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Liberalism and the Sexual Revolution

October 17th, 2023 | 6 min read

By Jake Meador

Over the weekend I was able to attend the Touchstone conference held in Chicago. In the days since, I've been reflecting in particular on one argument made by Professor Michael Hanby in his discussion of liberalism, John Milbank, and progressive ideas about sex and gender.

Here is an excerpt, though you can view the full video of his talk here.

If scientific and technological order presents one face of this revolution, liberal political order, which presupposes and perpetuates this view of things presents another. Premising the real world on an unreal world and making possibility or power the fundamental unit of reality. Liberalism is so unlikely and fantastic, John Milbank observes, because it proceeds by inventing a wholly artificial human being that has never actually existed, conceived in abstraction from his gender, birth, associations, beliefs, and equally indifferent as to whether he is a creature of God, a rational animal, an accident of evolution, or a puddle of genes. And then it imagines that we are all instances of such species.

Such an individual is not only a-social, but a-psychological. His soul, if he has one, is unspecified in every way. To this blank entity, one then attaches rights, little penumbras of indeterminate power or possibility, which it is the state's purpose to protect. The effect of this is to transform the given antecedent realities of God, nature, the family, the moral law, history, realities that define us and constitute the actual world into which we are born and in which we live and move and have our being, to turn all of that into possible objects of choice. The real becomes the possible. The state then exists to protect us from the prior claims of these realities and their capacity to define me prior to my choosing, with the ironic effect that it insinuates the state as mediator into the heart of all human relationships. The state becomes absolute in the name of freedom, its power and scope only growing with the discovery of each new right.

It was inevitable that the political impetus and technological capacity for self-definition, theoretically united at the metaphysical origins of modern social and political order would eventually fuse in practice. Perhaps it was just as inevitable that these forces would converge at the point where reality most threatens to define us in advance: our embodied nature as men and women, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. In the place of these given universal realities there now stands the concept of identity, which dominates our politics and functions above all as a conversation stopper, a limit beyond which all judgment, adjudication, or even speech is deemed violent and illegitimate.

There is much here that I recognize, for I've made similar arguments myself in the past and would still stand by a version of them today. Indeed, the final sentence there not only echoes something I've long argued, but actually reaches back to some of the arguments Matt Anderson engaged in with Dianna Anderson and Rachel Held Evans while he was running Mere O. So the intellectual overlaps here are freely acknowledged and are certainly real enough.

Yet the more blanket dismissals of liberalism of the sort heard here now seem far less plausible to me. Some of this is highly contextualized: It is odd to hear a denunciation of "liberalism" at a gathering of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant believers when, after all, liberalism is the only system that has been able to reliably make such gatherings possible. It is also strange to hear Milbank's critique invoked here when Milbank himself is affirming with regards to same-sex sexual acts, even if he has admirably held the line on trans issues. So there are loose threads to Hanby's argument that likely deserve further probing: If Milbank's critique does all that Hanby's reading suggests it does, why does Milbank himself not land where Hanby has on matters of sexuality and gender?

But the deeper issue here, I think, is that Hanby's loose use of "liberalism" conceals as much as it reveals. The liberal tradition, minimally, would seem to be defined by the idea of limited government and the further idea that in matters of morality and ultimate meaning it is good for the government's views to be metaphysically under-determined. It is precisely because of the underdetermined metaphysics of liberalism that pluralist society—of the sort on display at Touchstone—is possible.

The contemporary beliefs so common in the west concerning sex and gender, then, have to be illiberal. The only way they can exist on a material level is through a state so unlimited and over-determined that it takes for itself the right to define marriage, the right to create adoption laws that overrides the natural sterility of a same-sex relationship, and that provides funding to support research into not only gender altering surgery, but also practices such as IVF. In short, the sex and gender practices of our day can only exist when states cease to be liberal in the sense of being limited and metaphysically under-determined. For such practices to be real, states must become illiberal and committed to a belief that metaphysics basically do not exist at all.

Why does all this matter? There are two reasons that come to mind.

First, the way that errors are named matter a great deal. Though Hanby is no integralist himself, I worry that a blanket dismissal of "liberalism" will paint him into the same corner that it has other Catholic critics of liberalism: If you won't have liberalism, progressivism, or Marxism, what exactly is left? To their credit, both Patrick Deneen and Sohrab Ahmari have condemned the obvious answer to that question and sought to pull back from the more Fascist-adjacent sort of politics that others on the Catholic right (and the new Christian right more broadly) have taken up.

But what exactly is their alternative? For Deneen, I'm halfway through his book that is supposed to answer that question and I still have no idea what his answer is, nor do many reviewers seemingly. For Ahmari, the answer has been still another reinvention as he has now mostly dropped any talk about integralism and pivoted instead toward a kind of pro-labor, pro-life Christian social democracy. In other words, he has pivoted toward a species of liberalism.

But if you name the problem with our day as either being liberalism itself or a child of liberalism, as Hanby has, it seems to me your answer inherently has to be illiberal and therefore almost inevitably will be some species of socialism or fascism. Rather than boxing ourselves into such unnecessary corners, I think Christian critics of the current system would do well to try and distinguish between varieties of liberalism.

And that brings me to the second part of my answer to the question of why this matters: I was careful to say above that under liberalism the government must be metaphysically under-determined, meaning that it won't formally adopt or embrace a specific theological vision or system. But "under-determined" and "agnostic" are two different things. We can, rather, anchor our defense for liberal rights in Christian concepts of neighborly love and care, for example—which is what I take Eric Gregory to be doing, partly, in his work. We can argue for a pluralistic public square while also recognizing that religious truth claims can be admitted into that public square, as Jeffrey Stout freely concedes in his work.

One of the chief problems facing us right now is that when Christians reflect on politics, many are functionally behaving as if the only options available to us are a metaphysically agnostic government or an explicitly Christian government, one often explicitly founded not in propositional nationhood, but in ethnic nationalism.

But this is to leave a huge amount of ground ignored altogether, indeed to leave the majority of American history unaddressed, I think—for America was for much of her history a propositional, multi-national nation and a deeply Christian nation. Indeed, simply by naming the problem as "liberalism" and not some other more targeted term, a huge swathe of historic Christian thought as well as contemporary political thought is closed off without a word. Tragically, it seems to me that the possibilities being dismissed without acknowledgement are, in fact, the very possibilities most needed in our day.

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).