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Counterculturalism Rightly Understood

The subtitle of this book signals its countercultural thrust, as well as indicates its inspiration in the thought of the nineteenth century American Catholic social and political thinker, Orestes Brownson (1803-1876). He wrote about, and put into currency, the notion of “the unwritten Constitution.” Brownson “thought a humane political order must be reflective of a people’s history, as well as their deeper cultural, philosophical, and theological assumptions about humans, society, and God. This unwritten constitution of a people must anchor their extant constitutional settlement.” Therefore, to understand America, and American constitutionalism more broadly, one needs to consider the necessary, the chosen, and even the providential, connections between the written Constitution and the complex social order it presupposed. Hence the book’s title, A Constitution in Full.

The dual authorship of the book indicates the authoritativeness of the treatment of Brownson one can expect, as well as the pathos of the book. Both Lawler and Reinsch are experts in Brownson’s complex and subtle thought. With great sureness they expound and apply it to today. Alas, only one is still here to read reviews of the book. Peter Lawler died suddenly a couple of years ago. Fortunately, he had already contributed his allotted portions of the book, so, after deliberation and consultation, Richard Reinsch went ahead and performed an act of intellectual and personal friendship to bring the collaboration to fruition. We are in his debt. This is a fitting last word from Lawler.

Principled Eclecticism

Since Lawler was involved, two features were bound to characterize the book. It would be eclectic, at points quirky, and it would emphasize the human person. These features work well together since persons are unique in any number of ways, including quirks. The eclecticism shows up primarily in the choice of authors enlisted along with Brownson to understand and update American constitutionalism (in the larger Brownsonian sense); and in the recommendations offered by the authors to contribute to the great end of shoring up its foundation and lodestar, “American liberty” rightly understood.[1] The counsels come from the left as well as the right of our political divide, but from the past as well. In this there is an echo of Plato’s notion of the statesman as an ingenious weaver, together with Chesterton’s notion of tradition as the democracy of the dead: they get to take part in our deliberations.

To illustrate the authors’ efforts in this regard, one can instance their argument designed to reconcile post-Obergefell marriage opponents in a common commitment to the next bone of civic contention, religious liberty. The basis of the argument is a distinctive understanding of human or personal dignity as relational. Since gay and lesbian couples have been given access to the traditional institution of marriage because of the relational dignity they claimed, they and their supporters should recognize that attachment to traditional religious beliefs, and to the practices and communities they inspire, is an equally valid exercise of the human person’s relational freedom. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

Another recommendation, this one made with the help of the once well-known conservative thinker Wilmoore Kendall, is that Congress reassume its leading role in our constitutional republic. Neither the imperial presidency nor (especially) the imperial judiciary is appropriate to our democratic pluralism and the need for regular compromise. Congress was the American institution designed for representation in an extended republic, for face-to-face debate, and for plausible compromise: let Congress be Congress!

These two examples illustrate the general character of the authors’ proposals, starting with their conciliatory spirit and aim. They make good sense within their framework, they have genuine appeal on any number of grounds, but, alas, they stand little chance of being implemented in today’s polarized climate. It’s hard, therefore, to differentiate a hopeful recommendation from a present-day indictment. That they wrote the book indicates that the authors don’t despair of America. Still, there is a significant gap between the positive teaching they present and the contemporary America it addresses. How hopeful they really are, either for the adoption of their recommendations or for America as a land of humanly estimable freedom, is unclear. The reader is not especially reassured when they note that Brownson himself was “without effect” in his day.

The Relational Human Person

The human person in his or her relational reality is the alpha and omega of the book, and the concept does a lot of work, both critical and constructive. Early on, in “A Brownsonian Prologue,” we’re told that

Brownson argued that every human is, by nature, a relational person who exists with others to work, to love, and to pray. These higher ends of humans provide the principles that limit government precisely because these relational ends cannot be defined by law; they are above the state. Humans’ need to provide for themselves and those they love means that government cannot subjugate economic freedom. A person’s need to love and serve others, most notably in family life, means that the family cannot be undermined by government, and humans’ need for meaning and purpose, their desire to know the truth about themselves with others, equates to  religious freedom. The term “relational personhood” that we use in this book stems from Brownson’s understanding.[2]

This is a deceptively straightforward passage. Merely restating its core elements—person; (human) nature; ends; relations; freedom; freedoms; the state—indicates as much. The passage sketches an anthropology and gestures toward a theory of the state appropriate to that anthropology. To begin with, there’s a connection—a natural connection, one that is inherent in the subject—between human persons, their given natures, their constitutive relations, and the precious endowment of freedom. Freedom is thus a part of a whole, not the whole itself. Such freedom should be recognized by government, but not indiscriminately or by itself. Human freedom is naturally structured and personally appropriated, it is not divorced from ends or obligations. A sign of this is freedom’s natural division into kinds. These, however, have a common root in human nature and in the nature of the person. The latter therefore are the predicates for the “American liberty” that the state should serve. In short, freedom presupposes a personal anthropology, it doesn’t simply define one.

Equality Under God

Brownson in his day, and the authors in ours, employ this understanding to criticize alternative accounts of the human and to point the way to better practices, institutions, and constitutionalism informed by the relational truth of the person. In his day, Brownson dealt with Southern racism and Northern humanitarianism and their oppositely false understandings of liberty and equality. In the light of the relational person, Brownson could detect nuggets of truth in both. The aristocratic southerners were right when they affirmed the special standing and unique significance of the human person, but were terribly wrong to deny them to blacks; while northerners, despite being right to affirm human equality, with their unduly abstract views of equality tended toward human sameness, in some cases, to pantheism. Human equality does not mean homogeneity or individual indistinctness, it means the equality of distinct persons under God.

Reinsch and Lawler follow Brownson’s lead in this aufgehoben endeavor. Contemporary partisans therefore have the pleasure of seeing their opponents’ ox gored and the pain of having the one-sidedness of their own view exposed. Examples? Conservatives who think that freedom plus productivity is the American ethic (think Romney) and liberals who think that freedom plus self-expression is. These two views are combined in technocratic libertarianism (or neoliberalism), but all three leave out the person’s civic relationship and his even more constitutive relationship with God. Both of these enter into the definition of the American person.

If one thinks these claims are mere platitudes, he might reflect upon contemporary debates over immigration and borders, or over anti-discrimination and religious conscience. In these contexts, they do have significant cash value, lending weight to one side of the debates, without being dispositive. Further Brownsonian teachings concerning a citizen’s loyalty to the “territorial sovereignty” of the country and the country’s principled commitment to the spiritual liberty and lives of its citizens further tip the scales.

America’s Bête Noire

The main opponent of Brownson and the authors, however, is the theory of radical individualism, the human person understood too abstractly, merely as the individual with rights. It appears to be the congenital American bête noire. Brownson’s critique of Jeffersonian “Lockeanism” is remarkably relevant, as our authors show, and illumines today’s aggressive individualism, whether in economic life, in culture, or in law. In fact, later conservative arguments that dealt with the progressivism that emerged after Brownson, to the effect that radical individualism leads to collectivism, an increase in state power, and the marginalizing of intermediate institutions, receive fresh impetus from Brownson’s critique of the theory and practice of the autonomous individual. One especially acute irony was that Progressivism itself indicted “individualism” or “rugged individualism.”

The last point leads us beyond Brownsonian personalism to social and political and constitutional matters. The authors treat them all, some more than others; they do so, however, out of a recognition or apprehension that Lockean individualism is ascendant today and increasingly so. Several years ago Lawler coined a memorable phrase in this regard: it’s imperative to keep Locke in the locked box. The radically individualist view of man must not be allowed to become our authoritative public dogma. If it does, American liberty will be gravely impoverished and, predictably, tyrannical in its implementation.

Tocqueville’s Middle Class Americas

It almost goes without saying that Tocqueville is one of the authors enlisted to help in this grand endeavor. Lawler’s earlier The Restless Mind: Alexis de Tocqueville on the Origin and Perpetuation of Human Liberty (1993) can be seen as a precursor and companion to A Constitution in Full. In the first chapter of this book, to understand “What Distinguishes America?” entails reading Tocqueville and Brownson together. Tocqueville complements Brownson’s notion of the unwritten or providential constitution by talking about the premodern aristocratic and Christian inheritances that enriched and elevated American democracy.

Tocqueville also nicely limns American middle class democracy in three possible iterations: at its best, at its most characteristic, and in its decline. In the best case, American democracy retains vital connections with extra-democratic elements; in its natural state, it “honestly” follows its utilitarian bent (with spasms of higher aspiration); and, in the degradation of its principles, one finds a leveling egalitarianism and liberty understood as mere emancipation and self-assertion. All three versions can contribute to assessing the health of the American body-politic. The assessment, of course, will be complex and ongoing: some parts exhibiting democratic health; others, business as usual (as Coolidge had it, “The business of America is business); still others, morbidity and worse.

There is a host of other Tocquevillian contributions as well. His Pascalian understanding of man, “the angel in the beast,” a truly paradoxical mix of material and spiritual components, complements Brownson’s relational understanding. This anthropological view in turn helps to illumine the middle class character of American society. In a society absent masters and slaves, every angel must work for his beast. That of course gives a certain bent to the angel in man. Thank God, said Tocqueville, for the sabbath, when the American democrat can rediscover his inner angel.

The middle class also serves as a center from which to consider the other two classes, elites and have-nots. Today, its well-documented distresses cast a negative light on their purported superiors and the social compact they have offered, while the fact that many of its members only have a tenuous hold on their status, or are slipping beneath it, sheds disquieting light on it and on what is beneath. In this connection, the authors update Tocqueville’s fear of an emergent “industrial aristocracy” to encompass today’s technocratic globalists who make productivity the measure of man and see their rule as the opportunity to script the lives of the unproductive. The description indicates their judgment.

The Countercultural Brownson

It is Brownson’s thought, however, that is the constant template for our authors. Two Brownsonian themes are particularly countercultural today. “Providence” and “civic loyalty” were central to his political thinking, one drawn from Christianity, the other (with suitable modification) from antiquity, together they formed the pillars of the unwritten constitution. They are the opposite of, and antidotes to, “political atheism” and merely “contractual,” interest-based, views of social coherence. When their meaning is drawn out, they refer to a grateful acknowledgement of America’s participation in a providential order, in an order of civilizational history (the west), and an order of distinct nation-states. Perhaps the three things most under assault today in the progressive west: traditional religion, the nation-state, and western civilization, are held together and held up by Brownson. Belief in the universality of Providence helps moderate the biases of human and political particularity, while the “territorial sovereignty” to which we are loyal as citizens is the incarnation or embodiment proper to political life.

Christianity’s main contribution to free politics, however, is found in its teaching of the relational human person, made in the image of the Trinitarian, or fully relational, God, together with its own corporate and catholic character. The church is a universal, trans-political community that allows the political community to recognize its own nature, one that is essential to human well-being, but limited in its aims and authority. Just as the triumphant Roman general needed someone who reminded him of his mortality in the midst of heady victory, so the democratic state needs the church to remind it of its moral foundation in the truth of the human person and its subordinate authority under a truly sovereign God. So argued Orestes Brownson, so argue our countercultural authors.

Before I end with a word on Peter Lawler, I need to repeat and emphasize “our authors.” Both get credit for this fine countercultural book’s contents. Richard Reinsch deserves special credit for his act of intellectual and literary friendship. Given his amply demonstrated philia, I doubt he would mind if I turn to Lawler at the end.

A Fitting Finale

It’s corny but true to say that Lawler and Brownson were a match made in heaven. In them, we have two learned Catholic political philosophers who analyzed, criticized, and wrote prodigiously to improve the America they both deeply loved. Both lived through terribly divided times and employed their faith and their cultivated reason to try to knit together a divided country. However, both thought that this healing would require a refounding, an explicit recognition of the truth of the human person. Brownson was not successful in his attempt, there’s no sign that Lawler will be in his. However, neither thought his task demanded success, but rather fidelity to the truth. This is the lesson I take away from their lives. I’m also reminded of an earlier saying: that a prophet is not without honor, except in his own land.

[1] Following the lead of Tocqueville’s “self-interest rightly understood,” Lawler was in the habit of qualifying his understanding of any number of things as “X, Y, or Z, rightly understood,” for example, Postmodernism Rightly Understood.

[2] Brownson combined theory and observation in coming to his understanding of the relational person. “[I]nspired by Catholicism, [Brownson] embraced French philosopher Pierre Leroux’s (1798-1871) principle that all persons live in communion with God, humans, and nature.” But “the anthropological understanding of a human’s relational personhood, [w]as [also] revealed in multidimensional social, familial, religious, and economic life.” One way that our authors put the matter is that American practice required a superior theory to account for it than was available in the North, the South, or even in the Declaration of Independence.

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