Is there hope for liberalism? Our editor Jake Meador doesn’t think so, following in the footsteps of Alistair Macintyre and Stanley Hauerwas. Alistair Roberts sums up many of the ways in which liberalism (which, as Jake has pointed out, should be thought of more in terms of “classical liberalism” than “progressivism”) is self-destructive. It’s a complex argument, but the basic premises shared by critics of liberalism is that the modern emphasis on autonomy and freedom from all constraints erodes the social, cultural, and religious foundation that help human being love and relate to one another as we ought. Jake also emphasizes liberalism’s distrust of non-empirical knowledge, which leads to a pervasive distrust in moral claims on public life.

It’s a compelling case, and I wish I had heard it at some point in the gobs of “worldview studies” material I imbibed as a teenager. Much of that material (and conservative Christian cultural or political discourse in general) takes pains to argue that progressivism is bad, but classical liberalism is good. Those who would say that America at its founding was divinely blessed to be a “city on a hill” will often treat some form of classical liberalism as the end result of a Christian influence on political and social thought. There’s a lot of good things to be said for classical liberalism (which I will heretofore refer to as simply “liberalism”), but the degree to which it has shaped Christianity in the last few centuries deserves more careful examination among orthodox Christians.

Reconsidering Wear’s “Reclaiming Hope”

I want to examine Michael Wear’s book Reclaiming Hope and Jake’s review of the same in this context. I am typically suspicious of memoirs written by people younger than myself, but Wear’s role in Barack Obama’s Presidential campaigns and his Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships allowed him to watch (and occasionally participate in) some of the most important political battles of the Obama era. Wear’s book traces his journey from optimistic college student to jaded White House staffer, using his story to ultimately argue for the value of hope, even hope in our political system as we know it.

This is, admittedly, a pretty tough sell, and I understand where Jake is coming from when he critiques Michael’s defense of his work for Obama as ultimately unsatisfactory. Wear advocated for Obama because he felt Obama’s faith genuinely affected his choices, but in the end that faith did not seem to count for much — and anything it did count for was obfuscated by the religiously illiterate in the White House. What’s more, it’s clear that some of the institutions Christians cherish were indeed under attack by the Obama administration and that Michael, by supporting Obama, might have in some way been complicit in this.

Michael’s book ends with a strong call to invest in institutions, including political parties. He argues that disaffiliation of all sorts from institutions in America has crippled our ability to effect positive change, particularly in the political arena where a smaller number of votes from a more extreme group of people is able to swing an election. Thus, the question Jake asks at the end is important: how do we know when working within an institution is worth the cost?

Co-Belligerence and Ultimate Ends

Underlying Jake’s piece, I think, are his suspicions with liberalism, just as the proposals at the end of Michael’s book are tied to Michael’s optimism towards liberalism. Underlying Jake’s question about working within institutions like the Obama White House is the uneasy conscience of a Christian liberal: To what degree can we or should we work within liberalism and its institutions when we know how corrosive liberalism (particularly with the help of its friends capitalism and modern technology) can be to faith and family? In particular, how do we know when a particular institution’s aims (what Jake refers to as the “ultimate good” of that institution) is too opposed to the Christian faith for us to participate?

To answer these questions, we must first look harder at the premises at hand. The goods of an institution are both malleable and diverse; unless one is working for a single-issue political advocacy group or specialized factory, the “ultimate good” one is contributing towards is never singular. A president and his administration have an agenda, but their primary work is to maintain the basic functions of the executive branch. These functions can be directed towards an agenda, but most of the work that President Obama and his employees did while he was in office was oriented more towards keeping the democratic-republic lights on than destroying our social fabric.

Furthermore, what an institution says it aspires to and what it practically works towards are almost never entirely in sync. In the case of the Obama White House, the Administration truly wanted to promote corrosive autonomy and took some steps to do so, but to call these steps “ultimate” is to fall back into the world of worldview studies that ties every action to a precise and self-consistent philosophy. If the work that Michael pursued through the Office of Faith-Based Partnerships was “subsidiary”, then so were the lawsuits pursuing against Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Even if we are to take the Obama Administration’s advancement of liberalism as an “ultimate good”, it is difficult to make the White House stand out from the pack in this regard. Jake raised the question of working within Nazi Germany or the Trump administration as a bit of a reductio, but the “ultimate goods” of virtually any Republican presidency in our lifetimes are just as liberal. Very few of us even have the opportunity to work and live in such that our work and consumption patterns don’t help to prop up the regime of liberalism as we know it. We are all stuck with Michael Wear trying to decide how and why to go about our work with people who don’t understand or appreciate our faith.

To what degree can we participate in the world as we know it?

Jake’s questions, though, are not about an all-or-nothing stance, he is trying to discern to what degree we can participate in the world as we know it. And here, I think, Michael’s book is helpful as it describes his choice was to consciously commit himself to an institution that he knew the foibles of and to consciously trust a politician (of all people) who he believed could make things better for everyone. Despite the betrayal of that trust, the work that Michael (and many others) did through the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships to support, promote, and fund various charitable works still went on and was perhaps even better than it could have been had someone with Michael’s religious literacy not been present. Michael’s descriptions of his advocacy for religious liberty in the White House are not self-aggrandizing (he was not particularly successful, after all), but after reading the book I was convinced how valuable his voice was in that particular time and place.

Few things seem to be hollowing out American civil society more than our disengagement from various social institutions, including political parties. While many people put their hope in the Church to reverse this trend, I don’t think that it is good for society or for the Church for all of this burden to rest entirely on churches. Works of mercy, political advocacy, community development programs, and bowling leagues are all great things for a church to have or support, but trying to do them all is a recipe for burned-out parishioners and staff. No church is capable of dealing with every imaginable social issue, even if it tries to limit its efforts by circumscribing its responsibility to its own small neighborhood.

Thus, we have to push people to participate in the non-ecclesial institutions that exist (or create new ones!) if we want to see American civil society renewed. While I sincerely believe that the false gods of fruitless sex and death possess spiritual strongholds that allow them to exercise enormous power over American life, their grip on the Democratic Party is not nearly as strong as the devil hopes it might be. Every few months there is a new episode of heretic-hunting on the matter of abortion, and with more and more people of conscience jumping off the Republican train before it is driven off a cliff, there are tremendous opportunities for a vocal constituency of pro-life Democrats to grow and make their voice known.

Not everyone will make the same choice as Michael with regard to the Democratic Party (I, for one, remain a registered Democrat for the sake of voting in local elections and will continue to support the American Solidarity Party), though, nor do they have to: they only have to decide that they want to help create a counter-polis and work towards that end. This is the best (and only) thing that we can do — hope that we can gather together with our neighbors to create a better civil society for us all.

Of course, hope for this sort of institution-building is tied to any hope we might have for liberalism in general. And while I certainly agree with Jake that there are many dangerous tendencies within liberalism, it is not at all clear to me that his favored Post-Liberal Protestantism is all that much different from the Liberal Protestants he is concerned about. One could argue that the American South and South Africa were at least dancing on the line between Jake’s Liberal and Post-Liberal formulations, given the degree to which Church and State influenced each other.

Is this historical moment uniquely worse than others?

Part of Jake’s argument rests on the premise that our current era is uniquely worse than other eras in its threat to Christianity. I don’t think this is the case for two reasons. First, there are plenty of ways in which the liberal order particularly aids the Christian impetus for missions and evangelism such that I think the good of liberal ideas helping to spread Christianity across the world (as has happened throughout the modern era!) can outweigh any dangers posed by liberalism. Jake claims that liberalism can’t justify its existence, but I would argue that the power of open borders and autonomous judgment-making that have led many nations to worship Christ is justification enough. Second, the worst excesses of liberalism are just as harmful to Christianity’s enemies and just as likely to expose its own failures in the eyes of the undecided: the internecine Twitter wars on the Left rival the greatest theological disputes of history and it is very difficult to strengthen a cause when embracing that cause means deliberately sabotaging your ability to procreate, to give just two examples. These excesses are a double-edged sword that make liberalism an equal contender (and not a unique threat) to Christendom like the pagan or heretical worldviews that we can compare them to.

There is also the obvious fact that liberalism is so powerful that any challenger must use its own tools against it if it is ever to be displaced. Even if all Christians suddenly decided that they wanted to push ourselves into a post-liberal society, we will first have to control the various organs of government that would allow us to set appropriate policies for such a society or else convince people of the benefits of a post-liberal order. Unless we suffer some sort of major political and social catastrophe that totally disrupts the liberal order (and I don’t think we ought to wish for this), we have to beat liberals at their own game before we get to make new rules of our own.

Thus, I would highly recommend Reclaiming Hope to anyone: to Christians who are tenuously willing to affiliate with the Democratic Party for the sake of shaping it into an institution that defends a consistent moral code, to Christians who are suspicious of such affiliations, and for non-Christians who question the relevance of Christianity to politics. Michael has written a book that is not only insightful in its telling of how our government has failed to uphold what is good, but it is also useful in how and why we might be able to make it better.

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Posted by Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org

  • rogerwmbennett

    This was a challenging article that repeatedly turned my gripes a bit to reveal another facet.

    Is the Guest Writer meant to be anonymous? I find no acknowledgement of who he or she is.

    • It was my mistake. I set author as “guest” when I was putting into WordPress; should have been Matthew Loftus. It is corrected now.

  • His history kinder to conservative Christianity than what the above article is toward liberalism? European history seems to say no. And if you Native American or Black, American history doesn’t fare better.

    So what is the point of the above article? Is it that we can’t work with others in building society? Aren’t others saying to themselves something similar based on history?

    Of course, there is a non-liberal alternative to liberalism–even though I hasten to add that trying to prove a generality by example, especially a single example, is logically flawed beyond belief. There is also the Left. Unlike the Democrats, the Left has not sold out to corporate interests. And if you hit the democratic, not democratic party, part of the left, you don’t see what people pejoratively fear about the Left: big government control of everything. Here we should note Rosa Luxemburg’s criticisms of what everybody pejoratively fears about the Left (see https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/russian-revolution/ch08.htm ).

    Why the Left instead of the American Solidarity Party. Any religiously oriented party eventually imposes religious values. And, again, history isn’t kind to religiously conservative Christian rule over all. And one only needs to check the American Solidarity Party’s platform to note that they will not guaranty full equality for the LGBT community in society. In addition, that party’s platform doesn’t recognize the inherent contradictions between the free market and the guarantees it wishes to make for workers and the environment and for the funding of what the party sees as necessary government spending.

    Perhaps if the American Solidarity Party proposed a codetermination plan that is similar to what Germany now employs, they could be offering something different from what is being offered now or has been offered in the past. And perhaps if the American Solidarity Party offered a resturcting of Congress so that people are represented not just by location, but by vocation as well, it would offering something that hasn’t been tried before.

    Though there are some laudable parts to the platform of the American Solidarity Party, it, in the end, doesn’t change the structure of things now. In addition, it represents the same old imposition of religiously conservative Christianity on people, on the LGBt community now in particular and who knows who else in the future. And the fact it is described as a Christian Democratic Party means that religiously conservative Christians will go to that party with intention of ruling over others than ruling with is troublesome.

    • Curt,
      I assume you’re aware that Jake and I are both enthused about the prospect of imposing religiously conservative Christianity on people? Of course there are terrible things that have been done in the name of Christendom, but many good things (including the Civil Rights Movement, for example) were also a result of appeals to Christian morality and the imposition of a Christian moral code on the general public.

      There are a lot of great ideas on the Left, but without a specific moral center (which in Europe is at least genetically if not actually Christian) it becomes Communism and starts killing a lot of people very quickly. If you think atheistic Leftism can do it over again without repeating the brutal mistakes of Communism, then I would posit that conservative Christianity can do the same.

      • Matthew,
        I know where you are coming from. But don’t compare what you want to do with what King did so quickly. He had a significant amount of help from unbelievers. Why? Because his religious agenda was general enough not to give Christianity a privileged position in society, it was not exclusively Christian. The benefits for society he was working for was for all in society, not just some. And they were either met with apathy or opposition from religiously conservative Christians. King wanted to share society with others as equals. He appealed to a general Christian morality but he did so not as a religiously conservative Christian.

        The least of what you want to do is install a Christian paternalism. Which means that at some point, you will impose Christian values on society for society’s good, not necessarily for justice and equality. And yes, there is a moral center on the Left. But like conservatism, including Christian political conservatism, tribalism reigns. And tribalism is one of the main reasons why people from different ideologies and beliefs in God are not working together. Your logic about the Left turning to communism without a moral center is based on example. And logically speaking, one can’t come to a firm conclusion especially based on one or a few examples. And that is especially when previous leaders were leaders who were overthrown were authoritarian. Russia’s authoritarian culture, even including its literature, had a big effect on Lenin. And it had a big effect on the Church in Russia since it was backing another authoritarian ruler: the Tsar.

        We might also note how Socialist regimes that were democratically elected by the people were often overthrown and replaced with dictators by the American government. What Christian moral code were our leaders following? And those leaders include Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. After that, you had Reagan & Bush backing Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. And the first president who made Osama’s work in Afghanistan possible was Jimmy Carter since he signed the original order that provided arms for the “freedom fighters.” Again, what Christian moral code were our leaders following? Clinton, Bush II, and Obama have their own international sins to atone for.

        Finally, you are not familiar enough with the Left to come to any firm conclusions regarding what results from its various ideologies. Who from the Left have you read? Have noted that Nicaragua broke the replace dictator with another dictator precedent that was practiced by Lenin/Stalin, Mao, and Castro. Nicaragua had elections after overthrowing an American supported dictator. And the US responded with sponsoring terrorism to the tune of being condemned by the World Court. And fact, before Castro turned to the Soviet Union for help, the US responded to his revolution with terrorist attacks by our military as we bombed civilian targets. We should note that before the revolution, America supported Batista, the Cuban leader.

        So what is your point about the Left? Note that the most Marxist nation in the world today is Germany. What makes more Marxist than any other nation including Venezuela? It has to do with its implementation of codetermination. The first concern of Socialism from a Marxist perspective is the redistribution of power to the workers. And some that, without implementing a proletariat dictatorship, occurs in Germany’s codetermination laws.

        • Curt,
          I don’t know about Jake, but Michael and I (and the ASP) are definitely operating in the Kuyperian stream that would argue that Christian influence on government and policy is for the common good. While Dr. King is obviously from a different tradition, I bring him up as an example because he relentlessly moralized and argued from the Bible for his positions because (as you say) “the benefits he was working for are for all”. I would say that we’re arguing for the same! We believe that Christian principles lead us to the best understanding of justice and equality that we can get to on earth, so it’s only appropriate to apply them in policy. I don’t know if you read Comment Magazine, but they have a lot of great articles about this. (e.g. this one: https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/5069/editorial-reconsidering-civil-religion/)

          I do not think America is or ever has been a “Christian nation”, and while Christian moral codes have been incredibly influential in our politics and (to a lesser degree) our foreign policy, I think most Christians would say that our policies of propping up tinpot dictators in the Third World for the sake of opposing Communism was wrong.

          I am really not getting your points about the Left and socialism. Every Communist regime brutally murdered its citizens in the thousands or millions; it’s not really just a few examples. Even if the prior regime was bad, they ended up doing worse.

          I support a number of socialist policies and I’d love for American domestic economic policy to be more like Germany. Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union are about the most Kuyperian and explicitly Christian political party holding serious power in the West, so it’s curious that you’re so enthused about their policies but crinkling your nose at what Jake and I are pushing. Codetermination sounds an awful lot like what the ASP (a party in the mold of CDU!) is trying to push. They’re still small enough that you could always jump in and help direct them in this manner!

          • Matthew,
            I am not arguing against Christian influence on government and society per se. I am arguing against the kind of Christian influence that would deny legitimate groups full equality in society. That is the principle King operated from though he would not have argued for full equality for the LGBT community in society. Practicing homosexuals who refuse to repent from practicing certainly cannot not be counted as members of the Church and the Church cannot condone homosexuality in the Church. But such is not the same for society and to work to prohibit full equality for the LGBT community in society has put millennial Christians into the bind of either supporting the marginalization of the LGBT community in society or rejecting what the Scriptures say about homosexuality. Even non-millennials, like Nicholas Wolterstorff, have run into this dilemma and have decided the wrong way.

            Again, your comments about the Left and socialism indicate a significant lack of exposure to the Left. The Left is defined by being anti-Capitalism. But such does not make the Left a monolith. The earlier revolutions that led to brutal dictatorships were at least partial reflections of pre-revolutionary authoritarian conditions. Thus, saying that Socialism from a Marxist perspective was the cause for the following dictatorship cannot be counted as a firm conclusion. That is why I pointed to democratic governments that were socialists or beginning to lean to the Left. They became dictatorships because of US coups and interventions. Thus, for as long as they existed, provide counterexamples to your claims.

            Nicaragua did not follow the pattern set by the revolutions in Russia, China, and Cuba. The Sandinista government was elected out of office during the late 1980s and that was at least partially due to the turmoil caused by US sponsored terrorism for which it was found guilty by the World Court.

            Now I brought up Germany with its codetermination policies, and some other European countries have similar policies took, because, unlike Lenin’s Russian Revolution, those codetermination policies are strong reflections of Socialism from the Marxist tradition. Socialism from the Maxist tradition is first about the redistribution of power from the bourgeoisie to the proletariat. Though codetermination does not result in a proletariat dictatorship, there is a significant redistribution of power at the work place and yet we do not see any brutal dictatorship in Germany or other European nations that have such policies that we saw in Russia.

            You could also go to the reforming efforts made by Gorbachev in the 1980s. With him came a final severance with Russia’s Stalinist past. And while Gorbachec did exercise authoritarian features, that was done to overcome traditional hardliner objections to giving people more freedoms. And if you read Gorbachev’s The New Russia, his plan was to move Russia to adopt Scandinavian political and economic models rather than the neoliberal capitalist model forced on it by those nations making loans to Russia. Yeltsin had to order the military to attack the Russia’s equivalent to our Congress to finalize the installment of neoliberal capitalism. The use of dictatorships to install neoliberal capitalism in a society were earlier accomplished in Chilé and Argentina in the 1970s.

            As for the US, it has been classified as an oligarchy (see http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-echochambers-27074746 ) and this is the result of our adoption of neoliberal capitalism which, for our nation, started with Reagan. We should note that both Reagan and Thatcher were strong supporters of Pinochet in Chilé.

            Now I wrote this too long of a comment to show that both Socialism from a Marxist tradition has not always yielded what you say it has and that neoliberal capitalism has tended to produce what you have attributed to Socialism.

            Finally, I can’t be excited about ventures like the American Solidarity Party. Why? Because it demonstrates a principle of not sharing society with others as equals. If we did work to share society with others as equals, we Christians would not be separating ourselves into our own party. At the very least, if successful, the American Solidarity Party would install a Christian parternalism. And such would show a Christian ruling over society which would cause an unnecessary imposition of exclusive Christian values on others, a lording it over others. When we look at I Cor 5:12,13 and what Jesus said about lording it over others, you can’t tell me that that is biblical.

            BTW, I’ve read the ASP policies on workers and they do not lead to codetermination. The insistence of the Free Market blocks that. The more one’s economy runs by Free Market principles, the less interference there is from government to abide by polices like codetermination, protections for the environment, and even consumer protections. Reagan’s emphasis on the Free Market crippled labor protections. And what Trump is doing by eliminating many regulations that protect workers, consumers, and the environment are consistent with Free Market principles. Thus, there is an internal contradiction in the platform of the ASP between protections they want to offer and its insistence on the Free Market.

  • Peter Gaultney

    >>> most of the work that President Obama and his employees did while he was in office was oriented more towards keeping the democratic-republic lights on than destroying our social fabric.

    That is not, to me, a particularly sound argument. How does one quantify “most”? And is a simple majority of “work done” by a group sufficient to justify their continued empowerment (or a continued partnership)?

    Also, you pretty well discredit your own argument about liberalism’s power relative to paganism by following it up with “liberalism is so powerful that the only way to displace it is to use its own tools against it.” Was that true of paganism? Early Christian martyrs might have been surprised by that take.

    In any case, whether or not liberalism is a “unique threat” to Christianity would seem to me irrelevant for establishing that liberalism is an order that should be opposed by Christians. Nor does Jake’s argument, from what I can tell, rest on the idea that this historical moment – above all others – is one of ultimate peril for Christians. (Incidentally, such arguments are almost inevitably doomed in future analysis, since we do not know when history will ‘end,’ and the indeterminate time between now and that end affords quite a scope for moments worse than our current one). Rather, it would seem to be sufficient to establish that the liberal order is simply _not good_, and work forward from that premise to determine what the opposition ought to look like.

    I think you’d be better served by trying to make a well-researched historical case for liberalism based on the things that you allude to (open borders seems to be the most concrete one), including demonstrating why they are intrinsically part of liberalism (and not compatible with, for instance, distributism).

  • hoosier_bob

    I’ve not read “Reclaiming Hope” and probably have no intent to do so. But it strikes me that the author’s error lies more at the level of application than at the level of principle. James Davison Hunter and a number of other Christian scholars would also agree that liberalism does more good than harm. It’s likely no accident that the most politically stable, legally transparent, and free societies are those that most closely embody the principles of liberalism.

    That said, I’ve generally found the criticism of liberalism set forth on this blog to be rather incoherent. I don’t see that liberalism is particularly hostile to Christianity. Nor do I see its empiricism as a problem. After all, God made the world, and everything around us reflects His truth. So, I see no reason why we need to fear empiricism. In fact, Jesus summarized the whole second table of the Law in a simple statement of the harm principle: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Many who critique liberalism seem to prefer ethical systems that rely more heavily on things like purity, authority, and in-group loyalty. Such ethical systems are more characteristic of paganism than anything particularly Christian.