The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 17, 2018

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The Theologico-Political Problem Revisited: How to Think About the Modern Project
Ted McAllister - 05/12/08

A review of Daniel Tanguay’s Leo Strauss: An Intellectual Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 272 pages, $30.00.

The great cultural and civilizational narratives are back. In the books and articles that mark this new stage in the great conversation of and about western civilization, we encounter the old and grand reifications of “the West,” of “Modernity,” of the “Enlightenment.” In the hands of most authors and commentators, our most profound reifications are hopelessly thin and superficial, unintentional caricatures of both our history and ourselves. I sometimes employ this intellectual shorthand when my thinking is particularly murky, but I fear that some others never penetrate deeply enough to notice that their erudition rests on ponderous categories. We risk profound misunderstandings of each other, and the events we seek to analyze, because the words we use are too rich with competing meanings.

Nonetheless, the redoubt to the big categories of our political and philosophical life suggests that both careful and superficial observers of our time detect a serious challenge to, or shift in, our civilization. The ominous threat of Islamic terrorism and the questions about a possible clash of civilizations pose important and even pressing questions on some observers, including concerns about the spiritual health of western civilization. While some have worried that an increasingly secular Europe has lost its will to defend itself, others worry that reanimated Christianity in America poses a threat as dire as fundamentalist Islam. Even away from the intellectual heat over Islam and the West, cultural divides over global warming, science and human life, capital punishment, the nature and role of the family, and so much more have taken on a strange urgency, as though America and Europe are facing a cultural tipping point and soon all may become hopeless.

One particularly pressing question facing us (judging from the both the volume and tone of recent books on the subject) concerns the relationship of religion to the regime and even of the place for religious faith in the modern world. We are all familiar with the popular evangelical atheists of our time who seem as deeply frightened by religious belief as they are ignorant of the complexity of both theologies and humans. Unlike earlier laments about religious belief in America (one thinks of Walter Lippmann and Joseph Wood Krutch), today’s secular Jeremiahs seem less adrift from the existential comforts of religion than taking umbrage at the fact that others cannot see the most obvious truth of our scientific age. From disillusionment to aggressive claims to knowledge, it seems that the public face of atheism today is much threatened by religious beliefs.

One of the stories many intellectuals tell about our civilization and its future is that it is leading, progressively, toward secularism, scientific management, and expansive personal freedoms. The newest version of this narrative reverses older progressive story-lines that understood the United States to be the future, the paradigmatic liberal society and state. Recently Post-Christian Europe has represented the future, the way of enlightened democracy that blends expansive tolerance for personal choices with a comforting and professional state apparatus that provides just and equitable distribution of goods and services. European advances seemed evident to many observers in such things as supplying universal healthcare, banning capital punishment, organizing Europe toward a post-national identity, and a peace-loving citizenry that is liberated from the oppressive superstitions of religion.

By contrast, the United States seems trapped in an outdated moral/religious order. To make matters more galling still, America during the last three decades has become more religious, more conservative, during the same time that the nation has become the imperial colossus of our age. American intellectuals who tell this story are alternatively angered by the nation’s government and embarrassed by its citizens. American liberal or progressive writers have recently presented their progressive message in a reactionary language. Focused primarily (because of heightened anger and because of political expediency) on the Bush administration, the primary story-line of these thinkers it that America has been hijacked by religious (Christian) extremists (along with an assortment of temporary allies) and that the primary task of the reasonable class of politicians and thinkers is to return the nation to its older course, its traditional ways, its natural path toward the European (universal) model. The future lies in recovering our past, or at least some conception of our past. Most of these reactionary progressives, whose books litter the local Barnes and Noble, appear blind to the irony.

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