Christians in the American Empire

I just finished Vincent D. Rougeau’s excellent Christians in the American Empire: Faith and Citizenship in the New World Order (Oxford, 2008). Rougeau is upset with the way in which Christianity has been distorted by the Religious Right. His main targets are Catholic neo-conservatives such as the late Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel, Michael Novack, and the rest of the gang surrounding First Things. He writes as a faithful Catholic and offers a way of thinking about religion and politics from the perspective of Catholic social teaching. Rougeau, a law professor at Notre Dame, is not happy with the way in which members of the Republican Party claim the name of Christ but are driven by other gods: free-market capitalism, libertarianism, nativism, militarism, and moral absolutism. Christian neoconservatives, he argues, have been too selective in their embrace of Catholic social teaching. How else, he asks (for example), could they claim that the Iraq war was a “just” war despite the fact that the Vatican and the American Bishops opposed it?

A few of Rougeau’s more intriguing (at least to me) points:

1). Our free market system is obsessed with materialism and consumerism. The free market has “enhanced living standards for millions of people around the world,” but it has also bred greed and self-indulgence. Human freedom in a democracy is only sustainable when people learn how to care for their neighbors. Such relationships are difficult when the value of the human person is dictated by the free market.

2). American libertarianism glorifies the individual and results in “radical dissociation of human beings from one another.” Republicans tend to embrace this kind of libertarian individualism more than the Democrats, but Democrats have offered no “meaningful alternative” to it. Democrats have promoted individual autonomy as the “favored mode of liberating persons from discrimination and other negative forms of social control that are entrenched in ‘traditional society.'” The “left” in America is much less communal and Catholic than the “left” in other nations. “Left libertarianism” allows people to basically do whatever they please, as long as they are not harming anyone.

3). The Vatican is worried about America’s “exaggerated individualism, its hyperconsumer spirit, its relegation of religion to the private sphere, its Calvinist ethos.” The Vatican thinks that the “American Creed” is “heresy,” but most “churchgoing Americans” disagree. American flags, which have long been a staple in Protestant churches, are now beginning to appear in Catholic churches as well.

4). Catholic social teaching is compatible with secular liberalism, especially when it is employed in defense of human rights and dignity. Rougeau lists its core tenets as human dignity (he engages Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre here), the common good, solidarity (human social connections that reflect humanity’s “intimate connections to God”), and subsidiarity (the idea that particular communities must be considered alongside the universal human community).

5). Rougeau asks: Are Christians to be one-issue voters, pulling the Republican lever on the basis of the party’s facial commitment to a pro-life position on abortion, yet ignoring the party’s inconsistent support of life issues more broadly defined? What about the party’s promotion of an economic program for the nation and the world that is clearly rooted in a North American libertarianism that Catholic social teaching excludes? On the other hand, can Christians support a Democratic agenda that is marked by the exaltation of the atomized individual in the social order and seems hostile to the role that families, traditions, and communities of memory and meaning might play in the shaping of an individual conscience?

6). The fact that Americans refuse to take “collective ownership” of anything “beyond the scope of their individual responsibility” has meant that the nation “has failed to embrace a shared narrative about the past that privileges African-Americans unique role in the nation’s story.” This is ultimately a failure of “collective memory.” Solidarity “demands that all Americans recognize the unique burdens that have been placed on African-Americans throughout U.S. history.” Rougeau thus calls for an Affirmative Action rooted in this kind of Catholic solidarity.

7). Selfishness and the “materialistic vision” of society makes it difficult “for law and public policy to confront poverty in the United States.” Again, the key is “solidarity”–“those who are more influential, because they have a greater share of goods and common services, should feel responsible for the weaker and be ready to share with them all they possess.”

8). Catholic social teaching defends the right to emigrate “when one’ s ability to sustain the basic conditions necessary for a life of dignity is threatened.”

9). Christian belief in the solidarity of all human beings means that “national favoritism” is “difficult to justify on moral terms.” The nation-state is not divinely ordained. Loyalty to the state should be based on whether or not the state is promoting human dignity and the common good.

For my readers familiar with Catholic social teaching, many of Rougeau’s ideas will be familiar. It strikes me that Catholic social teaching, when applied consistently, leaves one with no real political home. Nevertheless, it seems to be a much deeper and theologically reflective view of Christianity and public life than either the Republican or Democratic parties, or many Protestant evangelicals in power, seem to be offering.
I highly recommend this book.