Christianity and Liberalism: Two Alternative Religious Approaches
t the very end of the twentieth century, Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball published a collection of essays titled, The Betrayal of Liberalism : How the Disciples of Freedom and Equality Helped Foster the Illiberal Politics of Coercion and Control.1 This title is characteristic of one school of analysis of contemporary liberalism, represented by what Alasdair MacIntyre has labelled “conservative liberals.” The gist of the argument is as follows: liberalism is a philosophy of freedom which had made huge strides in liberating humanity from a variety of oppressive institutions, including chattel slavery, feudalism, hereditary monarchy and other forms of ascriptive social patterns. Liberalism’s beginnings in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were on solid foundations, as articulated by the likes of John Locke, Adam Smith, the American founders and (perhaps) John Stuart Mill. Modern constitutional democracy, including that of Canada and the United States, would be all but impossible without the groundwork laid by this early liberalism.
However, the story continues, over slightly less than the last hundred years, the original liberal impulse has been betrayed by those falsely claiming the liberal label. These include the likes of US Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and, especially, a series of Supreme Court justices (in both countries) whose decisions have imposed an undemocratic rights-oriented regime on a recalcitrant public deemed to have retained “unconstitutionally” atavistic attitudes towards abortion, homosexuality, marriage and a number of similar issues. Furthermore, the very institution of the welfare state is leading us down what the classical liberal economic philosopher, Friedrich von Hayek, was calling as early as 1944, “the road to serfdom.” This more recent liberalism is thus eroding representative government, personal freedom and even equality, insofar as it champions race- and gender-based affirmative action. The net result is a society which is anything but liberal in the traditional sense. When a human rights tribunal is able to force a private printer to accept business effectively advancing a cause with which he disagrees, then liberalism has become most illiberal indeed.
This “betrayal of liberalism” thesis is advanced primarily by those who would call themselves liberal in the older sense. They retain a commitment to the principles championed by Locke, Smith and Mill. They are very often citizens of the United States who attach more than ordinary significance to the American founding, including such foundational documents as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and the Bill of Rights. They take great interest in the thoughts and writings of such figures as James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and their contemporaries, assuming that in them they will discover the collective mind of the founders and it will enable them to unlock the riches of the liberal tradition bequeathed to later generations. They will then be able to hold up this tradition as a standard by which to measure the apparently misguided activities of the pseudo-liberal upstarts.
Proponents of the “betrayal of liberalism” thesis include, most prominently, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, George Weigel, Robert George, and other so-called “Catholic Whigs” associated with the journal First Things. For these figures the Christian tradition itself calls for a classical liberal and democratic approach to politics, at least at the present historical moment. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Catholic Whigs ascribe their own position to Pope John Paul II himself. On the protestant side one can find Charles Colson, the Reformed theologian John Bolt, and a number of others associated with the several Reformation traditions. Catholics, Protestants and Jews of this persuasion have come together in the Acton Institute of Grand Rapids, Michigan, which pursues market-oriented economic, political and social reforms. Of course, there are also people who do not identify overtly with any of the traditional religions and adhere to some form of the “conservative liberal” thesis, such as Milton Freedman and Hayek himself. But among Christians adhering to this interpretation, there is at least an implicit tendency to assume that the American founding is somehow uniquely revelatory of God’s purposes in history. Their common assumption is that it is possible to follow the principles of the earlier liberalism championed by the founders without necessarily embracing the latest manifestation of the liberal worldview.
There is, of course, another account of the relationship between the earlier classical liberalism and seemingly illiberal contemporary liberalism. This account emphasizes the continuities between the two, and it includes both adherents and opponents of liberalism. Here the story goes as follows: the liberalism of the welfare state, activist courts, human rights tribunals, affirmative action and the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League is rooted in the logic of the earlier liberalism of Locke, Smith and Mill. For its proponents, the contemporary liberal enterprise aims simply to complete the pioneering work of Locke, Smith, Mill and the American founders. Thus the voting record of a Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) stands squarely in the tradition of the American founders. On a theoretical level, the ruminations of a John Rawls or (increasingly) Canada’s Michael Ignatieff are simply the continuation of the project begun some three centuries earlier in England and Scotland that spread to North America. Partisans of the latest form of liberalism include a large number of intellectuals who would accept both Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government and Rawls’ Political Liberalism, seeing the latter as the worthy heir of the former.
Of course nonliberals too are fully capable of seeing the continuities between early and later forms of liberalism, and some would agree in seeing Rawls and Kennedy as legitimate successors to Locke and Jefferson. Yet for them this is by no means to be applauded. As they see it, liberalism as a whole has had a fragmenting impact on the larger society. A lopsided emphasis on individual rights minus the counter-emphasis on responsibilities to the larger society can only have a deleterious effect on marriage and family, on secure neighbourhoods with safe streets, on the maintenance of social mores, and so forth. Where these nonliberals differ from their classical liberal opponents is in recognizing a connection between the early social contractarian theories of community and the fissiparous tendencies of contemporary liberalism, with its excessive emphasis on freedom of choice at the expense of a common good.
Opponents of liberalism seeing the connections between the different stages of liberalism include the Augustinian Catholic David L. Schindler, traditionalist Catholic Robert P. Kraynak, Protestant ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, University of Notre Dame’s Michael Baxter, Jacques Ellul, Canada’s George Parkin Grant, and, I would argue, those standing within the reformational tradition extending from Calvin, through Johannes Althusius, Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd and Bob Goudzwaard. One might also include in this growing community of scholars and observers Nicholas Wolterstorff, Alasdair MacIntyre and (possibly) Jean Bethke Elshtain. For all their considerable differences, all are united in viewing the liberal tradition as a single spiritual strand, moving inexorably through the centuries and working out its foundational presuppositions in the various societies it has touched. Only gradually has its full implications become clear, until the affected society comes to taste its bitter fruit, in addition to reaping its undoubted benefits, the latter of which have come primarily through the spectacular technological innovations it has unleashed.
I would count myself as part of the latter group. In contrast to the Catholic whigs and the Acton Institute, which tend to view the various liberal strands as separable and capable of being assessed differently, I concur with those seeing contemporary liberalism rooted in the logic of the earlier liberalism. Rather than lionizing Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, I believe we must subject it to the same critical framework that we would bring to the later forms of liberalism for which it served to pave the way. If the various stages of liberalism have anything in common, it is the tendency to view all forms of human community as mere voluntary associations, in principle mutable and even revocable at the whims of constituent individuals. The political implication of this is that, by conflating the state with a voluntary association, liberalism has eviscerated the state’s jural character, i.e., the understanding, rooted in both universal human experience and biblical revelation, that government is obligated to do justice and that this obligation is its defining feature.
Of course, those Christians who would still adhere to the betrayal-of-liberalism thesis have a response to the logic-of-liberalism argument. Liberalism, they would say, is not at fault. As Richard John Neuhaus has put it, “When we survey the depredations and ravages of our social, political, and religious circumstance, it is tempting to look for someone or something to blame. It is easy to say, ‘Liberalism made us do it.’ But liberalism is freedom, and what we do with freedom is charged to our account.”2
Yet what if it turns out that liberalism is not merely equivalent to limited constitutional government and the protection of freedom, but instead is itself an idolatrous overestimation of these undoubted goods? To be sure, some people accept the liberal label simply as a way of claiming support for a wide measure of personal freedom within a given political community. It is difficult to find fault with this. In this sense to be liberal means to be attached to liberty, but in a balanced and proportionate manner. This is undoubtedly the meaning the Acton Institute ascribes to the word when it includes “in the liberal tradition” everyone from John Locke, Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson, to Thomas Aquinas, Althusius, Edmund Burke, Tocqueville, Kuyper and C. S. Lewis. As Paul Marshall puts it, “If it simply means a great concern for individual freedom and rights in a constitutional, democratic order, then this author is happy to be called a political liberal.”3 Agreed.
Yet there is more to liberalism than this. Much more. I would argue that liberalism, as an ideology, has a creedal character and is rooted in a fundamentally secular worldview. To begin with, liberalism starts with a basic faith in human autonomy extending well beyond a mere attachment to personal freedom. Autonomy means to be self-directed, to govern oneself in accordance with a law which one has chosen for oneself. Each of the ideologies attaches this autonomy to some manifestation of humanity, be it the individual or some community such as the state or nation. Liberalism assigns this autonomy to the individual, who is deemed to be the centre of the cosmos. Liberalism proper arose in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that is, in the intellectual milieu of the scientific revolution and of René Descartes’ attempt to construct a unified science on mathematical models. Accordingly, liberalism, in typical Cartesian fashion, reduces society to its component parts and attempts to rebuild it on a more rational basis. Human community is deemed very nearly a fictitious construction reducible to its component parts, namely, the individuals. The only way to understand a community is to subject these parts to rigorous examination. Individuals are sovereign, and thus it is they who determine the shape of their communities.
The implications of this liberal creed are huge, insofar as it effectively levels out the diversity of human communities, recasting them all as voluntary associations, subject to the whims of their members. That this conflicts with ordinary experience would seem evident.
If, for example, someone were to walk into room 212 at Redeemer University College and see me standing in front of a group of some fifty young people and lecturing to them, she would know immediately what she was seeing: a classroom community united by the shared desire to study political institutions and processes. She would know, without having to engage in elaborate theorizing, that we were not a family. A combination of cues would provide the evidence, including body language, lack of physical resemblance among those present, the larger numbers, the formal nature of the conversation, the note-taking, the overhead projector (or something more technologically sophisticated), the 50- or 75-minute length of time, and so forth. A liberal emphasis on the community’s voluntary character would tend, if taken seriously, to suppress this experientially-based knowledge. Even if we admit that the students in attendance are there of their own free will, there are limits to the voluntary character of a classroom community. They could not, for example, announce to me one morning that they had taken a vote and decided to disband the classroom community and reform it as a bird-watching club. The most that could occur would be for students, on an individual basis, to drop the course and enroll in an ornithology course in its place. But it is not up to them to decide on the structural form of the classroom community which they have elected to enter.
The early liberal political theorists are known as social contract thinkers. The social contract makes its first startling appearance in the writings of Thomas Hobbes, especially his Leviathan. It reappears half a century later in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government and later still in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s On the Social Contract. The social contract theory takes a narrative form, beginning with atomized individuals in a pre-political state of nature, characterized by economic scarcity and at least a potential condition of warfare. At some point these individuals tire of conditions in the state of nature and elect to band together to escape its dangers and uncertainties. They do so by means of a social contract. Although the various liberal theorists differ among themselves on the precise nature of the contract, all are in fundamental agreement that it is entirely voluntary, and thus subject to the aggregate of wills party to the contract. As these sovereign wills need not answer to anything outside themselves, it is not surprising that they should be changeable in the expectations they attach to this contract. The early liberals clearly favoured a “lean and mean” state apparatus, capable of defending the citizens and their property but incapable of interfering further in their lives and livelihoods. Yet as this night watchman state proved inadequate to the doing of public justice, later liberals expanded the role of government, initially to regulate the large monopolistic enterprises established during the early industrial revolution, later to secure equal economic opportunities for all citizens whatever their respective social stations, and later still to subsidize a wide variety of personal choices and to cushion the potentially detrimental effects flowing therefrom.
Although the followers of the earlier form of liberalism, including Friedman and Hayek, dislike the expansive state of late liberalism, there is little if anything in their ideological commitments to prevent it. After all, if the state is a mere voluntary association, then its members are well within their rights to alter the terms of the social contract, effectively abandoning the strictly limited state in favour of what has come to be known as the welfare state—one undertaking to provide a wide variety of services to the public. Moreover, if Hobbes, Locke and Jefferson are to be believed, the parties to the contract even have the right to abolish it altogether in a revolutionary act, if it fails to do their bidding.
So what’s wrong with all this? Isn’t all this as American as apple pie? Yes, it is. But its influence is much more widespread than the boundaries of the United States. The lure of voluntarism—of not having to submit to anything or anyone outside of our own wills—is a powerful one throughout the western world and beyond. We dislike the thought that we may be under obligations to which we have not freely assented. We did not choose our parents, yet we are still responsible to obey them when we are children and later, as adults, to continue to honour them. Nor have we literally entered into political community or overtly assented to its laws. Most of us are born to citizenship in a particular state, with all the rights and responsibilities attached to it. Those who are not acknowledged as citizens in the land of their birth, for example, Palestinian refugees or non-Israeli middle-eastern Jews, find their claim on public justice precarious at best. Citizenship is not a voluntary status, yet those without it or whose status is unclear are anxious to claim it for themselves. They are as worthy of pity as orphans who have lost their parents at too young an age. It may be a cliché to affirm that we are embedded in a plethora of overlapping communities from day one, but liberalism in all its stages has difficulty accounting for this.
What then shall we make of the larger liberal project? I would argue (contrary, it seems, to “Fr. Jape” in the last issue of The New Pantagruel) that obedience to the will of God as expressed in his Word—far from being opposed to discernment—requires discernment (see I Corinthians 12:10; Colossians 2:6-8). Like it or not, we human beings are confronted by a plethora of worldviews vying for our allegiance, and some of these take the form of political ideologies, such as liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, democratism and socialism. To know what obedience requires of us in the political arena, we must first discern what in these ideologies is worthwhile, even as we recognize their apostate spiritual underpinnings and seek an alternative better able to account for the rich social complexity in God’s world.
- Chicago: Ivan R Dee, 1999.
- Neuhaus, “The Liberalism of John Paul II,” First Things 73 (May 1997): 21.
- Paul Marshall, God and the Constitution: Christianity and American Politics (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), p. 124.