RePost: Michael Lind’s Commentary on American Catholics in “Up From Conservatism”

Below, I copy two passages- one, a passage from Michael Lind’s “Up From Conservatism,” his 1996manifesto of exodus from the conservative movement, and before that, my commentary when I forwarded it along to my priest, Father Jim Heft.

It is especially relevant today, in the administration of President Donald Trump, when so few of us American Catholics know exactly how to move forward politically, amidst a Republican Party culture insulting to the oppressed of the earth and a Democratic Party culture insulting to human nature. Lind’s commentaries here, taken with others’ writings on Catholic social teaching applied to politics, might be useful in pointing out directions by which to move forward.

Father Jim,

I was re-reading my mentor Michael Lind’s first book “Up From Conservatism” and I chanced upon one of my favorite passages, a passage that seems incredibly relevant the more I look at it. I’ve copied it below the dashed line below.

In essence, he talks about the dearth of politically-engaged conservative intellectuals who pay true testimony to the Catholic tradition. (There’s always RJ Neuhaus, but as Lind notes, he was more a sidekick to committed conservatives than an independent contributor of the Catholic tradition in his own right.) Lind talks about the overlap between Hamilton-Disraeli-Churchill “One Nation Conservatism” and Catholic social teaching, something which you and I have discussed. I told you that I consider myself an American nationalist; it is this sort of “one-nation conservatism” that I mean when I use that name. There is of course some tension between any nationalism and Catholic universalism, but in my (evolving) view, it seems to me that it’s less necessary to stand with Machiavelli and “love my country more than my soul” if my political temperament is rooted in Catholic social teaching or something like it, and if serving my country and practicing my faith do, in fact, begin to overlap substantially do to that similarity or sameness.

More practically, I’ve told you before that one of my life-projects I’m hoping to embark upon is reforming the Republican Party into a more practical governing entity than the ideological monstrosity it is now; if I ever am in a position to do that, it would certainly be along the lines discussed below, in this Catholic/nationalist/one-nation-conservative vein of political thought, applied to the 21st Century United States. Perhaps California, with its rising Catholic Latino population, would be an easier place to do that than anywhere else…

Overall, I’d like to root myself more deeply in Catholic social and political teaching, so that as I develop as an intellectual and a public servant, I can call upon that tradition for guidance and counsel. Your advice on books to read, then, is most appreciated, and I have already started looking at the books you recommended when we last met.

Just thought I’d send this; hope you’re doing well!


“Up From Conservatism,” by Michael Lind (1996)

…The defeat of one-nation conservatism is, among other things, a defeat for American Catholicism. After World War II, it can be argued, the United States might have had its own version of the center-right, predominantly Catholic Christian Democratic parties of Germany and Italy. The Christian Democrats drew upon a century of Catholic social teaching which held up a moderate, humane version of capitalism, respecting the rights of labor as well as the privileges of business, as an alternative to the extremes of collectivism and free-market radicalism. Because of the transnational nature of Catholicism, Catholic anticommunism tended to be immunized against perversion into nativism (like the sort of conservative anticommunism that was a displacement of earlier Protestant anti-Catholicism.) Finally, the institutionalized and hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church has made it inhospitable to the kind of charismatic populism so characteristic of the Southern Right in the United States.

If the chief element in postwar American conservatism had been an Americanized version of Catholic Christian Democracy, the right today might have been dramatically different. Its center of political gravity might have been found among the white ethnic working class of the industrial Midwest and Northeast, not among small-town and suburban white Protestants in the South and West. The Catholic-influenced economic theory of American Christian Democrats might have placed the interests of members of trade unions as high as, or higher than, the interests of investment bankers, professionals, and the heirs of great fortunes. The universalism of the Catholic tradition might have been brought to bear to combat the deeply rooted racism and nativism of American folk culture. Catholic conservative intellectuals might have contested left-liberal ideologues without collapsing into the crude anti-intellectualism that both the Old Right and the new neoconservatives have engaged in. In foreign policy, a flourishing Catholic conservative intelligentsia might have been able to contribute insights from the Church’s traditional just-war theory.

It was not to be. Although many of the Old Right intellectuals were Catholics, they had little contact with the mainstream of European Christian Democratic thinking of the mid-twentieth century. Notwithstanding the importance of the labor movement for white working-class Catholics, William F. Buckley Jr. and his Catholic associates were resolutely anti-union. The prominent Catholic conservative intellectuals of recent years, like Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak, have contributed little or nothing that is specifically Catholic to the worldview of the intellectual Right. For the most part they and other Catholic thinkers on the Right have been content to serve as junior partners to Protestant fundamentalists and business-class conservatives, aiding the cause by coming up with what purport to be “Catholic” reasons to support the teaching of creationism or capital gains tax cuts. They are token Catholics in a movement dominated by Pat Robertson and the Wall Street Journal.

The greatest influence of modern Catholic social thought has been on twentieth-century American liberalism, not twentieth-century American conservatism. In a speech during the presidential campaign of 1932 entitled “The Philosophy of Social Justice through Social Action,” Franklin D. Roosevelt alluded to two papal encyclicals, Quadragesimo Anno (1931) and Rerum Novarum (1891.) Which had sought to promote a third way between laissez-faire capitalism and socialism. FDR contrasted two philosophies: “One of these old philosophies is the philosophy of those who would let things alone. The other is the philosophy that strives for something new- something which I believe the human race can and will attain- social justice through social action.” For decades, pro-labor liberalism (though not cultural liberalism) enjoyed the support of the American Catholic hierarchy. Today, however, in the absence of an American counterpart to European Christian Democracy, many Catholics in the United States find themselves alienated from a political system in which their combination of moral traditionalism and economic liberalism is not represented. If the far right in the United States is disproportionately southern and western and Protestant, the radical center is disproportionately made up of white ethnics in the industrial regions of the country. Many of the Southern whites who formed one half of the Jefferson-to-LBJ coalition have found a new home on the Republican Right. The other half of the old Democratic coalition, largely Catholic descendants of European immigrants in the North, have been estranged from both parties for a quarter of a century. At different times, Wallace, Reagan, Perot, and Buchanan [AND TRUMP] have attracted their votes. Their alienation, and the destabilizing effect it has had on American politics as a whole, is one of the major consequences of the failure of one-nation conservatism in the United States.

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