Aliens in America: The Strange Truth About Our Souls By Peter Augustine Lawler, ISI Books, 298 pages 24.95 U.S.,Reviewed by
As citizens of a First World nation endowed with an amazing degree of peace, prosperity, longevity and opportunities for personal advancement, it is easy to forget that our predicament is in large part the consequence of the Enlightenment project of overcoming the sufferings of this life through the judicious application of the natural sciences and broadly liberal principles to the betterment of our private lives and the broader polity in which we live.

Though largely successful, there has always existed with that project the danger of an exaggerated sense of its ability to eradicate human suffering and the growing expectation that modern science will find a solution to those pains associated with the mortality of the human race – hopes that sit thoroughly at odds with the distinctly (though not exclusively) Christian assertion that we are aliens who temporarily exist in this world, but are not of it.

In an age where a wide gamut of thinkers from across the political spectrum have bought into variations of such efforts to transform human nature, further buoyed by the prospects for their realization through the projected advancements in the biomedical arena, Peter Augustine Lawler’s Aliens in America: The Strange Truth About Our Souls provides both a critical appraisal of the contemporary philosophies engaged in this project and an argument for a return to the claims of orthodox religious believers regarding the dignity and truth of their understanding of human nature.

For a world faced with the ethical dilemmas surrounding genetic engineering, the manipulation of our minds through psychiatric drugs or the intense prolongation of human lifespans for those with access to such medical wonders, Lawler’s book offers a timely examination of how we might better deal with such issues.

Beginning with a caricature of America’s upper-middle class styled after that of American sociologist David Brooks, Lawler introduces us to the world of the bourgeois-bohemians, or “Bobos,” who epitomize the congruence of a comfortable income with self-fulfillment through whatever combinations of family life, hobbies or custom-tailored spiritualities that might satisfy their whims. However satisfactory such lives may appear, Lawler’s comic portrayal of America’s trendsetting class suggests that they have really missed out on much of what it means to be human.

Having largely reduced their efforts and goals to the realization of middle-class stability, living with a laissez-faire attitude that can hardly find a reason to sacrifice their comfort except for when its momentary suspension might best secure its future permanence, they are woefully ill-prepared to deal with the ethical dilemmas that will likely soon emerge out of the technological society from which they’ve been afforded such affluence and security. In the chapters that follow, Lawler goes through a wide gamut of contemporary philosophies and their adherents, from the secular Lockean rationalists to the postmodernism of Richard Rorty, in order to show how much the Bobos’ dire predicament either stems from or finds reinforcement in the Ivy Towers of America’s universities.

Interspersed amongst this portrayal however, Lawler also presents the competing claims and insights of alternative philosophies and traditions, as found in characters like the natural law theorist John Courtney Murray, the novelist Walker Percy and Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America depicted an early 19th-century America whose strength rested largely in the religious faith of its citizenry. To be safe, Lawler is careful to point out that some of those seeming to promote orthodox religiosity as a strengthening force in American society, like William Galstone (who advised Bill Clinton and Senator Joseph Lieberman on such matters), are really on the secular-liberal side of the debate and hope to create a climate of religiosity freed of its political opposition to abortion or gay rights.

That said, Lawler puts forth his assertion that the true answers to the unhappiness of our age and the moral dilemmas at hand can be found in the insights of orthodox religious belief that still exists as a powerful (however battered) force in America.

Slowly formulating his thesis over the course of many chapters that read like a summary of all of the relevant arguments from either side, and willing to partially accept what he believes to be good insights from those with which he otherwise disagrees, Lawler’s book engages the reader in a manner that goes beyond simply accepting or dismissing people on the basis of their ideologies or prejudices, and in many ways offers a model for constructive engagement with the secular liberals toward which he is so critical.

Rhetorically, his style strengthens his suggestion that we admit those with orthodox religious beliefs into the public discourse about the emerging ethical debates, as well as defining who we are as individuals and a people.