Unbought Grace

Heather MacDonald, contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, has raised a question in the August 28th issue of The American Conservative that Americans on the Right seem reluctant to deal with, probably for the purpose of maintaining unity in their struggle against the Left.

Give God the Glory — and the Blame, Too?

She asks whether there is a necessary link between religious belief and conservatism. MacDonald says no. She calls herself a “skeptical conservative,” someone who is conservative “because of” her skepticism, “not in spite of it.”

She is uncomfortable with the way many on the Right bring God and Christian moral principles into the debate over public policy, describing herself as “mystified by the religiosity of the rhetoric that seems to define so much of conservatism today.” She cites as examples the way Attorney General John Ashcroft in his resignation speech thanked God for keeping the country safe from another 9/11-type attack; Republican politicians who routinely thank the “Almighty” for his “great gifts” to mankind and end their speeches with “and God bless the United States”; local officials who will reflexively thank God for answering the community’s prayers for abducted children and trapped miners. Also how “God’s mercy was supposedly manifest when children were saved from the 2005 Indonesian tsunami.”

All this is illogical, says MacDonald: “If God deserves thanks for fending off assaults on the United States after 9/11, why is He not also responsible for allowing the 2001 hijackings to happen in the first place?” “[W]hy did the prayers for five-year-old Samantha Runnion go unheeded when she was taken from her Southern California home in 2002 and later sexually assaulted and asphyxiated?” “When 12 miners were killed in a West Virginia mine explosion in January 2006,” why were there no signs asking God why He permitted this tragedy to occur? “Innocent children were swept away in the 2005 tsunami, too, but believers blamed natural forces, not God.”

She anticipates your likely response: “If you ask a believer, you will be told that the human mind cannot fathom God’s ways.” It is a response that does not work for her: “It seems as if God benefits from double standards of a kind that would make even affirmative action look just.”

I can hear some groans out there: not this one again. The question of how an all-powerful and all-good God can co-exist with evil in the world is one that most of us confront in high school. But that is not exactly the issue that MacDonald is raising. She does not challenge a believer’s right to believe in God. Her concern is with why believers are not willing to accept that skeptics, atheists and agnostics can be virtuous fellow citizens and effective allies in the conservative movement: “I have heard it said in the last six years that what makes conservatives superior to liberals is their religious faith — as if morality is impossible without religion.” I would wager that most of us have heard the same observation, more than once.

Hey, We’re Moral Too!

“Non-believers,” she objects, should not be presumed to lack moral standards. It is just that they “look elsewhere for a sense of order, valuing the rule of law for its transparency to all rational minds and debating Supreme Court decisions without reverting to mystical precepts of ‘natural law.’” She argues that “[s]keptical conservatives do not look into the abyss when they make their moral choices. Their moral sense is as secure as a believer’s. They do not need God or the Christian Bible to discover the golden rule and see themselves in others.”

Some conservatives will be tempted to rush for their Edmund Burke quotations at this point, especially for his reference to the “unbought grace of life.” They will contend that MacDonald fails to appreciate that skeptics such as her are able to conclude, without the aid of religion, that loving one’s neighbor as oneself is a noble guideline because they have lived their lives in a society shaped by Christianity.

But MacDonald has thought of that, too. She knows what Burke meant by unbought grace: “It is often said, in defense of religion,” she writes, “that we all live parasitically off its moral legacy; that we can only dismiss religion because we are protected by the work it has already done on our behalf.” That is as accurate a summary of what Burke meant by unbought grace as you can find anywhere, if the loaded word “parasitically” is dropped.

Her response? “Suffice it to say that, to many of us, Western society has become more compassionate, humane, and respectful of rights as it has become more secular. Just compare the treatment of prisoners in the 14th century to today, an advance due to Enlightenment reformers. A secularist could as easily chide today’s religious conservatives for wrongly ignoring the heritage of the Enlightenment.”

A Free Subscription to the Western Code

This brings us to the heart of the matter. I submit that MacDonald has paraphrased Burke’s analysis of the role of unbought grace accurately enough, but not thought through its implications. Burke’s point was that the Enlightenment philosphes’ dedication to individual rights and a humane society came about because they were members of societies shaped by Christianity; that one cannot go back to what MacDonald calls the “heritage of the Enlightenment” as a source of what is best about us as a society without asking yourself why the Enlightenment happened where it did, which was in the Christian West.

Think about the world as it existed when Locke and Rousseau picked up their pens. There were bright and learned individuals living under the rule of sultans and shoguns and local despots all over the planet in the 18th century. Their scholarship did not lead them to revere freedom of conscience, liberty, respect for the individual and the brotherhood of man. Why not? Why was it that it was Rousseau and Locke, Diderot and Jefferson who thought those thoughts?

There is only one plausible answer: It is because they were men of the West. It defies logic to think that growing up in the Christian West — where men and women were taught to love their neighbors as themselves, to practice Christian charity and respect the worth of the individual soul in its relation to the Creator — did not play a major role in why they thought as they did. The Enlightenment philosophes were beneficiaries of the unbought grace of Christian Europe — even as they rebelled against it.

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at fitzpatrijames@sbcglobal.net.

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage