Monday, May 27, 2013

Frank Cocozzelli on Neo-Confederate Catholic Ideologues and the Fantasy of Nullification: Memorial Day Reflection

Early in May, I recommended an article by Frank Cocozzelli on the rising strand of neo-Confederate ideology in some sectors of the American Catholic right. Frank's article focuses on Catholic libertarian historian Thomas E. Woods.

As I noted when I recommended Frank's article on Woods to readers, the preceding article was the first in a series. Frank has now published a follow-up to his Woods article, and on this observance of Memorial Day in the U.S. (a holiday that was instituted to commemorate the Civil War dead), I think it's appropriate to point to Frank's next article in this series, which notes that Woods, Fr. John McCloskey, and other neo-Confederate thinkers of the American Catholic right are now openly talking about nullification and secession. They're adopting, in other words, the rhetoric of the antebellum South, which chose secession rather than conceding that its practice of slavery, which the rest of American society had begun to condemn, was morally wrong.

Socially conservative, traditionalist Catholics who toy with the notions of nullification and secession are motivated to establish what they regard as a morally upright theocracy in response to what they claim is the moral decay of the society at large. This idea already has political teeth in the political activism of the Catholic (and Opus Dei) governor of Kansas Sam Brownback, who has, as Frank notes, signed several nullification bills into law.

Catholic neo-Confederate ideologues maintain, Frank points out, that the idea that states supersede the national social contract is rooted in the Catholic idea of subsidiarity, which argues that things both governmental and otherwise are effectively handled at the most local level possible. But, as Frank notes, the historical argument that Catholic neo-Confederates advance to justify their proposal to "return" power to the states is is simply wrong, on factual grounds, since states did not precede the union that became known as the United States.

To the contrary, the original colonies formed the union, and acted collaboratively and in reliance on each other as a union of colonies to overthrow British rule of colonial Anglo America. What resulted (and what was intended) was a nation and not a congeries of colonies, each with its distinctive identity, culture, and autonomous government. 

As Frank writes,

Finally, it is worth noting that whatever our political outlooks, few of us see the founding of the Jamestown and Plymouth colonies as the origin of individual sections or states. Rather, we see them as the beginning of our identity, warts and all, as an American People (the longer history of Native Americans, notwithstanding).  We celebrate Thanksgiving Day, for example, as a national tradition, not one unique to Massachusetts.  Likewise, we celebrate July 4th as the beginning of the American Revolution, not the secession of the individual original thirteen colonies from the British Empire.  Rather, we all revolted in unison and reliance upon each other to create a new nation.

The imagination that the states of the American union exist in a loose confederation that can be broken at any time by any state pitting itself against the entire nation is essentially anarchist, as Lincoln maintained (and as Frank points out). This imagination will inevitably feed tyranny at the local level, particularly when it's fueled by theocratic fantasies.

It was precisely to overcome such tyranny and to break with such theocracy, as it had previously been represented by established religion, that the founders of the American republic including Jefferson and Madison developed a constitutional basis of government and the notion of religious freedom. That some American Catholics today want to use the notion of religious freedom--of their religious freedom, which denies the right of religious freedom to other citizens--to re-establish theocratic forms of government is mind-boggling in the extreme, and it suggests how little some American Catholics have ever completely grasped the foundational notions that lie underneath the entire American democratic experiment.

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