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Fall 2013

Straussians, Founders, and the Faith

book cover imageLeo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy: A Conservative Critique
by Grant Havers.
Northern Illinois University Press, 2013.
Hardcover, 256 pp., $37.

Paul Gottfried

Grant Havers’s study of the Straussian persuasion may be too relentlessly honest to win applause from mainstream political or academic journals. It avoids those clichés that accompany widely publicized works dealing with Leo Strauss and his epigones. Even more outrageously, Havers makes no secret of his orientation as a Protestant Christian and a high Tory in the English or Canadian tradition. He rightly points out that with the exception of me, he may be the only person to have examined Straussian hermeneutics in a book-length study “from the right.” Also like me, he mocks the journalistic endeavors to depict Strauss, who was a self-identified Cold War liberal, as some kind of reactionary or neo-fascist.

Havers approaches his subject as someone who is keenly interested in theology as well as in the history of political thought. In an earlier book he examined the Christian idea of charity, in its American Protestant form, as a shaping power in the oratory of Abraham Lincoln. Havers’s work on Lincoln’s rhetoric did not receive the attention it richly deserved, possibly because the author wrote neither as a defender of Lincoln’s policies during the Civil War, nor as a critic of Lincoln’s re-founding of a America as a more egalitarian society. The proud descendant of devout Scottish Presbyterians who settled the Canadian prairies, Havers regards Lincoln as someone who invoked the biblical sensibilities of his ancestors and the cultural world they inhabited, even if his forefathers lived north of the American border and were English monarchists. He interprets Lincoln not as a forerunner of an American world-democratic mission but as the Southern traditionalist Richard Weaver did, namely as a public speaker who appealed to moral authority. Lincoln tapped effectively into deeply ingrained religious principles in arguing against slavery (without insisting, as Havers points out, on political equality for the manumitted slaves).

Havers takes to task Strauss and his disciples for omitting from their discussions the specifically Protestant roots of the American republic. Havers is especially focused on Michael Zuckert and Thomas Pangle, who among Strauss’s students have worked perhaps hardest to identify the American founding with John Locke, who is presented in these accounts as a secular-minded materialist. Havers finds an abundance of passages in Strauss and in Straussians like Pangle, Zuckert, and Walter Berns to substantiate his argument that integral to the Straussian project is an attempt to dissociate Anglo-American constitutional liberalism from any Christian reference point. The one subgroup of Straussians who do recognize Christian and classical elements in the American founding and are grouped around Harry Jaffa and Claremont University, are from Havers’s perspective, also suspect. Although Jaffa does pay homage to religion, this recognition is only intended to justify a secular, universal mission imposed on the American state: “In short Jaffa has no objection to religious passions if these are dedicated to democratic causes.” In summing up this “Western” Straussian or Jaffaite attitude to religious revelation, Havers explains: “Unlike the Christian traditions of the Old World, the leveling effects of [Jaffa’s] American religion have created a uniquely egalitarian Christianity that Jaffa draws upon in order to press the argument that America is the chosen nation that must spread equality far and wide.” Although Havers tells us American Protestantism produced a religious disposition that is unique to the New World, he also hastens to add: “far from being the ‘universal nation,’ however, America is grounded in a faith tradition that is historically specific to a radical Protestant heritage, one that is not easily reducible around the globe.”

Two axial points define Havers’s critique of the Straussian persuasion. One, Strauss and his school, by ascribing what is good in the American republic to either vestigial classical sources or generic “modernity,” are ignoring the impact of Christian belief systems on early American politics. Although Havers fails to mention Barry Shain’s cogent studies on the formative value of Calvinism for early American communities, he ends up making much the same argument as Shain about the missing link in the Straussian authorized version of the American founding. He explains that most Straussians (but the Jaffaites less frequently than the others) antiseptically remove from their preferred American political tradition any religious or sectarian elements. And Havers is entirely on target when he stresses the cleaned-up version of “pagan antiquity” that Straussians favor. This goes back to Strauss’s rationalist interpretations of Plato and other classical thinkers, minus such disfiguring warts of Greek and Roman societies as infanticide, the degrading slavery, and the regular practice of exterminating one’s enemies. Straussians may cite as counterevidence Paul Rahe’s massive work on republics ancient and modern, which documents the low opinions about ancient political societies held by the American founders. But Rahe only suggests somewhat parenthetically that the founders believed Christianity was primarily responsible for the improved human condition since antiquity. Further, he brings up this frequently pronounced negative judgment among the American founders mostly to stress the modern, Lockean nature of the American founding, in accordance with prescribed Straussian hermeneutics.

The second axial point is announced at the beginning of the book when Havers explains: “Although I do not doubt that Strauss and his students sincerely believe in the highest principles of what they take to be liberal democracy, they usually reinvent this tradition as a modern version of ancient Greek civilization in order to press their message that Anglo-American civilization is a universal tradition that has existed at least in principle since Plato and Aristotle. As a result they misrepresent the very historical and philosophical underpinnings of this tradition.” Since my own fingerprints may be found in the formulation of this second objection and since my name is prominent among those who for Havers “associate true conservatism with an unabashed appreciation for the historical differences that separate people,” perhaps I should make clear where I stand here.

Like Havers I would never deny there are moral absolutes that all civilized societies try to maintain. (Whether Western “liberal democracies” still observe these principles or guides, however, is very much open to question.) But I don’t imagine any more than Havers that some universal political wisdom is embodied in that form of “liberal democracy” that Straussians believe the U.S. now embodies in practice. Is gay marriage, feminism, or a largely unqualified universal suffrage, for instance, one of the ennobling principles of the present American dispensation being celebrated by Straussians? Equally questionable is whether early Americans would even recognize their “principles” as being operative in what the U.S. has become since the eighteenth century, or whether American leaders before the victory of liberal internationalism would have thought the regime they valued was universally transferable. When it comes to the Protestant Christian and Hebraic roots of early American society and the effect of those roots on the later American republic, Havers’s statements seem for me self-evident. Most pertinently, I share his view that Straussians are obsessed with denying the obvious when it comes to dealing with religious influences. The fact that devout Catholics, including learned Catholic clergy, pore rapturously over Straussian texts that teach that anyone who counted for anything in Western political thought was a secularist or a secularizer, may be an even more glaring oddity. And since this conclusion is often produced on the basis of arbitrary readings of “secret writings,” this gullibility among Catholic and other Straussians is all the weirder.

There are, however, two points on which I stand closer to Strauss than to my loyal associate in many tasks, Havers. Strauss may be right when he suggests that it is possible to embrace sincerely a religious tradition entirely on the basis of faith or because it belonged to one’s ancestors. Although Strauss may have gone too far in denying that “philosophy” can be squared with ancestral custom or the Western religious tradition, it is hard to fault him for defending (however inconsistently) the “ancestral.” Therefore when Strauss claimed his strong attachment to his Jewishness flowed from an ancestral tie, one should not accuse him of improperly or dishonestly describing his sentiment. One may also ask, as I do in my book, whether Strauss was not trying to trivialize religion by underlining the distance between faith and reason. But merely pointing out this gulf does not disparage religion. Affirming it is entirely consistent with certain Protestant theologies. Luther, who was certainly no religious skeptic, went as far as Strauss (and in much earthier language) in underscoring the metaphysical distance in question.

Further, I find nothing objectionable about Zuckert’s depiction of Locke as a religious skeptic trying to appeal to religionists (and particularly to English Levelers). Havers may assume that Zuckert has this all wrong because he reads too much Lockeanism, and therefore secularism, into the American founding. And we know there were American founders, like James Wilson, who mistook Locke for a devout Christian and someone who in his confessional loyalty was like themselves. But the Straussians may have gotten Locke right. Straussian observations about Locke’s feigned religious faith, which is on display in On the Reasonableness of Christianity and the two Treatises, is exactly how I understood Locke while reading him in college fifty years ago. Zuckert is correct when he asserts that Locke cites the High Anglican theologian Richard Hooker in the Second Treatise as window dressing or to prove the opposite of what Hooker had meant. In any case it is hard for me to imagine how one could read Locke’s use of theological authorities in any other way than Zuckert does.

Having caviled perhaps too much, it behooves me to end this review by noting the originality and polemical vigor that is evident in Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy. No study of the history and hermeneutics of the Straussian school of political theory would be complete without reading Havers’s latest monograph. Unlike most of Strauss’s books and those of his disciples, Havers writes like a dream, and I remain impressed even after having seen most of his work by his fresh, muscular prose. A final recommendation: A professor wouldn’t necessarily receive low evaluations for assigning this book to undergraduates.  

Paul Gottfried is a columnist and former Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College.

Posted: November 24, 2013

By 'the Permanent Things' [T. S. Eliot] meant those elements in the human condition that give us our nature, without which we are as the beasts that perish. They work upon us all in the sense that both they and we are bound up in that continuity of belief and institution called the great mysterious incorporation of the human race.

Russell Kirk

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