Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Written from the particular perspective of Catholic and, more particularly, Thomistic and Jesuit (Suarezian) philosophy, We Hold These Truths offers one of America’s foremost attempts to think through the encounter between the United States and Christianity. This relationship is more nuanced than American Protestantism has sometimes realized, and the questions of how politics should be influenced by faith (and Church) have emerged as increasingly vexing with the loss of national consensus. Murray’s use of the Catholic tradition to suggest that there is such a thing as a strong and thoughtful humanism that is nevertheless not necessarily Christian is pertinent to the situation of a pluralistic democracy, and it suggests possibilities far exceeding common Protestant and secular evaluations of Catholic thought.

The leading theological criticism of Murray has been that he underestimates the need for specifically Christian symbols in American public life. The seriousness of this criticism being granted, it remains significant that in the midst of proposing a “secularized” Christian humanism as America’s proper public philosophy, Murray clearly maintains that constitutional liberalism will prove unsustainable if it is hostile or indifferent to the Christian religion. Though American democracy is justifiable in terms of the natural law alone, its emergence from the heritage of Christian political philosophy is not happenstance. Murray elaborates two key reasons: First, Christian spirituality, with its simultaneous focus on heaven and earth, promotes a helpful mind-set that avoids both withdrawn indifferentism and monomaniacal ideologism. Second, insistence that God’s Church is an institution with a right to exist and a calling to invoke transcendent authority has historically formed an unparalleled bulwark against state tyranny.

A further important theme of Murray’s book is his Christian and philosophical response to the American ideal of freedom. By arguing that political freedom is precious precisely because it is ordered toward genuine responsibility, he issues profound challenges both to Americans whose notion of freedom is hollow and to various reactionaries who are tempted to view political freedom as a merely specious value.