Opinion: Catholicism is not an inherent threat to liberal democracy

NEW YORK (Project Syndicate) — In his search for the secret of American democracy in the 1830s, French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville reflects on the important role religion played in American life. Having escaped the authority of the pope, he argued, American Christians were free from religious authority. Christianity in the New World, he concluded, could only be described as “democratic and republican”.

By Republican he meant not the Republican Party, of course, but the Republican form of government. And most of the Christians he met were Protestants. The American Republic was founded by Protestants, and American elites have long been overwhelmingly Protestant.

The challenge is open again, including at the Supreme Court, where conservative justices are often hostile to secular groups, as if they were barbaric enemies bent on destroying America.

Until now, John Fitzgerald Kennedy has been the only Catholic president, and he had to state publicly during his election campaign that his first loyalty was to the United States, not to Rome.

Extraordinary rise of Catholics

But something extraordinary has happened since the founding of the republic by Protestants in 1776. Five of the current eight justices of the Supreme Court are Catholic, and soon there may be six. The only Protestant on the pitch, Neil Gorsuch, was raised a Catholic. (The other two justices are Jewish.) Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, is Catholic, as is Attorney General William Barr. And Joe Biden, who could be the next president, is also a Catholic.

How to explain the emergence of so many highly placed Catholics? What does that mean ? The least that can be said is that the domination of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) elites is over. Catholics, once suspicious and often excluded from public life because of the supposed incompatibility between their faith and liberal democratic principles, now hold key positions.

Tocqueville, a Catholic himself, does not believe that Catholicism is hostile to democracy, especially in the United States. On the contrary, he says, Catholics are more egalitarian than Protestants, who value individual freedom more than social equality. He believed that New World Catholics, often from poor immigrant communities, were perfectly in tune with American democratic ideals.

Church followers pose no inherent threat to liberal democracy. The problem in the United States is that those in the highest positions of authority, Catholic and Protestant, are pushing back the barriers between church and state so carefully erected by America’s founders to ensure that the people, and not God, would rule.

In fact, Catholics are as divided as Protestants. There are leftist Catholics, rightist Catholics and everything else. Biden, a devout, and by no means radical, was denied communion last year because he supports women’s right to opt for an abortion. For many other Catholics, including a considerable number of Latinos, their staunch opposition to abortion is the main reason they support Donald Trump.

Different strains

Biden and Pelosi are Kennedy-style Catholic liberals. The same goes for Sonia Sotomayor, one of the Supreme Court justices. But several other justices, as well as the attorney general, and Steve Bannon, one of Trump’s earliest ideological advisers, belong to a very different strain of Catholicism, which is often at odds with the current head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis.

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Indeed, Elizabeth Bruenig, commentator on New York Times, wrote recently that “the Catholic right is no longer recognizable as Catholic. Its policy is more or less identical to that of the other members of the right-wing Christian coalition.

It is partly true. Right-wing Catholics have made common cause with evangelical Protestants, who see Trump as an unholy savior who will overturn abortion rights and various barriers between church and state. But to claim that they are no longer recognizably Catholic is debatable.

The common cause between reactionary Catholics and Protestant enemies of the secular state goes back more than two centuries.

Since the French Revolution overthrew the authority of the Catholic Church, as well as that of the absolute monarchy, Catholic reactionaries, including anti-Enlightenment philosophers such as Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), have aspired to restore the central position of the Church in political life. life.

Likewise, Protestant opponents of Thomas Jefferson called him “infidel” and “un-Christian” for limiting religious faith to the private sphere.

This challenge is open again, including in the Supreme Court, where conservative justices are often hostile to secular groups, as if they were barbaric enemies out to destroy America. Barr, moreover, gave speeches on atheistic ideas threatening “Judeo-Christian” values ​​in public schools and other secular institutions.

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Vice President Mike Pence, a born-again evangelical who was raised Catholic, said he was “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.” And Trump’s nominee for next Supreme Court justice, Amy Coney Barrett, is a member of the People of Praise, “charismatic Catholics” who have fused the Catholic faith with Pentecostal practices, such as speaking in tongues and communing directly with God.

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Coney Barrett said his faith would not interfere with his duties as a judge deciding constitutional issues. But she also told law students at the University of Notre Dame to “keep in mind that [their] The basic purpose of life is not to be a lawyer, but to know, love and serve God. She supported claims that the right to abortion, protected by the Court’s decision in Roe vs. Wade in 1973, is a grave sin, and signed an appeal denouncing the “barbaric legacy” of the decision and calling for it to be reversed.

push at barriers

The problem, then, is not Catholicism as such, which can be many things. The problem is that those in the highest positions of authority are pushing back against the barriers between church and state so carefully erected by America’s founders to ensure that the people, not God, would govern.

That the person seeking to tear down the wall between church and state is Trump, a man of no known faith, who has done more harm to the moral order than any of Barr’s imagined secular enemies, should seem strange. The ways of God are difficult to understand. But many people in the United States, Catholic and Protestant, are now convinced that he put Trump in the White House for a reason.

Ian Buruma is the author of numerous books, including “Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance”, “Year Zero: A History of 1945” and, most recently, “A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir .”

This article was published with permission from Project Syndicate – The Catholic Challenge