America, explains America’s most genuinely provocative writer, has proven to be a very reliable country for people to live decent lives in freedom and dignity, with the freedom, especially, to live in conformity to the whole, differentiated truth about who each of us. America, James Schall observes, “does not offer a this-worldly heaven but simply a way [for "mortal men"] to rule themselves, provide for families, [gain] a sense of self-achievement, and [perform] service to others.” He adds: “it is precisely these virtues that seem to be under fire within America itself.”
Schall appreciates the American way of life and of the place of economic freedom and modern techno-mechanization in serving personal dignity through abolishing slavery and pushing back poverty. His gratitude for his own country, though, is not the “Americanism” of those (the West Coast Straussians, for example) who believe that ours is the best regime and the Declaration of Independence is a perfect articulation of philosophic wisdom. It is not that of the MacIntyreans, Pat Deneen, various traditionalists, and so forth, who think that from the beginning America, at least in principle, is of the devil. Schall is uniquely astute is showing how we should not expect too much or too little from the good that are civic and economic and even religious freedom.
To make a maybe more subtle point: Schall has never even identified himself with the John Courtney Murray or First Things crowd when it comes to our country. He doesn't go for a highly principled defense of our Founders having built better than they knew or something like that—he doesn't actually say much about our Founders—but follows Eric Voegelin in showing how in America the chief weapon against ideology has been the common sense of the people.
And that's why he's so adept at analyzing and ferociously angry in opposing the drift in recent decades toward the transfer of power to centralized bureaucracies and courts dominated by ideological elites. He agrees with Deneen and his allies on many practical judgments, but because America—or elite America—has turned on itself, not because it was fatally flawed in its foundations.
From an “Americanist” point of view, maybe the most heretical recent article by Schall concerned the Confederates and their battle flag. He reminds us that the civil war wasn't only about slavery. It was also fought against centralized government, and it was the honor and dignity of Robert E. Lee above all to defend his own. The Confederates understood themselves as playing defense against invading despotism. Why does Schall make this point?
A powerful ideological impetus today is to use the struggle against racism, with which most people reasonably sympathize, as the model for bringing all of relational life under governmental control. The wars against “sexism” and “heterosexism,” the experts allege, are no different then the war against racism and must be fought with the same use of government power. And so the family and the Church must be reconstructed for the same reason the South needed to be reconstructed after the war and then again during the Civil Rights movement.
But not thinking same-sex marriage is really marriage isn’t anything like defending slavery or racism, you say. That's exactly Schall's point. To get over that error, we might begin by refusing to reduce the South to racism, and appreciating the distinctive virtues of Southern men and women for what they are. The Southern virtues, detached from their aristocratic and racist origins, support those these days who take a genuinely countercultural or “rebel” stand. (Having said that, I wish Schall hadn’t referred to flying the Confederate battle flag in particular in making his point.)
Or consider Pope Francis’s recent encyclical Laudato Si. Without denying its real virtues, note that its sometimes hysterical tones come from a false and sometimes quite unscientific confidence that we have some insight into the fate of the planet, one that slights the possibility that human ingenuity might be enough to solve or mitigate the problems human ingenuity—or human freedom—has given us, just as it ignores the huge place of modern technology and capitalism itself in enhancing personal freedom and reducing the misery poverty. (That’s not to say that capitalism offers some solution to the misery of loneliness or is some substitute for the practice of the virtue of charity or can produce a world in which the personal reality of sin fades away.)
In any case, we know neither the day nor the hour, and the future of being isn’t really in our personal control, although it is in personal control of God. Where are the Ten Commandments in all the encyclical’s accounts of the virtuous life? And where is the family? “Repent, repent, the end is near” is a piece of Protestant wisdom when the focus is on the destiny of the particular person. But isn’t so Christian when applied mainly to the planet or species.
Our deepest longings can’t be satisfied by any effort to make us perfect citizens, contrary to what Plato’s Republic or Rousseau suggest, or by any effort to deploy our material resources with our intellectual ingenuity. The only way to live well and sustain personal freedom and honor free will is to see that death or dissolving into nothingness is not the final word about who each of us is.
Political projects aiming to cure us of our disorders, personal and corporate, always strike at the foundation of personal freedom. The freedom we rational, willful, and sinful beings have is most of all the freedom to choose for or against the loving personal God. As Schall points out, the Catholic doctrine of hell remains quite reasonable; it describes what must happen to persons who believe they can save themselves all on their own.