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Liberalism, the American Right, and the Place of Love in Politics

May 5th, 2020 | 20 min read

By Jake Meador

The debate about the common good currently roiling American conservatism is not a new one. In the 1960s it vexed National Review contributors, with William F. Buckley dismissing Pope John XXIII’s encyclical on social progress “Mater et Magistra,” with a laughing “mater si, magistra no,” rebuttal. The church provided spiritual instruction, certainly, but when she tried to stray into magisterial questions in hopes of imposing a Christian conception of civil health, Buckley said “nein.” 

By decade’s end his brother-in-law, L. Brent Bozell Jr., had left National Review, though only after leaving behind a signature essay titled “Freedom or Virtue?” that still defines much of the debate. He then moved to Spain, founded the reactionary Catholic magazine Triumph, and repudiated the American Constitution, amongst many other things. Though this is obviously one of the more extreme versions of the debate, you can find milder forms of it as well.

Brad East has already summarized the debate surrounding liberalism amongst American theologians in the 1980s. The original post-liberals existed around Yale with George Lindbeck, Hans Frei, and Stanley Hauerwas taking a leading role with John Milbank, Alasdair MacIntyre, and John Howard Yoder also involved. A variety of critics responded with a response eventually concentrating around Princeton and the works of Jeffrey Stout, John Bowlin, and Eric Gregory. In these circles the debate was not so much a question of a mostly naked libertarian public square set against Bozell’s integralist square, but rather over a Radical Reformation-inflected post-liberalism versus more Augustinian conceptions of liberalism. Yet the question of the relationship between the common good and the freedom of individual persons remained central.

The debate also continued in popular media throughout this time. In a 1990 “Firing Line” episode, Buckley actually took the side of virtue and the common good against Milton Friedman’s (utterly bonkers) idea of freedom:

Thus last summer’s much-discussed debate between Sohrab Ahmari and David French is not really new. And, of all the participants in said debate, both Ahmari and French are amongst the least interesting and least illuminating. What began as a debate about the relationship between freedom and virtue in the 1960s had, by last summer, devolved into a debate about LARPing Catholic Integralism vs a libertarian public square that saw Cold-War-style mutually assured destruction as the glue that held our pluralist order together. A version of the conversation matters. But it is not the version we encountered last summer.

For the cause(s) of post-liberalism, Ahmari was more bluster than bite. In First Things he sounded bold, daring, happy to embrace a critique of liberalism as radical as that of the integralists and perhaps even a Vermeulean form of integralism at that. But at the CUA event when pressed by French to identify practical payoffs to his political theorizing, he could do no better than a lame comment about Josh Hawley reading the riot act to librarians.

Yet French’s arguments were no more satisfying, as he seems to genuinely think we can have a value neutral public square. This would seem to contradict much of the wisdom of our nation’s founders, many of whom insisted that some kind of positively stated, shared conception of virtue was necessary for freedom to be truly realized. And in believing these things the founders simply stood in a long line of predecessors that would, likewise, say that government is not able to be absolutely neutral on questions of ultimate meaning. 

Augustine said that justice requires that governments worship God, for that is his rightful due as God and justice is giving to others what is due them. You can get there via Thomas’s claim that the ultimate end of government is God himself. You can get there via the Westminster Confession of Faith—the theological standards of French’s home denomination. Even the modified 1789 version of the confession, which is quite close to French’s vision as articulated at CUA doesn’t quite match, for it specifically says that the government has a role to encourage the good, to maintain piety, and likens the government to ‘a nursing father.’ None of these oblige you to become an integralist, but all would require a government that has a positively defined conception of virtue and the good life.

Thus whichever route you take to get there, you do not have a value-neutral government. As Dylan said, you’re going to have to serve somebody—and government is subject to this truth in the same way all other human enterprises are. A government can serve the choice-maximizing individualism of our present order or it can serve something else. What it cannot do is refuse to take sides.

There are other problems with French’s vision of liberalism as well, however. Ultimately civil societies need to have some kind of common life that they share together, some vision of the good that is shared across society. That vision of shared life must be, in part, promoted by a government. That vision can, of course, be quite limited in nature. But even the claims of a libertarian government are themselves grounded in particular values that can be defined and articulated when pushed.

Finally, of course, there is the simple fact that ultimately crises do arise in societies and we need common objects of love that can unify us and help us discern how best to respond to tragedy and difficulty. If we can point at specific things we value above all else, that can order our response to catastrophe. This doesn’t guarantee that we will respond effectively, for a society’s loves can be disordered as easily as an individual’s. It is a necessary cause but not a sufficient cause. But when society lacks such objects altogether then we should not be surprised that its response to disaster is aimless, unpredictable, and insufficient to resist the dark results that follow from crisis.

In short, a society whose government seeks to be truly agnostic on matters of ultimate meaning is contrary to most Christian theological traditions and will ultimately prove incapable of unifying a people or weathering the inevitable storms that confront any society.

Jonathan Leeman’s recap of the event was one of the best, noting both Ahmari’s lack of rigor as well as French’s unworkable version of liberalism that attempts to preserve a space of life that is genuinely agnostic with regards to the lordship of Christ.

We need a better debate.

This has been the case all along, of course.

But it is especially obvious now in the midst of the current plague which has, as Susannah Black has noted, exposed the severe limitations of our current political imagination. That being said, on the popular level the debate has mostly consisted of two caricatured versions of Christian political thought—Ahmari’s confused integralism and French’s unworkable proceduralism. The first step to a better debate is to reject both of these approaches. But what then?

Some, following the Princeton school, have suggested Augustinian liberalism as a solution. But what does that actually mean in practice? The popular champions of such a movement are mostly lacking. Much of the energy in Roman circles at the moment is toward various forms of integralism. Most of the Protestant social critique that seeks to escape our libertarian form of liberalism leans far more heavily on Kuyper than Augustine. That may not be a solution given the close bonds between many of today’s Kuyperians and the quasi-libertarians at the Acton Institute. And so though invoked in a number of places, including Leeman’s summary of the CUA debate, the actual school of thought has, to my knowledge, remained mostly undefined in popular publications save the symposium published last year by Providence.

Eric Gregory’s Politics and the Order of Love

One version of Augustinian liberalism worth considering more closely is that of Eric Gregory. His Augustinian civic liberalism seems to preserve space for a kind of Christendom while also recognizing the strengths of some forms of liberalism.

In his book Politics and the Order of Love, Gregory, a Professor of Religion at Princeton, seeks to articulate an Augustinian public order that is primarily grounded in an Augustinian conception of love. This framing, which must still account for human sinfulness as well as the inherently limited goods we can achieve and experience in this life, is an intriguing attempt to address the long-standing debate over freedom and virtue.

To begin the overview of his book, I want to define three variations on Augustinian liberalism as defined by Gregory.

What is an Augustinian liberal?

Gregory defines the shared belief amongst all Augustinian liberals this way:

Every Augustinian liberal affirms secularity as a shared time afforded all humanity by the common grace of God. This affirmation, following Augustine’s overcoming an initial attraction to imperial theology of the Constantinian establishment, rejects the sacralization of earthly political communities as a vehicle of salvation. This move serves as the crucial element that opens the door for a separation of the political and the ecclesial without separating morality from politics or condemning the religious to private subjectivity.

Thus we might say that Augustinian liberalism begins by saying we cannot immanentize the eschaton because man’s highest ends cannot be reached in this life but only in the life to come. Therefore, the ways in which we structure our common life together now must reflect the inherent limitations of the present era.

Significantly, this means that the chief force restraining the state from imposing its own conception of our highest good onto its citizens is not a belief in the separation of church and state or a commitment to public reason—the idea that political norms are established via a non-religious form of reason accessible to all people equally—but simply a recognition that certain goods can’t be obtained in this life. Thus there is still a space for religious content to animate our public life. But it is religious content ordered toward more modest goals for our common life.

That said, Gregory distinguishes between three types of Augustinian liberals in the opening pages of the book.

Realist Augustinian Liberalism

The first form of Augustinian liberalism described by Gregory is heavily indebted to the realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, the great midcentury mainline theologian. Here Gregory quotes a passage from Robert Markus as being broadly representative of the realist strain of Augustinian liberal:

In Augustine’s mature thought there is no trace of a theory of the state as concerned with man’s self-fulfillment, perfection, the good life, felicity, or with ‘educating’ man toward such purposes. Its function is more restricted: it is to cancel out at least some of the effects of sin. Political authority exists to resolve at least some of the tensions inevitable in human society. … Political authority serves to remedy the conflict, disorder, and tensions of society.

This move strikes me as echoing some of Jonathan Leeman’s work referencing the two ages. It allows us to have both a severely limited and a positive account of the government’s role in the world. Gregory notes that for the realists, the state is a strangely positioned beast chronologically speaking; it hangs between the already and the not yet and so its purpose is inherently constrained and modest because it cannot be any other way.

Markus’s realism, though always attuned to the limits of politics, encourages the Augustinian citizen neither to formally embrace nor to anathematize the political community itself. Augustine’s eschatologism means that the state simply exists suspended between two ages.

It’s important, then, to note that even the realists do not seem to be arguing for a viewpoint neutral public square. They build their system on other foundations. They need a government that is ultimately clear on who God is and, precisely because of that, recognizes the inherent limitations to their ability and to the legitimate ways in which they can operate.

Significantly, the primary virtue that we take up as citizens in this framework is hope. We long for the eschaton when the true Lord and King returns to the world and rules with perfect justice. In the interim, we do our best to preserve the peace and provide a common life in which it is easier for people to live the good life because they live free from the fear of tyranny, invasion, or local unrest.

What is left out of this framework is love. Because our own possibilities this side of the eschaton are so limited, any governmental attempts to act lovingly toward citizens are inherently suspect. Thus Gregory ends his discussion of the realists by posing a few questions:

One is left wondering how love relates to the Augustinian citizen here and now? How might the Augustinian pilgrim not only regret with hope but love responsibly?

Put simply: Is it possible for us to include true Christian love in our account of public life or must such things be kept confined to more limited spheres so as to avoid abuse or attempts to immanentize the eschaton?

Rawlsian Augustinian Liberalism

This second strand of Augustinian liberalism seeks to reconcile Augustine with the 20th century political theorist John Rawls. In this approach,

Augustinianism finds no room for a ‘common good’ that could function ‘as the definitive motive of the good citizen.’ The accent remains on the constraints of sin. There is no civic friendship. There is no political analogy to the ‘ties binding those who love one another with the love of charity.’

So far this sounds like the realist strain of Augustinian liberalism. But its foundation is crucially different. This vision is derived from a view that sees Augustinian liberalism and Rawlsian liberalism as being largely in agreement.

Wiethman (a Rawlsian Augustinian liberal) argues for an Augustinian liberalism that is capable of criticizing immoral features of society, such as racial discrimination and unjust distribution of wealth. However, rather than drawing from religious arguments, he thinks the liberal democratic tradition is developed enough to criticize ‘extant regimes that purport to realize liberal and democratic ideals.’

There are two chief problems here, one of which concerns Gregory more than the other. The first problem, which Gregory is less concerned about, is that such an account of public life implicitly cuts off access for Christians to Christian means of critiquing public life. This is because any critique of public life must be grounded in liberal norms and so specifically Christian criticisms must be altered to the terms of public reason or they must be abandoned. This is a problem, but not the primary problem.

The primary problem in this account is that it presupposes that there is one shared dispensary of values and ideals that all people can equally access and agree on, thereby making appeals to particular belief systems unnecessary. Yet while such an order may exist, the reality of sin means that human beings cannot reliably access it. Thus Gregory favorably cites a claim from Robert Adams, who argued that, “the moral agreement democracy needs, however, is not to be found in a common ethical theory or even in a common theory of justice, but in the unsystematic plurality of agreements that constitute common morality.”

We might say that this process of finding common morality to govern a pluralistic society does not work deductively, but inductively. We do not begin with a commonly held set of maxims that unites everyone and then reason out to the various belief systems found within a society. Rather, we begin with those various belief systems and as they interact with one another individuals and groups seek for a common core of morality able to preserve a pluralistic society.

Thus the Rawlsian approach to Augustinianism fails both because it bars Christian reflection from the public square and, more essentially, because it fundamentally misrepresents how societies reason together and arrive at agreed upon legal norms. This brings us to the third branch of Augustinian liberalism, which is Gregory’s own and which he spends the remainder of the book developing.

Augustinian Civic Liberalism

This account of Augustinian liberalism fundamentally reframes the conversation with a simple move right at the front end of the conversation. Rather than making the reality of sin primary in political order and reasoning outward from that to a modest, limited vision of common life, Augustinian civic liberalism foregrounds love and reasons outward from that to a theory of common life. It is love rather than sin that constrains our ambitions for common life.

How does this work? Here Gregory cites Timothy P. Jackson’s work: “The state is constrained out of love itself, not some ‘neutral’ public rationality.”

There are spheres in a person’s life that are properly their own. Love dictates that we not violate that. Thus,

for an Augustinian ‘goods such as respect for individual conscience are the fruit of basic theological convictions, not the seed, and these fruits require rich nutrients…. The question is one of priority. What Rawls would guarantee a priori by distancing comprehensive doctrines and largely privatizing theological virtues, the Augustinian promotes as the a fortiori upshot of true doctrines and right loves. In short, Augustinian liberalism is morally robust, not morally empty or even morally minimalist.”

Gregory then quotes another lengthy passage from Jackson that is central to the imagination of an Augustinian civic liberalism:

Rational self-interest and social reciprocity are genuine goods in proportion, but when they are the central political motivation, justice itself atrophies. The surest way to secure peace may be to work for justice, but the surest way to promote justice is not to value it too highly or to aim at it to the neglect of other virtues, such as love…. Otherwise we forget those human ties that bind—compassion, mercy, forgiveness—and reduce our life together to contractual obligation or historical convention…. Augustinians consider themselves indebted to God and called to serve one another politically and legally beyond anything that reciprocity or self-interest can express or enjoin…. If citizens are merely just—whether defined negatively as not harming others or positively as giving others their distributive due—they are less than human. To affirm ‘prima caritas‘ is to aver that we all live by the grace of God and the kindness of strangers, whether we acknowledge this or not. In leaving so little room for the fallible (yet public) expression of these truths, Rawls parts company with anything I can square with specifically Augustinian political thought or even broadly Christian moral motivation.

For the remainder of the chapter, Gregory rebuts the critiques of liberalism made by John Milbank and Stanley Hauerwas, noting that Milbank himself embraces some modernist ideas—aspects of Marxism for example, which rather mutes the strength of his critique of modern liberalism.

Further, he notes that the attempt made by Hauerwas to confine the sphere of practiced social love to the church is inherently problematic because “Christian social ethics should not be univocally identified with ecclesiology.” He concludes the chapter with a consideration of how Oliver O’Donovan’s work manages to escape the dual errors of Rawlsian liberalism and Hauerwasian ecclesiocentrism. After stating that O’Donovan shares many of Hauerwas and Milbank’s criticisms of modernity—it’s pride, its neglect of the church, its quest for affluence and comfort—he goes on to note that O’Donovan’s response to these problems is strikingly different.

O’Donovan does not perpetuate an ideological rivalry between the anti-liberal Christian and liberal non-Christian. For O’Donovan, the church is neither apologist for nor antagonist of the liberal order. He opens a space for encounter because he is driven, not by a project of modernity criticism, but by one of discovering ‘Christian constitutionalism’ and ‘Christian liberalism’—even ‘the triumph of Christ in liberal institutions.

I believe his refusal of this rivalry emerges from his emphasis on Christ rather than church as the ‘desire of the nations.’ If Augustinian liberalism moves eschatology to the center of political theology, and Milbank moves ecclesiology to the center of eschatology, then O’Donovan corrects these moves by putting Christology at the center of both eschatology and ecclesiology. It is the Christ-event, displayed in narrative form and rooted in the economy of grace, which shapes his political theology. It is this same Christ-event which shapes the identity of the individual before God. As such, O’Donovan’s evangelical rejection of liberal neutrality does not rely upon Milbank’s ontological dualisms.

Love as the Center of Politics

The remainder of Gregory’s book is concerned with a few key questions.

First, he uses feminist political theory to demonstrate the necessity of care in political society, arguing that this concern closely parallels the civic Augustinian concern with the primacy of love in civil society.

Second, he takes up the critiques of love as a political good advanced by Hannah Arendt, herself an Augustine scholar whose much neglected dissertation looks at Augustine’s conception of love and its relationship to politics.

Third, he helpfully defines the ways in which love can be both political virtue and political vice, trying to sort out the ways in which politicized love means the active realizing of certain shared social ends and the ways in which such love necessarily curtails the pursuit of such ends in order to effectively love the individual, who has rights to certain experiences of personalized freedom.

Central to the way in which love can healthily exist as a social good is the virtue of humility.

Augustine was acutely aware of the human tendency to justify prideful domination in the name of love. Humility, then, is the preeminent virtue that attaches to proper love: ‘The more we are cured of the tumor of pride, the fuller we are of love.’ Pride may not be the dominant vice of all (as feminist theologians have pointed out against Augustine), but the prideful expressions of love are appropriately restrained in an Augustinian civic liberalism. An ethics of political Augustinianism should highlight these moments in Augustine as a way to provide appropriate parameters for love, especially in the political arena.

As his argument comes to a close, Gregory again returns to the relationship between sin and love, arguing that a just political order must account for both.

Like any human relationships, political relationships are susceptible to the problems of sin. However, the disenchantment is neither total nor final. There is no comprehensive ironic stance or infinite resignation. The disenchantment fosters recognition of the limits of mortal life but at the same time does not counsel withdrawal from social life.

He then closes his argument with these words, which fittingly summarize the argument of the entire book:

Augustine’s God creates, or to use further theological language, justifies the space for the vulnerable encounters with others that is characteristic of liberal politics. Those beloved of God are set free, to a certain extent in this life, to love others. At the same time, these categories serve as psychological reminders of the dangers (to the self and the other) of a love that prematurely rests int he neighbor, in institutional purity, or the anxieties of our own moral confidence. It is this premature rest that denies the ceaseless dynamic of loving which is fundamental to Augustine’s vision of God.


I began this review by noting that the debate of last summer was both important and deeply unfortunate. It was important both theology and political theory tell us that ultimately people crave truth in their common life together. We cannot sustain our life in an order that insists upon keeping questions of ultimate meaning in abeyance in the name of pluralism. To the extent that French’s imagination has taken hold on the American right—and I have real questions about how much it actually has taken hold—the right has embraced obvious error.

Yet the solution put forward by Catholic integralists of a coercive common good conservatism actually fails to live up to its own name if we follow Gregory’s argument. For the Augustinian civic liberal would insist that governments do not serve the common good by violating the rightful freedom of the individual conscience, amongst many other significant individual freedoms that liberalism has rightly recognized.

Governments cannot be value neutral. But neither can governments truly practice love if they simply negate individual freedom to the degree that someone like Vermeule does. What we need is an account of love that recognizes both the ways in which love calls us to positively guide a person to their rightful end and the ways in which love checks our ambitions and recognizes that the first rule of love is to do no harm.

So to return to the much debated question that has vexed the conservative intelligentsia in recent years—what should conservatives make of liberalism?—we might do well to follow the lead of one noted Catholic intellectual and ask, “whose liberalism?”

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).