Ben Smith’s blog over at Politico.com is a must-read on any day, but today it is a stop-what-you-are-doing, go-read-it-right-now read. He looks at the growing suspicion among conservative evangelical voters of the libertarian impulses of the tea party movement. The immediate worry is that the focus on taxes, jobs, the economy and the role of government has displaced the evangelicals’ concerns on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. But, as Smith points out, the rift is deeper than that.
The same rift exists in the Democratic Party, but to a lesser degree today than a few years back. Remember how in the 1970s, in an effort to defend Roe v. Wade, some Democrats took to saying "You can’t legislate morality." Mind you, this was only a few years after the civil rights movement resulted in a very specific legislation of morality. And, those same Democrats had a difficult time making a moral argument for universal health care, or protecting the environment, when they were saying such moral arguments had no place in the political realm.
So, the rift here is not really between right and left, or between Democrat and Republican. At its most basic level, it is a rift between modernity and what used to be called Christian anthropology. Modernity celebrates the autonomous individual and places freedom above other values in the public sphere. Modernity sees that freedom as the source of human dignity and rebels against any attempts to restrict that freedom. For the modern man, the absence of ontology is a blessing and maintaining man’s independence is the goal. Traditional Christian – and other religious – anthropologies, reach similar conclusions about the dignity of the human person, but root that dignity in human creatureliness and dependence. It is the Imago Dei – the fact that we are created in the image and likeness of God that is the source of our dignity, and that creatureliness imposes upon us the obligation to live in accord with our Creator.
In his famous 2004 address to the Democratic National Convention in Boston that launched his national political career, Barack Obama spoke about these twin impulses, citing Americans’ famous individualism but also the impulse to be our brother’s keeper. Sometimes, the two sit happily together: at the time of the Founding, some Founders were filled with thoughts of a New Israel, and others were imbued with the ideas coming from the Enlightenment. In the Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae, you find an endorsement of the constitutional arrangements of the West based on modern notions of freedom as well as an endorsement of a view of the human person as radically dependent upon God.
Greater minds than mine will have to do for modernity what Aquinas did for Aristotle, create an orthodox synthesis of modern notions about freedom with the anthropology that we discover in the Scriptures and, especially, in the early Church Fathers. Those of us who range ourselves on the liberal side of politics have to admit that if no one has yet created such a synthesis, the possibility exists that no such synthesis is possible. This does not necessitate a war, of course, but it does mean that we must recognize a certain tentativeness to our ideological conclusions, a constant willingness to re-think our assumptions, and a humility about the conclusions we attain.
In the meantime, it is best to recall an insight of Jacques Maritain which went something like this. Some of us are born into the world with a liberal heart, others with a more conservative heart. Either way, it is a given. And, the better part of wisdom is to learn about the insights that are achieved by those who were born with a different heart from the one you received. If you have an essentially liberal disposition, learn about the wisdom the conservatives have to offer, and vice-versa. I think this can apply as well to the divide between a religious sensibility, rooted in the idea that we are radically dependent upon God, and a modern sensibility, rooted in the idea that our freedom is so precious it deserves pride of place. We must listen and learn from both schools, because both schools contain wisdom. I do not believe a Christian can give pride of place to freedom: Only love warrants pride of place in any Christian moral theory. But, I would fight to the death to protect my First Amendment rights.
Michael Sean Winters