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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXIII, No. 2
Pentecost 2008

The Roots of American Democracy
Resistance in the Ruins

by Mary Jo Anderson

In April at Georgetown University the first annual James V. Schall, S.J. Award for Teaching and Humane Letters was presented to Professor Ralph McInerny of Notre Dame University. The award was conceived by the Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy, a new force for reason and faith on the Georgetown University campus. (

Father Schall, a much beloved professor, has inspired Georgetown students for thirty years. “We wanted to honor his tremendous influence”, said Patrick Deneen, founding director of the Tocqueville Forum, “and so we named this award for his achievements in a time when it is no simple task to teach truth”.

No simple task indeed. Volumes have been written about the intellectual chaos on America’s college campuses. A generation of students has been held hostage to the virulent political correctness that characterizes the majority of American institutions of higher learning, however venerable their past. Many Catholic colleges and universities are as compromised as secular institutions.

This chaos was detailed in Allan Bloom’s 1987 bestseller The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom’s scathing denouncement focused on the moral relativism, the loss of a sense of good and evil that eviscerates academic disciplines from English to philosophy. A quest for truth, and terms such as honor, nobility and fidelity are mocked in modern academia. According to Bloom, students are deprived of the Western Canon (works of “dead white men”) and thus do not understand or respect their own culture. Where there is little respect for one’s own culture, the void is too often filled by dangerous ideologies.

Ten years later, Father James T. Burtchaell repeated the alarm in the his book, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches. The Dying of the Light detailed the diminished (dying!) Christian identities of students in religious colleges. Essentially, in their engagement with the culture, the religious colleges lost. Colleges failed to integrate faith and culture. Religious schools failed to teach why Christian truth must inform political philosophy. In sum, the tacit message is that faith has no crucial role in modern public life.

Others suggest that even as students are turned out with “marketable skills” and set upon a “career path”, never has a generation been so discontent. The social statistics seem to concur. The rates of drug and alcohol abuse, depression and suicide among those with “marketable skills” indicate that though man- the-producer-of-goods-and-services has been successfully formed, his soul has been starved.

Emory professor of English Mark Bauerlein, in “A Very Long Disengagement” (The Chronicle of Higher Education 1/6/2006), wrote of students’ unlimited access to knowledge in the modern era (via the Internet). Yet, Bauerlein asserts, they have not advanced in their understanding of literature, history, politics — the accumulated wisdom of their Western heritage. In the view of this professor, who also served as director of the Office of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts, this disconnect is the work of the secular dominance that characterizes most institutions of higher education.

The dynamics of secularism in education have become so ingrained, so reflexive, that students leave school with the notion that religion is a relic, an artifact of intellectual history that serves to show how far modern man has come since he first climbed out of the mud.

Religion and Reason — New University Programs

A particular aspect of secularism in education is the assumption that the “power” of religious belief is not found in the reasonableness of its propositions, but the reverse; that religious belief gives power to an unreasonable opposition to “modern reason” itself. Those faithful to God and Western philosophical traditions — and who act upon their belief — are thus inserting “unreasonable” propositions into public discourse. The secular worldview cannot in actuality be tolerant of “pluralism” where that term includes the Western philosophical and religious tradition. The two are antithetical.

Into this thorny thicket some intrepid souls have come, announcing a new resistance movement, as it were. Most known, perhaps, is the James Madison Program at Princeton University founded in 2000 by Professor Robert P. George. This program, despite its home on a “predominately liberal” campus, emphasizes the great patrimony of Western civilization as the bedrock of the founding of America. Key to its success is the James Madison Program’s financial independence. Although it operates with the permission and approval of the university’s board, the program raises its own funds and engages its own faculty.

The success of the James Madison Program at Princeton has inspired parents and students. The program serves as a “foxhole” for students raised to revere the traditional understanding of “ordered liberty”. Many families who had serious reservations about entrusting their young men and women to the nation’s top-rated schools now search for similar “colonies” on other campuses. The Tocqueville Forum at Georgetown University is one such rising star.

The Tocqueville Forum is clear about its focus on classical philosophical and biblical texts and their specific influence on the American founding. It presents itself to the Georgetown community as a resourcement, a rediscovery of the roots of American democratic foundations in Western political philosophy, biblical and Christian tradition.

The forum is in the university’s Department of Government, but remains financially independent. “We depend on support primarily from Georgetown alumni, faculty and Americans interested in insuring that the philosophical foundations of liberty are handed on to this nation’s next class of leaders”, said Patrick J. Deneen, director of the Tocqueville Forum. Professor Deneen taught at Princeton from 1997-2005. The James Madison Program, he said, created “a legitimate intellectual and academic space where the kind of questions that lie at the heart of a classic education could be discussed”. Soon afterward he established the Tocqueville Forum at Georgetown. It has attracted fifty eager student fellows in just two years.


The path for “resourcement” initiatives is not always strewn with roses. More often administrations and faculty perceive these projects as a threat. And why wouldn’t they? On numerous campuses — recall the recent brouhaha at historic William and Mary over the Wren Cross — the secular dynamic has invited anti-religious, anti-American, anti-capitalist, anti-Western, anti-life speakers onto campuses, hailed them as innovators and “free thinkers”, and taught, honored and feted every species of chimera. Thus, the success of initiatives like the Tocqueville Forum is all the more welcome.

In October of 2006, the Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy hosted a conference on American civic education that featured Justice Antonin Scalia as keynote speaker. Justice Scalia commended the forum on its mission in light of the “coming crisis in citizenship”. This crisis, according to a recent Intercollegiate Studies Institute study, is the result of students who are “woefully uninformed about this nation’s history and founding principles”.

He then recounted how in the nation’s elite law schools fewer than ten percent of the students have even read the Federalist Papers in their entirety. (One may surmise that about the same percentage is familiar with scripture.) This is an unthinkable crisis when one projects ahead to a near future where legislators, judges and presidents have no understanding of, or allegiance to, those principles. That vision gives urgency to the mission of initiatives like the Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy.

As a practical measure, the Tocqueville Forum seeks to become a counterforce to the excesses of campus political correctness. If the American culture is at the end of a generation of secular humanist rebellion against Revelation and Tradition, once somnolent advocates of the Western philosophical and religious tradition have begun to push back against the heterodox age.

“America originally understood itself as ‘under God’”, a power beyond the state, noted Deneen, who taught philosophy at Princeton before his arrival at Georgetown University. The phrase “under God” is rarely unpacked in contemporary classrooms. “The Tocqueville Forum hopes to redress the decline in civic literacy, and even the hostility on campus toward Western philosophical traditions. Our roundtables and colloquia expose today’s undergraduates to Georgetown’s historic strength in the field of political philosophy. Great names have taught here, including Jeane Kirkpatrick and George Carey. And Fr. Schall”, said Deneen.

Father Schall and Ralph McInerny

A Tocqueville Forum committee unanimously selected Ralph McInerny, the Michael P. Grace Professor of Medieval Studies at Notre Dame, as the inaugural recipient of the Schall award. McInerny is a scholar of enviable energy and wit, the author of dozens of academic volumes, the director of the Jacques Maritain Center at Notre Dame, and a founding publisher of Crisis magazine. As these pursuits were insufficient to slow his pace, he is also the author of cleverly titled popular mysteries such as Irish Gilt and The Widow’s Mate.

After accepting the honor, Professor McInerny entertained guests of the Forum with an endearing lecture on Father Schall entitled, “There Was a Man! On Learning to Be Free”. His tribute to “this remarkable priest, a career that is informed by the fact that he is first and foremost a priest, a Jesuit, a worthy son of Saint Ignatius”, delighted the gathering of faculty, seminarians, students and friends. Where secularism casts its menacing shadow over American academia, Father Schall and professor McInerny are beacons of light.

Dr. McInerny recalled Father Schall’s stature as a priest, philosopher and professor, but chose to highlight Schall the writer, the essayist, the journalist, and the “wise assimilator of the magisterial works of John Paul II and Benedict XVI”. His remarks traversed terrain unfriendly to the study of liberal arts. Schools today jostle for research grants and desire to be known as premier research universities. Schools compete to “discover something new” and this model of education is the “icon of the age”.

In such an age Man is no longer pointed toward self-discovery — who he is and from whence he came and to what purpose. Rather, he is reduced to “data to be probed”. The aim of liberal arts is to “make us free men”, the Notre Dame professor reminded his audience. And, the prolific works of Father Schall stress precisely this, the discovery of “what is”, the given order of things, in which we may find our freedom.

In Father Schall’s The Life of the Mind we learn something of the goal of education, “Each discipline was worthy of study in itself, but once all were acquired, the student was ‘free’ to stand before all things as a whole, both to know and to act. Hence the notion associated with ‘liberal arts’ was ‘universal ‘ or ‘general’”. (p. 32) Further on we are warned, “… it is quite possible not to pay attention to the greatest things of human existence even when they happen right in front of us”. (p. 44) Father Schall is a philosopher who finds the profundity in the mundane, who unwinds the wisdom in Peanuts, a writer of charming essays on subjects ranging from sports to lost socks, yet he deftly explains the disarming realities in The Unseriousness of Human Affairs. His skill at pointing readers to the interwoven whole of the given order is Father Schall’s achievement.

Too often students of today lack any sense of connectedness, of how things fit together as part of an integrated whole. Instead, they are primed, wound up and launched forth into the world as atomized technicians. They wander about without wonder, alienated from the whole of things.

But Schall is intrigued by the world before him — as his very name implies, we learn. Dr. McInerny teased his listeners with the German meaning of the word “schall” which is “curious”, and, “one who wonders”. It is this delight in the world of “what is”, the world not made by us but that can be known that Father Schall communicates to all who chance upon his work.

In addition, Father Schall is “inconceivable without Chesterton”. According to Professor McInerny, “Father Schall is undeniably the Chesterton of our era”.


In the week following the Tocqueville Forum event honoring James V. Schall, S.J. and Dr. Ralph McInerny, Pope Benedict XVI addressed American Catholics and the American people from the White House lawn. In his address he spoke of freedom:

From the dawn of the Republic, America’s quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator…. The framers of this nation’s founding documents drew upon this conviction when they proclaimed the “self-evident truth” that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights grounded in the laws of nature and of nature’s God…. As the nation faces the increasingly complex political and ethical issues of our time I am confident that the American people will find in their religious beliefs a precious source of insight and an inspiration to pursue reasoned, responsible and respectful dialogue in the effort to build a more humane and free society….

Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility…. The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate. It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate.

The Holy Father would doubtless be encouraged to know of efforts by Catholic Americans like Father Schall and Professor McInerny to bring “deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate”.

Mary Jo Anderson, a member of the Voices editorial board, writes on the United Nations and family issues for WorldNet Daily and other publications. Her commentaries have appeared on radio and television, including Vatican Radio. She has addressed members of the Czech Parliament on women and family issues in emerging democracies. Mary Jo is co-author with Dr. Robin Bernhoft of Male and Female He Created Them: Some Questions and Answers on Marriage and Same-sex Unions, published by Catholic Answers, San Diego.

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