Book Review – Liberty: The God That Failed

Ironically, the subtitle is so long you’d confuse it for an 18th-century tract by an Enlightenment philosopher.

Liberty: The God That Failed is an imposing tome, clocking in at over 600 pages of small-print, heavily footnoted text.  Christopher Ferrara had a great deal to say, and spared no effort in saying it – although he promises to find material for a sequel!  Unfortunately, because of its density, it took me quite a number of months to read my review copy all the way through. I certainly won’t be having much impact on initial sales!  Nevertheless, I agreed to write a review, so I have written a review.

At the center of Liberty is a compelling dissection of certain internal contradictions in the political philosophy of John Locke and the English Enlightenment, which Ferrara examines through the lens of American history – a history marked (or, in Ferrara’s telling, defined) by those shortcomings.  The greatest of the “Hobbeslockean” errors Ferrara recounts are (first) the belief in majority rule, for which Locke sets forth an argument that is incoherent in several respects, and (second) the belief in religious toleration, which leads inevitably to the evisceration of all religious dogma and the final replacement of public morality with mob sentimentality.  These two political dogmas are the basis of the “liberty” which has always been at the heart of the American project.  As a result, Ferrara hates America nearly as much as he hates John Locke.

“Hate” is a strong word, yet it is quite adequate here.  Ferrara does not seem to be out to win converts.  The number of people who might conceivably be persuaded by this study is already fairly small: anyone who comes into this book without a fairly solid understanding of – and sympathy for – the government of pre-Enlightenment Christendom (already very rare in a West dominated by the Black Legend of the English Reformation) will come away impressed that Ferrara wants to put the pope on the throne, burn the heretics, and replace Ben Bernanke with Johann Tetzel.  Frankly, this is not all that far from the truth, and Ferrara makes no particular pretense of trying to persuade anyone who isn’t already a faithful Catholic with certain natural sympathies toward the ancien regime.  Nevertheless, there was an opportunity here: much of the “Ron Paul Republican” camp is made up of hardnosed Catholic social conservatives who think Paul’s “Campaign for Liberty” and its successors hold great promise for the future prosperity of the United States under God.  (I count myself among that number.)  A critique of Liberty from Christian conservative premises is sorely needed, even if only to expose and ultimately shore up weaknesses in the Christian libertarian viewpoint.  In the right hands, with the right tone, persuasion was possible.

Yet Ferrara spares no effort alienating even this narrow audience.  Much of the study is not particularly connected to its anti-Lockean premise, but to exposing and itemizing every hypocrisy the author can discover about the pantheon of American heroes, from Washington to Madison to Lincoln and back.  (About 200 pages could have been cut without impact.)  The rest of the prose drips with unconcealed contempt and caustic sarcasm.  Ferrara has no kind word for the Constitution, for the Founding Fathers, for any part of our system of government, for our history, for any of our heroes, or anything whatsoever about the American nation.  Any American reader even slightly tainted by patriotic virtue – even the magnanimous, un-ideological patriotism of Chesterton’s Adam Wayne – will find Liberty: The God that Failed alternately depressing and infuriating, and is unlikely to feel warmly toward Mr. Ferrara after finishing.  On the off chance that you still do, Mr. Ferrara will take care of it with a few snide comments about American Catholicism’s beloved Fr. Neuhaus (who is, in the author’s mind, an accessory to the Americanist heresy), ensuring once and for all that the only people who will enjoy this work are the handful of sedevacantist and ultra-trad monarchists who wanted a polemic to make them feel affirmed.

However, despite the author’s best efforts to give us an excuse to ignore his arguments, his arguments are still in there, between the digs and digressions, and they have merit.  Conservatives have spent so long defending the rule of law (and therefore the text of the Constitution) against the imprecations of anti-Catholic, anti-human progressives who would prefer rule by dictat that we have failed to scrutinize the Constitution ourselves – and conveniently failed to notice the radical elements of the political philosophy there enshrined that have given rise to modern progressivism.  It is incontrovertible that a strong strain of Founding thought not only resisted established religion, but actively worked to have recognizably dogmatic (Christian) religion annihilated from the public square, as it largely has been today; not only lacked conservatives’ loyalty to the rule of law, but in fact led a bloody rebellion against the rule of law, using heavy taxes as a thin justification to rally the people behind their abstract cause of self-governing Liberty – then turned around and imposed vastly higher taxes, which the Founders demanded the People pay in the name of Liberty.

For his part, Locke’s confused argument for individual “self-determination” that somehow co-exists with an absolute dictatorship of majority rule (both authorities he more or less pulls out of thin air) undoubtedly contributed greatly to the confusion out of which the Civil War erupted.  Locke’s contradictions on this point continue to cloud questions of great consequence even today, such as President Obama’s “individual mandate,” which (originally) required all citizens to purchase medical insurance under penalty of law.  And Locke’s intolerant version of religious tolerance – in which all religions are subjects to the sovereign and can be coerced if their beliefs become “dangerous” – has led us directly into the maw of the modern progressive’s assault on conscience protections in every theater of Western life.  Ferrara does his reader a service by exposing these constitutional shortcomings, and there is nothing unreasonable in his demand that they be redressed; indeed, much in Catholic political theory suggests that some constitutional reform is vital.  Mr. Ferrara strongly favors the general approach of the National Reform Association.  For my part, I am unpersuaded that the U.S.A. needs to become a confessional state in order to fix natural law (rather than our self-contradicting majoritarian individualism) as the cornerstone of our political order.

Ferrara is a lawyer, not (at least by profession) a philosopher or a historian, but he clearly has chops in both fields.  He puts both to good use, at any rate.  My area of particular (if amateur) historical interest is the Secession Crisis and the Civil War (particularly the constitutional law of the period), and, throughout the hundred-fifty-odd pages devoted to the War and its surrounds, I was generally familiar with many of the sources he drew on.  Rarely did he mislead the reader with an unfairly edited quotation; never (that I noticed) did he mis-state a matter of fact.  Indeed, Ferrara offers a valuable (if not particularly relevant) service in his long and devastating critique of the antebellum South, the slave power generally, and secession specifically – which was plainly an act of immoral, illiberal, and illegal rebellion, under both Church teaching and the Constitution, and yet is often defended by libertarians today.

Surprisingly (given his credentials), his grasp on the American legal and political system is not so strong.  In one memorable passage near the end of the book, Ferrara calls upon the Catholic members of the Supreme Court to rule against abortion rights, and to justify this not merely on the basis that unborn humans are persons protected by the 14th Amendment, but on the explicit basis of Catholic teaching on the natural law and morality.  He asks: “What Senator would dare impeach any of the justices” for proclaiming a Christian religion the majority of the population still retains? I answer: between 60 and 90 of them – as he must realize, if he has even a passing familiarity with the current makeup of the Senate.  The American electorate is (nominally) Christian, but polling is unambiguous: they do not believe Christian thought should serve as the basis of law in this country or any other.  They may be mistaken about this, but to simply deny they believe it, as Ferrara does, is absurd.

The ideas in Liberty: The God That Failed are worth accessing and engaging.  For a Ron Paul Republican like me, it is not necessary to agree with Ferrara’s conclusions to be helped by them.  My outlook on American politics has certainly been affected by this book, because it forced me to examine some of my hitherto unchallenged premises.  Even when I did not abandon those premises, I was helped, because Liberty forced me to develop stronger arguments for them.  Unfortunately, the book is hampered by its unnecessary length and its profound disdain for its subject matter.  Liberty would (and will) make a great resource for Catholic monarchists trying to develop arguments for their critiques of liberal governance – in other words, the choir to which Mr. Ferrara is emphatically preaching – but I do not plan to recommend it to anyone who does not already agree with its conclusions.  3/5 stars

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