Modern conservatives know that they're actually old-time liberals and should reclaim the term.
Dear friends and supporters:
Our son Richard, college instructor and church leader, is visiting from Vancouver, and I’m preparing for upcoming lectures at the Worldview Youth Academy in Ontario, Canada, so I’m devoting this e-newsletter to the article I published in the June Christian Culture hard-copy letter. That monthly publication I generally reserve for the audience on CCL’s surface address mailing list (contact me if you wish to subscribe), but I since time is short this week, thought I’d make an exception and reprint it here.
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Liberalism, the Roots
Liberalism is a dirty word to many conservatives — Leftists, too. The latter now prefer to be called “progressives.” This is welcome news for thoughtful modern conservatives, who know that they themselves are actually old-time liberals, and we should reclaim the term.
Liberalism is the application of the Protestant Reformation to politics, and wedded to the conservative wing of the Enlightenment. Luther and Calvin’s recovery of the biblical truth of the individual’s responsibility before God unencumbered by the interposition of the medieval church soon found a parallel in the individual citizen’s liberty from an oppressive state and hereditary monarchies, strangling economic guilds, and suffocating clannishness. Individuals were rightly obligated to state, family, church, and business, but they were largely set free to follow the dictates of their own conscience, and gain the benefits, or suffer the consequences.
Spheres of Liberty (Liberalism)
Three main spheres of that liberty are the religious, political, and economic. Religious liberty means the liberty to worship God (or not worship him at all) according to the dictates of one’s conscience. It means there is no tax-financed national church into which one is born coterminous with the state. It means not that the state is religiously neutral (an impossibility) but that the state doesn’t get involved in church disputes or privilege a single denomination. The state enforces the moral law of God appropriate to its sphere and leaves the rest of Christian practice (or no practice) to citizens. This moral law as it relates to civil legislation is narrow — basically protecting life, liberty, and property, in language popular at the War for Independence. The state is not designed to make people good Christians. That’s the job of the church and family.
Next comes political liberty. Liberalism reversed the traditional priority of politics: the individual exists for the purpose of the nation or state. For liberalism, by contrast, the state exists for the purpose of the individual, to protect his liberty. “Governments are instituted among Men,” the Declaration of independence says, to “secure … Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” If the state doesn’t protect these God-given rights, there’s no reason for its existence. This was a breathtaking philosophical shift in the history of politics, but it has given the West the greatest measure of freedom in world history.
Finally, consider economic liberty. Liberalism observed how the so-called divine right of kings and intergenerational aristocratic rights had imperiled private property for much of human history. The strong owned property and created laws to forbid the competition of honest workers and investors. Liberals knew that property was an extension of the person. What we own is part of who we are. Individuals must therefore be free to work and get and barter their own property. Because it is theirs, and not another’s, they will treat it more carefully and respectfully. When liberalism sparked widespread economic liberty, the West over time developed such wealthy societies that were seen nowhere previously.
Liberalism, inspired by Reformational ideas, gave us a free, peaceful, prosperous, world. This is the world into which those of my age and older were born. We are its beneficiaries.
Liberty (Liberalism) Under Assault
It is now under withering assault, first by Leftists and, sadly, also by some misguided conservatives.
Leftists are at heart utopians.1 They (1) believe they know what the perfect society should be (egalitarian: no sexual, religious or economic differences); they (2) are confident it can be realized; and they (3) work to make it happen. But this society isn’t compatible with liberty. When people are free to act as they want, even — perhaps especially — within the realm of God’s moral law, they won’t seek utopian egalitarianism. Therefore, they must not be granted the liberty to act. Political authority should be in the hands of those who have society’s best interests at heart — Leftists, of course. This is an updated form of Marxism called Cultural Marxism. Not just economics but all of life must be equalized by the enforced power of the state. This is why all modern Leftists must be statists.
But, increasingly, not only Leftists. Some social conservatives, correctly alarmed at the moral decadence of our society — abortion, homosexual “marriage,” pornification, transgenderism, transhumanism, for example — incorrectly blame liberalism, that is, they blame liberty. Their attitude is: “If there were less liberty, there would be more virtue.” They want a society of politically enforced virtue; they want to enforce the virtue. In this, they’re no different from Robespierre, Lenin, and Pol Pot. They only disagree on how to define the virtue. These conservatives are sometimes called “integralists” (if Roman Catholic) or “post-liberals.” Liberalism, they assert, has failed. What they really mean is: liberty has failed. They want the power of political coercion to correct this problem.2
They fail to understand that liberty is itself a virtue.3 A free society can become an unvirtuous society, as ours has, but this is due to men’s depraved heats, not to liberty. They have failed in the culture wars — abortion was nationally legalized for nearly 50 years, though thank God, removed last week from judicial to legislative jurisdiction; homosexual “marriage” has been nationally legalized; and the rights of children to try to change their “gender” have been solidified. But these were not first Leftist political victories. They were Leftist cultural victories later easily codified in politics.
Covid lockdowns, the George Floyd killing and subsequent riots, Black Lives Matter, cancel culture, Critical Race Theory, the #MeToo Movement, the pervasiveness of gender dysphoria — these and other recent spectacles have exploded on the social scene. They have been such an unremitting part of our social environment over the past 2 to 5 years that they have insinuated themselves into our social currency, and it is difficult to objectively assess the state of recent culture while ignoring them.
The church has not eluded their impact. In some cases — the lockdown orders for all “nonessential” services comes to mind first — they have drastically shaped the very life of the church. Black Lives Matter, Critical Race Theory, and the #MeToo Movement have almost equally stamped themselves on a wide swath of Western Christianity, including conservative Christianity.
Church 2022 looks significantly different from its 2015 iteration, though even then signs of impending infection were not absent.
This present essay collection aims to assess the present state of the church from numerous perspectives. The writers (theologians, pastors, educators, scholars, thoughtful laymen) reflect a degree of theological diversity one might expect. All of them, however, are committed to biblical authority and historic Christian orthodoxy, including, specifically, historic Protestantism.
Resurrecting Liberty (Liberalism)
To resurrect liberty, therefore, we must work to restore a godly culture. That culture will eventually work its way into politics, not vice versa. There is no more pressing character quality in reviving liberty than individual responsibility. Anti-liberal thinking stresses group or identitarian dynamics: your meaning in life is rooted in your sex, or your race, or your economic status. You are a captive to that identity, and that identity excuses your privations and failures. If you’re a woman, “the patriarchy” has held you back. If you’re black, “white supremacy” has oppressed you. If you’re homosexual, a “heteronormative” society has prevented the exercise of your full potential.4
In the Bible, we’re all created in God’s image and personally responsible for our actions. We may not enlist the coercive state to redress our grievances of being a woman or a Hispanic or a lower-middle class citizen. We must recognize that while all of us have confronted hard, unforeseen circumstances, we should take it as a rule that we are today where our own decisions have brought us. We are not victims. We should have the liberty to decide — and live with the consequences of our decisions.
Liberalism is the political philosophy that allows us to make and live with our decisions. The state will not save us. It will protect our life, liberty, and property. It will not protect us from our bad decisions, from ourselves. Liberalism takes seriously man created in God’s image and therefore free within God’s cosmic order. Man’s primal calling is to exercise dominion over the creation within that order (Genesis 1:27–30). No political system has been better than liberalism at providing man the freedom to fulfill that task.
To resurrect individual responsibility under God’s authority is to resurrect liberalism.
Yours for Liberty,
Founder & President, Center for Cultural Leadership
From Enlightenment to Postmodernity
Dialectics, Cultural Marxism, and Critical Theory
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Thomas Molnar Utopia, the Perennial Heresy (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1967).
For a definitive refutation of the charges against liberalism, see Stephen Holmes, The Anatomy of Antiliberalism (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1993).
Frank S. Meyer, In Defense of Freedom and Related Essays (Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund, 1996).
Of course, male and female and black and white are rooted in our created being. Homosexuality is a perverse invention.