With this third entry in our “Bearers of the Word” series, I’m deeply honored to speak with my friend and ally, Dan McCarthy, one of the foremost thinkers and editors in the conservative movement. Dan, as fits his person, offers us some very candid and thought-provoking ideas on the nature of Catholicism and its future in America. Dan is still a young man, and we can continue to expect important things from him for a very long time to come. This interview is packed with ideas and perceptive insights. Enjoy.
BB: First, Dan, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me (and CatholicVote). I know how busy you are. To begin, please tell us about yourself.
DMcC: I’m 34, from the Midwest, now living in Arlington, Virginia, where I edit a magazine called The American Conservative. It started in 2002 as a traditional conservative alternative to George W. Bush and the neoconservatives. We warned that the Iraq War would be a disaster and argued in 2003 that housing prices were unsustainable. Unhappily, we were right.
I joined as a staff writer the year after the magazine began, took a break around 2007-8 to work as a senior editor at ISI Books and then as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign, returned to the magazine that spring and have been there since.
The American Conservative is home to Daniel Larison, Pat Buchanan, Bill Kauffman, and Rod Dreher, which gives you a sense of its sensibility.
BB: How did you come to your Catholicism?
DMcC: From the cradle. Before high school, my education was almost entirely in Catholic institutions.
Readers deserve fair warning: today I am not a very observant Catholic. To hear the media tell it, Catholicism has only two categories, devout and dissident. Actually there are a lot of people who fall into neither set.
I haven’t been deterred by the sexual abuse scandals; it’s hardly the first time grave worldly evil has infiltrated the Church, and it won’t be the last. Nor do I think the Church’s teachings or practices are outmoded. Quite the contrary: terrible modern liturgical music, hip therapeutic homilies, and diabolical spaceship architecture have been more of a stumbling block. Others get around this by shopping for a parish, seeking a church within a church. But this rings false to me. There’s more. Social life and religious faith are farther apart today than at any time since the dawn of Christianity. In everything from friendship to scholarship, there are now civil habits that do not mesh well with the duties of faith. The notional hierarchy of good is clear, but experience pulls in the opposite direction.
BB. Understood. Who do you think, then, offers the best representation of a Catholic today? That is, who do you admire, and why?
DMcC: There there’s been a tragic diminution in the distinctly Catholic sensibility in American public life. I’ll speak here about my own areas of professional concern, politics and journalism. A little over a generation ago there were enclaves of Catholic thinking within liberalism and conservatism — certainly the conservative movement once had an influential Catholic component. Now there are enclaves of partisan liberalism and conservatism within Catholicism. On the right, a political ecumenism has been pursued in the name of fighting the culture war, and while it may be necessary in some degree, it has politicized and protestantized many Catholic conservatives. (There’s a wonderful book by Patrick Allitt, Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America: 1950-1985, that gives a sense of how things used to be.)
There are still Catholic public figures and organizations, but they tend to be either less engaged with the mainstream than before or else so much more engaged as to be almost totally assimilated. The mainstream itself is both more aggressively Protestant and more aggressively secular than in the past, and Catholics reacting against one side often fall into the arms of the other.
But there are exceptions. Andrew Bacevich’s Catholic grounding shows through in his work, particularly in the brilliant synthesis he makes of radical historical critiques of the American power — originating in such thinkers as Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams — and an unpretentious but unflinching moral worldview. There’s little that’s explicitly Catholic about his books, but implicitly it’s all there.
My friends Drew Bowling and Elias Crim are two thinkers and activists who are also succeeding in bringing a Catholic approach back to the public arena, through their work in adapting the ideas of British “Red Toryism” to the American context. Their nascent organization, ResPublica America, is also not explicitly Catholic but is very much in the spirit.
Tom Woods, the historian, and his family are a superb example of living the faith, and Woods’s work, which has alternated between straight-up Catholic books (How the Church Saved Western Civilization, The Church Confronts Modernity) and political volumes (Meltdown, Rollback), shows ways in which a thoughtful Catholic can tackle some of the biggest problems of today.
What distinguishes them all, despite their differences, is a certain maturity of viewpoint, an Augustinian complexity, you might say, as against the neat solutions and partisan simplifications that prevail elsewhere.
BB: All of this said, Dan, how do you bring your faith into your work?
DMcC: The first thing it provides is a perspective apart from the tides of commerce, power, mass culture; a point of view from which to observe how the utopian aspirations of liberalism and democracy have failed. I’m leery of the ways in which Catholicism, and Christianity in general, has been co-opted by ideology, so I don’t pretend that my ideas about quotidian politics are uniquely Catholic.
BB: What do you see as the future of Catholicism?
DMcC: There are challenges ahead for Catholicism that will make the last century look placid. For all the talk about the global south becoming the population center of Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, the West and Far East will continue to be the engines of global culture for a long while yet. As Africa and South Asia develop, they will develop towards the kinds of commercial, statist, spiritually attenuated conditions you find in America, Europe, Japan, and China. “State liberalism,” in the form of democratic capitalism or Chinese-style authoritarian capitalism, will continue to look like “the end of history” and to pose a much greater spiritual threat than Islamist extremism ever could. Religious competition and sectarian violence are challenges the Church is adept at overcoming, but the world of Aldous Huxley is something else.
The Church faces the twin dangers of accommodation with liberalism or overreaction against it, the latter of which has already turned much of evangelical Protestantism into a caricature. I don’t think the “fewer but better” strategy is a sound one; it threatens to turn Catholicism into a subculture, when Catholicism can only be catholic. What I hope to see is a revival of religious orders, or the development of new ones, to meet the challenge. There are lessons to be learned from the Mormons, of all people, who are growing and becoming more influential. Think of how they send young people on missions. They ask a lot of their young people; Catholicism these days asks very little. And gets it.
BB: You label yourself a Tory Anarchist and a Conservative? How does this fit in with your Catholicism/Catholic background?
DMcM: I picked out the Tory anarchist label, the name of a blog I ran for a while, because I found myself agreeing with some radical critiques of the state, from libertarian anarcho-capitalists, for example, but I didn’t agree with the liberal philosophical premises that accompanied them. The modern state is an expression of liberalism, just as much as capitalism or rights-banter is. Specific schools of liberalism may have a problem with specific states, but generally speaking the two are very deeply and closely connected, historically, philosophically, and practically.
I see a complex of the state, monetized wealth, the consumerist ethos, and democratic culture as the primary threat to Catholic Christianity—taken to an extreme, those things are a threat to ordinary life and the individual personality as well.
Democracy, for example, is protean. It’s not just a political process; it entails an elevation of the popular will and mass culture, things which, in turn, are shaped by demagogues, and not only in politics. Money and rights are transformative concepts; they reshape thought and behavior. Liberals emphasize the new kinds of diversity and freedom these things bring, but they also bring quite powerful and pervasive new kinds of servility. They may or may not entail less violence—Steven Pinker has tried to show that they do, even taking abortion into account—but there’s more to life than not dying.
The only conservatism worth its name has to address all of this head on. You don’t want to embrace illiberalism even if you can’t accept liberalism; right-wing romantics are dead wrong and destructive. What’s needed is differentiation, hierarchy, context: order, in the sense of the Greek “cosmos.” The tendency of things that are good in their own spheres to colonize other areas of life has to be checked. Catholicism gets this right in theology; in practice, of course, there have been plenty of bad Catholic societies. Politics and economics have their prudential side, which is where conservatism comes in.
BB: Thanks, Dan. These are very thought-provoking answers, and, again, I really appreciate your time.