Works By John Courtney Murray, S.J.

Woodstock Home | Woodstock Theological Center Library | Bibliography

[p. 5]

The Return to Tribalism

John Courtney Murray, S.J.

· Is there some danger that a false, fallacious or fictitious unity might be foisted on the American people? I think there is! I think there are two dangers and both of them are clear and both of them are present.

One of them is historical; it is the product of the contemporary historical moment of world crisis. The other is more inherent, a derivative from the very nature of political society itself.

Let's think for the moment of the first danger, that which is induced by the present world crisis. The fact is, that, as of the moment, the United States is confronted by an enemy, an external enemy, the Communist empire, the Communist ideology, the whole revolutionary movement in history that is associated with the word "communism."

The danger is that this country may be driven into a unity based simply on negation, on anti-communism, and the danger of this is greater in proportion as the opposition to communism is more passionate and less intelligent. This would be a shame because such unity would be one born of fear, one born of a sense of menace. It is good indeed to know what we are against, but far more important is it for us to know what we are for.

Moreover, this enemy is a very special one; his tactics are those of infiltration and subversion. He can, therefore, and does become an internal menace in our country, and the danger, as we confront the menace of communism within our own borders, is that we may be driven to some manner of unity that I will characterize as "tribal."

The unity of a tribe, as you know, is based on kinship—on kin and kind—and the enemy tribe is the

[p. 6]

stranger. No matter who the stranger is, as a stranger, he is the enemy. The tribe seeks security in sheer solidarity, a solidarity that is absolutely intolerant of anything alien to itself. Those in the tribe speak in terms of "we" and "they." The members of the tribe tend to huddle, to get close together, to close up, to close ranks.

The tribe cannot deal with the stranger in any other terms or by any other means except those of force and violence. The ideal of the tribe, of course, is the ideal of the warrior. The tribe is essentially a war-making group.

· Is there some danger of this "tribalism" in America? I rather fancy there is, and it appears in the debased concept of loyalty that has become current among us, especially in the more fanatic, the more passionate, and also, the more unintelligent opponents of communism.

Loyalty is a sentiment proper to the family, proper to the clan, proper to the tribe. It is something that one expects from one's friends. One finds it in the minor types of social groupings—the corporation, the union, the club. Loyalty is the sentiment that one shows toward one's kin and one's kind.

I don't think that loyalty is the proper bond of civil society. Good citizenship is tested by other standards and more rigid standards than the shifting standard of loyalty. Loyalty and disloyalty—I don't think it is at all useful to divide citizenship into these categories. Moreover, I am quite convinced that the dichotomy between "we" and "they" has no place whatever among the people temporal, within the body politic as such.

When the Constitution was being written, it started off: "We, the people,"; it did not start off: "We, the tribe." We are not a tribe, we are a people. What is the danger here? Well, I suppose we have seen it, have we not? It is the danger of indicting ignorance and error and political stupidity, which are commodities hardly in short supply—the danger of indicting these things as disloyalty.

This is useless; it just doesn't get us anywhere at all. Moreover, it confuses the whole issue of communism because the issue of communism, if I understand it at all, is an issue first, of understanding, and secondly, of action based upon understanding. Moreover, all this tribal cultivation of loyalty leads to a stupidity that is itself dangerous. I mean the stupidity of mistaking the real domestic issue. Who is the real enemy within the gates of the city?

I suggest that the real enemy within the gates of the city is not the Communist, but the idiot. Here I am using the word "idiot" not in its customary, contemporary vernacular usage of one who is mentally deficient. No, I am going back to the primitive Greek usage; the "idiot" meant, first of all, the private person, and then came to mean the man who does not possess the public philosophy, the man who is not master of the knowledge and the skills that underlie the life of the civilized city. The idiot, to the Greek, was just one stage removed from the barbarian. He is the man who is ignorant of the meaning of the word "civility."

What is our contemporary idiocy? What is the enemy within the city? If I had to give it a name, I think I would call it "technological secularism." The idiot today is the techno-

[p. 7]

logical secularist who knows everything. He's the man who knows everything about the organization of all the instruments and techniques of power that are available in the contemporary world and who, at the same time, understands nothing about the nature of man or about the nature of true civilization.

And if this country is to be overthrown from within or from without, I would suggest that it will not be overthrown by communism. It will be overthrown because it will have made an impossible experiment. It will have undertaken to establish a technological order of most marvelous intricacy, which will have been constructed and will operate without relation to true political ends; and this technological order will hang, as it were, suspended over a moral confusion; and this moral confusion will itself be suspended over a spiritual vacuum. This would be the real danger, resulting from a type of fallacious, fictitious, fragile unity that could be created among us.

· There is, however, in second place, a more serious and more subtle danger. It derives from the very nature of political society. The danger would consist in the growth among us of a civil religion, that would somehow be a substitute secular faith, that would undertake to take the place of the traditional religious faith that has historically given substance to the civilization that we call Western.

The candidate, of course, for this post of being the civil religion of American society has already presented himself. It is, of course, democracy conceived as a quasi-religious faith.

Informed by this faith the political community becomes a kind of spiritual community, and its bond of unity is not simply the common obedience of all the citizens to the common law. Its bond of unity is rather a common mind among the citizenry. The citizenry are to share the same organized view of reality and the same set of democratic values. And the organized view, this set of democratic values is conceived to be transcendent to all the religious divisions that are unfortunately among us.

Our diverse religions are to be judged not in terms of whether they be true or false, but in terms of whether they be American or un-American. And to this concept of democracy as a quasi-religious faith there corresponds, of course, a philosophy of public education. The common school is said to be the organ for the creation of this common mind, the common faith. The highest function of the institutions of public education is not simply to communicate knowledge, but to create unity.

The school is supposed to be a sort of pastoral ministry of the Democratic Church, whose function is to gather up all the flock into one true fold—the one true democratic fold; and initiate them into the common mind and faith. It follows then, as the democratic community is unitary, so the school system should also be unitary. There should only be one kind of school, because only one kind of school serves the public purpose. And this one kind of school, of course, is the school that is separated, not only from the churches, but also from religion itself.

From this school there must be outlawed all the traditional tenets of traditional religion. And these

[p. 8]

tenets must give place to the unifying tenets of the secular democratic faith. Well, you know all about this and I think you will grant that we here confront a danger that is clear and present enough.

The issue of divisiveness, of course, is thrust continually into the question that confronts the greater part of the country at the moment—the famous, historical school question. The issue of divisiveness is at once formidable and chiefly formidable because it is formless, very hard to grapple with. I think, myself, it's unreal and invalid.

Well, this development in America of the secular substitute for a traditional religious faith is not something that we can scream and yell about. As a matter of fact, I think the development is inevitable. Both in fact and in law there is no public religion in America today. There is no common religious faith. The law—the First Amendment—that copes with the fact is a wise law. But once one has affirmed the fact and also affirmed the wisdom of the law that copes with it, one still is left with an unanswered question, namely: "Can a political society do without a public religion?"

So far, the historical evidence would seem to argue for a negative answer. It has been pointed out that the chief phenomenon of modern times has been the development of secular civil religions.

We know about the political faith of Jacobin democracy; we know about the racist faith of German National Socialism (nazism); we know more about the far more materialistic faith of Russian communism; and we know something, or are beginning to know something, about the more idealist faith in democracy as man's way of life and salvation. This development has been inevitable.

You know very well, of course, that the Church is socially incomplete without a Christian society somehow surrounding it. It is indeed quite possible for man to live an integral Christian life amid the conditions of a concentration camp. But the conditions of a concentration camp have never been the civilizational ideal of the Catholic Church or of any other Christian church for that matter.

The Church does strive, as it were, to complete itself, not ecclesiastically, mind you, but socially, by creating an ambience, an environment that could be called a Christian society.

In the same way, a political society is normally incomplete without some spiritual bond of unity. Society—secular society—must have some spiritual substance that underlies the order of law, the order of public morality and all other orders and processes within society. And if there be no such spiritual substance to society, then society is founded on a vacuum; and society, like nature itself, abhors a vacuum and cannot tolerate it.

It may be possible, as pointed out by Hilaire Belloc and others, that an individual can live without religion, but a society cannot. All the evidence of history points in this direction. Arnold Toynbee and Christopher Dawson have commented on the fact that civilization rests upon the conception of spiritual and moral order, and secular civilization necessarily must base itself upon some concept of a higher law, some concept of a doctrine that is sacred.

[p. 9]

Nowadays, in the modern world, traditional religion is outlawed as the public religion by the doctrine of separation of Church and State. What then remains to fill the vacuum that otherwise would result at the heart of society?

You have only two things. You have the mystique of science, whose aim is to create a civilization that will be purely technological. But of course this would be the greatest mistake and the most stupid mistake that could possibly be made. It is a mistake that not even Soviet communism makes in Russia, because their technological civilization, in which they are desperately interested, is certainly not solely that. It claims a spiritual substance that is its animating force and dynamism, namely the dialectical materialism of Marx and Lenin.

The other candidate would be some political mystique, the unclarified concept of freedom, or what's meant by "democracy" or majoritarian rule, and there are those among us who would wish to try this experiment—to found society, namely, upon this unifying principle that is summed up in the rubric of Democracy.

I would suggest, therefore, that the question which confronts us is not whether we shall have a national unity—of course we shall! The only question is: what kind of unity and quality of unity shall we have? And on what will it be based, and what ends will it serve and pursue? And there is the related question, namely: What relation will be established between this national unity of ours and the religious pluralism and division that obtain among us?

There is another little point which I think adds further actuality to this question of the unity and division of our national life. You see, the fact is that, as of the moment, I should say, American culture is not pluralistic. American culture is unitary. American culture is uniform, and it is tending always to become more and more unitary and uniform.

Today, it has been pointed out by the sociologists, man leads the most organized life that man has ever led in history. All human life today lives with organization—the factory, the trade union, the corporation, the civil service, parties and clubs and neighborhoods. The movement toward urbanization and the movement toward suburbanization are all forces that organize the life of man. The academic community is highly organized and unitary; it tends to be unified through its commitment, at least, to noncommittalism.

It seems to me that the threat today is not cultural disunity—the threat today is rather cultural uniformity and the menace it holds to the distinctness of personality and to the distinctness of the religious community within contemporary homogenized culture. And the danger is that both the person and the religious community will somehow be submerged in our growing undifferentiated mass culture whose structure is at once formless and rigid. I think, therefore, that the danger of some false or fictitious or fallacious national unities is not an illusory danger. It is real, it is clear, it is present. The existence of this danger gives a certain urgency to the problem of the kind and quality of national unity we shall seek to achieve.

I would suggest that the premises of any national unity that we want in this country are two: the first is

[p. 10]

the simple fact that there is no religious unity in this country. We exist in a state of religious division, a deplorable state, if you will, undoubtedly. Nevertheless, these religious divisions are not to be blurred, they are not to be transcended in the name of some common secular democratic faith and they are not to be reduced to some religious common denominator. This would, of course, be the end.

Secondly, regardless of our religious divisions, civil unity among us is necessary. Therefore, the only question that confronts us is this: What is civil unity in itself, and in its relation to religious pluralism in society? And secondly, how is it to be achieved?

Well, if this be the question, the outlines of the answer are not unclear. They are to be found quite readily in what we like to call the "liberal tradition of the West," the tradition that has dictated the norms for the creation of civil unity, the unity of a people. And it was said long ago by the Stoics, and even before them, that civil unity is based upon two things, first upon a constitutional consensus, and secondly, upon a community of interests. If you want the Latin, first, consensus juris, and secondly, utilitatis communio.

· Civil unity, therefore, is established by two things. First of all, by the rule of law, the rule of common law, and secondly, by the rule of law that serves as a framework for the orderly pursuit of a common good. And when you speak of civil unity, the enemy to it is not the stranger nor the religious heretic; the enemy of civil unity is the outlaw, whether he exists in the criminal underground or in the areas of criminality that today are appearing overground—some great corporations, for instance. Or whether he exists in the international scene, like the Communist, who is, by definition, the outlaw—one who stands beyond the bounds, the horizons of civilized community as such.

If this be true, if civil unity is based upon the rule of law, a law that makes possible and regulates the orderly pursuits of the common good, then it follows, does it not, that civil unity is based on reason. I don't want to exaggerate, but I do maintain with all my strength and conviction that the forces of reason are basic in the creation of the civil community and its civil unity. If, and where, the forces of reason fail, civil unity becomes impossible.

I mean to speak of reason here in a multiple sense: there is moral reason and legal reason and political reason. It is, first of all, the moral reason to discern and to elect the ends and purposes of our national life: our domestic purposes and our purposes also within the wider community of nations. And a moral reason must discern and elect ends that are worthy, that are capable of calling forth the full energies of this still youthful people of ours.

Secondly, it is the legal reason to design and order a reasonable law which, because it is reasonable, will command the consents of the government, of the citizenry, and which, because it is a limited order of law—as the order of law must be—will leave room for all manner of legitimate freedom.

· Thirdly, it is the political reason to master and to exercise the art of statesmanship and this art is forever

[p. 11]

architectonic. The art of statesmanship, the primary task of the statesman, is to organize; to organize the varying, the particular, the specific interests of the community into that community of interests that we call the common good, the good of the people which is always redundant to the good of the person. Political reason, to this end, must employ the canons of justice which are the canons of reason; political reason must observe the dictates of political prudence which are the dictates of reason; and political reason must utilize the high arts of persuasion.

Persuasion linked to passion, of course, is demagoguery; but persuasion linked to reason, persuasion that couches itself in high rhetoric—high rhetoric that embodies great meaning— this has forever been, and I hope still is, and always will be, the instrument of high politics. These are the tasks of political reason. If the political leader is gifted, then he has, I suppose, a "charism" which is hardly rational. How we produce this indispensable charism of leadership, and how we produce this type of man—these are other questions for another day.

Well, my suggestion is that it is in these resources of reason—moral, legal and political— that our hope of civil unity chiefly resides. Only I would add another resource, again a resource of reason. I would call it the "pedagogical" reason.

One of our greatest resources today is, and must be, the cultivated intelligence of the pedagogue, of the scholar, of the schoolmaster—the man who understands all that the Greeks meant by paideia (that is, the work of civilizing this strange creature called man, who is half angel and half beast, and who, especially in his youth, and even, mind you, in his age, always remains something of a barbarian, something of a tribesman at heart).

· Savage, barbarian, tribesman though he be, he is somehow capable of the ideal that is Greek and also Christian, the ideal of living the life of reason, and living it within a city that is governed by the rule of reasonable law. Now this work of paideia (education is probably a most inadequate word to translate the Greek paideia—in any case, call it education if you want) is the work of reason. This is not a work of intelligence. The pedagogue, the scholar, the schoolman is not a prophet or a priest or a politician. Formally, he is a man of study, not a man of the Church nor of the state. He is not the herald of eternal salvation or the judge of theological truth; he is not a minister of grace; he is not an architect of the policies of state. He is only a scholar and only a teacher.

His ministry is simply a ministry of intelligence through intelligence; it is a ministry of the word, if you will, a ministry of the "logos," but a ministry of that word, that "logos," which is human, and which has been laboriously learned by man through long centuries. This is his dignity, a limited dignity, but a dignity high enough so that the scholar and schoolmaster can afford to recognize his own limitations. And if the pedagogical reason remains within its proper limits and, at the same time, discharges its proper responsibilities, then this reason of the schoolmaster will be a powerful ally of the moral and legal and political reason in fashioning the unity of the commonwealth.

[p. 12]

· So I say, if all these resources of reason are assembled and employed, they will together be able to lift our nation above the level of a tribal unity, above the unity of the war-making group. They will be able to lift it above the level of the sheerly mechanical unity, the unity of a sheerly technological order, and at the same time, they will make no pretense to fashion among us a religious unity.

Their goal will simply be a civil unity; their goal, if you want to use the other classical expression, will simply be the creation of civic peace. But they will be able to constitute us in our proper identity as a people temporal, existent within the liberal tradition of the West, a tradition that is at once rational and liberal, and liberal because rational.

This, my friends, is no mean goal—no mean goal!

And hence, having laid down a bit of doctrine, I will end, as I always like to do, with a question, because all that I have said leads us to the threshold of the famous question of John of Salisbury. His question was whether or not civilization, that is, civil order, civil unity, civil peace, is possible without what he calls in a beautiful phrase "the sweet and fruitful marriage of Reason and the Word of God."

Search the Murray Collection: