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Liberals and Conservatives Against the Free World
Both the illiberal Left and the postliberal Right are unintentionally colluding to choke the pro-liberty society that has been our heritage.
Dear friends and supporters:
We who lived through the Cold War recall three national classifications:
(1) The Communist World, led by Soviet Russia and Red China.
(2) The Free World, the United States and other Western democracies.
(3) The Third World, comparatively unstable nations in Southeast Asia, Central and South America, and Africa for whose loyalty the Communist World and Free World competed and within which they sometimes waged proxy wars.
Almost nobody in the West questioned that moniker “Free World.” Communist regimes were obviously not free. They were the opposite: tyrannical and, to the extent possible, totalitarian.
The adjective of “free” in Free World designated what is today known as classical liberalism: political liberty, freedom of speech and assembly and press, fair and free elections, constitutional limits on power, checks and balances, and blind justice. Not one of these practices of freedom truly stamped Communist regimes. Every one attempted to create a top-down just and equitable society (as they defined it) and were eager to crush individual and institutional freedom to make this happen.
The U. S. founders had argued just the opposite: nations should exist to preserve individual liberty; they said so in the Declaration of Independence. Communist nations held that individuals exist to participate in an atheistic egalitarian society. An obvious example in the only surviving Stalinist state in the world, North Korea, is their official statement:
In the DPRK [North Korea] the rights and duties of citizens are based on the collectivist principle, “One for all and all for one.”
To the U. S. founders, there are no “collectivist principles.”
These two kinds of societies are irreconcilable.
The Soviet Union and Communism in Eastern Europe collapsed in 1989-1991. Post-Maoist Chinese communism gave up on radical socialism but preserved its soft, nationalistic tyranny, which continues to this day.
In 1992 American political scientist Francis Fukuyama had the grave misfortune of too-quickly writing a now infamous book The End of History and the Last Man. With the fall of Communism, he averred, history would be dominated by the Free World, liberal democracy, whose goal is the procedural sociopolitical liberty of individuals. It was the textbook egg-on-your-face tome, though most people didn’t know that until 9/11, when it became painfully (and fatally) obvious that large swaths of the world weren’t interested in liberty, but in centralized imposition of national or international virtue guaranteed by Allah and the Koran.
But not just in the Islamic world. Post-Soviet Russia did not end up embracing Western democracy, and much of the rest of the world didn’t either. In Robert Keegan’s clever response, History’s Back.
Left and Right Against Liberty
In 2020, the Free World isn’t simply competing with Islam and other authoritarian regimes. It’s plagued by its own cultural civil war. The Free World is under attack from within, not from Soviet or Chinese spies, or even Islamic terrorists, but by the newest New Left (Cultural Marxism), as well, surprisingly, by the revival of postliberal forces on the Right.
Let’s briefly take these in order.
The latest iteration of Leftism is dominated by Cultural Marxism. Unlike Classical Marxism, it’s interested not first in economics but in culture, notably, the leveling of all hierarchies and the installation of an atheistic egalitarian society. Current popular expressions of this vision include Critical Race Theory, transgender ideology, Black Lives Matter, intersectionality, and neo-pagan One-ist spiritualities.
Though their specific emphases and objectives differ, all are committed to undermining the free society. Why? Because it stands in the way of their grand, sweeping, atheistic social vision.
If individuals are free to live as they want; families and churches and businesses are free to establish their own non-coercive goals and boundaries; if society’s legal structure invites free and vigorous debate — if these are the case, a single, unified vision of the egalitarian society will constantly be facing the headwinds of opposition.
This is why Cultural Marxists hold free society to be guilty of “Repressive Tolerance.” The expression is intentionally paradoxical. The meaning is that free societies permit individuals and institutions to speak and act in ways that prevent what the Cultural Marxists believe is the truly just, wholesome society. Free societies tolerate the repression of The Good Society.
In this way, freedom is the enemy. It prevents people from being truly free to live in the perfect world: the culturally Marxist world, of course. As the famous French thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau argued, this is why people must be forced to be free.
The most flagrant among the newest New Left are currently toppling monuments, firebombing police cars, and looting businesses. From their standpoint, they see no reason to obey the law, since the law itself is designed to preserve and protect the current unjust, and immoral Free World.
To the latest Left, “Freedom Is Slavery” (George Orwell).
It might seem strange to suggest that putative conservatives could in any way resemble the Cultural Marxists, but in one significant way they do. Pondering how they re-emerged will show why.
Lord Acton once said: “Liberty has not subsisted outside of Christianity.” Early Western Christianity broke the political stranglehold of the ancient world. For the Roman Empire, like all other ancient empires, the state was the fundamental fact of life. There was no higher appeal. Many of the Caesars were worshiped as gods.
The Western church became a strong, independent, competing institution. The state no longer monopolized life. The conflict between church and state, while often unpleasant, helped create a degree of political liberty in the medieval world.
Protestantism added individual liberty. Luther knew that man’s fundamental relationship to God is mediated only in the person of Jesus Christ, not the state or church. Man must be right with God before he can be right with his fellow man. Man is responsible first to God, and then to everyone else.
Classical liberalism is the early modern political philosophy evolving from this distinctly Protestant viewpoint. It is the philosophy of the American founding. Protestantism believed strongly in Christian virtue, but held that political freedom is one of those virtues. The non-free society cannot be the virtuous society.
This, of course, runs flatly against the more modern Marxist idea that we must deprive people of freedom in order that they can all join together in swearing allegiance to the truly virtuous, atheistic society. Though Marxism is comparatively new historically, this basic idea of the role of the individual within the state is very old; it was, in fact, almost everywhere assumed in the ancient world. The newer, Protestant idea is that the individual, not the state, is the political priority.
The free society, however, contains an ingrained vulnerability: it creates conditions that permit the abuse of freedom. Just as God created man to be virtuous, but with the freedom to sin, so the classically liberal society is founded in virtue, but permits vice that erodes it.
This has led a number of recent conservatives to criticize not just the sinners in the free society, but the society that permits the sin. A number of the postliberals are Roman Catholic Integralists. This means they support a close union between (the Roman) church and state, which the American founders, being Protestant, did not. Our founders supported the implicit union of religion and state (which is, in any case, inescapable), but not a union of church and state, certainly not via a national church.
These critics, Roman Catholic or not, believe it’s necessary to replace the structural virtue of classical liberalism with substantive virtue: a society committed to a strong, virtuous, national purpose. Their difference with Cultural Marxists is that they want a theistic (Christian) rather than an atheistic (egalitarian) society. Both agree that if you grant a society extensive individual liberty, you can’t have the right kind of society.
The postliberal conservatives believe that the free society, the American society, has been a failure. Or, as Patrick Deneen would put it, it has been a smashing success: it aimed to give individual liberty, and that’s precisely what it got. Individual liberty is dangerous. Protestant liberty got us into the current depraved mess.
It should come as no surprise that all the leading conservative postliberal thinkers are non-Protestant. The United States was founded by Protestants, not Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, and their political philosophy was decidedly Protestant.
My pointing this out isn’t a sectarian Protestant screed. In fact, notable conservatives like the late Richard John Neuhaus, founding editor of First Things, as well as Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, are both Roman Catholics, and both are unflagging supporters of classical liberalism.
But the recent postliberals are harking back to an older Catholic social theory that had no place in the American founding — and, I might add, has never spawned political liberty.
Joseph Boot, Founder & President, Ezra Institute for Contemporary Christianity, writes:
“We are living in a revolutionary era of systematic anti-normativity. Today’s cultural despisers of Christianity are concerned with much more than a denial of Christ’s divinity, biblical miracles, or the authenticity of the New Testament text, their object is a total overturning of the creation order itself which stubbornly impinges upon all people at every turn. Tragically, the presuppositions of these opponents of Christ are frequently found loitering in the contemporary church, looking for a permanent pew wherever possible. Thankfully, this insightful book pulls the chair out from under well-disguised imposters!
With his customary brevity and with an uncanny ability to make complex ideas seem obvious and within easy reach, Sandlin applies his intellectual powers and rigor to unmasking a deadly error and in turn puts the centrality and glory of creation on full display … a vital introduction to a reformational view of the world.”
The Virtuous Society Requires Liberty
Conservative postliberalism is (of course) much more attractive to Christians than Leftist illiberalism. All biblical Christians deplore legal aborticide ( = abortion), constitutionally protected same-sex “marriage,” and legally required “sensitivity” sessions. These are repugnant to the political dimension of the moral law of God.
But other evils are beyond the purview of politics. For example, gay characters in TV sitcoms, gratuitous violence in movies, transgender courses in universities, and radical Leftism in the mainstream media and on NBA home courts.
These are cultural evils that must be addressed culturally, and not politically. “The Cultural Tail Wags the Political Dog.”
Conservative postliberals are understandably furious that they seem to be losing the culture wars, but imposing a strong, national purpose via politics is not the solution.
We have, in fact, copious examples of nations of the 20th century committed to strong, virtuous purposes: The Soviet Union, Mussolini’s Italy, Nazi Germany, Red China, Khmer Rouge Cambodia, and post-70s Iran. The fact that we dispute what they define as virtue is irrelevant. When the state exists to cultivate a unified national virtue, politics gets to decide. And never assume that politics will just naturally be Christian.
The conservative postliberals are correct that liberty requires virtue if it is to be long sustained, and the United States will fail if it doesn’t recover Christian virtue. On October 11, 1798, John Adams, our second President, declared to the military: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious [he meant Christian] people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
But virtue requires liberty, and to attempt to impose virtue apart from political liberty is to lose virtue. This is why neither Adams nor any other founder advocated the imposition of Christianity as a feature of the U. S. political system. The best way to be Christian in politics is to keep politics free from tyranny — including religious tyranny.
As Frank S. Meyer argued in his In Defense of Freedom, classical liberalism (modern conservatism) consists of “a combination of freedom and moral authority.” Of the uniqueness of the United States he observes:
[O]urs is the most effective effort ever made to articulate in political terms the Western understanding of the interrelation of the freedom of the person and the authority of the objective moral order. (emphasis original)
Christianity Cultivates Political Liberty
This is also the consistently biblical understanding. Only the Christian society can be the free society, because Christianity perceives man as created in God’s image, to be granted maximum liberty within God’s moral law.
Christianity believes in the power of persuasion, not coercion. It is no Christian gospel that threatens sinners to trust Jesus Christ on pain of political persecution, or that demands the state enforce Christian virtue beyond the protection of life, liberty and property; this inculcation of virtue is the responsibility of other, but non-coercive, governments: family government and church government, for example. Christians can afford to support political liberty because they believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to change lives.
But when you abandon confidence in the Holy Spirit, you must vest confidence in the state to produce the right kind of society. It’s a case of Spirit power versus state power.
To protect and restore the free society, that is, the society of the U. S. founding, classical liberalism, the distinctly Protestant approach to politics, demands not only opposing the obviously atheistic illiberalism of the New Left, but also the more attractive postliberalism of the Integralist Right.
If we want a virtuous society, it will be the result of virtuous individuals, families, churches, businesses, and other civic institutions. It will not be the result of virtue imposed by a coercive political order, as attractive as that possibility might first seem.
In Weimar Germany, the tragically short-lived Western constitutional republic instituted at the end of World War I and ending with the Nazi party’s election to power, actual street battles pitched the Communists (remember they had just taken Russia the year before) against the rising Nazi party. Classical liberals were fighting the battle on two fronts, against the Far Left and the Far Right.
Among the population that didn’t care for either the Communists or the Nazis, there was an even greater hatred for the then-ruling classical liberals, who believed in negotiated politics, in parliamentary elections, in the free society. Many Germans hated the new government because it wasn’t strong enough. It didn’t crusade for a great national purpose. It simply wanted individuals and families and churches to live free lives.
This wasn’t enough for many Germans, who wanted an alternative to communism, to National Socialism, as well as to classical liberalism.
In the end, they got Hitler.
If you turn away from the free society because it lacks a strong, unified, virtuous vision, you’ll get a tyrannical society.
There are no non-free societies that are virtuous societies. Not all free societies are virtuous.
But all virtuous societies are free.
The Church After Covid
If you’re not on the mailing list for CCL’s bi-monthly exclusive hard-copy newsletter “Christian Culture,” please private message me your surface address.
October’s article is “The Church After COVID.”
Next week Sharon and I will be headed off to Pratt, Kansas, where we’ll be attending the wedding of Pastor Doug and Melinda Enick’s daughter Elizabeth and where I’ll be speaking twice on October 4 at Trinity Evangelical Church. One of the best short critiques of Leftist “social justice” you’ll ever read is Doug’s. You can get his e-book here.
The 2020 CCL symposium is set for November 7, four days after the election, and again in San Francisco.
The theme is: “2020 Vision for a Blurry Year: The Election, COVID, Wokeness, and Social Justice Analyzed.”
Everyone will get a chance to contribute.
There is no charge, but the event is by invitation only, so if you haven’t yet done so, please contact me privately (FB message, or sandlin[at]saber[dot]net) if you wish to attend.
Yours for the Free World,
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