Serving God and Mammon: The Catholic Foundations of American Conservative Thought (2)

The previous essay in this series on the Catholic foundations of American conservative thought concluded with a proposition about the out-sized influence of Catholic philosophical precepts in American politics. The proposition was that making theory practical via the law allows theory to become powerful. But we should not also forget that another element in the alchemy binding ideas to power is money.

Words Come to Flesh

Catholic perspectives informed the pontification of Cold War conservative intellectuals, although indirectly and unsystematically. William F. Buckley, also (a devout and mystically inclined) Irish-Catholic, remains for many the father of modern conservative ideology, a robust supporter of Joseph McCarthy who organized his defense of both faith and markets in response to the secular and statist threats of godless communism. However, Buckley, whose legendary gift for the incendiary phrase and artful riposte (c.f., his encounters with Gore Vidal) routinely electrified and inspired his fan base, remained largely a man of words not deeds, consistently most comfortable interposing himself (to preserve an ironic space for his unique brand of commentary) between civil society and the halls of power.

At the same time, politically conservative philosophical perspectives established an institutional academic presence in diverse locations, specifically at the University of Chicago, where Leo Strauss held court, but also at tradition-minded Catholic colleges and university and, more idiosyncratically, at smaller liberal arts colleges and institutes, such as Claremont College and St. Johns College. The common mission of these institutions was to elucidate the intricacies of a disembodied, thematically timeless, literary canon dating to ancient Greek philosophy and threading its way forward through the medieval and early modern history of Europe, largely (although of course not exclusively) mediated by and in relation to Christian religious institutions and religious ideas that for centuries exercised dominion over European society.

These philosophically driven liberal arts institutions also made more historically specific (and politically directed) claims about how these timeless classical and Christian conceptions informed the founding ideals of nationhood in the United States. Such deductions became the basis for theorizing from scholars such as Claremont’s Harry Jaffa about the nation’s “unique” and “exceptional” world-historical status, derived from its embodiment of the principles of natural law and free markets. However, while conservatives in other academic disciplines, such as economics, could claim both sway and swag for the influence they exercised over government policy through the 1960s and 1970s, philosophers of natural law remained largely sequestered in their ivory towers.

Then Everything Changed

Political philosophers and theorists (think natural law analytic philosophers, Straussian esoterics, and, if you want, Mises/Hayek libertarian, law and economics, public choice geeks) who formerly labored stoically in spiritual and spartan isolation are, in the Trump dispensation, now suddenly courted and feted and funded like reality show celebrities (which, of course, in some measure they are). But the catapult into the White House and into other political hot spots of otherwise marginal, and quite suspect, political philosopher types drawn from this universe (think Michael Anton) is only the most bizarre and troubling instance of a development that has long been ongoing, although less visibly, in the foundation/think tank world, where huge money has in recent decades generously funded development of a neo-Thomist faith-based philosophy designed to spiritually moor the conservative political insurgency.

In the 1970s (as Jane Mayer, and others have written), a now-infamous private memorandum drafted in 1971 by super-duper corporate lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce catalyzed super-wealthy American businessmen deeply concerned about the direction of American politics and (from their perspective) the corrosive effect upon their interests and upon their scale of values of higher education and the media, to systematically funnel vast amounts of money into foundations and think tanks explicitly designed to influence public opinion, public policy, and public morals.

This ground has already been quite thoroughly covered, of course, in Mayer’s Dark Money, an extraordinarily detailed and chilling investigation of the right-wing corporate “deep state”. The layer of analysis I’d like to add to Mayer’s superb book is to provide what one might call a nerd report, a focus on the academic philosophical, and religious influences on policy unleashed by the right-wing via these foundations and think tanks. Many philosophers of the Straussian / Catholic / Analytic bent have benefited from the gracious ministrations of conservative foundations (for examples, see Chapter 3 of Dark Money), none moreso than Princeton’s Robby George, whom a friend in 2006 described as a “savvy right-wing operative, boring from within the liberal infrastructure.”

Heritage Foundation

The Heritage Foundation was established in 1973 with early financial support from Joseph Coors. and under the leadership, initially, of Paul Weyrich, who was also a founder of the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Moral Majority. Weyrich, who also espoused Dominionism (think Sharia Law for Christians) was generally a hot piece of work functioning, in many respects, as his generation’s Steve Bannon.

Edwin Feulner served as president of the Heritage Foundation for 36 years (from 1977-2013). Feulner’s specific organizational and tactical innovation marked a departure from the traditional approach of more “unbiased” and technocratically oriented think tanks such as the Brookings Institution. Feulner imagined Heritage as both an ideas and an advocacy organization, built not to respond after the fact to political and policy developments, with the cool savoir-faire of a Brookings, but instead to proactively and aggressively shape and influence these developments in relation to a broad set of philosophically grounded conservative principles. Most recently, these principles include: free enterprise, limited government, individual liberty (including what has become known as religious liberty), traditional American values, and a strong national defense.

Weyrich, and Feulner, both raised as Catholics (as was Coors), infused their organization with a tough-minded, patristic, know-it-all edge deeply informed by the timeless truths associated with revelation, canon law, papal teachings, and natural law philosophy. Like many conservative think tanks and policy foundations (and unlike their more nonpartisan or liberal counterparts), the Heritage Foundation has always cared a lot about the individual liberty, religious liberty, and traditional American values slices of their principles/policy pie.

Heritage cares about political and moral philosophy (here, here, and here); it cares about religion (here, here, and here); it cares about natural law (here, here, here, and here); and it cares about other issues involving sexuality, gender, the body, conception, contraception, marriage, and the family that others would argue are private matters that do not belong in the public sphere. In other words, the Heritage Foundation cares about a host of matters that are of bedrock concern to the Catholic Church and that it addresses in rigorously neo-Thomistic philosophical language that one almost never encounters in other policy research environments.

Federalist Society

With a more narrow and more exclusively legal and constitutional focus, the Federalist Society in many respects operates as a junior partner of the Heritage Foundation on matter of legal and judicial policy and advocacy (candidate Trump promised that the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation would select his Supreme Court and other lower federal court nominees). The Society was founded in the early 1982 as a seedbed for nurturing conservative legal principles among students at otherwise “liberal” law schools.

Early supporters included Attorney General Edwin Meese, Solicitor-General Robert Bork, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who became the organization’s beloved godfather until his death in 2016. The Federalist Society’s membership has also included Supreme Court justices John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch. Of course, Scalia, Roberts, Alito, and Clarence Thomas are all practicing Catholics, while Gorsuch was raised Catholic and now worships at an Episcopal church. Meese was raised as an Episcopalian (which shares many rituals and traditions with the Catholic Church). Robert Bork converted to Catholicism in 1987 at the age of 76.

The Federalist Society’s Executive Vice President, Leonard Leo, is an extremely devout Catholic who served three terms on the U.S. International Committee on Religious Freedom and has served in outreach and strategy roles in political campaigns for both the Catholic Church and for the 2004 reelection campaign of President Bush. Leo shepherded the Supreme Court Senate confirmations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Most recently, he closely guided the process that selected Neil Gorsuch to fill Antonin Scalia’s vacant Court seat. The grandson of a Brooks Brothers vice-president, Leo is, as Jeffrey Toobin notes, the bella figura of the legal conservative movement, well-accoutered and unflappable. As Toobin also notes, Leo’s life “has been shaped as much by Catholicism as by conservatism.”

While more focused on its education mission and less of a research body than the Heritage Foundation, the Federalist Society, which is specifically anchored to a fideist commitment to legal originalism and textualism, also shares with the Heritage Foundation an ingrained belief in the natural law (examples here and here). While the overt influence of the traditional menu of Christian religion, sex, and family issues may be less pronounced in the education and advocacy work of the Federalist Society, the organization’s legal focus makes it an ideal vehicle for representing these values in the courtroom and in other public venues concerned with legal philosophy and jurisprudence.

Law, Money, Ideas, Prestige, and Power

I’m jumping past my word limit for these essays, but want to make one final point to punctuate the extent to which proximity to both money and the law have been force multipliers for conservative moral philosophers otherwise marginalized within quite demoralizing academic institutions and programs.

The Heritage Foundation and Federalist Society are not austere temples for the mind. They are awash in cash and endowments and other emoluments about which most of us can only dream. In 2015, Heritage, with approximately 200-500 employees (according to its LinkedIn page) disclosed net revenue for the year of more than $92 million (a typical year), with net assets of more than $225 million. The Federalist Society is less research-oriented and far smaller than Heritage (with only 11-50 employees, according its LinkedIn page), but it reported more than $18 million in revenue and more than $14 million in net assets in 2015.

The money by itself does not explain the influence of natural law concepts that frame and support nearly every program and policy initiative of the Heritage Foundation and Federalist Society. But the money is incredibly enabling because it serves as its own justification. Prestige and legitimacy (and hence confidence and assuredness) simply inhere to well-funded philosophers working in comfortable environments in proximity to other powerful people and institutions. Possibilities in life and in law that were once contingent, very contingent, for philosophers laboring in academic obscurity become self-evident and natural and providential (those words again) for those now feted and fawned upon in the lap of ambient luxury.

It’s good to be a Thomist.

Next: God and Religion at Princeton