02 April 2005

Kraynak on American civil religion

Robert Kraynak is one of the more intriguing political philosophers in the Roman Catholic tradition. Four years ago he published Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World. In its pages Kraynak advances a paradoxical thesis: liberal democracy cannot stand on the shaky foundation of contemporary scepticism and relativism; it needs to be anchored in the biblically Christian conviction that human beings are created in God’s image. However, Christianity itself, rightly understood in its historical context, is illiberal and undemocratic. Thus any claim that the Christian faith is inevitably supportive of democratic régimes must be seen for what it is: a peculiarly modern innovation with little support from the two-millennia-old Christian tradition. Kraynak is particularly critical of the role Immanuel Kant's thought has played in the contemporary and near universal acceptance of democracy within christian and especially Catholic circles.

Now the Vatican news service Zenit carries a three-part interview with Kraynak, in which he argues, somewhat surprisingly, for the positive role played by civil religion in America in making room for a vital christian witness as opposed to the more secularizing character of European societies and polities. Writes Kraynak:

Cardinal [Joseph] Ratzinger looks at most European nations -- he could have mentioned Canada as well -- and he sees the worst possible combination of historical residues of Christian establishment and utter indifference to Christian faith; a post-Christian world that would not even allow a reference to the Christian heritage of Europe in the Constitution of the European Union.

By comparison, the American situation looks relatively healthy: higher rates of church attendance and professions of faith -- although secular forces in the U.S. judiciary, universities and the media are trying to create a secular America just like Europe and Canada. And one cannot forget that the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations in America have been rocked by scandals and divisive battles that have damaged the faith.

Even if we grant the relative superiority of the American condition today -- which I am prepared to do -- the question Cardinal Ratzinger leaves unanswered is whether Europe could be saved by adopting some features of the American model, such as disestablishment and pluralism, without possessing other vital elements -- namely, a civil religion of God-given natural rights and a belief in Christian orthodoxy.

I think that a nondenominational civil religion is feasible for Europeans to adopt as a basis for human rights. Even the French could come to see that their historic commitment to "the rights of man" is better grounded in the belief that humans are made in the image of God rather than in the skeptical reason of the French Enlightenment.

But the quest for religious orthodoxy -- for ultimate religious truth -- seems to be dying or dead in Europe today: Europe looks like a dying civilization in which the highest and noblest aims of man have been forgotten or rejected as dangerous. This may be an overstatement, but there is something different about the European and American attitudes to religious truth.

By the way, the latest issue of the Acton Institute's Journal of Markets & Morality carries an exchange between Kraynak and Derek S. Jeffreys on the Kantian influence on modern christian thought. Jeffreys' article, The Influence of Kant on Christian Theology: A Debate About Human Dignity and Christian Personalism, elicited a response from Kraynak, another response from Jeffreys and a final rejoinder from Kraynak.

Kraynak teaches political science at Colgate University.

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