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A Catholic call to liberate America from liberalism’s false ‘Liberty’*

liberty cover

“Liberty, the God that Failed: Policing the Sacred and Constructing the Myths of the Secular State, From Locke to Obama” is a big book with a big title and even bigger ideas.

Written by Christopher Ferrara, a pro-life lawyer who has argued on behalf of the civil rights of the unborn and Catholics in a lifetime’s worth of cases before state and federal courts, “Liberty, the God that Failed” lays out its case with a lawyerly combination of cool reason and spirited rhetoric.

When Ferrara speaks of Liberty with a capital “L,” though, he is not speaking of true freedom, which our Lord promised when he said that “the Truth will set you free,” but the liberty which, time and again, has proven to be the false mask of unbridled political power.

“In sum…Liberty has not made men free,” Ferrara asserts in his thesis, “but rather it has relentlessly opposed and driven from the life of the State the very Truth that makes men free.”

An expansive and intensive overview of U.S. history, from its beginnings as a British colony up to the present day, held hostage to a bloated and tyrannical bureaucracy, “Liberty, the God That Failed” serves as an excellent touchstone for Catholic social teaching set against the familiar yet complex ebb and flow of America’s fortunes.

But before examining the familiar narrative of American independence, Ferrara returns to the cradle of Western Civilization, ancient Greece, which established the traditional understanding of politics as a way to lead men not to modern notions of “Liberty,” but to the moral virtues and transcendent truths which offer true liberty.

“Given man’s very nature as an ensouled creature whose end is the life of virtue and the encounter with God, both Plato and Aristotle teach that man’s perfection requires life in the State, originating in the society of families with its organ s of government,” he writes. “The state is a ‘creation of nature’ and ‘man is by nature a political animal’ as Aristotle so famously observed. Hence the Greeks, as for the Christian statesmen who will follow them centuries later, the good State is the one whose laws and institutions take care of the soul by promoting and protecting both virtue and religion over and above mere security in person and property.”

Over and against what he calls this “Graeco-Catholic synthesis” of political thought, Ferrara argues that the modern state – which holds neither virtue nor religion as the highest attainments of its citizens – is really a secularized version of the Protestant Revolt which first sought to do away with the cooperation of “altar and throne.” It was under this cooperation of Church and state that Christendom flourished from the day that Constantine embraced the crucifix to the day that Martin Luther’s 95 Theses served as a declaration of independence from Church authority.

But it was not Protestantism per se which led to the overthrow of virtue and religion as matters of government but rather, Ferrara argues, a sort of secularized Protestantism which we now know to be liberalism – the belief that, through private judgment and without the teachings of Jesus Christ, as handed down through His holy Church, mankind could make its own way. Leading the charge in this second revolt against the Church were two Englishmen who influenced the Founding Fathers – Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

“By the time Hobbes and Locke were done, the Christian story had been rewritten and a new story had begun,” Ferrara writes. “[T]he world of secular governments unrestrained by any religion; the absolute rule of the majority; the consequent growth of government beyond all limits hitherto known; the rise of a commercial civilization in which anything can be bought and sold without restraint by Christian morality, and human affairs, including marriage and family, become contractual arrangements; the world in which religion, if one has a religion, is reduced to a purely private affair. In short, the world of Liberty.”

So in his analysis of the American history and in particular the American Revolution and what he calls “the Second Revolution,” that is, the American Civil War, Ferrara sees the same spirit of “Liberty” at work – one which demands of the common folk a sacrifice at the altar of “Liberty” which far outweighs the benefits received in return.

A little further on in his same analysis, Ferrara intones the great theme of his work – that a liberty without God (despite the lip service the Founders had paid to God, Ferrara claims – and supports with proof – most of them were either deists or nominally Christian) is merely a synonym for unbridled will to power.

“Another lesson learned [from the Civil War] is that when sovereign power is said to rest on nothing more than an illusory ‘consent of the governed,’ rather than God and fear of His justice on the part of both ruler and subject, the ultimate support for the government devolves into raw power – the essence of Liberty under its political aspect, as both the Union and the Confederacy had revealed to the hapless masses who were subjected to their authority.”

It might seem that Ferrara’s thesis seeks to dismantle everything we’ve been taught about American history and American political thought. His ideas might also seem a bit pie-in-the-sky and seek to “turn back the clock,” but as one who has seen the destruction of innocent life being defended as the law of the land (in much the same way that the enslavement of human life in the antebellum South was ratified by the country’s leaders) Ferrara urges Catholics and Christians everywhere to recognize that Christian civilization has more to offer the world than the liberalism and “the first practical realization of the Lockean vision of Liberty” does.

So powerful a case does Ferrara make for a Catholic understanding of liberty that “Liberty, the God That Failed” would be a felicitous addition to any Catholic high school or college curriculum seeking a truly Catholic view of American history.

In his conclusion, then, Ferrara does not seek to turn back the clock but to seek true progress through a common cause in prayer and personal sacrifice, to move with true liberty beyond the secular state which has dominated the 20th and early 21st century, and to recapture those same vital principles which first built Western Civilization.

“A civilizational return to the sociopolitical recognition of man’s true nature and destiny,” he writes, “is as near as the God who has endowed us with infinitely more than ‘unalienable rights’: a rational soul, an intellect governing our free wills, the law written on our hearts, reason perfect by the supernatural gift of faith, the capacity for regeneration in grace, the promise of life eternal. The divine dispensation Plato anticipated so many centuries ago in his quest for the good State that would foster the good man has always been ours for the asking. ‘Excita Domine potentiam tuam et veni ut salvos facias nos – Stir up your power O Lord and come that you may save us.’ We need only call upon the Word Incarnate as one people and then watch the world begin to change again.”

*This review originally appeared in the May 15, 2014 issue of The Catholic Times, newspaper of the Diocese of La Crosse.

Comments

  1. Great review. I’d been wondering what the book was all about since you mentioned it. No description came even close to this.
    Sounds like I’d probably agree with most of what he’s saying.
    Soooo, time to get back to work on converting everyone to Catholicism so we can finally get some proper governance!
    In the meanwhile though, gotta work with the system we have…

    • Liberty is a perversion. I find that it is quite inimical to the cultivation of a Rich Inner Life. A firm rule must be imposed upon our nation before it destroys itself. The United States needs a good, strong monarchy with a tasteful and decent king who has some knowledge of theology and geometry.

      ZORRO

  2. Great post, thanks. It’s for certain that liberty only works if people are virtuous.

    • And Ferrara “pushes it to 11” by also claiming that there’s no way in hell the current system will lead us to said virtue – even were the populous “educated.” Because if they were truly educated (i.e. “illiberal”) they would never have set up the government in this form in the first place.

      JOB

      • That’s a bit much, no? It just seems to be putting too much emphasis on temporal power being allied with the Church.
        So an educated Catholic as Charles Carroll was is foolish and wrong to think the American experiment worth supporting? He should have insisted on a Catholic illiberal government here? OK… then what when all the deists and Protestants laugh at him? It just seems like a journey into fairyland (much as I respect the Ethics of Elfland…) similar to most Distributist thought. The most recent issue of Gilbert mag had a piece on the evils of Usury – broadly defined by the author as just about all interest. How am I to take that seriously?! Subsidiarity is great and decentralization of capital is a fine goal, but implementing the latter requires the power of the State to be on your side. That’s Not Going To Happen – short of some apocalyptic rise of a new Charlemagne who’s living next door to “Pope” Michael.
        I’d love for the State to be checked by the authority of Christ the King, but the only results of this sort of thinking seems to be people not voting, getting disengaged from politics, and/or helping worse people get elected.
        We clearly have a long way to go before the American people are anywhere near properly educated, but this seems like the wrong place to be focused. Build a Catholic culture, recatechize, correct the Americanist/liberal errors! The American government system isn’t stopping anyone from doing that. I’d look first to the USCCB if one wants to lay blame.

        • The idea of “too much emphasis” on the Church allying with temporal power seems already to assume there’s something wrong with such an alliance, I suppose would be Ferrara’s response. I wonder, he might ask, what ought to be the proper emphasis?

          Funny, you mention fairyland, too. I believe that’s exactly where, Ferrara would say, the Road to Liberty leads. It fits, anyway, with the notion that all of modern philosophy is built on a fiction of one sort or another.

          And of course, Ferrara notes (and I didn’t have space to mention) that it wasn’t just Catholics (i.e. Orestes Brownson) who recognized this problem; a whole Protestant movement sought to pass a constitutional amendment in the late 1800s (I’ll have to double check that date), acknowledging Christ as the King of the US. Of course, that begs the question: who becomes the authority to speak on Christ’s behalf in such a case? But at least it’s a start…

          I know I haven’t thought deeply enough about this question, but I do know that Ferrara lays out the problems with Protestant/Liberal political theory quite well. He also makes clear that he’s not proposing a theocracy or some sort of power-sharing arrangement a la Richelieu.

          Since the problem is more than political (“that is, the “art of the possible,” as a renowned Protestant theopolitician once said), the solution ought to be too. For that reason, Ferrara would say that he has a hard time seeing this as merely a practical problem – although it certainly has practical implications.

          And now that things are falling apart, probably even irreparably so, I think it’s better to know these things than not – unless there’s some hope that the system can self-correct, with as you propose the right kind and number of votes, etc…

          (Will we be convinced when we see the GOP turn belly up on immigration and Obamacare, I wonder? They’ve had, as I’ve noted, a good number of opportunities to overturn Roe V Wade in the past – but perhaps it’s more useful to keep those prolifers on the plantation, yes?)

          Ferrara doesn’t have such a hope in the “art of the possible” – which is why, as he sees it, the problem requires a supernatural solution – and a return not to medieval political systems as such, but to some sort of grounding temporal powers in Church authority at any rate…

          Unless we acknowledge that the present system is every bit guided by a “religion” as what it replaced, we’re stuck in the belief that somehow liberalism can figure this one out – given the right tools.

          (When’s the last time you ever saw liberalism solve a problem? At least a problem of it’s own making?)

          I’m not sure Ferrara wants to give in on that point.

          At any rate, I highly recommend the book – even as I run a risk here of misrepresenting the author to you.

          JOB

          • Its apparent to me I’m going to have to read the book for myself!

          • Bernardo says:

            I’d recommend reading Eudamonia in America in First Things by Robert T. Miller. He lays out a different case for liberalism, distinguishing between philosophical and what he calls pragmatic liberalism. I’d be curious to know what you think of that view.

            • It’s probably the closest to my position.
              An amusing contrast to this
              The author seems a perfectly charming fellow from what I’ve read of him years before now, but that mindset is what comes to mind when I first heard of Ferrara and those writing contra Zmirak.

  3. I got the book in early September. Dad saw I bought a history book and claimed first reading privilege. He devoured it and proclaimed it good.
    I’ve begun it now. Starting to realize there are quite a few things I didn’t know about our Founding… I’ve only read a little but the section explaining Hobbes & Locke has been extraordinarily illuminating.

    • Glad to hear it! Try John Mueller’s “Redeeming Economics” as an excellent complement to Ferrara’s book, by the way. Does in a certain sense in economics what Ferrara does in Am Civ.

      • oooh I’m a step ahead of ya! Stephen White of EPPC recommended that to me and I’ve got it here sitting right next to Liberty.
        I really need to get into that because so far, appeals to Röpke have not satisfied my illiberal Catholic pals (who are mostly Marx-lovers…) when we talk economics.

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