Isaac Hecker and Political Polarization

Isaac Hecker and Political Polarization

The following is an edited version of a talk given at Saint Paul the Apostle Parish, New York, January 27, 2024.

Isaac Hecker lived from 1819 to 1888. His life spanned the Second Great Awakening, the rise (and fall) of Jacksonian democracy, the U.S. Civil War, and the Gilded Age. A saint, Thomas Merton wrote, “is a sign of God for his own generation and for all generations to come.” Hecker, of course, is not yet a saint, although hopefully he will be someday. That said, as a man of his time, his story invites us to start with ourselves in our time here and now.


One of the preoccupations that surfaced at the Paulist pre-assembly meetings in 2022 was the destructive divisiveness and political polarization that characterize both contemporary American society and the Church, and which man are experiencing even in their parishes. Many have compared this situation to the pre-Civil War period in American history. It was, of course, precisely in that period of division and polarization when Hecker himself proposed to Blessed Pope Pius IX that Catholicism might “act like oil on troubled waters” and so “sustain our institutions and enable our young country to realize its great destiny.”


Such polarization is of particular importance for the Church, both because the Church is tasked with the ministry of reconciliation [2 Corinthians 5:18-19] but also because the Church herself is also currently characterized by deep divisions that reflect and in some ways may mimic the political polarization that so preoccupies political analysis today. (The increasing politicization of religious identity is itself a significant issue, which deserves additional separate treatment another time.)


On the one hand, as Georgetown political scientist Thomas Zimmer has remarked, « the least controversial thing you can do in American politics is to decry polarization. »


On the other hand, everywhere we look, Americans appear more divided than at any time in our recent history. Certainly, our two political parties have moved apart, which is to say that the once central middle ground previously occupied by moderate Republicans and moderate-to-conservative Democrats has largely disappeared. This has happened steadily over the last 50 years, thanks to a multitude of political factors, which students of the subject have easily identified. If I may regress for a few minutes to my previous vocation as a political scientist, these include the declining power of party leaders and the increased role of party primaries in choosing candidates, the role of money in campaigns, the changed incentives for elected politicians in a media-centered celebrity culture, the increasing number of « safe districts » in which there is no incentive to appeal to and persuade voters beyond one’s own  party, and the increasing nationalization of American politics, due to the loss of local newspapers and other factors which once made local politics different from national politics. This last factor may deserve more attention than it has generally received, because, for many people on a practical level, local involvements with neighbors and the wider community, including people with different political sensibilities, may be their one opportunity for constructive engagements which counteract the overwhelmingly national pattern of polarization. (And, if that sounds like the description of what was once a traditional Catholic parish in the U.S., that’s no accident.)


It is likewise problematic that we have increasingly re-sorted themselves socially, politically, geographically, and even in our parishes. In the post-war world in which I grew up, American pluralistic politics used to be characterized by what were commonly called « cross-cutting cleavages. » That described a situation in which different groups and interests overlapped, in which voters allied with one another along different lines on different issues depending on their different interests, in which all the aspects of one’s life did not all align together. One can trace some appreciation of this back to James Madison’s Federalist 10, and it was the staple of mid-20th-century pluralist political thought. In contrast, « reinforcing cleavages » occur when the groups and issues which one identifies with all fall on the same side of the political spectrum.  


The problem is not that there are disagreements among different groups with different interests, which is inevitable; but that the differences are increasingly reinforcing, rather than cross-cutting.  All of which at best tests, at worst corrodes our capacity to advance the country’s interests and the common good.


That said, that post-1945 world so many of us so fondly remember, what the French fondly remember as “Les Trentes Glorieuses,” was not the historical norm, which actually may have been more like Hecker’s America and, in that sense, more like ours.


How did Hecker respond to polarization in his time?


At his very first audience with Blessed Pope Pius IX, on December 22, 1857, in response to the Pope’s concern about factional strife in the United States, “in which parties get each other by the hair,” Hecker had confidently replied that “the Catholic truth,” once known, “would come between” parties and act like oil on troubled waters.” 


For Hecker, the Roman Catholic Church, the Body of Christ which continues the mission of Christ’s Incarnation in the world, was a powerfully unifying force, binding citizens together, and thus blunting the dangerously sharp cutting edges of conflict and dissension, fusing the private interests of individuals and factions into a common social and civic unity.


At the heart of what he said and wrote, was this basic appreciation of what he had experienced in the Catholic Church, the Body of Christ which continues Christ’s life and work in the world – and the individual and social effects which flow from openness to that divine activity. As he wrote in his final book, The Church and the Age, published the year before he died, “The church must justly be said to be the expansion prolongation, and perpetration of the Incarnation” . 

Hecker’s charism is a continuing invitation to read and reread our time and place through the unique experience of the Church’s life and then to share that experience with the world in our particular time and place. So, while many of Hecker’s 19th-century hopes and aspirations have been contradicted by historical developments, we may still rightly seek inspiration in Hecker’s vision of social reconciliation through religious evangelization. In our own time of religious and political division, we may do well to look at our church life more intensely through this particular lens.


Hecker proposed a religious renewal of American society rooted in authentic personal spiritual renewal. He aspired to what he called, in a letter to Orestes Brownson, “a higher tone of catholic life in our country.” The Catholic faith, he continued, “is capable of giving to people a true permanent and burning enthusiasm fraught with the greatest of deeds. But to enkindle this in others we must be possessed of it first ourselves.” 


Hecker hoped his Paulist Fathers’ community could be an effective vehicle for getting us all from here to there. 


The abiding question remains how, formed by Hecker’s charism, we can freshly read our time and place to implement Hecker’s proposed renewal as part of the present-day mission of a seriously stressed and divided Church, in a society in which so much of what Hecker admired about the US now no longer exists.


How had Hecker found the Church, and what had he found in her?


Hecker’s proposed solution to the problem of polarization was the Roman Catholic Church, which he himself had discovered as the solution to his own spiritual search. That search had started at an early age. This is reflected in the image at the base of Fr. Hecker’s sarcophagus in St. Paul the Apostle Church, which shows Isaac as a sick child, in danger of death from smallpox, reassuring his mother: “No, mother, I shall not die now; God has work for me to do in the world, and I shall live to do it.”


So Hecker soon started asking some big-picture questions about life: “Often in my boyhood, when lying at night on the shavings before the oven in the bake house, I would start up, roused in spite of myself, by some great thought … What does God desire from me? What shall I attain unto Him? What is it He has sent me into the world to do? These were the ceaseless questions of my heart, that rested, meanwhile, in an unshaken confidence that time would bring the answer.


In American religious history, this was the era of religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening, which was even more socially and politically conscious than the earlier, colonial-era First Great Awakening. So much of the distinctive character American culture and its mingling of religion and politics stem from this period, which was when the U.S. became what Chesterton would famously call: “a nation with the soul of a church.” 


By his own account, Hecker spend several years examining the principal Protestant sects, sampling as many as possible of the leading contemporary religious ideas, none of which, however, proved satisfactory to him. Confident that “it is not reasonable to suppose that [God] would implant in the soul such an ardent thirst for truth and not reveal it,” he eventually continued his search for the truth in the Catholic Church, “the place,” as he put it, “where it is supposed among Protestants the least to exist.” But then: “The Catholic Church burst upon my vision as the object to which all my efforts had been unintentionally directed. It was not a change, but a sudden realization of all that had hitherto obscurely captivated my mind, and secretly attracted my heart.


In thus describing his spiritual quest and its seemingly surprising outcome, Hecker wanted to emphasize what would become his lifelong conviction that Catholicism was consistent with and indeed the true fulfillment of the aspirations of human nature – a 19th century American version of the famous theme of St. Augustine’s Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” 


Hecker’s sarcophagus portrays him searching for God at Brook Farm – a transcendentalist, utopian community, founded in Massachusetts by George Ripley in 1841. New England Transcendentalism had its roots in the Unitarian rejection of classical Calvinist doctrine and orthodox Christianity in general – what Hecker himself later characterized as “a gradual loosening of the Christian principles in men’s minds and a falling away into general skepticism.” 


Such was the circle that the 20-something Hecker associated with in 1843 – first at Brook Farm and then at Bronson Alcott’s short-lived, somewhat more ascetic Fruitlands community. A smart, if formally relatively uneducated, working-class young man, Hecker was excited to enter this elite community and its intellectual life. This transcendentalist environment proved quite conducive to Hecker’s intense preoccupation with exploring his inner life, and his companions nicknamed him “Ernest the Seeker,” the name of a character in a contemporary short story by William Henry Channing. 

Whereas the Puritan preacher Cotton Mother had once said, “I like to sweeten my mouth with a piece of Calvin before I go to sleep,” Hecker thoroughly absorbed the Transcendentalists’ critique of mainline New England Protestantism, recalling “Against Calvinism we had a particular grudge.” To the end of his life, he would oppose “the Calvinist image of human nature as totally corrupt.”


Apart from that, however, even while appreciating the friendships there and benefiting from an environment that encouraged him to value and explore his inner life, Hecker maintained a certain intellectual independence from the beliefs of the Transcendentalists, thus enabling his exploration of his soul to lead to conclusions quite different from what the Transcendentalists believed. In his Diary, he described a transcendentalist (e.g. Emerson) as one who “prefers talking about love to possessing it, as he. Prefers Socrates to Jesus. Nature is his church and he is his own god” [June 13, 1844].


Instead, he found himself more and more drawn to institutional Christianity. His early identification of Divine Providence with the divine indwelling made theological sense of the continuity between nature and grace, which he felt from his own experience, thus easing his way into the Church and laying the groundwork for his mature thought about the relationship between Church and society and the evangelization of the latter by the former. 


He studied the Catechism of the Council of Trent and was especially impressed by Article IX on the doctrine of the communion of saints. Writing in the Paulist magazine, The Catholic World, one year before his death, Hecker recalled: “When, in 1843, I first read in the catechism of the Council of Trent the doctrine of the communion of saints, it went right home. It alone was to me a heavier weight on the Catholic side of the scales than the best historical argument which could be presented. … The body made alive by such truths ought to be of divine life and its origin traceable to a divine establishment: it ought to be the true church.    


In our contemporary idiom, Hecker had been “spiritual but not religious” for the first 25 years of his life. The story of his spiritual search eloquently exemplifies the appeal of such searching and may speak to the spiritual longings of some in our own society today. What was significant about Hecker’s “spiritual but not religious” period, however, was that he did not remain that way. For Hecker, seeking was never an end in itself. The point of seeking was finding. Once the object was found, the search ended. Having found fulfillment in the Catholic Church, he never desired to look farther. Rather, he desired to devote his life to helping others – especially other seekers, such as he himself had been – to find the truth in the Catholic Church. His missionary activity reflected his deep devotion and fidelity to the Church. Above all, he prized the unity and universality of the Church, which had attracted him to it in the first place. Reflecting upon his experience many years later, Hecker wrote that he “not only became a most firm believer in the mysteries of the Christian religion, but a priest and a religious, hopes thus to die.” For us today, living in an era when people find it increasingly hard to make substantial commitments, those are words well worth meditating upon.


So how did Hecker’s Roman Catholicism redefine for him the America of his time?


Like the most famous foreign observer and analyst of Jacksonian American society and institutions, the French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), Hecker appreciated the fundamentally fragmented character of American society with its fragile connections among individuals, and the dilemma of how to create a community capable of uniting individuals in a new kind of society. De Tocqueville and Hecker came from completely different backgrounds, had very different experiences in the Catholic Church, and arrived at their conclusions by very different means. But, already in the 1830s, de Tocqueville had famously described American democracy’s utterly unexpected compatibility with Catholicism. He recognized “that the Catholic religion has erroneously been looked upon as the natural enemy of democracy,” but he argued that “the Catholics of the United States are at the same time the most faithful believers and the most zealous citizens” – a view Hecker himself would soon share. 


In 19th-century Europe, the Catholic Church was struggling to survive as an institution against an increasingly individualistic and irreligious liberal political order that sought to constrain it. In reaction, the 19th-century Church sought to counteract the growing social fragmentation and to reconnect increasingly isolated individuals into a community by preserving, repairing, or restoring religious bonds. One approach was to assert the Church’s claims to authority as vigorously as possible and to insist upon the Church’s political privileges and institutional rights in relation to the state and upon the traditional constitutional arrangements (for example, the union of throne and altar) that appeared most compatible with the Church’s social and political position, if only because of the security this seemingly offered in the face of frightening and unpredictable change. (A contemporary version of that is “Integralism,” which is enjoying a certain renaissance among some conservative Catholic intellectuals, but which has never had any serious prospect of succeeding in an American context, something Hecker certainly understood.) 


Hecker’s religious alternative to that primarily political approach envisaged a social solution in which individuals, converted to Catholicism as the answer to their deepest human aspirations would be empowered, by combining true religion and democratic political institutions, to develop society along Catholic lines. His was a thoroughly religious form of discourse, uniquely capable of addressing social and political concerns.


Whereas for Hecker’s famous contemporary Karl Marx (1818-1883), religion meant alienation and its survival in society showed the inadequacy of its purely political separation from the state, for Hecker Roman Catholicism was the fulfillment of the most authentic aspirations of human nature; and its power to transform society through the conversion of citizens more than compensated for the Church’s loss of political power thanks to its separation from the State.


In one of his last Catholic World articles, published in the year he died, Hecker, quoting an anonymous acquaintance, said “he didn’t care for union of church and state if he could have union of church and people.” Such comments convey how he continued to conceptualize religion’s role in the transformation of society, and how he confidently expected this to accomplish more effectively what others hoped for from politics.


Hecker never wavered in his conviction that what he had found in Catholicism – and what he had been able to find only in Catholicism – could and would be America’s answer as well. He was confident that neither Calvinism nor Unitarianism or Transcendentalism would ultimately have much appeal to Americans. For Hecker, who, he hoped, would better appreciate how Catholicism simultaneously accepted the necessity of revelation and grace while still recognizing the permanence and value of nature and reason. 


Having himself experienced the divided and fragmented character of modern society, Hecker had found an alternative in the mission of the Church, as the organic temporal expression of Christ’s life, to continue Christ’s work by pouring oil on the troubled waters of the world. There was nothing new about this. Christ’s life and work are realized in the Church through the mission of the Holy Spirit who dwells by grace in each of us. According to Hecker, to discern the Church’s action clearly, “and to cooperate with it effectually, is the highest employment of our faculties, and at the same time the primary source of the greatest good to society” (The Church and the Age). 


On this basis, Hecker’s approach sought to root the renewal of American society in a Catholic religious renewal inseparable from the spiritual renewal of his fellow citizens made possible by grace.


Hecker’s important insight was that, since all creation is always ultimately ordered to grace, even certain new situations and social arrangements, which are perceived as obstacles, (like American democracy and separation of church and state) may actually be new opportunities for individual and social transformation through the Church’s ongoing realization of Christ’s incarnation. Applying this to today, we might well also ask: What other apparent novelties which might be perceived as obstacles might really be opportunities?


Hecker was well aware that his spiritual insights into American democracy’s compatibility with Catholicism and what Catholicism had to offer to America hardly corresponded to conventional wisdom – on either side of the Atlantic. He never wavered, however, in his conviction that what he had been able to find only in Catholicism could and would be America’s answer as well. He combined Catholic universalism and a distinctly American self-understanding of the relationship between religion and society in a providential perspective, which could work politically within the framework bequeathed by classical liberalism’s separation of society and state. 


If Hecker’s solution as Religion, how Americans had previously experienced Religion represented the Problem.


Hecker’s practical judgments about the optimal relationship between Church and State reflected his assessment of the relationship between religion and society. His American alternative was not a political solution to the problems posed by liberalism, but a social solution to the underlying religious problem that he believed afflicted America. This was specifically two aspects he found fundamental in Protestantism – the Calvinist belief in, human depravity, which he believed made people unfit for self-government, and the Protestant principle of  individual interpretation, which he believed ill-fitted people for community.  


So, in 1861, at the start of the Civil War, Hecker wrote in a letter: “Our present crisis is not an unmitigated evil, if it leads us to see the necessity of a greater dependence on God for our well-being as a nation …  Who can tell, God in his inscrutable providence may in our present trials and sacrifices be preparing our people to see the necessity to acknowledge the truth of his holy Catholic religion.” 


Always inclined to see Divine Providence at work, Hecker interpreted the fragmentation of the country religiously rather than politically, an opportunity to highlight what Catholicism had to offer. 


Hecker’s curious conviction concerning the compatibility of Catholicism and American institutions, surprising as it seemed to so many at the time, was paralleled by what must have seemed even more surprising, his even more curious conviction concerning the incompatibility of Protestantism and American institutions, a continuous theme in his writings for the rest of his life.


Hecker continued the Transcendentalist critique of Calvinism, understood as a doctrine of “total depravity” – the cornerstone of his novel apologetic approach, which highlighted Catholicism’s compatibility with human nature – in contrast to Protestantism as he understood it. 


Already in Aspirations of Nature, he had warned: “If our nature be wholly bad, desires nothing, and can do nothing, but sin, of course, we cannot be expected to desire the truth, to love the good, to crave religion, to reverence God, or to wish for any virtue or goodness whatever.” 


Americans, Hecker believed, realized that the philosophy of democratic self-government could not be reconciled to doctrinal Calvinism. And this was actually happening, but it did not in fact necessarily lead Americans to Catholicism. 


Of course, Hecker’s whole understanding of Protestantism was deeply colored by his encounter with the anti-Calvinist Transcendentalists at Brook Farm. And, though he gained many positive things from this experience, he tended to see Protestantism too much from this particular perspective. From that angle he concluded that Protestantism was disappearing – to be replaced by Unitarianism or Catholicism as the only alternative options – a view he never quite overcame.


In this too, however, Hecker was very typically American.

Much as the traditional U.S. founding narratives typically privilege the influence of New England over the Spanish settlements and even over the other English colonies with different variants of Protestantism, Hecker’s narrative of American religion regularly privileged New England Protestantism and its historical variants over other American religious experiences. He seemed to ignore the strong roots of Protestantism in other parts of America, which his travels should have shown him. In particular, Hecker’s narrow picture of American Protestantism dramatically failed to appreciate Protestantism’s capacity to revitalize itself precisely at its own evangelical roots. Indeed, already in his somewhat critical 1857 review of Aspirations of Nature, Orestes Brownson had highlighted how Evangelical Protestantism was by then the more dominant American religious tradition, one reason why Brownson became increasingly less confident in the conversion of America.  


In our day, of course, mainline Protestantism may appear in fact to be fulfilling Hecker’s expectation that it would die out, but Evangelical Protestantism has not only grown and thrived – at least until very recently. Meanwhile, it has somewhat successfully assumed for itself the identification with America’s destiny that the Mainline had inherited from old New England Puritanism and which Hecker had thought would pass to Catholicism. On the other hand, the more recent but increasing phenomenon of the thorough politicization of the religious identification with America’s destiny suggests a movement in the direction opposite to Hecker’s expectation – not religion replacing politics, but politics replacing religion.


In our own time of cultural, moral, social, and political polarization in both our society and our Church, the inevitable temptation is to imagine alternative futures for either or both – as if such alternatives were easily in our power. However, Hecker’s “approach remained rooted in religious conversion, our own and that of our fellow-citizens. 


That said, neither can we escape the bigger picture. Much of what Hecker admired about America, including its egalitarianism and sociability, no longer characterizes the contemporary post-industrial, corporate, centralized state. Likewise, American Catholicism – the religious remedy he posited for the social fragmentation which the United States still experiences – has changed as well. While conversions continued both during and after Hecker’s lifetime, they have never been in the numbers necessary to make the kind of impact on society Hecker had hoped for. What did make an actual impact, then and now, has been immigration, which has historically uniquely positioned the American Catholic Church to play a prominent part in the desperately required mission of cultural, ethnic, and racial reconciliation in this country.  


It can be argued, meanwhile, that Hecker may really have been too optimistic about America and so did not appreciate how much, for example, the anti-democratic features of the U.S. Constitution really do reflect the Protestant Founders’ very negative view of human nature and human possibilities. The things that Hecker liked about America and the things that he disliked may have been more intrinsically connected than he was inclined to credit.


On the other hand, as the Claretian Fr. Martin Kirk has suggested, if the U.S. Catholic church had been more open to Hecker’s impulse “to enter more fully into American culture, the position of the Church to bear prophetic witness within the culture might have been more feasible and more effective” [Kirk, 1988, pp. 382-383].


Some things to think about! 


Always bearing in mind, however, that our question cannot be What would Hecker do if faced with the problems we have today? Our question must rather be What should someone inspired by Hecker’s life and ideas do, faced with the problems we have today?