Catholicism and Americanism (III)

Alexis de Tocqueville (Théodore Chassériau - Versailles)

5. Et mancipiorum et animarum hominum

The American “success story” is rooted in three factors that Tocqueville had already identified as the keys to its vitality: liberal individualism, egalitarianism, and pluralism (12). Pluralism, on the one hand, guarantees a place for the liberal mentality, which is centered on success and the right of all to unlimited consumption; on the other hand, it stimulates egalitarianism, which brings more and more participants and consumers into the market (13).

Such a framework, constitutive of the “American ideology”, has been explained institutionally by an acute analyst like Thomas Molnar on the basis of the centrality of a singular “civil society”. And the fact is that although the United States appears at first glance to be a nation, only larger and wealthier than others, this is only a superficial impression. The structure of this “non-nation” is given by an immense civil society, endowed with a State but only in a complementary way, while the churches are strictly private associations that benefit from some tax advantages. Neither the State nor the Church can elaborate projects which are reserved to civil society and, above all, to the world of business which is agitated within it.

In this context, liberalism has emerged as the ideology that civil society has used to free itself from the Church and the State: from the former by multiplying the number of groups that sign the social contract, all of them equal; from the latter by depriving it of its natural support in stable institutions and of the loyalty of its subjects. It seems normal that both have suffered a profound degradation as a result: the State is reduced to an instrument of administration in the hands of lobbies and a disembodied, but obligatory, democracy that conceals an increasingly opaque mode of governance; as for the Church, it is one interest group among others offering a spiritual product on the global market of ideas. In other words, liberalism tolerates the presence and participation of the State and of religion on the condition that they have neither the vocation of the State nor the evangelical mission of the Church, and that these two functions are absorbed by a liberal civil society that is self-organizing, if not autonomous, and that professes a so-called “humanist”, “ethical-humanist” or frankly secular religion (14).

This is the American model, since the United States is the Western country where the social contract, called the Constitution, sacralizes society and deliberately weakens the State and the churches. Liberalism is absolutely autochthonous and in the absence of a national and state conscience rooted in history (which is barely taught in schools anymore) and of a structured faith; a religion is established at one’s pleasure, consisting of democracy, business and pluralism, which allows any radicalized lobby to occupy the terrain. In Europe, the Maastricht doctrine has combined the two errors of, on the one hand, a Jacobin-style super-bureaucracy and, on the other hand, a vast and amorphous American-style civil society, which dissolves the institutions and replaces them with ephemeral lobbies eager for immediate results, basically almost clandestine feudalities that appropriate the res publica and act at their whim with morality and culture. Finally, as far as the nations of Eastern Europe are concerned, they have also been attacked by a civil society, generally of the worst kind. This is logical, because in these countries there was only a relatively narrow stratum, localized in the capitals, destroyed by the Soviet occupation and today often of foreign origin, which leads one to think of a neo-colonialism truffled with organized crime (15).


6. Littera enim occidit

An outline of the political and legal culture of the United States cannot do without a reference to legal positivism. But neither can it do without a reminder, however brief, of the other features that define it (16).

Let us begin with them. First of all, in the face of the (supposedly) “limited powers” of the national government, reality very early asserted its supremacy through a clause of a constitutional basis, developed by successive amendments and their judicial interpretation. Even then, far from an (impossible) “religious neutrality”, a deep hostility to revealed religion led, once again in the Lockean line, to the subordination of religion to the power of the State. But we will return to this at the end of this paper. Third, a judicial tyranny has imposed itself on the will of the majority through judicial review of laws. Finally, the whole picture tends to unfold in the search for a moderation that is resolved in the “Newtonian equilibrium”.

But without legal positivism, the above picture is not complete. Nor is it even comprehensible. For it is the framework of the system. It is not, once again, something accidental, but originary, in the constitutional development of the United States. It was founded not on Christian principles or on the tradition of natural law (unless we take the latter in its Lockean version, which, if I may use a pun, denaturalizes it), but on the postulates of political modernity. This can be seen to this day in “conservative jurisprudence”, which resists any interpretation that implies an evaluation and sticks to either historicism or sociologism. And it carefully sidesteps natural law.

Natural law, as is well known, is based on metaphysical and, ultimately, theological presuppositions: the permanence and intrinsic goodness of human nature, beyond the changes of time and despite the fact that the wound of Original Sin has weakened it. Evolutionism and Protestantism, on the other hand, deny these conditions. And Enlightenment evolutionism and Protestant theology were doctrines firmly entrenched on American soil when the federal republic took its first steps. This Newtonian constitution, which, according to some, worked for a time, is now being undermined by a democracy based on a public opinion that despises natural law (17). One could say that a similar process has taken place in Europe. This is true. But even these systems, which are directly linked to Rousseau’s totalitarian paradox, if not directly to Jacobinism or even to the Terror, have not been spared criticism. Meanwhile, many respected interpreters continue to reserve the highest praise for the Anglo-Saxon Enlightenment and its political expressions (18).

(To be continued)


(12) The reference can only be to his famous De la démocratie en Amérique (1835-1840). With many editions in several languages to this day.

(13) Thomas MOLNAR, ibid. p. 272.

(14) Id., L’hégémonie libérale, Lausanne, L’Age d’Homme, 1992. In this book we find the thesis synthesized, otherwise scattered in dozens of minor texts. Cf. Miguel AYUSO, ¿Después del Leviathan? Sobre el Estado y su signo, Madrid, Speiro, 1996, pp. 84 ff. for a commentary based on the amphibology of the concept of civil society.

(15) Cf. Thomas MOLNAR, The Emerging Atlantic Culture, New Brunswick and London, Transaction publishers, 1994; id., L’Europe entre parenthèses, Paris, La table ronde, 1990.

(16) Cf. Christopher FERRARA, “Las ‘uniones del mismo sexo’ y el problema del positivismo legal. Una perspectiva desde los Estados Unidos”, Miguel Ayuso (ed.), Estado, ley y conciencia, Madrid, Marcial Pons, 2010, pp. 91 ff.

(17) Very interesting is Wilhelmsen’s, perhaps somewhat benevolent, explanation in loc. cit. pp. 221 ff.

(18) Think of what the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said (cf. Faith, Truth, Tolerance, Italian edition, Siena, Cantagalli, 2003, pp. 122 and 253-254) about how a liberal society “can remain free and open to a further path” and how “the idea of the rights of man is in this sense, and above all, a revolutionary idea: it stands against the absolutism of the State, against the arbitrariness of positive legislation. Thesis ultimately dependent on Locke and prisoner of the opposition to the modern state. For criticism, see Miguel AYUSO (ed.), El pensamiento político de la Ilustración ante los problemas actuales, Santiago de Chile, Fundación de Ciencias Humanas, 2008, specifically chapter 1, of my own authorship, pp. 11 ff, entitled “Empirismo, liberalismo y tolerancia en la obra de John Locke”. Cf. also Danilo CASTELLANO, La verità della politica, Naples, Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, 2002, pp. 89 ff. for an examination of Ratzingerian positions.

Deje el primer comentario

Dejar una respuesta