Liberty: the God that Failed
by Christopher Ferrara, 2012
A better title might have been “Liberty: the demon that succeeded”. After all, the story Ferrara tells is of an ideological/Constitutional machine set up by John Locke and the American Founders that has, from 1787 to the present, has been successfully cleansing America from all taint of our classical-Christian heritage. And Liberty is certainly demonic, in that its only consistent content is opposition to God’s sovereignty. Nor is its outworking unintended; Ferrara easily shows that the major Founders were Deist philosophes (often freemasons to boot) committed to marginalizing a Christian religion they despised. And they manufactured their revolution against Britain–a distant government so mild and benevolent that they could only incite the people by initiating unprovoked mob violence and stoking insane paranoid fears about popish plots–with conscious intent to overthrow the ancient order of throne and altar. Since that time, America has had its share of controversies–Federalist vs. Anti-Federalist, Union vs. Confederate–but reactionaries have had no dog in any of those fights, because each side was as Lockean as the other. The only American movement Ferrara does pause to praise is the National Reform Association, a group of nineteenth-century (mostly) Presbyterian intellectuals wishing to amend the Constitution to recognize Christ and His sovereignty. As we know, America has instead followed the path of a “separation of Church and State”, meaning in practice the subordination of Christians to a State operating according to its own aggressively secular religion of Liberty. As Justice Scalia decreed in Employment Division v. Smith
To make an individual’s obligation to obey such a law contingent upon the law’s coincidence with his religious beliefs, except where the State’s interest is ‘compelling’…contradicts constitutional tradition and common sense’….The right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a ‘valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribes (or proscribes)’
Note well, a State recognizing no restrictions of natural (let alone divine) law claims that it can order you to act against your conscience (not just preventing you from doing good, but commanding you to do evil) without even bothering to claim a compelling need. We were promised that disestablishment would give us religious freedom, but it has secured us nothing.
My main criticism is that Ferrara harps too much on the hypocrisy of the Founders in crushing rebellions against their new republic when others decided to play by the same Lockean script. As I see it, since the social contract/right of rebellion theory is nonsensical, the fact that the Founders didn’t bind themselves to it speaks in their favor. I actually came away with a higher opinion of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson after reading about how they crushed threats to their own authority.
Liberty: the God that Failed is the only full-length American history book I know of written from a reactionary perspective. Given such a radically unique perspective, it’s amusing that the conclusions Ferrara argues are mostly conventional wisdom for everyone but conservative Republicans. The Founders were guided by John Locke. The South seceded over slavery, an institution it practiced in a grossly unethical manner. And so forth. To understand his odd insistence on commonplace observations, one must remember that Ferrara is primarily arguing against American conservatives letting their imaginations run wild looking for an American lineage for their movement. Hence their implausible claims of a “moderate” Enlightenment meaningfully distinct from its radical variety, a conservative War of Independence (a revolution not made but averted, don’t you know?), an outpost of Christian feudalism in the South, and so forth.
It is also a challenge to my own writings on American conservatism. In my essay Can there be an American Conservatism?, I consider the dilemma of being a traditionalist in a country that has been liberal from its inception. What tradition am I trying to conserve? I answered by distinguishing America’s official ideology from the claims of authority and loyalty that ideology is used to justify. Americans claim to base everything on freedom, equality, and social contract, but our social order belies this in many taken-for-granted practices. Conservatives want to preserve our citizens’ implicit sense of legitimacy and group solidarity, but I claimed we must be cautious in weaning our fellow citizens from their false mythology of Liberty lest we destroy their patriotism altogether. Ferrara obviously thinks that it’s better to just give people the whole truth. And in fact, the truth, when presented whole–as opposed to being snuck in piece by piece–is a compelling thing. So I guess I was wrong; the time for circumspection is over. Things have come to a point now that Christians are better off being fortified in the knowledge that the government that oppresses them was rotten from the beginning.