Friday, July 03, 2015

Why Matt Walsh is Wrong about America

Matt Walsh is a very popular conservative blogger, and justly so. But he is wrong about America.

In a post today, titled, "No, America is Not Great," he gives a litany of the cultural atrocities Americans are committing: moral relativism, abortion, gay marriage, pornography, sexual promiscuity, recreational looting, illegal immigration.

He is right so far: Americans are doing really bad things―and lots of them. Some of them are even done in the name of America. But, just as he has gotten a good list of symptoms, he lapses into a bad diagnosis.

In fact, the disease metaphor is an apt one, since he is basically blaming the patient for his sickness.

G.K. Chesterton once argued that the best argument against Christianity was Christians. But what Chesterton did not do is to blame Christianity for it. What would we think if someone gave the litany of sins that professed Christians commonly engaged in and said, "No. Christianity is Not a Great Religion."

I know what I would think.

Is America's greatness suspect because of what Americans do? This is Walsh's thesis, but he is wrong, and here's why.

Walsh's mistake is that he fails to make an important distinction: that between America as an ideal and America is a practical reality. If the problem is the practical reality, which in this case it is, it is not the fault of the ideal. In fact, the whole problem is the failure to live up to the ideal, and you don't reject the ideal because people fail to live up to it.

Walsh quotes Chesterton in making his case, but Chesterton would have disagreed with him. Chesterton talks about what he calls "primary loyalties." What is a "primary loyalty"?

A primary loyalty is a commitment we must have to a thing, and it is a loyalty over which we have no choice and may not even be aware. It is not the result of any commitment we may have consciously made or that we can ever escape from. It is something we are born to, in addition to being born into. There are various primary loyalties in our lives. Our family is one of them. If we are Christians, our Church is another. Another primary loyalty is that to our community or nation.

To be an American is to have a primary loyalty to America, a primary loyalty from which no one's deviation from its ideals can detract. And the contrast to that ideal should make us more, not less loyal to it. In fact, it is only by contrast with that ideal that we can say these things―abortion, pornography, same-sex marriage, looting―can be considered wrong at all.

If we do not have an ideal which we expect our nation's action to live up to, then we have undermined our ability to criticize the actions of its citizens at all, since we have no standard by which to criticize it.

In fact, the very passage in a Chesterton essay Walsh refers to to bolster his argument is in complete contradiction to his point:
I’m a patriot, but to borrow from Chesterton, a patriot who is uncritical of his country while it teeters on the edge of total destruction is like a son who doesn’t warn his mother that she’s about to fall off a cliff. In this case, however, we already fell off the cliff. We are shattered on the rocks below, and I’m truly not certain if we can be repaired.
Chesterton's essay was written precisely against such despair:
On all sides we hear to-day of the love of our country, and yet anyone who has literally such a love must be bewildered at the talk, like a man hearing all men say that the moon shines by day and the sun by night. The conviction must come to him at last that these men do not realize what the word 'love' means, that they mean by the love of country, not what a mystic might mean by the love of God, but something of what a child might mean by the love of jam.
If we are to take Walsh seriously (as I hope Walsh himself does not), then we are led to the conclusion that Walsh loves America like a child loves jam, and not like a grown man loves God: He doesn't like the way it tastes and so he throws it on the floor.

When hard times come, we don't reject God, although we may argue with him like Job. Maybe what Walsh needs is a voice out of the whirlwind.

Chesterton provides it:
It is the essence of love to be sensitive, it is a part of its doom; and anyone who objects to the one must certainly get rid of the other. This sensitiveness, rising sometimes to an almost morbid sensitiveness, was the mark of all great lovers like Dante and all great patriots like Chatham. 'My country, right or wrong,' is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, 'My mother, drunk or sober.' No doubt if a decent man's mother took to drink he would share her troubles to the last; but to talk as if he would be in a state of gay indifference as to whether his mother took to drink or not is certainly not the language of men who know the great mystery. 
What we really need for the frustration and overthrow of a deaf and raucous Jingoism is a renascence of the love of the native land. When that comes, all shrill cries will cease suddenly. 
Contrary to Walsh, we should share our countries troubles to the last, partly by pointing out how its so-called supporters ill serve it so badly.

Same-sex marriage, for example, was not mandated because of anything American (like the Constitution), but precisely by something that was un-American (judges violating the separation of powers).

This question comes up in my work with classical education, which studies the cultures of Athens and Rome. Some people point out that there are some pretty bad things that Greeks and Romans did. My response is always the same: that we admire these cultures―and judge them―on the basis of their ideals, not by their failures to live up to them. We judge Rome on the basis of Rome, not on the basis of Romans. And we do the same with Greece and every other civilization. Why would we not do this with America?

The problem with Matt Walsh is that he thinks what is wrong with America is America. What he fails to see is that what is wrong with America is only Americans. "[T]he point is," said Chesterton, "that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more."


KyCobb said...


Actually, from his pov, Walsh is write. All the things you listed as being wrong are people living their lives in liberty in the pursuit of happiness. That is the American ideal, and all the things you hate represents America coming ever closer to the perfection of the ideals it was based on. Your ideal, of the majority having absolute power to restrict the liberty of the minority, is what we have been striving to overcome to achieve the ideal America.

Anonymous said...

I respectfully disagree that the American ideal has ever been for American to engage in "moral relativism, abortion, gay marriage, pornography, sexual promiscuity, recreational looting, illegal immigration." If you honestly believe these activities are ideal, then we probably have no common ground on which to hold a discussion. There is a distinct difference between licentiousness and liberty. Licentiousness is hedonistic behavior without any concern for the rights of others, such as the unborn child or owner of the looted property. As much as some would like to believe that they should be able to do what they want without consequences, the hard truth is that actions have consequences. Liberty is being able to make choices with full consideration of the consequences of those action on others, and having respect for the other. Licentiousness treats others, and the actor as mere objects. Liberty considers the humanity of all involved.

Martin Cothran said...


You seem to have missed the whole point of my post, which was that these things are not part of the American ideal. I suggest reading it again.

Martin Cothran said...


You are assuming a completely modernistic post-Enlightenment concept of liberty, which is completely flawed. The difference, in common parlance, is between "liberty" and "license." the post-Enlightenment view does not make a distinction between them and the classical view does. In the classical view, freedom has to do with the liberty to fulfill your human nature: Happiness what resulted. It doesn't mean doing anything you darn well please. Like your view of how government works (elites who can rewrite the Constitution at a whim and everyone has to bow to it), your view of freedom and happiness has little to do with the founders views.

Anonymous said...

Martin, I guess I'm not good at commenting on blogs. I was responding to KyCobb, not to you. I understood KyCobb to write in support of those items listed in quotes, and you to write opposing them. I obviously wrote poorly, but I am in agreement with you about KyCobb's confusion between license and liberty. And that it is liberty in the classical sense that is beneficial to leading a full and meaningful life. License leads to a shallow life based on instant gratification where people, even the actor, become mere objects, not beings with the nature that God gave them.

I apologize for the confusion, and hope these comments do not compound it.

KyCobb said...


If homosexuals don't have the liberty to fulfill their human nature, then they don't have classical liberty either.

Anonymous said...

Hello Martin,

Matt criticizes the cultural decline of America as evidenced by the legalization of abortion, same sex marriage, the decline of the family, the decline in morality, etc…From this, he concludes that America is not great. Even though you agree with his criticisms you disagree with his conclusion.

Why do you disagree? Because, according to you, his conclusion confuses America as an ideal with America as a practical reality. Even though America as a practical reality leaves much to be desired, this does not mean that the ideal of America is not great. America as an ideal can be great even if America as a practical reality is not great. In addition to this, America as an ideal, is great. Therefore, Matt is wrong to say that America is not great.

Is this a fair criticism of Matt? I do not think so. Matt explains what he means when he says, “America is not great.” He says, “So in what way is America great at the moment? Are we a moral beacon for the world now? Where is the rest of the world supposed to locate that shining light of moral clarity? Is it somewhere buried under the dead children and the perversion and the porn and the divorce and the drugs and the disease and the dependency and the Nanny State socialism? What about leadership in government, or education, or the home? Is American culture great in these respects?”

Matt’s point seems to be that when he says, “America is not great,” he is speaking of America as it really is today. He is not speaking of America in some platonic ideal sense. Rather, he is speaking of America as a practical reality. America, as it is today, is in decline from the ideal of America, i.e., "America is not great." Taken in this way, there seems to be no issue.

Kind Regards,


Martin Cothran said...


My criticism is that he doesn't even make any distinction between the two. If you want to criticize me and hit the mark, you will have to deny there is such a distinction, which I don't see that you do. What you do is to simply repeat Walsh's charges about practical reality, which I readily conceded.

My ontologist is always reminding me of his personal motto, which he attributes to Duns Scotus: "Sometimes say yes, never say no, but always make distinctions." The importance of making distinctions is one that modern people have serious trouble negotiating.

I'm not ready to give up the good name of "American" by surrendering a good term to bad people by calling their actions "American," when in fact they are anything but American. That would be like calling the Obergefell decision "Constitutional." It isn't Constitutional any more than the actions Matt Walsh criticizes are American.

Anonymous said...

Hello Martin,

You criticize Matt for not making a distinction between America as it is in practical reality with America as an ideal, but you go further than this. Because Matt fails to make this distinction, you argue that he is wrong to conclude that America is not great.

Now, you say that for my criticism to hit the mark I would need to deny the distinction. But, why should this be so? If there is a distinction between America as it is in practical reality and America as in ideal, then different things can be predicated of the two without contradiction. The point of your post seems to be precisely this. America as it is practically may leave much to be desired, but America as an ideal is still great. I just took the point, and argued that Matt was speaking only about America as it is in practical reality. Furthermore, if you were to define the ideal you call America, I suspect Matt would agree with you that that ideal is indeed great. Therefore, Matt should be understood to be saying that America as it is in practical reality - in severe decline from the ideal of America - is not great.

There is irony here. If the distinction you make stands, then saying, “America is not great” in this sense should not be an issue for you. In other words, your saying that I have failed to hit the mark in my criticisms seems rooted in your failure to make the very distinction you criticized Matt for.


Anonymous said...

Martin, you are always fun to read, and I am not near scholastic enough to compete, lol, so my very elementary question is this: are not the wisdom & virtue of America's people, inherent components of the ideal?