In recent months, I’ve published a series of essays (you can read them here) that probe the rising influence of an intellectually sophisticated and aggressively conservative Catholic cohort (here) in American politics, with a range that extends from political arsonist Steve Bannon in the White House to philosopher-muse Robby George at Princeton. The premise of these essays has been that the intellectual foundations of political conservatism – in the United States and in Europe – derive largely from a deeply Catholic-influenced conception of natural law. Having taken a break from this project since early May, I’d like now to return by summarizing the current state of the argument, and outlining where I hope to take it from here.
While the idea of natural law is actually politically neutral, and can be explored, debated, adjusted, refined, and refuted on its merits, the Biblical underpinnings of natural law ideas in the current political environment – the belief that Biblical revelation determines the content and the outcomes of natural law – is not politically neutral and is in fact intensely agenda-driven, and to the degree that natural law concepts cloak this underlying Biblical agenda, its political and philosophical influence serve profoundly counterproductive and destructive ends.
As Jane Mayer and others have documented, the bomb-throwing wing of the Republican Party did not magically seize power. Trump’s election is only the latest – if most surreal – chapter of a slow-motion political creep on to land of a hyper-conservative Republican sea monster, an inflected version of the Deep State that leverages the ideas and arguments of conservative Catholic intellectuals alongside the influence of market, cultural, and legal conservatives, ranging from Charles Koch to Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, but also encompassing canonically minded American judges, including Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas (and, formerly, Antonin Scalia).
And so, while its intellectual proponents would like you to believe otherwise, far from subsisting as a beleaguered fringe in the Siberian wastelands of the academy, Catholic natural law and moral philosophy is organized, engaged, well-funded, and firmly in control of the public lexicon on the most critical and fraught policy debates of our moment in time, including conversations about the global “clash of civilizations”; what it means to serve “the least among us”; the fraught intersection between human sexuality and human conception; and ideas about “human dignity” that connect us to the Creator ,but at the cost of separating us from the Creation.
Evangelical Protestantism remains largely irrelevant to this conversation. For the dominant constituents of the American conservative movement (tuned to the Steve Bannon frequency), the currency of the land is not grace or justification, but power, the terrestrial control of both bodies and minds. In other words, to fully understand the intellectual foundations of this legal apparatus, we need to leave the Enlightenment and return to the world-historical vision of the medieval Christian church in its encounter with Islam.
The Creation Project (a term I’ll use as shorthand for the full title of the project) represents an immodest challenge (because we live in immodest times) to: revealed religion theologies; Thomist natural law and moral philosophies (new and old); derived concepts of individuality and reason embedded in these theologies and philosophies; and the intellectual foundations of conservative politics in the United States (and pretty much everything else).
This project targets the relationship between the Catholic philosophy of natural law that today supports the very idea of Western Civilization. The defense of this idea – that the West represents the highest and most profound expression of a Christian God’s plan for the human species created in his image – buttresses and justifies and provides political cover for nearly every significant moment and movement of European and American history in the past millennium.
The Creation Project explores and confronts: canonical ideas regarding Thomist natural law and Catholic human dignity theology; Western conceptions of individuality, selfhood, agency, rationality, causation, and morality; and the pretty stunning inadequacies of religious belief founded on revelation. My general assumption is that to one degree or another we accept most of these ideas as “self-evident” (including natural law ideas about “self-evidence” itself), but that they actually are not at all self-evident, and dismantling these ideas is akin to dismantling an atomic bomb, and no less urgent and important.
The most pivotal argument will be that peeling back our past tells us that revealed religion – specifically Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – is the major obstacle obscuring our ability to grasp basic realities of our existence and blocking our capacity to address challenges to our existence, including anthropogenic climate change, breaching inequality, toxically “illiberal” nationalism, and generational abandonment.
The foundations of revealed religions tend to be textually arbitrary and fragmented and evanescent, and so in times of strife wholly inadequate as a basis for holding together societies under stress and at risk. But even more damning, these religions promote and require their own form of idolatry, absolute submission to and worship of an inscrutable, capricious, human-seeming Creator.
The alternatives are simple enough. First, we do not need to worship an arbitrary, entirely preposterous concept of a Creator (actually created in our own inadequate human image). Second, we need not base our thoughts and deeds on the flat, toneless, scriptural archaisms we imagine to be representations of his will. And third, we can and must instead turn our attention to revealed truths that are far more “self-evident” and miraculous, the truths enfolded within the body of the earth, which is the Creation itself.
Here, then, are my goals (in no particular order) for the next stage of the Creation Project.
- To stipulate the central position of natural law in the foundation assumptions and beliefs of Western political philosophy, dating back to antiquity.
- To itemize the central precepts and terms of natural law philosophy (revelation, creator, nature, imago dei, individuality, reason, virtue, dignity, self-evidence).
- To surface and expose the methodological parameters of natural law philosophy.
- To establish the political and legal significance of natural law for our current moment in history.
- To establish natural law’s implication in the existential and moral crisis of our time.
- To connect natural law to Catholic theology and philosophy and institutions.
- To distinguish Catholic-derived natural law from Protestant theology and philosophy and institutions.
- To establish the influence of Thomist categories and arguments for the contemporary influence of natural law.
- To differentiate traditional concepts of natural law in moral philosophy from the “new” natural law .
- To pair the Constitution and the Bible as species of revelation on which the “the idea of Western Civilization” depends.
- To break out the relationship between revealed religion and natural law.
- To deconsecrate religious revelation the foundation of a natural law moral philosophy.
- To more clearly establish the relationship between creator and creation and to pose questions concerning each.
What would be the alternative to the self-evident assumptions of natural law? The third, and final, part of this project will address this question in detail, but the short answer would reference ideas concerning randomness, patterns, social behavior, and biological emergence that I’ve begun to capture under the umbrella concept of a “Vertical Map of the World.”
To be continued.