Grant Havers, a professor at Western Trinity University in Canada, has an important essay in the new issue of Modern Age, “Willmoore Kendall for Our Times.” (Don’t be fooled by the date on MA‘s cover — the “Winter/Spring 2011″ issue is the current one.) Kendall was unusual among postwar American conservative thinkers for being, as Havers writes, an outspoken “defender of the principle of majority-rule democracy.” But he came to have a refined understanding of majority rule in the American context: his seminal essay “The Two Majorities” spelled out the difference between a plebiscitary majoritarianism, in which the popular will is surveyed at a large scale and the public’s preferences are given immediate expression, and the structured, federal majoritarianism that was the hallmark of the American system. In the latter, the popular will is filtered by several delays and different modes of election, with the result that a more carefully considered popular mind is reflected. The “deliberate sense” of the people, not the immediate will, is what gets expression.

Kendall had converted to Catholicism by the time he gave the talks that became the basis for the book that best encapsulates his thinking, The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition (his co-author, George Carey, is also Catholic), but Havers correctly points to the Protestant underpinnings of what Kendall was describing: from the Mayflower Compact to the U.S. Constitution, the titular “basic symbols” were primarily drafted by Protestants who came from traditions in which congregations had great say over church governance. Even the Anglican church in America, especially in the South, gave the laity a much greater role than was customary in England — recall how one of the bones of contention leading up to the American Revolution was fear that George III would impose a bishop on America.

Self-government in church was as entrenched an American tradition as self-government through colonial legislatures, if not more so. And it’s easy to see how men who were accustomed to managing their spiritual affairs might think that they could manage their worldly affairs without king or Parliament. The tradition — the practice — of self-government held more authority for Americans than such institutions as crown, Parliament, or Anglican hierarchy. When the two types of authority came into conflict, it was clear where the colonists’ strongest loyalties would lie. (This is one reason why many in England already considered America de facto a separate country.)

It should also be obvious what political implications losing the ecclesiastical habit of self-government could have for America. In the 19th century, Americans were prone to extraordinary paranoia about Roman Catholics on this ground: because the Catholic faith subordinates the laity to a hierarchy, wouldn’t Catholics in politics subordinate citizens to the pope or a dictator? The answer, as John F. Kennedy was at pains to assure his countrymen as late as 1960, was no.

But as Protestantism has mutated into less structured congregations — and more charismatic congregations, often ruled quite personally by celebrity pastors — and as religious practice in general apparently declines, have Americans also lost the experience that made political self-governance possible? That federalist, structured majoritarianism that Kendall valued so highly was, even as he wrote in the 1950s and ’60s, losing ground to the new plebiscitary majoritarianism, which is impatient with constitutional filters and demands a direct expression of the people’s will through the power of the president of the United States.

Rod Dreher has recently wondered whether the “Catholic moment” in American politics has passed. I’m among those who are skeptical that such a moment could ever have occurred: not only is this country quite liberal and individualistic, as Rod says, but its political structure at its core is Protestant. Catholic political theory has a hard time dealing with the American political system — despite a great many modern modifications, the Catholic Church’s fundamental understanding of how politics works was shaped by the practices of Christendom, by the existence of stable authorities who formally acknowledged the moral authority of the Church and who at least pretended to heed the Church’s teachings. The American public, by contrast, is not a stable authority — nor are the politicians who serially hold office — and neither the public nor the Constitution acknowledges the authority of the Church in anything except the fuzziest or most utilitarian terms. Presumably the mechanism by which a “Catholic moment” could be fulfilled would involve Catholic voters and sympathetic Protestants electing Christian politicians who would pass morally Christian legislation, while in the extra-political world Catholic-inclined minds would have great influence in the media and other outlets of civil society.

This is not a very plausible vision — the public is simply too large and too multifarious in its beliefs for anything like this to be a stable configuration. I doubt it’s even possible for a moment, but if such a thing came to pass, what would prevent it from cracking up again? The Catholic Church itself would crack up if it were democratic in anything analogous to the way modern America is.

It’s arguable whether America has even had Protestant “moments”: expressions of religious belief by American political leaders have typically been on the vague side, from the Founding Fathers to Lincoln to Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. Abolition and Prohibition were very Christian movements, as was the civil rights movement, and all of these efforts achieved their immediate goals, but they failed to reform society or politics in the comprehensive way they had hoped. American politics was more corrupt and as racist as ever after slavery, Prohibition was a catastrophe, and the civil rights movement descended from Martin Luther King to Al Sharpton.  None of these movements re-Christianized American politics, and it’s doubtful they had any hope of doing so. (See D.G. Hart’s essay in the current American Conservative for more on this.)

The political side of this is worth thinking through as well: the Framers designed a Constitution that rested exclusively on popular rule; Kendall is helpfully clear about that. There was no hereditary element to the Constitution, no established religious element either. The people were the source of all power in government, regardless of whatever higher power might lie behind or speak through the people. But as Kendall showed, this was popular government modulated in such a way as to permit a natural aristocracy to have great sway — certainly Madison and Jefferson expected that enlightened lawyer-planters like themselves would be the people’s natural choice for their leaders. While being entirely popular in fact, in spirit the new Constitution would be a mixture of aristocracy and the popular principle.

In practice, what we have two centuries later is a combination of the degenerate forms of those types: we have something closer to a mass democracy than a federal republic, and the influence of a landed and well-read aristocracy has given way to what Aristotle would have recognized as a money-minded oligarchy. The putative “aristocrats” of old Virginia certainly knew how to use wealth as well as reputation to get their way; today, however, commercial wealth speaks more loudly than the Framers had expected, and 18th-century notions of character and reputation have fallen before modern concepts of charisma and celebrity.

You can just about see how Christian moral teachings could, even without being established in law, greatly influence the “deliberate sense” of a carefully structured popular will in a federal republic and could similarly influence politicians who aspired to be spiritual aristocrats. It’s much harder to see how such teachings could influence a financial oligarchy and democratic masses, both of which have characteristically worldly concerns. Religious leaders might influence a part of an electorate or some number of business leaders, but influencing the system as a whole is unlikely.

All of which is to say that concerns for a Catholic moment and the more strenuous exertions of the Religious Right are misplaced. Defense of conscience or protecting the rights of our few remaining institutions that are neither of the state nor of the market is one thing. Bringing the country into harmony with Christian natural law or “Biblical law” — or any other high spiritual ideal — by political power is entirely another. The conservative’s task in this is to preserve whatever authority can be spared from the tides of democracy and the mass market. That means both safeguarding civil authority in its many forms (religion, family, etc.) against encroachment from the state and also understanding the state’s authority itself in the right light: as something whose aim is domestic tranquility, not virtue, equality, or infinite justice.