is amazing that such a conclusion should be resisted. For a nation that was founded by deists, freemasons, and assorted Protestants of less established sects, it is hardly any surprise that its political principles and attitude toward ecclesiastical institutions and traditional religion is radically incompatible with Catholicism. It would be a miracle if it were otherwise. Being formed in English culture, there is the additional disadvantage of a legacy of virulent anti-Catholicism and hostility to the Latin peoples. Catholic immigrants, and subgroups such as the Italians, have had to renounce much of their distinctiveness in order to assimilate a Protestant ethos of pragmatism, aesthetic barrenness, and messianic nationalism.
Thus, to hear a Catholic speak of his ancestors will be little different than what a Protestant polemicist might have said a century ago. The rituals and pious practices of Latin Catholicism are signs of ignorance and provinciality, to be supplanted by a more enlightened Anglo-Saxon Catholicism. As Americanism has taken hold over much of the Church in the United States, few would see any absurdity in the American Catholic presuming to correct the practices of other Catholic nationalities, or even of the universal Church itself. It would perhaps be uncharitable to elaborate in detail the level of illiteracy that now passes as enlightened discourse, but anyone familiar with the richness and sophistication of medieval theology and moral philosophy cannot help but regard the modern schools of thought as puerile, pseudo-mystical attempts at profundity. The modern Catholic presumes to find truths his ancestors missed by applying a clumsy understanding of philosophy, logic, and rhetoric to a poorly defined theology. The decay of rigorous classical learning is a subject unto itself, which can hardly be treated here.
To justify the widespread ignorance of the intellectual and spiritual traditions of Christianity, it becomes necessary to affirm that tradition does not matter, if we are to regard ourselves as competent to decide religious questions. This attitude undercuts the need for an ecclesiastical authority to interpret these traditions, and favors the Protestant doctrine of private interpretation, which easily elides into "freedom of conscience" in the heretical sense of making the conscience independent of divine or natural law. Mark Twain deftly ridiculed this belief that everyone is competent to judge questions of religious or political doctrine:
There are seventy-five million men and women among us who do not know how to cut out and make a dress-suit, and they would not think of trying; yet they all think they can competently think out a political or religious scheme without any apprenticeship to the business, and many of them believe they have actually worked that miracle. (Christian Science, Book I, Ch. IX)
Although Twain rejected ecclesiastical authority, he had the good sense to recognize the absurdity of replacing that authority with egalitarian private judgment.
We have seen that the idea that doctrine does not matter comes from the pietistic tradition, which instead proposes subjective experience as the only measure of importance. This effectively reduces "being a good person" to one's subjective judgment, and it is no surprise that most will judge themselves favorably. The very notion of "being a good person" is utterly contrary to the basis of Christianity, which presumes that people are essentially sinful and in need of redemption and mercy, without which they cannot be saved.
While pietism does not always lead to religious indifferentism, it can promote a utilitarian concept of religion, which emphasizes “getting something out of” a religion or using it as a means of fulfillment. This attitude is diametrically opposed to the concept religio, which consists of one's obligations and duties to the gods. This fundamentally anti-religious attitude explains why even some "conservative" evangelicals will say that "Christianity is not a religion", but an "experience" or a "relationship". The latter claims have truth to them, but it is a manifest falsehood to deny a religious dimension to Christianity, as this would declare we have no duties to God.
As I emphasized at the beginning, this discussion paints a sociological picture with broad strokes, making little attempt to identify precisely how widespread is each of the ideas discussed. The reader is undoubtedly aware that there are many admirable exceptions to these critiques, but hopefully now will also be able to identify the pervasive influence of these heterodox ideologies in even the more "conservative" Christian churches.
Nationalist pride comes not from the Son who emptied Himself in infinite humility, but from the Gentiles of Babylon and Rome. Proof of enlightenment is not to be found in military or economic might, but in the Christian virtues. As a sign of hope, the Church in Mexico has adapted to the modern world in a way that respects traditional expressions of personal piety, with veneration of the saints and all the other unseemly Latin practices which are so overtly religious, as opposed to merely "spiritual." What is more, the Church there is growing, with Mass attendance actually increasing to over 50%. Sadly, many Mexican immigrants to the United States find "enlightened" clergy attempting to "correct" their Catholicism into the Protestantized U.S. version. One would think that the American love of capitalism might induce the clergy to follow a successful business model instead of imposing their failed model on others. This only shows that the current "modernist" trend in the Church in the U.S. is motivated more by ideological convictions than genuine pastoral concerns. These convictions do not come not from the Second Vatican Council, as study of the Council's documents will show. Instead, they are the fruit of the historically anti-Catholic culture of the United States of America to which the Catholic Church and other churches have assimilated themselves at the peril of their Christian identity.
© 2007 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org