U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Ideology and Religion

What follows is a version of the talk Christopher Shannon gave as part of a plenary at the most recent S-USIH Conference in Indianapolis on the topic: “The Ideology Problem in Teaching and Scholarship.” Shannon is associate professor of history at Christendom College in Virginia.  He is the author of two books: Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual and Culture in Modern American Social Thought and A World Made Safe for Differences: Cold War Intellectuals and the Politics of Identity. He has a forthcoming book, The Past as Pilgrimage: Narrative, Tradition and the Renewal of Catholic History which he is co-authoring with Christopher Blum.

“What are our histories of culture, of civilization, of progress, of humanity, of truth, save the form of ecclesiastical history in harmony with our times—that is to say, of the triumph and propagation of the faith, of the strife against the powers of darkness, of the successive treatments of the new evangel made afresh with each succeeding epoch?” This shock of recognition comes not from a contemporary scholar engaging the work of George Marsden or Brad Gregory, but rather from Benedetto Croce in his 1920 work Theory and History of Historiography. [1] Croce’s rhetorical question came in the course of his reflection on just his own particular episode in the never ending crisis of historicism, which is in no small way related to the never ending crisis of ideology. A specter haunts the histories of both historicism and ideology, and it is the specter of religion—more specifically Christianity, most specifically Catholicism.

In recently teaching Daniel Bell’s “End of Ideology in the West,” I was reminded of how Western intellectuals fashioned religion as the first “ideology” in the sense of false consciousness, and also of how every subsequent true consciousness has eventually faced unmasking as yet another disguised theology. [2] I was also reminded of how, despite the self-consuming logic of ideology critique, secular liberal modernity has continued, since Bell’s time, to pose as the intellectual last man standing, as that which remains after all ideologies have failed; moreover, historians continue to figure this transcending of ideology as a transcending of religion. Last year at this conference, David Hollinger gave voice to yet another incarnation of this end of ideology ideology in a plenary address that affirmed, with perhaps only slight qualification, the classic secularization narrative bequeathed by Weber and Durkheim.

Is nothing sacred? The answer is, of course, yes. For all its skepticism in matters of conventional faith, secularism retains its own faith commitments and allows these commitments to guide its history. We need look no further than recent histories of one of liberalism’s acknowledged sacred principles, human rights. Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, is at first glance a scathing dismissal of all previous liberal histories of human rights as, once again, a kind of disguised theology:

Historians of human rights approach their subject, in spite of its novelty, the way church historians once approached theirs. They regard the basic cause—much as the church historian treated the Christian religion—as a saving truth, discovered rather than made in history. [3]

As if to shock readers who might have imagined human rights a thoroughly secular undertaking, Moyn continues this faith-baiting throughout his book by emphasizing the Catholic roots—and branches—of human rights discourse from the 1930s to the 1970s. But the main point of his argument is simply that human rights are made in history. Part of that making was the gradual disentangling of human rights from its Catholic intellectual context, a context Moyn consistently characterizes as conservative as best, reactionary at worst. Still, he has harsh words for Catholicism’s secular successor as well, calling attention to the many crimes committed in the name of human rights, most especially the Iraq War.

Yet after all his historicizing bluster and righteous assault on the sacred cow of human rights, Moyn in the end affirms that history is our only hope for “thinking about how to reinvent the creed in ways that are progressive rather than brutal.” [4] That is, in the end, Moyn gets religion and that religion is progress. Like Daniel Bell before him, Moyn discards the faith ladder to utopia for the more modest empirical ladder in which “human rights call to mind a few core values that demand protection.” Also like Bell, he insists that “the last utopia cannot be a moral one.” [5] Does Moyn so quickly forget that the Cold War was fought in the name of a few core values, what we call the liberal consensus, the anti-utopian utopia? Does he not remember that Bell and the intellectuals of the Cold War generation prided themselves on their ability to separate morality from politics, believing this separation the key to keeping violent fanatics out of politics? More deeply, how can he honestly affirm “a few core values” in the wake of his radical historicizing of human rights? Is there any way out of this ideological cul-de-sac?

Croce suggested one option: simply embrace the cul-de-sac as your own and associate with like-minded people who do the same. Croce figures prominently in H. Stuart Hughes’s Consciousness and Society, a classic Cold War-era interpretation of the intellectual history of the first third of the twentieth century. [6] This solution appeared good enough for the 1950s. It appeared good enough again in the 1980s, when Richard Rorty made similar affirmations concerning Western liberal values. [7] It is in many ways the option the historical profession has repeatedly affirmed through the long struggle with “that noble dream” of objectivity chronicled so ably by Peter Novick. [8]

Moyn’s own research points to at least one alternative to liberalism: Roman Catholicism. Catholic defenders of human rights such as Jacques Maritain differed from liberals in insisting that natural rights had intelligibility only within the broader context, the given normative order of natural law. Absent such an order, the adjudication of conflicting rights would quickly descend into a simple power struggle, pitting each individual’s rights against another. Such a social order might restrain this conflict through negotiation and compromise, but it could never know peace as harmony. Following his mid-century predecessors, Moyn can see in Catholic visions of harmony only the totalitarian temptation rooted in a seductive, though ultimately repressive essentialism inimical to progress. How to adjudicate between “progress” and Catholicism? How to overcome the ideological impasse? Given the time constraints on our presentations and realizing we can hash some this out in discussion, I will leave you with a rendering of the ideological alternatives before us drawn from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

— Then, said Cranly, you do not intend to become a protestant?

— I said that I had lost the faith, Stephen answered, but not that I had lost self-respect. What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent? [9]

[1] Croce quoted in Christopher Dawson, “Karl Marx and the Dialectic of History,” in John J. Mulloy, ed., Dynamics of World History (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2002), 369-370.

[2] Daniel Bell, “The End of Ideology in the West,” in David A. Hollinger and Charles Capper, eds., The American Intellectual Tradition, Vol. II: 1865 to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011): 373-378.

[3] Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010), 5-6.

[4] Samuel Moyn, “On the Genealogy of Morals: A Review of Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History” in The Nation (April 16, 2007): 31.

[5] Moyn, Last Utopia, 227.

[6] H. Stuart Hughes, Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought 1890-1930 (New York: Vintage Books, 1958).especially chapter 6, “Neo-Idealism in History.”

[7] See Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

[8] Peter Novick, That Noble Dream:The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[9][9] James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man , (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 243-244

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  1. There is no alternative to liberalism that will preserve the work and worth of the secular liberal academy — which is precisely the (one and only!) point for Chris Shannon. Which reminds me…Happy Reformation Day!

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