Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Post-Christian America

Over at the Catholic Thing, Fr. C. John McCloskey III frets that America is currently in a post-Christian phase of its history, but offers hope (as he sees it) that a revival of Catholicism could give us a Catholic America where a Protestant America has lost its grip on the culture:

With the passage of time, homegrown American Protestant sects sprang up so profusely that they now can be counted in the thousands. Despite this variety, almost all shared a biblical moral philosophy not far removed from Catholics. The loosening of divorce laws and the propagation of the birth control pill in the Sixties, however, precipitated further retreat mere decades later by mainstream and traditional Protestant denominations on other moral fronts, including abortion, homosexual activity, and most recently same-sex marriage.
The primary reason is the lack of dogmatic authority in Protestantism and the reliance on the principle of private judgment. Leaving people to rely on only their opinions or feelings as moral guide is not enough to sustain a country that was once Christian and now is increasingly pagan.
Now, in this passage he doesn't mean "pagan" in the sense that I do when I use the term. He's referring here to a vaguely non-Christian set of cultural norms and choices, rather than to contemporary polytheistic religions such as Wicca, Asatru, and the like.

Fr. McCloskey's argument is undermined by his own Catholic myopia, however. Anyone reading the byline should have known that the answer in the article was inevitably going to be the Catholic Church; it's impossible to trust his arguments or analysis because it's obvious that the end-point was clearly in sight for him before he ever undertook them.

That said, if we set aside his foregone conclusion, we can see that these sour grapes can produce a passable wine. McCloskey is dismayed that the freedom of religious choice guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution has allowed people to (gasp!) choose something other than Christianity. I, on the other hand, find that a strength, and believe that a post-Christian America doesn't have to replace the Christian cultural hegemony that is now in the process of passing into history (albeit not without its gasps of desperation to cling on) with a single religiously-based hegemony.

Rather, I think that the Founding Fathers were wiser than we give them credit for. Distrustful as they were of strong central authorities (given their experience with George III), they set up a system wherein law and culture is not dictated by the "dogmatic authority" that McCloskey seems to yearn for. Rather, the First Amendment itself guarantees against just such a thing, setting in its place a system of legal understanding and cultural evolution that flows from the ground up in a true marketplace of ideas where the strongest, most capable, and ultimately most valuable ideas rise to the top while those that are found wanting sink into obscurity.

Thus, the collective Christian idea (expressed sub-rosa in some cases, loudly and proudly in others) that sex should be for procreation only, has largely eroded away and replaced with a much more life-affirming sentiment that sex is fun, the human body is nothing to be ashamed of, and decisions regarding sex and procreation should reside in the conscience of the individual rather than being mandated by "dogmatic authority". This has led us, over the last few decades, to the understanding that depictions of sex are okay and should not be illegal, providing contraception for people who choose to use it is okay and should not be illegal, sex between consenting adults who don't happen to have undergone the marriage ritual of a specific religious tradition is okay and should not be illegal, sex between individuals of the same gender is okay and should not be illegal, etc. etc. etc.

I find nothing wrong with that whatsoever. The toppling of McCloskey's "dogmatic authority" is nothing to be feared, and certainly nothing to be replaced with yet another such authority. It is the ultimate promise of the First Amendment, and should be cheered loudly and proudly by all lovers of individual liberty.

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