The Decline of Fraternity

“Character is a fine autumnal word, with echoes of Protestant gentility and sherry in the afternoon.” Perhaps surprisingly, those are the words of someone who worked in political science, a discipline whose practitioners, along with many in the social sciences, tend to write in flat, desiccated prose. But Wilson Carey McWilliams—whose sudden death in 2005 shocked his family, friends, students, and profession—was a rarity among political scientists. He was neither a rank empiricist nor an abstract theorist. The editors of this excellent collection of his essays, Patrick Deneen and Susan McWilliams (the author’s daughter), have wisely titled the book Redeeming Democracy in America, evoking the masterwork of Alexis de Tocqueville, McWilliams’s model for thinking about democracy in America.

McWilliams was not just a political scientist. He was also a political historian, a cultural ethnographer, an astute interpreter of classic texts, a stout-hearted reader of the Bible and Calvinist tradition, and a lover of great American writing. A frequent contributor to Commonweal, McWilliams tended to avoid many of the official organs of the profession and to publish his papers in book collections or in journals more open to his sort of eclectic approach. The heart of McWilliams’s approach is fraternity and the ways in which politics either creates and sustains the conditions for this solidarity or, alternatively, demeans and damages it. His approach has shortcomings—whose does not?—but its many strengths outweigh the occasional weakness. (Among the weaknesses was McWilliams’s neglect of gender questions, although only the most narrow-minded feminist would find anything sexist in his work.)

McWilliams was convinced that Americans were systematically eroding the sources of human dignity and solidarity, noting that both the framers and their opponents “took it for granted that families, churches, local communities, and schools would nurture and develop civil sentiments and decencies.” That’s not something we can assume anymore. Under the weight of certain “liberal individualist” presuppositions that make it nearly impossible to see marriage and family as greater than the sum of their parts, the family has broken down. Schools have abandoned civic education. Religious education has been thinned out. If this soul-crafting is no longer going on, we are in big trouble.

And it shows. Take, for example, the fact that Americans no longer know how to describe what they are doing without the language of individualism. It is as if we are embarrassed to attribute more noble motives than self-interest to what we care about. With our character increasingly defined by radical individualism, we embrace a politics of the will: we are to become sovereign in all things. This creates a depraved sort of equality that levels difference with resentment and envy, whereas a distinctive equality recognizes and respects a fundamental human commonality.

I suppose the Pollyannas among us will accuse McWilliams of “declinism,” but that avoids the morally serious matters he writes about. Certainly McWilliams was put off by the refusal to acknowledge human frailty and mortality, a recognition sustained by a biblical faith the wider culture is rapidly abandoning. On that point, McWilliams displays something quite unusual for a political scientist: not only a willingness to discuss Scripture but to do so from a position of intimate knowledge and considerable hermeneutic sophistication.

In his essay “The Bible in the American Political Tradition,” for example, McWilliams shows what a great student of the Bible he was. His argument about the importance of the Bible to U.S. politics is important—and rarely made. He begins by insisting that the Bible “is the great gate of Western culture, an indispensable key to our language, meanings and thought.” The Bible has a special importance in American political thought and history. Yet we see an “increasing unfamiliarity” with Scripture that makes it harder for us to understand one another. The loss of this biblical language paves the way for the triumph of the language of unrestrained individualism.

For McWilliams, the Bible is a great democratizer; it gives everyone the claim to share in the highest things. Our politics is poorer without it. McWilliams makes it clear that biblical religion is never civil religion. This helps to account for the animosity of Jean Jacques Rousseau, among others, toward Christianity: it made a lousy civic religion. How so? Because biblical faith claims the “right to judge cities,” it demands a critical stance. The Bible is a brake on runaway self-interest, a barrier to self-idolatry.

There is more. The Bible reminds us of the reality of sin and the dangers of human pride, it emphasizes the notion of a covenant, and it cultivates justice and fraternity. The Bible was the only common text that united Americans; its singular importance can scarcely be denied. The story of the people of Israel and its many illustrative episodes (the Tower of Babel, the slaying of Abel by Cain, and more) serve as object lessons. Yet Jefferson declared the Old Testament “degrading and injurious” and insisted that Jesus’ teachings had been mutilated in the New Testament by supernatural elements such as his miracles.

This assault on biblical faith continued with the Transcendentalists—McWilliams shares Nathaniel Hawthorne’s brilliant satires of the Transcendentalists—and continues today. The Progressives taught a sort of relativism that could provide no stable basis for morality. And, of special significance today, the ethics of industrial capitalism and the ethics of the Bible do not comport well. “It is really possible...that America is doomed,” McWilliams writes. “That would be a reason for sorrow, but even so, the Bible reminds us that all regimes and peoples wither like grass and only the Lord endures.”

It takes a courageous political scientist to write that way in our jaded yet oddly gullible age. We are cynical about the possibilities of human dialogue and solidarity. But we are boundlessly naïve about the merits of “social networking” and technology. This is a dangerous combination. McWilliams saw it coming. We read him now for his felicities and his insights, and we are grateful he came our way.

Published in the 2012-03-23 issue: 
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Jean Bethke Elshtain, a political theorist, authored more than a dozen books, including Women and War (1987), Democracy on Trial (1993), Augustine and the Limits of Politics (1996), and Sovereignty: God, State, Self (2008). She was a frequent contributor to Commonweal and covered many subjects in our pages, including feminism, family, just war, criminal justice, and capitalism.

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