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Is the Future Postliberal?

with Rev. Robert Sirico,
hosted by Richard M. Reinsch II

Richard Reinsch:
Hello and welcome to Liberty law talk. I’m your host, Richard Reinsch today. We’re talking with Fr. Robert Sirico, founder and president of the Acton Institute. The Acton Institute is in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Fr. Sirico is also a pastor at Sacred Heart Parish, also in Grand Rapids. Fr. Sirico widely commentates on political, social, religious, economic issues, so we’re glad to have him on the program. Thank you for being here.

Fr. Robert Sirico:
I’m delighted to be with you, Richard. Thanks for having me.

Richard Reinsch:
Fr. Sirico, question for you, as you watch the unrest, the violence, it almost seems like an insurrection inside major American cities, ranging from the looting that happened on Tuesday night in New York City and Midtown Manhattan, is the long line of elegant shops there, and if you’ve walked past, were universally broken into and looted Tuesday night. Police officers were standing by, nothing. They didn’t do anything. This has happened in dozens and dozens of American cities. What comes to your mind as you watch these scenes unfold?

Fr. Robert Sirico:
Well, I think I’m like a lot of Americans. There are a whole bunch of things that come to my mind, and I think where it begins is, of course, with the scar at the founding of the United States. The American founding was basically a set of ideas that are rooted in human liberty. They’re ideas derived from the natural law. They’re not inventions of Americans, but they are something encoded in all human beings. And that is the notion of liberty, of equal dignity, of all human beings. And somehow with our founding, and I understand the historical precedent that slavery was a part of human society for eons before the American experiment; but nonetheless, in this new experiment, we had it. And I think that has left a horrendous legacy, more cultural perhaps now than legal and structural. I know that’s a point of real debate with a lot of people, but I insist that it is cultural prejudice that people have, and I think that’s manifested in what happened to Mr. Floyd and a whole list of other people, particularly black men, but also other minorities. I think in order to understand the riots, you have to kind of back up and see that these actions on the part, not just the police but on the part of our culture, give some semblance of justification for the protest. They in no way give… and for the same reasons by the way, no way give justification for the kind of violence and looting and destruction of property that we have seen in the last few days. We have to hold both of these things in tension with each other and see the common base of them, that is the violation of human rights, human dignity, and the property that you hold. Having said all of that, and I know we are just in the midst of it right now, I am very suspicious that there is a disciplined, organized group of ideologues, probably many of whom are not African American, who are exploiting this circumstance. I think we’ve seen some evidence of that already emerging thanks to the iPhone culture that we live in. I should also just mention that even here in Grand Rapids, which is relatively harmonious community, this kind of violence and the Acton Institute was in the middle of a lot of impact. They tried to break our windows. They broke windows on either side of us. They weren’t able to because our windows are pretty sturdy. We’ve seen it even locally.

Richard Reinsch:
I’ve read about the violence in Grand Rapids as well. Indianapolis, where we are, faced a severe bit as well. Let me respond though. We had riots. As you recall, in 1968, I think went into 1969, in major American cities, this coming after the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Great Society. These riots happened. The Watts riots in LA, where there were active attempts to bring, particularly young black men into the economy, teenagers even into the economy. Fifty years later, we’re kind of still here with this sort of… I mean your answer sort of surprised me in a way, because I guess my thinking is at what point is this no longer a reality in America given everything that’s been done or attempted to be done? And one of the things that I note that sticks out in my mind now, Minneapolis where this started, is a progressive city. It has an incredibly progressive leadership class. It has been run by Democrats for decades, all proclaiming that they’re going to do good things, and they’ve tried to do good things. And yet, this problem happened, the riots happened. Do you ever wonder that yourself? When is enough, enough?

Fr. Robert Sirico:
Well, I think this is a complex topic, just trying to tease out some of the elements of it. I think the origin to the civil rights movement, going back well before ’64, emblemized to my mind by the Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Dr. King’s letter from Birmingham Jail, the religious leadership of the civil rights group, the call at that time of human dignity, the commitment to peaceful protest. One of the most powerful of the demonstrations of that era was a boycott, an economic withdrawal of economic power against businesses, from thinking of the buses in Memphis and the withdrawal of economic power to show that we can remove our economic support. All of these were free actions of people protesting the prejudice. What happens after that? I think ’64, ’68, even before then really, is an institutionalization of a different vision of society. And the fact that many of the civil rights leaders themselves transformed into the acceptance of this notion, that is a more state-oriented resolution to social issues rather than a harmonious economic-free resolution of these issues. I think that institutionalization, that progressive approach, which then more sent to the Saul Alinsky, even more radical forms of leftist resolution to these things, this exacerbates the problem. It sets up class warfare, racial warfare as the solution. It becomes rather than a win-win game, it’s a win-lose game. And it’s political and not religious in its orientation, not moral, now it becomes political. And that transformation, I don’t think enough people have really thought about enough to see, how that has produced what we’re seeing here and now. There could have been an ongoing resolution to this that was impeded by the interventionist state.

Richard Reinsch:
I was reading yesterday 300 black men died violent deaths in the city of Chicago in 2019 at the hands of other… They had black assailants who killed them. Which dwarfs, by orders of magnitude, those who died at the hands of Chicago Police Department, and dwarfs by orders of magnitude, those who were even unarmed, and we don’t know the facts there. We don’t protest those deaths. We don’t even mention them. But George Floyd’s death, horrific as it is in the video, and I understand the media, but that becomes everything. We have these nationwide protests… There are protests in Canada. I’m reading there’s a protest in Amsterdam today that drew thousands of people. This all, to my mind, speaks of, but now we want to use a new language, 1619 Project, intersectionality, systemic racism. That’s a term I’ve heard dozens of times in two days. And it’s almost as if, and now we’re going to remake institutions like the police a traditional institution, hierarchical institution of its very nature into what we want it to be. That concerns me going forward. I mean, I’m very concerned right now about the unrest. But when the unrest ends, and now the progressive, political, bureaucratic legal class turns the wrench even more because of systemic racism.

Fr. Robert Sirico:
I agree with you completely that all of this is the result of that kind of status presumption. What I think is very important is that believers in the free society, conservatives if you will, classical liberals, begin with the acknowledgement of the reality of racism. It seems to me that that is a given. The reality of racism isn’t lessened by the fact that blacks die at higher rates at the hands of other blacks. It doesn’t take away from the reality, the broader reality of racism in society. In fact, it may be a part of that, the erosion of the culture, particularly the culture of the family, the absence of fathers in the homes that produce all of this kind of thing. But I think we need to be the leaders in calling for the proper resolution to this, rather than leaving it at the hands of progressive who are going to only exacerbate and extend this. Because there’s a great interest on the part of politicians to have this kind of friction and this kind of division, because then they can justify the programs, the political power. And look at how they have, in effect, seduced religious leaders into becoming politicians. I mean, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, they are classic examples of men who begin as ministers and end up as politicians. This is civil society versus political society.

Richard Reinsch:
Question for you. 2020 has been an interesting year, not a year that any of us I think will recall fondly.

Fr. Robert Sirico:
Lord hope.

Richard Reinsch:
We start the year with an impeachment. We then end impeachment and we go right into the corona crisis. Now the corona crisis, as far as I can tell, has been placed on the back burner, and we’re in the midst of civil insurrection. And through it all, our country is extremely divided. In fact, it, at times, seems like we cannot even speak to one another, speak to those we disagree with. Impeachment, you might expect that. That’s going to be bitter no matter what. Not so much in a pandemic. You should think we would know. We would kind of coalesce around a set of policies and approaches. And then now you would think, okay, an insurrection, we’ll call it, in major American cities, you should know what to do. You put it down. And yet, we don’t seem to know what to do or agree on what to do. And we’re divided over that now. At what point is the question, are we just two different nations in a forced marriage? Is that a question that we should ask, entertain?

Fr. Robert Sirico:
Well, it is. More than ask it, we need to answer it. We need to understand why. And it goes back well before 2020. It goes back well before the impeachment. The impeachment, the response to the pandemic, and now the civil unrest, are all extensions of a division that really is the result of that win-lose mentality that I was talking about. That is the increased politicization of society. I mean, why in the world would the threat of contagion result in political divides? I mean, when we should just kind of come together.

Richard Reinsch:
Exactly, yeah.

Fr. Robert Sirico:
But it has because our institutions of healthcare, our institutions of civil government, our institutions of medical research and the production and all of the regulation that’s attached to things like the production of masks or sanitizers, all of this has been politicized, regulated down to the minute details. Of course, you’re going to have divisions because society itself that has been eroded and the political apparatus has taken over. We think that everything that needs to be done socially has to be done through the agency of the state. And this produces more and more division because it is, what I said earlier, a win-lose situation rather than the market which is a win-win situation, where you persuade people to engage with you economically, rather than force them, coerce them, regulate them to do so.

Richard Reinsch:
Yeah. Well, I suppose maybe a more positive way of looking at this is, those of us who do believe in markets or in a freer society are posing those arguments in a powerful way such that we’re having this divide. I think in a way that there is still something in America kicking and pushing against this project that’s ongoing. It prompts a question. I know throughout your career, you’ve had involvement with American liberalism. How do you see it changing? How has it stayed the same since it really emerged as the new left in the late 1960s? What do you see as its goals now?

Fr. Robert Sirico:
I think that they have made great strides in society. I think the movements that I was involved with, and when I was involved with them, were marginal at the time. It wasn’t a step up in social status to be involved in the left-wing movements that I was associated with. It is now. They’re well-funded, well-organized. They have people well-placed throughout government. But I think-

Richard Reinsch:
Corporations even.

Fr. Robert Sirico:
… And corporations have been in quite… I mean, you have this-

Richard Reinsch:
Competing.

Fr. Robert Sirico:
Phenomenon of “woke capitalism”.

Richard Reinsch:
Yeah.

Fr. Robert Sirico:
Yes. I mean, it’s all over the place. My solution to that is education. It’s helping people to understand that these well-intended…. Because I do believe that a lot of these people, even the kids on the street, I’m not talking about the media logs who are there to intentionally create pilots who come armed and ready for it, but the kids who want to be supportive, these white kids from the suburbs who come in and break windows. That if you get into their heart, and now maybe this was a pastor speaking, they don’t want to see people discriminated against. They don’t want to see people marginalized, disrespected, but they haven’t been prepared intellectually to understand how you bring about harmony in society. They think the only way to do it is to rip everything down. That’s the easiest in the world to do. To rip things down is easy. To create… The other thing, let me say, I alluded to the violence in Grand Rapids. One of the things I don’t think has been highlighted at all in Grand Rapids at least. The riots took place last Saturday night, as we were speaking. Sunday morning, I knew that this was going on right around the Acton Institute building. Before I celebrated mass, I went downtown and surveyed the downtown area and wanted to see the Acton building, to see what had happened. As I said, the Action building really wasn’t hit very much. But you know what I saw on the streets? Hundreds, hundreds of people sweeping things up, bringing coffee, bringing pizza, taking shards of glass and throwing them in canisters and dumpsters and stuff; and that was spontaneous, that wasn’t organized. It was just a cultural sense of this city. We will function. We will clean up the mess you guys have made. And that’s the culture that we have to build once again. That’s what made America great. That’s what makes any civilization great is this unified culture where people are winning and winning together.

Richard Reinsch:
Yeah, it seems as well, there’s now a very aggressive attempt. Although, this has been a part of progressivism going back to its fathers in the late 19th and early 20th century. Woodrow Wilson obviously comes to mind. And what I mean here is this attempt to remove us or to disestablish the American founding on its own terms and to give it new terms, or evolutionary terms, progressive terms. And that now has reached to a very popular pitch in the 1619 Project. We’ve run, I mean a lot of publications like Law & Liberty have had authors comment on it. It’s been universally panned by well-regarded historians, Gordon Wood, James McPherson at Princeton. I mean, they’ve really just pulled this apart. Economists have pulled it apart and some of its claims. But the root argument is we’re built on slavery and we’re built on racism, and our economy grew so fast because of slavery. Now, this is just part of the American Project is oppression. This is sort of becoming a mainstream view, and it just sort of sparks to my mind the question of this is its own virus. And we can do our patient work at Liberty Fund at the Acton Institute, other institutions come to mind. But now, major cities are taking the 1619 Project and putting it directly into their curriculum. Of course, they have declining student enrollment, but there it is. And it’s sort of, to my mind, sparks a question. There’s great disagreement and anger at the American founding. We also see it on the right. And you and I both know about essays that have been written in a journal called First Things, founded by Father Neuhaus, actually to defend American democratic capitalism. Now, the journal seems to be turning against it or has turned against it.

Richard Reinsch:
Very significant thinkers, an endowed chair at Harvard Law, Adrian Vermeule, I can name a lot of people here, also turning against the American founding and also really against markets as well, wanting a strong administrative state, a corporate estate. This is also going on on the right, but it’s not as impactful yet. Your thoughts here on kind of what all this means and what to make of it?

Fr. Robert Sirico:
Well, I think it’s good that you’ve linked those two tendencies, these currents in American society. Because I do think, philosophically, they share a certain overlapping DNA, if you will, and it requires a certain historical amnesia to maintain their arguments. Because what we know about American slavery is that it was eroding because surprise, surprise slave labor is not as effective as free labor.

Richard Reinsch:
Yes, yes.

Fr. Robert Sirico:
It’s not as productive. It’s not as dependable or reliable. Aside from the moral arguments against slavery, the economic argument against slavery is that it impedes creativity, it represses spontaneity and the resolution of problems. Slaves don’t want to work. They’re not insightful. They’re not going to be insightful and risk. The mentality of slavery, it’s not the same thing. I don’t want to make up a moral equivalent. But if you want to make a cultural observation, the modern cultural manifestation of slavery is in the bureaucracy. People who feel like they’re drones and they’re not the entrepreneurial culture. I think this pointing at the American founding as though slavery was intrinsic to it is false. And I’m not an academic historian, I’ll leave the details to those capable folks, but what I can observe just overall is people who are going to reject the emphasis on freedom, and again, I say there was a scar because there was this contradiction. And it was the contradiction between the status mentality and the entrepreneurial mentality right at the founding. To resurrect that and to announce the founding as such because of the status mentality in the name of the status mentality is an absurdity and a very dangerous one. It is particularly galling to see what’s happening to First Things for the reason that you said with Father Neuhaus.

Richard Reinsch:
Talk about his… Because I think a lot of people, particularly these younger writers I’m seeing in their 20s, they don’t know what he was trying to do. They see it all through… He was a neo-con, and he was just a neo-con out for war and democracy promotion. And they forget the original vision.

Fr. Robert Sirico:
Right. Well, Father Neuhaus and I would have had disagreements on some of those kinds of issues, but the real-

Richard Reinsch:
But it wasn’t what he was all about. I mean, that just sort of-

Fr. Robert Sirico:
… No. I didn’t even know that it was fundamentally what he was…

Richard Reinsch:
Yeah, it was just, that’s what you hear. That’s what you hear in this sort of dismissal of that project now. And it-

Fr. Robert Sirico:
That was not what attracted me to pursue things and my friendship with Father Neuhaus. But what he was trying to do was to show the compatibility between the American founding and the Christian ideal of the free and virtuous society. When you read him, when you read Novak, when you read Weigel, what you find are continuous references to the thought of thinkers like John Courtney Murray, who was the preeminent peritus at the Second Vatican Council. This would have been-

Richard Reinsch:
’65.

Fr. Robert Sirico:
A peritus… A theological advisor who made the case in his book, We Hold These Truths. That the American founding was, in many ways, derived from natural law and compatible, rightly understood, compatible with at least Catholic social teaching. And then of course, Neuhaus brought the vibrant ecumenical and interfaith elements into that. That’s what First Things was about, and to uphold the priority of the cultural, which is what I was talking about when we’re talking about civil rights.

Richard Reinsch:
Yeah. The question, I mean, and I’ve read First Things from 1998 and 1999, all the way until a couple of years ago. Now I read it occasionally, but I used to read it cover to cover. The position now being advanced is pretty critical of markets. I rarely read… I don’t think I’ve read anything from the editor of First Things that praises the free market. It’s always criticism. And I-

Fr. Robert Sirico:
Just what has occurred to me, and I’m going to go out on the limb here because I don’t remember all the names of the personalities, but you remember First Things was founded out of the collapse of a previous journal that Neuhaus had been editing.

Richard Reinsch:
Yes.

Fr. Robert Sirico:
And that was taken over because there was some institutional-

Richard Reinsch:
Disagreement.

Fr. Robert Sirico:
… ownership by a group of people that were the Southern Agrarians, much more like this group that has taken over First Things now, than Neuhaus himself. Neuhaus was against that. And I think you’re finding this element, this modern element of the integralists once again. It’s another coup. And I had never said that publicly or really even thought about that. But as we’re talking, it occurs to me that that’s what happened back then that the founding in 1989. I remember it very well.

Richard Reinsch:
No. In fact-

Fr. Robert Sirico:
Neuhaus was locked out of his offices.

Richard Reinsch:
Yeah. No, I’ve heard that story. Yeah, that they showed up and they were locked out, and their equipment was on the street, I think.

Fr. Robert Sirico:
Right. And he turned on a dime. He turned on a dime. They reconstituted this now as First Things, and the other magazine journal just withered away, which is what’s happening now to this First Things. It’s living off of the fumes of the past.

Richard Reinsch:
The current editor of Chronicles, which is published by, I want to say the Rockford Foundation or the Rockford Institute was-

Fr. Robert Sirico:
That was the group. That was the group.

Richard Reinsch:
… That published the journal that Neuhaus left. But the current editor of Chronicles has basically said, “Things have come full circle,” in a recent piece. And I thought that was right on and that that’s sort of what you’re saying. The point here too, a woke capitalism is working here. I think there’s a lot of just… There’s a sense that the breakdown, the arguments that are around these groups of thinkers, that breakdowns in the family, breakdowns in community, all of which somehow could be explained. And it’s almost a fideistic notion. If we just reintroduce industrial jobs back into America, that’ll give us middle-class incomes and people will get married again and have children. And then with that will come religious participation and vibrant neighborhoods. This is really to skip a lot of steps and to ignore the nature of markets. And then as I’ve written, it actually doesn’t even make a lot of sense with the data. I mean, the data doesn’t even support this, apart from just the logic of free markets. But my sense here though is, what is motivating this underneath is just, it’s really largely a turn against American ideas and practices that have guided us since our founding. There’s a desire for something else.

Fr. Robert Sirico:
Well, there is. I don’t know exactly what it is the desire for, but it’s something other than what the family and the culture that protects the family and the institution of private property is all about it. It was Marx and Engels… Actually it was Engels who kind of collected a lot of Marx’s writing to produce a book called The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, in which they were denouncing these things. It’s the state that was against these institutions, not the market. The private property regime was the protector of the family, and can be once again.

Richard Reinsch:
Thinking now as you see American politics and economics, I struggle sometimes staying positive, what are you looking to or what gives you hope? And I know one answer to that question. But as you see these things moving forward, what comes to my mind is there really are no new ideas. We seem to be just fumbling around in sort of a loop of ideas, movements that have spanned for decades. And at some point, I think we say, we’re not creating anything in our society. We’re not building. Maybe we should change what we’re doing. We should rethink our entire approach here so we can recover our civilization. The alternative being collapse.

Fr. Robert Sirico:
Well, I do think we need the radical change in our society. The question is, what is that change? And it seems to me that if we’re going to confront the realities that are ahead of us, once we get through this period of the fear of the contagion, which is exacerbated by the centralization of government in the response to it. When we get past that, we need to ask ourselves, what is going to adapt our culture to the challenge, the ethical challenge, that’s going to be presented to us in, for instance, artificial intelligence? This technology is not going away, and this technology is not evil in itself. What we need to do is see the human person as the priority and the director of the technology. And the technology doesn’t alter nature. It simply is going to be directed by us or this kind of searching around that you’ve described, this wandering in the wilderness, so to speak. And that could become deadly dangerous. Now, if you were asking for a word of hope, it’s that those solutions that are being proposed across the board, both on the right and on the left, that center on the state is the solution to the problem will fail. There is no doubt in my mind that they will fail. They’ve always failed historically. Sparta was not as rich as Athens. North Korea is not as rich as South Korea, not as vibrant. By rich, I don’t even mean just financially, I mean, culturally. And that will stagnate. And as it stagnates, people will look for answers. And I think we can propose what the American founding derived from a more ancient understanding of human nature in society, which is the natural law.

Richard Reinsch:
Fr. Robert Sirico, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate your time.

Fr. Robert Sirico:
Great to be with you. Thank you, Richard.

Reader Discussion

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on June 10, 2020 at 21:31:48 pm

The following is an important excerpt from the subtitle of this interview: "An interview... about racism in America... and the turn against constitutional liberty (from the) Right." The subtitle of this interview declares that racism is a problem in the U.S. and that the political Right is waging an attack on constitutional liberty.

Both declarations are false. They slander Americans in general and conservatives in particular. These falsehoods are routinely shouted by the Left and the Democrat Party. But true conservatives, libertarians and even the overwhelming majority of Republicans know them to be political falsehoods.

The interview itself simply repeats and elaborates the falsehoods.
Nothing worth listening to unless you want to be insulted.

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