This interview with Christopher Ferrara, Catholic author and founder of the American Catholic Lawyers Association, was conducted by Dr. John C. Rao, November 11, 2012.
JR: Let’s begin, appropriately enough, with your title, [Liberty, the God That Failed: Policing the Sacred and Constructing the Myths of the Secular State, from Locke to Obama] and the mention of “liberty” and coercion together. Is that the essence of the failure of this “god”? Its reliance on police action to force men to be “free”?
CF: That is part of it, of course. The book demonstrates that “Liberty” has never arrived at any place in its long march through the nations except at the point of a gun. The book exposes the utter myth of Liberty—essentially the overthrow of monarchy and any form of the perennial alliance between Church and State—as the result of spontaneous popular uprisings of downtrodden masses, yearning to be free from “the tyranny of popes and kings.” The age of democratic revolution, as one chapter explains, merely replaced old yokes with new and far heavier ones.
But more than this, the book traces how Liberty was first reified—given a kind of concrete being, such as Lady Liberty or Liberty Tree—and then deified, that is, literally hailed as a goddess. This was more than a trope of the 18th century style of rhetoric, albeit less than a worship of divinity as such.
Think of Liberty treated this way as a kind of demiurge or emanation of the divine. In fact, there is a goddess Liberty of pagan Roman provenance who is the model for the goddess celebrated by the colonial radicals of 1776. Her likeness as seen on a Roman coin also appears in the Statue of Liberty.
JR: What about a second issue brought up by your title, that of secular “myth making” and the assault on the earlier existing sacred tradition. Are you dealing here with a new, sincere religious vision? Or are you confronting a conscious fraud?
CF: If we accept Becker’s thesis of a new “heavenly city” that represents the Enlightenment’s persistence in the Christian vision radically altered to exclude Christ—and I do not accept that thesis at all—then one could speak of a sincere religious vision. But the behavior of the ideologues who practiced revolution in 1776 and thereafter belies sincerity and bespeaks hypocrisy and fraud—as their own contemporary critics protested. The book develops the evidence of this hypocrisy and fraud beyond serious dispute, showing that Liberty has always been just Power by another name—but a new form of power, the “will of the people,” that knows none of the restraints imposed by the Christian political tradition with its divine dictate that we must obey God rather than men.
JR: If fraud is involved in this unified development, who is it that gains from it? Or do the beneficiaries change over time? In other words, do Locke, Obama, and everyone in between serve the cause of the same or different people?
CF: Broadly speaking, the same sort of people. That is, the people who proclaim their service of Liberty while they exercise Power and revel in its perquisites with voluptuous abandon. There is no better example of this than Thomas Jefferson, the very Apostle of Liberty: a slave-owner who deplored slavery, a supposed champion of “limited government” whose entire career is marked by one dictatorial move after another, including a tyrannical embargo of American shipping during his second term, during which he deployed the American military against American citizens. And this long before Lincoln supposedly destroyed the illusory “Jeffersonian democracy” that Jefferson himself never practiced. The book rather relentlessly documents Jefferson’s career in this regard, perhaps with a thoroughness not seen in other books treating of this subject.
Another of the dozens of examples presented in the book: Jefferson’s plan, which he defended throughout his life, for the state-sponsored forcible deportation of black slave children in order to kill off the black population in America, thus ending the problem of the black man’s inconvenient presence among the white beneficiaries of the Revolution.
Today, of course, we have the same sort of person in Obama. He is a fanatical advocate of the mass murder of his own people in the womb, preferably with state subsidies. As Martin Luther King declared, abortion is “killing populations. It’s killing generations and certainly the population that is most impacted by abortion in America is the black community. So I feel that as a civil rights leader I have a responsibility to proclaim that black Americans are being exterminated by the genocidal acts of abortion.”
Like Jefferson—like so many American Presidents—Obama is a Liberty-preaching tyrant of dimensions unknown in the Christian centuries. Here is a man it costs a billion dollars a year to maintain, who lives in a mansion and has a fleet of private jets and helicopters, who takes multi-million dollar vacations at our expense, who can destroy the world by authorizing the launch of nuclear missiles, who holds the power over life and death in his hands via Presidential pardon, and who presides over a government whose tentacles extend into every area of human existence.
But thank God the Founders overthrew King George! Now we have Liberty! And taxation with representation!
JR: So what is it that disturbs you more—the fraud or the nature of the fraud?
CF: As a lawyer and writer, the fraud. I loathe sophistical and disingenuous arguments and the hoary myths that modernity tells about itself. They keep me up at night. I feel driven to destroy them. As a “citizen”, it is the nature of the fraud, which is the life we must endure under the heavy secular yokes of the state and federal governments that “we the People”—meaning, “we the revolutionary elites”—supposedly “conceived in Liberty,” which wield powers and make demands on ordinary people that no mere Christian king could even dream of.
JR: One historical question suggested by the title before moving on. You start with Locke, but in the text Hobbes comes up as well. That indicates you believe the ideology of liberty to have earlier roots.
CF: Yes, in Hobbes, whom Locke made more palatable while pretending to deplore “Hobbism.” But then much earlier, in germinal form, in the thought of such as William of Ockham, Marsilius of Padua, Machiavelli, and the rather obscure Juan de Mariana, the Jesuit outlier whose works were burned by his own order.
Hobbes and Locke, however, put it all together: the state of nature, man’s natural “absolute” freedom, the demotion of natural law in favor of a new, crabbed conception of rights, the subjugation of Church by state (which Hobbes achieves by having the monarch usurp the role of Pope and Locke by simply separating the two powers completely), the social compact as the source of political authority, the right to revolution. And, of course, “the sovereign will of the people”—meaning the sovereign will of those who oppress the people in their name in completely unprecedented ways—precisely because they claim to represent the popular will.
JR: I was struck by your description of the highly sophisticated co-option of the role of “voice of the people” by what amounted to a small number of American revolutionaries eager for independence. It sounds more “modern”, “radical”, and even Bolshevik than one would normally think. Were the revolutionaries innovators in this misrepresentation of their numerical strength? Is it just in the nature of the liberty-seeking beast? Did they actually believe it?
CF: Some may have believed it, others may have persuaded themselves that they believed it, and still others, such as Madison in Federalist No. 40, quite cynically declared that they represented the will of the people no matter what the people would actually have willed if given a say in the matter.
This indeed is the nature of the beast: its claim to absolute authority based on the “consent” of those it purports to govern by consent. Yet how is it that any popular attempt to revoke that mythical consent is invariably met by lethal force?
JR: Given all of the shenanigans that you describe, is there any way to separate the Constitution as a legal and administrative document out from its service on behalf of the God of Liberty?
CF: Yes there is! The last chapter of the book explores exactly how this could be done. And the Church has never condemned democracy per se. My book is thus not a brief for the restoration of monarchy, even if I would much prefer it personally and, in fact, the imperial Presidency exemplified by Obama is nothing but an elective monarchy. By the way, even the radical libertarian Hans Hermann Hoppe, in his Democracy: The God that Failed (his title inspired my title) concedes that Christian monarchs were far more respectful of the rights of their subjects than modern democratic regimes.
JR: You catalogue Jeffersonian Republicans acting as Washingtonian Federalists and vice-versa. How aware were they of serving the same God of Liberty and his contradictory message? When you speak of some of them as disappointed with the results of the Revolution, were they really penitent for supporting it, or did they just claim that they did not “choose” that the situation developed in unpleasant ways?
CF: The Federalists and the Republicans alike claimed to be the loyal servitors of Liberty. Those who later repented, repented of the outcome, not the idea of Liberty. A few, however, such as Benjamin Rush, seemed actually to repent of the Enlightenment itself, finally conceding that only the Gospel could serve as the foundation of the good State—which is exactly the conception of social order the Revolution had destroyed. There is a chapter devoted to these varying repentances. But you will find none of these latter penitents among the first rank of the Founders.
JR: Let me ask your opinion on a side question that has always interested me. The Founding Fathers and the Old Guard Bolsheviks were generally educated and cosmopolitan men. They both created systems that were then conducive to domination by much more parochial-minded Jacksons and Stalins. Do you think that the “priesthood” serving the God of Liberty inevitably suffers from this kind of degeneration?
CF: An important insight. Yes, the boldly conceived revolutionary vehicle that will transform and elevate the human race inevitably falls under the control of lowly, crass, and shallow demagogues, Obama being the latest example.
JR: While we are on this subject of devolution, how about the line of development from men like Benjamin Franklin to Abraham Lincoln? Both seem to have been convinced of the need for a civil religion of liberty to replace the sacred religion of Christianity. Is the new secular religion they support unchangeable, or do you see a development of doctrine along the way?
CF: The worship of the nation-state as the ground of social order, as the new mystical body to replace the Mystical Body of Christendom, is the prime dogma of Liberty as religion. The dogma leads to development in the form of an ever-expanding catalogue of “rights” that “the people” clamor for, which now includes mass murder in the womb and the “marriage” of members of the same sex.
In this development, the concept of rights loses what Pierre Manent calls its “ontological density,” and becomes simply whatever the hell people would like to do or whatever judges say they should be able to do. And all of this “development” becomes part of the Liberty catechism in keeping with the other prime dogma: Locke’s Law of Toleration, which insures that no “private” religious belief shall be “imposed” by law. Of course, the demotion of revealed religion to ineffectual private opinion is itself a theological judgment that undergirds the modern nation-state, making it no less a confessional state than the Christian commonwealth it supersedes. The political scientist Ralph Hancock has called this the “anti-theology” of the State.
JR: Still thinking of Lincoln, is he the pivotal figure for the survival of the Union that most historians seem to think? In other words, no Lincoln, no Civil War? What would have been the fate of the God of Liberty without him?
CF: Such counterfactuals are difficult to assess. If Buchanan had been President, and if we are to take him at this word in his farewell address, he would have let the Southern states walk away. But it is hard to believe that even Buchanan would have done nothing to respond to the seizure of all federal forts, arsenals, mints, courthouses and other federal properties by Confederate forces, the firing on Fort Sumter, the aiding and abetting of armed insurrection in Baltimore, and the establishment of a rival federal government asserting jurisdiction over half the United States and Mississippi, beginning just across the Potomac from the White House. The Southern romantic claim that Lincoln started the war is simply laughable. It was the Lynchburg Virginian newspaper that admitted the fact of history concerning the aims of the Confederacy, one year after the bombardment of Sumter: “We dared a revolution, and provoked a war.”
Granted, the fire-breathing politicians of the South predicted a short and rather bloodless conflict, but then politicians always lie or mislead “We the People.” And then they promptly exempt themselves from the wars they provoke, while the common man—as you say, John—is told to “march and pay.”
In any case, even if the South had succeeded, we would have two federal leviathans on the same continent instead of one. Confederate Vice President Stephens openly declared that it was the intention of the Confederate government—a new federal government, not a mere voluntary league of states—to be “the controlling power on this continent.” In other words, a new nation-state, modeled on the one from which the Southern states had seceded, including a Confederate Constitution—borrowed verbatim from the United States Constitution—that separated Church and State, forbade any religious test for office, and provided for the supremacy of Confederate law over the law of the Confederate states in cases of conflict.
JR: You go into great detail to indicate that the South offered homage to the God of Liberty alongside the North. Is it exactly the same God? A heretical “Arian” or “Monophysite” version? Or is it just that there is a different, restricted elite that benefits from the fruits of freedom, South as opposed to North?
CF: The latter. I call it “Southern-fried Liberty.” As I have just noted, the Union and Confederate Constitutions were practically identical, including a supremacy clause, used to enforce the Confederate military draft against state opposition in the Confederacy—the first draft in American history, by the way.
Both sides invoked the Founders and the Spirit of 1776. The Confederate Seal featured George Washington on his horse. Confederate leaders spoke again and again of their “second American Revolution.” Indeed, no less than Robert E. Lee declared just before the war that “secession is nothing but revolution.”
Think of the Civil War as Liberty without slaves versus Liberty with slaves: the matter and anti-matter of Liberty, colliding with immense destructive force. But then, when it was all over, Lee, Davis, Stephens and other Southern leaders said, in essence, “Never mind. We are all one country again.” Just like that! The book explores what I call The Great Never Mind.
JR: There seems to be a certain Hegelian spirit that emerges from what both Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee say about the Civil War; in other words, “liberty” is tested in battle and he who arises victorious from the field of combat is to be accepted as its true standard-bearer and interpreter. Do you think that “struggle” and “survival of the fittest” might be more essential to the religion of Liberty than anything substantive that it can offer to its believers?
CF: Exactly so! It was as if the Confederacy vanished like a soap bubble once the South failed the test of strength.
After it was over, Lee swore an oath of allegiance to the Union, declaring: “I will, in like manner, abide by and faithfully support all laws and proclamations which have been made during the existing rebellion with reference to the emancipation of slaves, so help me God.” And the same Lee who had written before the war that “secession is nothing but revolution,” wrote to the arch-liberal and anti-Romanist Lord Acton—a great enthusiast for secession and the Confederacy—that “the judgment of reason has been displaced by the arbitrament of war, waged for the purpose as avowed of maintaining the union of the states.” Referring to the “fratricidal war which has taken place,” Lee told Acton that the South “now accepts in good faith its constitutional results.”
So, for Lee and other Southern leaders the Civil War was just one massive arbitration proceeding. And since the South lost the arbitration, it was time to resume union with the North again. As Lee chided one correspondent in 1867: “Madam, do not train up your children in hostility to the government of the United States. Remember we are all one country now. Dismiss from your mind all sectional feeling, and bring them up to be Americans.”
Just like that! And this after nearly 700,000 essentially pointless deaths. Lee even went so far as to declare in the year of his own death that “… I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South…. I would cheerfully have lost all I have lost by the war, and have suffered all I have suffered, to have this object attained.” Then why did the South secede in the first place, for the professed reason—the primary source documents are undeniable on this point—that the institution of slavery had to be defended against Northern threats?
Even Jefferson Davis would declare: “The past is dead; let it bury its dead, its hopes, its aspirations; before you lies the future—a future full of hope and golden promise; a future of expanding national glory, before which all the world shall stand amazed. Let me beseech you to lay aside all rancor, all bitter sectional feeling, and take your place in the ranks of those who will bring about a consummation devoutly to be wished—a reunited country.” In that case, what was the point of the secession?
JR: Your discussion of the late nineteenth Protestant critics of the American Foundation and its “original sin” of ignoring God is very interesting and thoroughgoing. Was there any indication on their part of the role that Protestantism itself may have played in creating the God of Liberty?
CF: Excellent question. No, unfortunately they seemed oblivious to the fatal defect in their own religion. Hence their fascinating campaign to amend the Constitution to acknowledge—believe it or not—the social kingship of Christ, to which I devote a chapter, succumbed to its own inconsistency, which was inherent to the Protestant conception of sovereignty.
JR: From what you say, it strikes me that the only obstacle to the radicalization of the American God of Liberty is the continued struggle of such religious-minded critics against its logical development from its more moderate sounding envelope. Am I wrong in arguing this, or do you see a real connection between Anglo-American liberty and continental European radicalism that only the persistence of Christian opposition prevents becoming crystal clear?
CF: European radicalism is Anglo-American Liberty in its direct confrontation with a Catholic social order of centuries’ standing that was never present in America. R.R. Palmer and others have noted that the American Revolution would have been as bloody as the French if not for the lack of any serious religious opposition to revolution in the colonies. The Anglican loyalists, weak opponents of the radicals to begin with, were driven from the country and never returned, unlike the French loyalists who were slaughtered in the Vendee or those who later made possible the Bourbon Restoration.
JR: That, of course brings up the question of Catholics. If I remember correctly, they first come up seriously in your book with reference to the San Patricio brigade in the Mexican War, and as victims of “liberty”. Why are such historical experiences as those of the San Patrizios so unknown to American Catholics? Do they have two conflicting religious affiliations? Are they worshipers of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob on the one hand and the God of Liberty on the other? Or do they place more faith in the Founding Fathers than the Church Fathers?
CF: Pierre Manent has put it best: In America, as in every Western polity, we are expected to be “atheists under the one God, the God in whom we believe.” This is the intolerable paradox that the partisans of Liberty have foisted upon us—and with spectacular success. They have hypnotized an entire civilization, which need only awaken from its trance in order to realize the ridiculousness of its situation.
JR: Modern conservatives are always talking about getting back to the roots and the Original Intent of the Founding Fathers. It is clear from your book that that Original Intent serves an anti-Catholic and secularizing cause. Does that mean that modern conservatives are anti-Catholic secularists? Or do they simply refuse to admit that 1+1=2?
CF: I would say that in principle they are anti-Catholic secularists, while emotionally they would deny the charge and view anti-Catholicism with horror or at least disapproval. And yes, they refuse to admit that 1 plus 1 makes two. Like the libertarians, they never cease to denounce the excesses of the very State arising from the Liberty they never cease to praise.
JR: You describe tarring and feathering as a favored tool of the Sons of Liberty in the revolutionary era. Don’t you think that the disciples of liberty in our own day will tar and feather your book? And perhaps you along with it?
CF: Anything to stimulate sales! Please direct post-mortem payments to my estate.
JR: If Liberty is the God that failed, how is it that many people, neo-conservatives and libertarians prominent among them, seem to think that the religion of American liberty is on the verge of worldwide triumph?
CF: That was the delusion of the Roman Republic just before its fall.
JR: Your book is one of the most illuminating, well-researched, and reader-friendly that I have ever enjoyed. Like all superb scholarly works, it indicates a much wider substructure. You must have a lot more material on the subject of liberty and its discontents, maybe dealing with matters beyond the borders of America. Are you planning a follow-up work?
CF: Yes, a second volume was already substantially written when this book appeared. It traces Liberty’s march through the nations after 1776, and ultimately its march into the Catholic Church through the bronze doors of Saint Peter’s at Vatican II—provoking ecclesial chaos of unprecedented proportions. God willing, the second volume will find its way into print within the next two years. Maybe sooner, if my publisher pushes hard enough.
Editor’s note: This interview was originally published in The Distributist Review