Two Liberalisms, Two Anti-Liberalisms
Modern, statist liberalism; older classical liberalism (modern conservatism); Marxist Anti-Liberalism; and virtuous Anti-Liberalism (Roman Catholic Integralism) must be carefully distinguished
Dear friends and supporters:
We live in times of not only great theological and ecclesial, but also social and political, ferment. New alliances are being formed, and new (or revived) ways of thinking are emerging. Underlying the sociopolitical ferment are four particular viewpoints movements with respect to liberalism. Of course, more than four movements and the ideas driving them explain our current situation, but grasping a taxonomy of today’s liberalism and its opponents will provide a clearer picture of our gradually shifting landscape.
First, consider modern liberalism. This is the liberalism most people think about when they hear the word. Self-declared conservatives almost always distinguish themselves from liberalism in this sense. Learning how it came about will help us understand why it is what it is today.
A cornerstone of classical liberalism (see the next point below) has always been suspicion about and aversion to concentrations of cultural power. Historically, the chief consolidated power that these older liberals opposed was politics, or the state.
In the second half of the 19th century, however, liberals became concerned over the consolidation of economic power in big business. This was the age of the mighty industrialists, for instance. Rightly or wrongly, liberals believed that big business posed a threat to individual liberty in society.
To combat that alleged economic threat, liberals advocated a stronger, bigger state; the state’s new job was to cut big business down to size. This, for example, is where the Republican Teddy Roosevelt’s “trust-busting” came from.
Over the following decades, liberalism developed into an ideology. By the time of the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, Teddy’s fifth cousin, liberalism in the modern sense became a distinct political philosophy, not simply an ad hoc policy to crimp greedy businessmen: in the Great Depression FDR crafted a political policy that became a distinct political school.
Fast-forward about three decades, and you have an even more extensive liberal ideology. By the 70s, liberalism had become roughly equivalent to the ideology of statism. This is best defined as the notion that for every major social problem the best solution is political. If healthcare seems unaffordable, the state could get involved. More recently Obamacare has become a political solution to the medically uninsured.
Young Americans, to take another statist rationale, are not sufficiently educated and, therefore, mass, state-financed, secular college education must be the answer.
Add this: racial and sexual and financial minorities aren’t fairly represented in colleges and housing, so the state must enforce quotas.
More recently, the draconian political policies during the COVID drama constitute a striking example of the statist ideology. The point is not that the state bears no responsibility for the health of its citizens during a time of plague. Rather, the point is that other options are considered unnecessary or futile.
You might’ve noticed that most people we might generally identify as liberals are using the term less and less. They’re more inclined to use the term “progressive.” That language, also, is significant, but make no mistake: the statist ideology is alive and well, and this is the guiding tenet of modern liberalism.
Next, consider classical liberalism. This is the liberalism generally assumed to have taken its cue from political checks on the crown in England and reaching its zenith as the founding philosophy of the United States.
Protestant liberalism — the right kind
Most political scientists and historians of ideas believe Protestantism is the ideational root of classical liberalism. Martin Luther argued that man’s salvation is a consequence of an unmediated relationship to God — or, more accurately, mediated solely in the person of Jesus Christ and his atoning work. This bypassed the sacerdotal idea of salvation in the medieval Roman church: salvation dispensed at the hands of the priest. Luther did not have a low view of the church, but he wanted to say that the church consists of individual believers united by gospel faith in and under the authority of the Christ. The church is not precedent to nor the dispenser of the gospel. The spirit of Protestantism, therefore, included a strong emphasis on individual choice, conscience, and responsibility.
In time, this spirit fanned out to influence politics. Individual soteriological (salvation) liberty led to individual political liberty. The Calvinists, rather than the Lutherans or the Anglicans, were especially insistent on this point, and they are widely recognized to be the founders of, or at least the impetus behind, Western constitutional politics.
As I noted above, a big distinctive of classical liberalism was suspicion of concentrations of cultural power. Because the greatest cultural powers at the time were church and state, classical liberals wanted to place checks and balances on each.
Even when Christian orthodoxy eroded in the 18th century as a result of the Enlightenment, the orthodox Protestant idea of classical liberalism persisted. It included a zone of privacy around the individual, as well as an emphasis on divided government; checks and balances; religious, political, and economic liberty; free speech; the right of peaceful dissent an assembly; and so forth — the sorts of protections enshrined in the United States Bill of Rights. It’s imperative to understand that these aren’t simply planks in a political philosophy. Underneath all were a particular religious, that is, Protestant, viewpoint. We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that almost every U.S. founder (all but one, actually) was Protestant.
The meaning of “conservative” and “liberal” is culture-dependent. European liberty-lovers, for example, wish to be known as liberals. The legendary Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn resisted the moniker conservative, preferring the self-descriptions “conservative arch-liberal” or “extreme liberal.” “Conservative” for him and many others denoted the pre-19th century royalists whose consolidated authority true liberals had undone.
Similarly, in the waning years of the Soviet Union (1989–1991), the old guard Soviets trying to hold onto power were known as the conservatives, while the champions of political freedom like Boris Yeltsin were known as liberals. There’s a delicious irony here for a country dominated for decades by Lenin and Stalin, who sent millions to their death for being conservative (or “counterrevolutionary”).
The terms “liberal” or “conservative,” therefore, can be confusing, and that’s why an article like one this untangling the various meanings is necessary.
We sometimes hear the well-meaning exhortation, “Christianity doesn’t start with the Bible, but with Jesus Christ.” This might very well be true, but Christians must embrace biblical truth anterior to Christianity, and that is creation as the Bible describes it. Put another way: the Bible is bigger than Christianity. We will not understand his person and work in their greater depths if we bypass creation. This is a small book about not bypassing creation. It’s a book about thinking in creational categories, and purging contra-creational categories that infect our culture and, in too many cases, our churches.
You can order the e-book or paperback here.
But liberalism (any variety) has its detractors, and they’re not new. The leading example is Marxism. The original Marxism of the 19th century was anti-liberal, but today the more relevant Marxism is Cultural (or Western) Marxism.
Cultural Marxism opposes liberalism — classical liberalism, it must be understood — because the latter permits the freedom for a society to operate in ways that are antithetical to the utopian egalitarian objectives of Marxism.
This is Herbert Marcuse’s famous theory of “Repressive Tolerance.” That verbal combination is intentionally paradoxical. It is a frontal attack on classical liberalism. Marcuse is saying that classically liberal societies like the United States are repressive, because they allow institutions like the family and church, and popular ideas like freedom of religion, speech, and press, to “repress” the thinking of citizens, who must frankly think and therefore act in a different way if they’re to experience true freedom. In other words, liberty in liberal societies gives people the liberty to practice injustice. To create the truly just, utopian society, the state must deprive people of liberty. The idea of the good and just society must be imposed. Liberty hinders that good and just society. Following the Romantic thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Cultural Marxists insist that man must be made to be free.
Conservatives are often uncomprehending today when they see young street protesters toppling monuments, universities depriving a few conservative professors of their position, and millennials practicing “cancel culture,” by which leftist elites marginalize and purge those who disagree.
But for Cultural Marxists, there is an unassailable logic to this intolerance. They must deprive the liberty of people who stand in the way of true liberty, that is, the liberty of the truly equal society.
This is why Cultural Marxism must be passionately anti-liberal.
The most appealing anti-liberalism to orthodox Christians is virtuous anti-liberalism. The impetus behind this iteration of anti-liberalism is the conviction that granting individuals extensive liberty gives them too wide a space to act without virtue — to sin or commit vice, and this liberty leads to a depraved society. The state, almost always the nation, must, therefore, craft a strong, if simple, unifying vision to accomplish a grand virtuous purpose.
Historically this purpose has often been Christian, but many times it is not. For the Roman Empire it was the law-based society under the iron fist of the emperor. In more modern times, fascist nations like Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, fashioned a virtuous unity from racial and genetic solidarity (virtuous, of course, as they defined virtue). Liberty just isn’t to be trusted.
But the most pertinent example of virtuous anti-liberalism today is the call for a return to Roman Catholic Integralism among a number of American conservatives like Rusty Reno at First Things, Patrick Deneen at Notre Dame, and Sohrab Ahmari at the New York Post.
Integralism denotes the widely practiced and largely medieval Roman Catholic union of church and state (which even some Protestants imitated). This does not mean that the two were considered one body. Far from it: church and state were often each in turf-protecting mode. However, the church and the state cooperated in articulating, preserving, and enforcing a virtuous orthodoxy in society, not just the church.
Integralism is naturally attractive to conservatives who grieve over the depravity and apostasy of our time: legal abortion, same-sex “marriage,” pervasive pornography, cheap and easy divorce, transhumanism, human trafficking, and much else. These conservatives want a restoration of Integralism creating a strong national will that can crush, or at least mitigate, these depravities.
Virtue requires liberty
Attractive as this option might seem, it bypasses one vital truth: virtue requires liberty. The argument against political liberty (classical liberalism) on the grounds that it permits depravity is equally an argument against God’s creation order — God created man with free choice and, therefore, the possibility of sin, even egregious sin. Just as the risk of man created as a moral agent is the possibility of his apostasy, so the risk of a free society is the possibility of social depravity.
Free society within the Protestant-based classical liberalism sees liberty itself and the free society as a virtue (for a cogent argument, see Frank S. Meyer’s In Defense of Freedom). Liberty is not an end in itself but, in fact, one essential component of virtue. Coerced virtue is not virtue. As Alfred S. Regnery writes,
Conservatism [modern classical liberalism] is based on the idea that the pursuit of virtue is the purpose of our existence and that liberty is an essential component of the pursuit of virtue. Adherence to virtue is also a necessary condition of the pursuit of freedom.
This is why virtuous anti-liberalism is not merely a failure, but also a self-contradiction. The anti-liberal society cannot be the virtuous society because it is not free. Virtue and liberty and both required, and never the one without the other.
Of course, no society is absolutely free. All societies are required by God to operate within his moral law. State coercion to protect against murder, rape, theft, kidnapping, and other external violations of life, liberty, and property are not merely biblically justified, but required.
However, within the broad parameters of God’s moral law, there must be maximum individual liberty to create and preserve the virtuous society.
For this reason, even well-intentioned appeals for a revived Integralism are dangerously misguided.
Classical liberalism isn’t only the political philosophy of the U. S. founding. More importantly, it is more closely aligned with the Bible’s conception of a social order. The Bible is not a handbook on politics, but its truths create a picture of what a righteous society should look like. That society should conform as nearly as a possible in a fallen world to God’s righteous law — not imposed by the state (apart from basic moral law protecting life, liberty, and property) but embraced freely by citizens. This is why Gospel preaching and biblical instruction in family, church, and schools is imperative.
The political philosophy of the United States was bequeathed to our founders by our Protestant forefathers, and reviving and championing that philosophy is essential to a righteous society.
The CCL symposium is coming up — Saturday, November 7, four days after the election, and again in a gorgeous Bayview hotel in scenic San Francisco.
The theme is: “2020 Vision for a Blurry Year.”
The upsides of a downside year
Presidential election as chaos
The political ideology of the COVID-19 drama
Cultural Marxists in the streets
The Supreme Court battle and the assault on Amy Coney Barrett
Social justice goes to church — without wearing a mask
The wokeness of sports
There’s no charge, but the event is by invitation only, so please contact me if you wish to attend. Send me a private FB message or email me (sandlin[at]saber[dot]net) within the next few days.
I’ll see many of you there. Until then, please join me …
For the classically liberal society,
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