The Failure of Liberty

January-February 2014By Christopher Zehnder

Christopher Zehnder writes from the mountains of central California, where he lives with his wife and seven children. He is the former editor of two monthly newspapers, the Los Angeles Lay Catholic Mission and San Francisco Faith.

Liberty, the God that Failed: Policing the Sacred and Constructing the Myths of the Secular State, from Locke to Obama.  By Christopher A. Ferrara. Angelico Press. 726 pages. $29.95.



“Just as the advance of Liberty was preceded by a war of words in the treatises and tracts of the Enlightenment…so must any attempt at a recovery of the vast territory we have lost commence with a polemical counter-attack.” Thus Christopher A. Ferrara justifies the character and thrust of his tome, Liberty, the God that Failed, the subtitle of which, Policing the Sacred and Constructing the Myths of the Secular State, from Locke to Obama, is hardly conciliatory. As Ferrara readily admits, he does not engage in polite scholarly banter in this 726-page book; he eschews all irenicism. He uses scholarship, as his 18-page bibliography of truly impressive sources attests, but he is unapologetic about the “unconcealed polemical intent” of his book. “It is a polemic,” he says, “in the full classical Greek sense of the word: polemos or war.” And, indeed, that is what Liberty, the God that Failed is: a sinewy, uncompromising, take-no-prisoners literary assault, having all the strengths and weaknesses of that genre.

Ferrara takes aim at what he calls the “moderate Enlightenment” — that philosophical, social, and political movement whose leading light was the English philosopher John Locke. It is Ferrara’s contention that, despite the description of this movement as “conservative,” it was as radical in its principles and effects as the so-called radical Enlightenment, as exemplified by the French Revolution. The moderate Enlightenment, says Ferrara, promised Liberty to the masses, but in reality it was “a massive bait-and-switch operation…that has never delivered what it promised — anywhere, at any time — because Liberty is nothing more than the elevation of a new form of supreme political authority in the place of the old one.” More importantly, Ferrara contends that “Liberty has not made men free, but rather it has relentlessly opposed and driven from the life of the State the very Truth that makes men free.”

A Look Back to What We Have Lost

Ferrara begins his analysis by describing the social order the moderate Enlightenment destroyed — Christendom. This society, says Ferrara, received its basic philosophical underpinnings from Greek political philosophy, particularly the understanding of man and the state as developed by Plato and Aristotle. These philosophers developed a “politics of the soul” based on the insight that the purpose of human life is the cultivation of virtue. For the Greeks, the state, arising from the society of families, is natural to man; human nature demands life in a polis. Indeed, man cannot attain the perfection of his nature except in the polis, which “takes care of the soul by promoting and protecting both virtue and religion over and above mere security in person and property.” Far from being an imposition on the natural order of the state, the Catholic Church perfects it by revealing the true religion that gives man the knowledge of true virtue and right theology. This “Greco-Catholic synthesis” completed, perfected, and elevated the insights of Aristotle as to the nature of both man and the state.

In arguing for and defending Christendom, Ferrara shows how public recognition of the true religion is essential to a Christian order and, moreover, accords with the demands of reason. Such an order requires a certain intolerance of false religion — as Catholic thinkers and popes themselves have contended, truth is the highest common good, the good that the state exists to defend and promote. (And, as Ferrara shows, even Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom,” maintains this traditional understanding of Church/state relations, saying that “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.”) Since religion is not merely a private but a public good, governing authorities must recognize it, defend it, and promote it.

It was this Greco-Catholic synthesis that the moderate Enlightenment opposed and ultimately overthrew. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, in particular, established a false understanding of nature and, in particular, human nature, from which they concluded that human society is unnatural to man. In his natural state, according to Hobbes and Locke, man lives in perfect, untrammeled liberty. It is only to protect this liberty that men, by “social contracts,” form political arrangements in which they give up certain of their “rights” in order to assure the continued possession of their most fundamental rights: life, liberty, and property.

The moderate Enlightenment established a purely materialistic understanding of the state. Government, arising from the consent of the governed, derives its authority only from that consent; gone is the Greco-Christian understanding that government derives its authority from God. Moreover, the purpose of government is to protect individual liberties, not, as in Christendom, the common good of society — a good both material and spiritual. The “Hobblockean” state thus proposes Liberty as the highest good of man, at least in his corporate life. It is to preserve this Liberty that men form governments and, if necessary, overthrow them when they breach the social contract.

Ferrara’s analysis of the moderate Enlightenment and how it departs from the ideals of Christendom is insightful. Yet, in his zeal to distinguish the social ideals of the Enlightenment from those of Christendom, Ferrara’s polemic betrays the weaknesses inherent to the genre. He overstates his case, seemingly in order to draw as sharp a distinction as possible between a Catholic and a Lockean understanding of the state. In assailing the Lockean notion of the social contract, Liberty makes it appear that Catholic tradition does not countenance any notion of popular consent as the root of governmental authority. This is simply not true. For instance, in speaking of a tyrant who seizes power by violence, St. Thomas Aquinas notes in his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (dist. 44, q.2, a.2) how such a ruler can subsequently gain legitimacy: vel per consensum subditorum vel per auctoritatem superioris — “either through the consent of the subjects or through the authority of a superior.” (The latter refers to delegated authority, as when a king appoints a governor over a region.) Popular consent, of course, is not the formal principle of governmental authority — that comes from God — but it provides the material principle of that authority, much in the same way consent between a man and a woman forms a material basis for the validity of a sacramental marriage.

Admittedly, this is a far cry from Locke’s idea of popular consent — and it does not, as Locke does, grant a broad permission for revolution. Nevertheless, it does not preclude revolution or relegate a right to revolution only to a very narrow category of political arrangement, as Ferrara suggests. Since rulers receive their authority from God, says Ferrara, revolution is nothing but sedition, a mortal sin. Moreover, Ferrara says that Thomas lays down these conditions for a just revolution: It must be “a matter of self-defense of a whole people” against a tyrant, it has to concern “a threat to the common good as a totality,” but it can be carried out only in the seemingly rare circumstance when the tyrant in question has been “chosen by the people to rule over them in the first place.”

Here Ferrara only cites Thomas’s work De Regno; however, in the Summa Theologiae (II-II, q.42, a.2, ad.3), Thomas, in addressing the circumstance in which, to overthrow a tyrant, one part of a population opposes another, says such a revolution (perturbation) is not sedition: For the tyrant is himself seditious by perverting the common good to his own private good. In the Summa Thomas says nothing about a condition in which a tyrant may be overthrown only if he was originally chosen by the people. Indeed, if we take De Regno together with the passages cited from the Summa and Commentary on the Sentences, it appears that Thomas recognizes two ways a ruler gains legitimacy: by the appointment of a superior (in which case, De Regno forbids revolution) and when the subjects choose (or, better, consent to) a ruler (per consensum subditorum, in the language of Commentary on the Sentences) — a broad category that would encompass most if not all government. When the latter condition prevails, and the ruler is a tyrant, revolution may be permissible if it does not bring about a greater evil than the tyranny it seeks to remove. Admittedly, this is not Locke’s liberal application of the right to revolution, but the contrast with it is not as stark as Ferrara would have it.

An Historical Case Study

In the second major section of Liberty, Ferrara seeks to give a concrete demonstration that Liberty is “a massive bait-and-switch operation…that has never delivered what it promised — anywhere, at any time.” He does this through an historical review of Liberty’s first great experiment, the American republic. For Ferrara, the American Revolution, far from establishing freedom for the citizenry, only set up a new regime that was just as oppressive, if not more so, than the regime it overthrew. He rightly argues that the American Revolution and the establishment of the U.S. government under both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution were the work of a relative few in the English colonies and not expressions of universal popular consent. He shows how the new governments, both state and federal, exercised raw power to enforce obedience to their demands. He describes how the federal government, from its inception, whittled away at state authority, and how such federal hegemony is a logical development of the Constitution itself. Ferrara argues that during the Civil War the federal and Confederate governments, though wrapping themselves in the mantle of Liberty, nevertheless grossly violated the freedoms of their people. The reader is thus left with the impression that, from its inception, the American republic labored under an oppressive government and that the Liberty it promised was but a thinly veiled exercise of power.

In the pages of Liberty, America’s founders are portrayed as not merely mistaken but as the grossest of hypocrites. In particular, Thomas Jefferson (on whom Ferrara expends much eloquence) is shown to be a slave-owner who likely had a slave woman as his mistress. And despite his high language about Liberty for the people and the rights of states, Jefferson ruthlessly exercised federal power when he held it, in violation of his strict constructionism and avowed regard for the freedoms of the common man. And the rest, including George Washington, were as bad as Jefferson. They called for Liberty when their master was King George, but once they gained power, they crushed all who would rear themselves against them.

Here again Ferrara’s polemical approach betrays its object. The reader gets the feeling that Ferrara is a prosecuting attorney, going all out for a conviction. No nuance is allowed, no attempt made to understand why an historical character acted in contradiction to his stated convictions. This approach leaves one feeling that there is more to the story than Ferrara lets on. Ferrara marshals impressive evidence for his contentions, and one feels satisfied that he is relating historical facts. Yet one wonders if he is giving all the pertinent facts. And if he isn’t, one is left with the doubt that his thesis of Liberty’s failure to deliver what it has promised has been sufficiently proven.

This doubt becomes more acute when one realizes that Ferrara is not arguing against all who espouse Liberty (whom I shall call from here on “Liberals”), but only against a subset of them — the libertarians. Basically, Liberty’s historical section is directed to refuting the libertarian delusion that the early republic was a golden age of Liberty, which Lincoln and post-Lincoln America have betrayed. The book’s contention seems to be that if one refutes the claims of libertarians, one has revealed Liberty to be a sham — nothing but another name for power. The problem is that there are other sorts of Liberals, both of the “right” and the “left,” who view the pre- and post-Lincoln political developments (especially the centralizing of the republic under the federal government) as a great good, precisely because these developments allowed the “blessings of Liberty” to extend to ever greater numbers of people. These Liberals, with the libertarians, are truly in the tradition of Locke, for they hold to the fundamental tenet of Liberty — that the securing of individual freedom, not the defense and promotion of the common good, is the chief end of government. They differ from the libertarians not in what they see the purpose of government to be but in how they think that purpose is best realized. By failing to refute non-libertarian Liberals, Ferrara leaves open the possibility that the regime of Liberty has not entirely betrayed its purpose.

Indeed, one can argue that the problem is not that Liberalism has failed to achieve its purpose but that it has achieved it all too well. The U.S. is a regime where the idea of the common good has been swamped by the notion of individual freedom. One group of Liberals has made great strides in realizing the reign of Liberty in the realm of sexual morality; in the name of sexual freedom we have legalized pornography, heterosexual cohabitation, same-sex marriage, contraception, and abortion. Another group of Liberals has successfully established the principle of laissez-faire individualism in economics (which in its own way threatens the integrity of the family, traditional culture, and religion) and in the stewardship of God’s creation, as well as unfettered consumerism in the marketplace. That these Liberal factions battle each other, and have in many cases mitigated the full effect of each other’s policies, does not undermine the basic fact that, together, they have triumphed in establishing the protection and promotion of individual liberty as the guiding principle of state and society and have allowed for a wider expression of individual liberty (for good and ill) than perhaps any other society has granted its citizenry.

America’s True Religion

Since most Liberals are not anarchists, they readily admit that the preservation of individual freedom requires a balancing of individual claims to freedom; they see that freedoms can cancel each other out. Men may have, for instance, a right to freedom of expression, but that right may be restricted where it endangers the right to public safety — such as shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. The balancing of freedoms, however, implies the judgment that certain freedoms are more important and fundamental than others. The exercise of this judgment may and does result in the curtailing of freedoms that in the minds of some of the citizenry are of the highest order.

As Ferrara deftly shows, nowhere is this truer than in the exercise of religious liberty. Americans vaunt that their Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and has assured the neutrality of the state in regard to religion. Religion has thus flourished under a regime that protects the rights of every religion while according official recognition to none. The condition of religious liberty, so goes the common account, unshackles personal religious expression and allows religion to flourish. Moreover, unlike Liberal regimes elsewhere, the U.S. respects the role of religion in society, seeing it as a necessary prop to the morality without which the state cannot flourish.

Indeed, one can find such language about religion in the writings of America’s founding fathers and, as Ferrara shows, in the works of John Locke. Yet, as Ferrara argues, to treat religion as merely a prop for civic virtue is to instrumentalize religion, to treat it as a means to an end, not an end in itself. The end religion comes to serve is a secular end as enacted by the people’s representatives of the sovereign state that brooks no rival, not even one that speaks the words of God.

Of course, one would not expect Protestant and Deist thinkers such as America’s founders to recognize the authority of the Catholic Church. Yet agnosticism in regard to religion is not religious neutrality; as Ferrara shows, it carries with it its own theological presuppositions. Indeed, Ferrara demonstrates that Jefferson and James Madison, in particular, “under the guise of religious neutrality, were arguing for the imposition of a new theology of the State in preference to the old one involving some form of Church-State alliance.” When Madison says, “We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance,” he is, as Ferrara says, “imposing a particular reading of Christianity on the body politic.” That this is so is clear from the simple fact that Madison’s assessment contradicts not only traditional Catholic teaching on the relation of Church and state but the common understanding most Protestant groups would have expressed even during Madison’s lifetime.

This new theology guarantees a wide freedom to individual religious belief and even practice, but when religious expression and practice come into conflict with the requirements of a secular society and the policies of the state, it is religion that must give way. This follows precisely from the reduction of religion to the realm of the merely private, for the private good can never trump the general welfare. As Ferrara demonstrates from a consideration of Supreme Court decisions touching the relation of Church and state and religious liberty, even under the First Amendment “purely private belief is subject to governmental restriction whenever it conflicts with ‘neutral laws of general application.’” By private belief Ferrara must mean the expression of such belief in public acts, for the examples he cites concern acts rather than opinions.

One such example cited is especially telling: the opinion expressed by the conservative and Catholic Justice Antonin Scalia in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), a case that concerned Native Americans who had been denied employment benefits because they used peyote in their religious rituals. Scalia writes, “We have never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate.” Scalia concludes, quoting an earlier Supreme Court decision, Reynolds v. United States (1878), “The right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a ‘valid and natural law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribes (or proscribes).’”

Ferrara points out that the fact that Scalia expresses his opinion in a case dealing with objectively objectionable activity (peyote use) is beside the point, for his reasoning is applicable to any religious activity that the government — in defense of Liberty — may deem in violation of a law of general applicability. This is precisely the judgment of the Obama administration in its Health and Human Services mandate of contraceptive and abortion coverage in insurance policies, regardless of what a particular religion may prescribe or proscribe. As Ferrara shows, such a mandate may very well be in accord with the logic of U.S. jurisprudence regarding freedom of religion and in no way a violation of the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment.

It is this insight, and one other, that makes up for much of what is lacking in Liberty, the God that Failed. The other insight, perhaps even more important and central, is that, far from being neutral in regard to religion, the American regime of Liberty presupposes its own religion. This religion is a purely civil one that, at best, gives a nod to a God of Nature of no discernible identity. In reality, this religion establishes Liberty as its god, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as its sacred texts, and the American state as its teaching church. It is to this religion, and no other, that every citizen is expected to conform. It is the only objective “truth” in the public sphere.

Final Thoughts

There is much more in Liberty, the God that Failed that could be addressed, for it is a rather long book and full of information. I will content myself, however, with these final observations.

As the foregoing makes clear, Liberty, the God that Failed is an uneven work. It is a book that addresses a most important topic: the political and social doctrine of Liberty as derived from the Enlightenment. It musters many interesting and important facts that should be more widely known among Catholics. Its discussion of Hobbes and Locke and how their doctrine departs from a traditional Catholic understanding of the social order is very good and important. Its demonstration of the Lockean foundations of the American order is a must-read for Catholics in America. And though its historical review is rather too long (according to my tastes) and unsatisfying, Liberty’s discussion of religion in America is insightful and informative.

It is precisely those caught in the webs of Liberal thought — that is, most of us — who need a book that reveals the true nature of Liberalism. Liberty, the God that Failed does this in part, but its polemical tone gives it the flavor of intransigent one-sidedness that might appeal to those who already agree with its thesis but will needlessly repel those who do not. It would have been a more effective instrument if it indulged in more nuance and — dare I say it? — fairness toward its ideological opponents. Fairness is not a mark of weakness, nor does it blunt the edge of the sword of truth. Rather, in the battle for truth, fairness is a most effective weapon, for it evinces a regard for truth and justice. It bespeaks respect for the other, can soften the opposition of the heart and thus remove whatever hindrance posed to the full persuasion of the mind.



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