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.