February 1, 2005
by John Fonte
Michael Novak is one of American conservatism's leading voices in debates over culture, religion, and democracy at home and abroad. A long time National Review and NRO contributor, he is a confidant of popes and presidents. Intellectually, he is an eloquent spokesman for what could be called the Catholic Whig position. His latest book, The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations is Not Inevitable, is a Whig vision for a 21st century world civilization.
As a Whig, Novak puts his emphasis on human liberty in presenting an optimistic, yet realistic analysis of future possibilities. Ever the Trinitarian, he sketches out a vision of "Caritapolis," a benign view of globalization, in which the Whig virtues of political liberty and economic growth are underpinned by a third, the moral-cultural sensibility informed by religion, particularly Christianity and Judaism. While, "many intellectuals look at the world in purely secular terms," this secularism, Novak tells us, is "too thin an interpretation of human life" upon which to structure a universal civilization that is credible to the world's six billion people, most of whom are religious.
The Islamic question is at center of this book. Can Islam come to terms with democracy? Novak answers with guarded optimism. He implicitly rejects the Turkish solution?the coercive secularist model of Attaturk?that like the Shah's reforms, and the Arab Socialism of Nasser, has proved to be ultimately unsatisfying to large numbers of religious Muslims. The choice, Novak insists, is not simply between "the Ayatollah Khomeini and Salman Rushdie." Sudanese resistance fighters battling the oppressive radical Islamist regime of Khartoum told Novak "we are serious Muslims…please help find us a Muslim theory that embraces the best of the modern world, including democracy."
While radical Islamism is anti-democratic and at war with the West, Novak sees "other intellectual resources burning deeply in the bosom of Islam [that] may lead to a Muslim defense of several ideas crucial to democracy." These include: "the dignity of the individual, consultative government attuned to the common good, religious liberty, and the fundamental equality of all human beings before God." Novak notes that "Bernard Lewis himself" points to elements in Islamic tradition that "assist" the "development of one or another form of democracy." He also sites the work of younger Muslim scholars including Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of Yale University and the U.S. President's Commission on Religious Liberty, as hopeful.
Novak believes that whether most Islamic societies eventually embrace political democracy and market economics depends not upon their secularization (which has and will continue to fail), but upon whether Muslim scholars can find the intellectual, moral, and practical possibilities of democratic life and economic growth within the Islamic tradition. Novak notes that Catholicism, indifferent or hostile to liberalism (the animosity was mutual) and democracy until well into the 20th century, underwent just such an intellectual and moral reexamination. Himself a major participant in the development of Catholic democratic thought, Novak devotes a section of the book in analyzing the current work of the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences (PASS) that includes some other prominent American conservative intellectuals such as Mary Ann Glendon and Jean Bethke Elshain. He also argues, at one point in the book, that Catholicism itself may have the best intellectual tools "to defend the presuppositions of democracy."
The Catholic Church, Novak states, is also starting to make its peace with Capitalism. With limpid prose Novak makes the case that the greatest hope of the world's poor to break the chains of poverty is free market capitalism. He sites the successes of Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Ireland, and Chile. Novak calls for a world-wide Catholic "Initiative for the Poor." What is needed, he says, are practical proposals such as the development of teaching guides and seminars offering technical support for "local elites and the poor alike." The author recalls the plaintive words of a priest in Nigeria begging him to "set down" some practical criteria to fight poverty through economic growth.
Novak declares that it is time for a "blue" environmentalism to replace the "green" environmentalism that began in the 1970s, had great successes, but was sometimes "contaminated" with "eco-socialism." Blue environmentalism is realistic and not opposed to economic growth. Nature exists for man and not vice versa. Blue environmentalism "takes seriously the obligation to help the poor" escape from poverty by promoting markets and liberty, as well as, fostering responsibility for our natural habitat. Novak characterizes "blue" as the "color of liberty, personal initiative, and enterprise" as contrasted not only with "green," but explicitly with "red" the traditional color of the left and socialism. One suspects that the astute Michael Novak is having fun by reversing our contemporary (and misleading) "red-blue" political dichotomy and returning it to its traditional meaning.
Along with Augustine, Alexis de Tocqueville is a figure to whom the author returns throughout the book. Novak endorses Tocqueville's claim that the first political institution of American democracy is religion (meaning specifically Christianity and Judaism). Although seemingly counter-intuitive for secular intellectuals, Novak argues, this claim is true in the larger sense. First, he notes the empirical evidence: on any given week-end more Americans attend religious services than watch football on television both Saturday and Sunday together; five times more Americans go to church each week than go to movies; a higher portion of Americans go to church today than in 1776; and "the religious factor is highly potent in American electoral politics, some would say it is the single most important factor."
Philosophically, he declares that the essential beliefs of American democracy in human dignity, equality, and liberty would not have taken shape without prior belief in the religion of the Hebrew and Christian Bible. Thus, democracy in America "owes an enormous debt to Jewish and Christian faith." Moreover, "biblical faith provides to reason practical fixed ideas (moral laws) that only very few philosophers and they only uncertainly can reach for themselves." In America, unlike Europe, faith and reason, Jerusalem and Athens, Tocqueville's "spirit of religion" and "spirit of freedom" are not adversaries, but, in the Frenchman's words "companions" in the maintenance of ordered liberty (as opposed to license.)
Novak declares that at the center of the premises that undergird democracy is the regulative ideal of truth. Without the ideal of truth or the existence of an objective moral order independent of human will (whether based on religion or some form of natural law), there is no standard in which to judge right and wrong, and, thus only will and power remain. The so-called "critical thinking" theories in our law schools, which analyze all issues in terms of "power and interest rather than their relation to truth," clear the way "for a regime that exercises naked power." Indeed, this is what happened in the 1920s when anti-rational "theories of the absurd" served the "Fascist exaltation of power."
On the underpinnings of American democracy Novak agrees with the Founding Fathers and Tocqueville that religion is an "indispensable" support of this republic. He disagrees with Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's premises in Casey, that: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of the meaning of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." Kennedy's principle, Novak tells us, "throws every person into region of lawlessness and personal arbitrariness. Its commandment is: do as you please." The "destructive" logic of the Supreme Court decisions in Casey, Sullivan, and Lawrence are that "right and wrong are whatever we desire them to be." The subtext of Kennedy's reasoning is that there is no objective moral order, that the most important questions of life are defined by will, and thus, by power in some form (majoritarian populist or judicial activist elitist).
Novak's book provides powerful insights into the interplay of religion, economics, culture, and democracy in the globalizing world of the 21st century. At the same time, he also, implicitly, defends and clarifies a principled American conservatism that does not simply adjust to the latest trends in the Zeitgeist, or parrot theories of expressive individualism or states rights on core values issues such as the definition of marriage, but stands forthrightly for an objective moral order in the tradition of the Founders and Lincoln.
Throughout the book, Novak examines various challenges to liberal democracy and the erosion of democratic mores and institutions within existing democratic states. However, one emerging threat to constitutional democracy is missing. I call this challenge "post-democracy." It is the growing power and influence of transnational progressive elites (many of them American) who seek to limit the democratic sovereignty (i.e., the self-government) of the United States and the democratic sovereignty of some of our friends including Israel, Britain, and Australia. The transnational progressives would use global institutions such as the UN, the EU, the International Criminal Court and seemingly benign concepts such as international law and human rights to limit American self-government and the self-government of other liberal democratic nation-states. This global challenge to "government by consent of the governed" has been documented in recent years by, among others, Jeremy Rabkin, John Bolton, John O'Sullivan, and Robert Bork, as well as by Margaret Thatcher and Vaclav Klaus. It is time to take it seriously. Perhaps, the subject of a future book by the prolific Michael Novak?
This review of The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations is Not Inevitable by Michael Novak (Basic) was published in National Review on December 31, 2004.
John Fonte is a Senior Fellow and Director of Hudson's Center for American Common Culture.
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