The Magazine

Strange Land

Peter Lawler's America.

Aug 26, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 47 • By PETER J. HANSEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Aliens in America
The Strange Truth about Our Souls
by Peter Augustine Lawler
ISI, 350 pp., $24.95

THE BOOK TITLE "Aliens in America" derives from a remark that Walker Percy made about Carl Sagan. Percy wondered why Sagan was so eager to find aliens on other planets when our own planet is peopled by aliens stranger than any extraterrestrials we might find. Percy was alluding to St. Augustine's statement that we humans are all "pilgrims or aliens in this world," as political theorist Peter Lawler puts it, "because our true home is somewhere else."

Informed by this articulation of the human situation, Lawler examines America. He ranges wide, looking at left and right, theory and practice, history and nature, trendy postmodern thinkers and firmly conservative ones.

The best chapter in the book is "Religion and the American Idea of Liberty." Lawler's description of those who support religious belief primarily for political ends amounts to a powerful critique without any need for overt attack. William Galston, for example, "admits that the main cause of the growth of divorce . . . is that choice and contract have largely replaced the 'sacramental' understanding of marriage." The sacramental understanding of marriage, of course, derives from religious faith. Marriage largely ceases to function when viewed as merely beneficial or functional.

Those who cherish the liberal principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence may welcome the support that religion gives liberal democracy, but they have no remedy to offer as liberal principles gradually weaken religion and other non-liberal sources of obligation and authority. "Functional traditionalists cannot even formulate a rhetoric for the restoration or the recovery of what they really regard as a necessary illusion." Whether or not they fully admit it to themselves, such thinkers believe "that the definition of man as the being with rights is both empirically correct and socially destructive."

So neoconservatives and neoliberals occupy a precarious position, less robust and defensible than that of those Lawler calls "the orthodox." He prefers the term "orthodox" to "traditional" because "most such believers have chosen or converted to a way of life usually not shared with equivalent intensity by their fathers." Since the orthodox are rarely described or represented in national political magazines, Lawler's description is worth quoting:

"Orthodox believers are not reliable political conservatives. They have little use for either country-club Republicans or therapeutic Democrats, and especially today they often tend to put little hope in political reform. They sometimes can ally with libertarians against big government, since their experience has typically been that wherever government goes, God and moral responsibility disappear. And they see . . . no way to reform our public institutions, particularly our schools. Their political aim is to protect the freedom of churches and parents to educate children and exercise authority. But they are further than anyone from the nerve of libertarian morality. . . . They regard the progressive view that life gets more moral and easier as it gets more rights-oriented and individualistic as a lie."

This is a striking portrait; but one might wonder how many people it really resembles. While most home-schooling Christian families are firmly pro-life, their thoughts on rights and individualism seem less clear and defiant than Lawler indicates. The very language in which they defend their pro-life position is often grounded in rights, rather than an explicitly religious understanding. Nonetheless, the mere act of home-schooling is evidently a major form of opting out of the mainstream, and Lawler is surely right that "the real counterculture in America is revealed religion."

At the other end of the spectrum are the liberals. After discussing Alan Ehrenhalt's excellent portrait of communal authority in Chicago neighborhoods in the 1950s, Lawler notes that such authority is usually described by "the malcontent who can remember nothing good about, say, nun-run parochial schools. But everyone knows that those schools prepared most children for life as parents, citizens, and parishioners (and the liberal critics for their lives as writers) far better than most schools do now."

Lawler notes that "the being with rights characteristically does not acknowledge his debts to others and to communities." To view oneself as a being with rights (rather than duties or constitutive membership in some larger group) invites one to forget one's dependence on other people and on God.

This insight applies not merely to liberal Democrats but more broadly to liberal democrats, which is to say most Americans. In Lawler's view, Americans suffer from (and cause suffering by) an increasingly narrow, conditional view of their obligations and attachments. "Calculation about one's own emotional well-being has, to an amazing and unprecedented extent, become the language of moral discourse among otherwise ordinary Americans."

Even in evangelical authors like James Dobson, therapeutic language has compromised biblical morality (an observation that is hard to reconcile with the portrait of defiant orthodoxy Lawler draws).

It isn't that Lawler lacks sympathy with the belief in individual rights or with the desire to alleviate suffering. He simply thinks that something critically human is lost if all obligations become voluntary, or if all suffering can be relieved with the right pill. To be human is to be dominated by the feelings surrounding love and death. To be human is to live with misery; if misery is abolished, the beings who remain will be something less than human.

Lawler sees little danger that this will occur anytime soon. Nonetheless, he worries that misery--and therefore humanity properly understood--might eventually be eliminated through genetic manipulation. Perhaps he worries too much. While genetic tinkering might eventually reduce, for example, the propensity to schizophrenia or severe depression, it is hard to see how it could produce a self-conscious being who isn't troubled by his own mortality.

Lawler is less consistently clear and sharp when he leaves behind ordinary Americans and confronts more abstract or philosophic thinkers. His chapter linking Tocqueville and Percy is interesting but strained. As Lawler notes, both men think about what might be lost in the triumph of democracy over aristocracy. However, Percy's emphasis on "love as a compensation for loneliness in the ruins" might seem part of the problem to Tocqueville, who worries that democratic man will "isolate himself from the mass of his fellow men and withdraw with his family and his friends."

On the other hand, Lawler's contrast of Percy with Sagan is surprisingly interesting and enjoyable. Percy observes that "the self or the being that can know the cosmos, is always a leftover in any account of the cosmos. So as modern science explains more and more about the cosmos, the human being experiences himself as more and more an alien." Perhaps the strangest phenomenon in the cosmos is the being who tries to understand the cosmos by principles which exclude anyone trying to understand the cosmos. "Scientism attempts to dispense with human mystery and human uniqueness. But actually doing so would create a world not only without religion but without science."

Lawler seeks to find a middle way or synthesis which does justice to the claims of orthodoxy on the one hand and liberalism and science on the other. One alternative he discusses is natural law. However, he himself suggests that natural law as understood by Thomas Aquinas (and American Catholic thinker John Courtney Murray) is dependent upon revelation and thus isn't truly "natural."

Lawler says little about the oldest and arguably most satisfying alternative to both liberalism and orthodoxy: ancient philosophy. Given his concerns and the authors he discusses, this is a puzzling omission.

If one takes one's bearings by Plato or Aristotle rather than John Locke, then the politically unhealthy character of Locke's teaching is less troubling. Moreover, philosophy and science as the ancients understand them do not mean squeezing the objects of study into abstract mathematical categories which exclude the scientist himself.

Nonetheless, Peter Lawler's "Aliens in America" is an interesting and worthwhile book. In describing the intellectual currents currently in motion around him, Lawler implicitly and explicitly lays out his own position; and it is one likely to attract thoughtful adherents.

A businessman and political theorist living in Alstead, New Hampshire, Peter J. Hansen is writing a book entitled "Vices of Democracy."