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Liberal Sacraments

July 29th, 2019 | 2 min read

By Susannah Black Roberts

Recently, Adrian Vermeule published a piece in Church Life Journal in which he pointed out the inherently destabilizing nature of liberalism. As he describes it, the “natural laws” of the life of regimes dictate that the persistence of a regime through time depends on a preservation of continuity with the past. These laws, when taken into account, leads wise rulers to a set of prudential practices, which dictate that if a change is made to a polity, that change must be gradual; if substantial change is made, the outward forms should persist.

With liberalism, though, prudent adherence to this “ragion di stato” is inherently impossible. The “tradition” is revolution; the only legitimacy lies in the revolutionary moment, which must continually be renewed, more and more oppressors drummed up in order to be drummed out. The tree of liberty must, said Jefferson, be continually “refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Another way to put this is that the guillotine is the sacrament of covenant renewal of the revolutionary state. “Now come let our lady possess you/In her breath-taking, hair-raising bed/She will tingle your spine/As she captures your heart and your head…

This ritual may take the form of actual revolutionary violence; in the contemporary American progressive regime, it more often takes the form of identification of a new offensive position, the holders of which position are publicly required to recant: it’s the stocks rather than the guillotine. When, recently, the woke tricoteuses of Ravelry banned Trump-supporting posts, this was part of the ceremonial of progressivism.

This dynamic is different, it is something new– but it borrows heavily from Girardian scapegoating, which is of course deeply embedded in the tradition. And this also points out an aspect of contemporary progressivism that throws a wrench in the works of Jonathan Haidt’s analysis of liberal ethics as against traditional ethics.

According to Haidt’s schema, human “moral foundations” — the axes along which most people most of the time have perceived good and bad– fall into five categories: care/harm; fairness/cheating; loyalty/treachery; authority/subversion; and purity/degradation. Contemporary American liberals perceive the first two of these categories almost exclusively, he says; conservatives, and traditional societies in the rest of the world and throughout history, have perceived all five.

But clearly, progressivism, and the rituals of shaming and purgation that go with it, is tapping into the last of these pairs of binaries. Which leads to a strange hypothesis: among the varieties of brutal atavism on offer for the Current Year, we may need to number progressive liberalism.

Thanks to a friend whose conversation provoked this post.


Susannah Black Roberts

Susannah Black Roberts is senior editor at Plough. She is a native Manhattanite. She and her husband, the theologian Alastair Roberts, split their time between Manhattan and the West Midlands of the UK.