Has American Freedom (‘Liberalism’) Failed? And If So, What Doesn’t?

By John Zmirak Published on February 27, 2018

Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen has made enormous waves with his new book, Why Liberalism Failed. I’ve addressed his core argument here before: That the Anglo-American tradition of freedom is based on false premises and leads to deadly conclusions. Those premises, he thinks, rest on Thomas Hobbes’ social atomism. (Each of us is an island, trying to maximize pleasure and avoid death, till we fail.) Those conclusions include abortion on demand, the government persecution of churches, same sex marriage and transgender madness.

Robert Reilly does the best job of answering Deneen on the question of America’s premises. Reilly disagrees that American liberty can be boiled down to John Locke, or that Locke was just a friendly fig leaf for Hobbes. If those premises are wrong, then maybe the conclusions don’t really follow. Certainly Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito didn’t agree that same-sex marriage was implied by the U.S. Constitution.

It’s tempting for intellectuals who don’t “do” practical politics to find one strand of thought and trace it over the decades. Then they announce that they’ve demonstrated just why current events were always inevitable, given what happened 300 years ago. Hegel’s whole philosophy amounts to little more than that.

Life Isn’t a Game of ‘Civilization’

But in fact, contingent events are rarely inevitable. There was nothing about Germany in the 20th century that guaranteed a Holocaust. The Bolsheviks weren’t predestined to conquer Russia. And President Reagan wasn’t driven by inevitable laws of physics to believe the advisers who lied to him, assuring him that Anthony Kennedy was a conservative. The social conservative movement doesn’t have to stay clueless about helping elect its allies, as Maggie Gallagher documents. That’s a choice we make.

My favorite response to Deneen so far came from William Voegeli, at Minding the Campus. Voegli showed how Deneen’s long list of scathing complaints about the modern West echoed that of another contemporary cultural conservative. Namely, former Iranian president Mahmood Ahmadinejad. Read their indictments of America side by side. If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.

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What Is Liberalism?

Let me take a different tack. To clarify things, I’ll boil down “Liberalism” as Deneen seems to mean it to its most essential elements: Guaranteeing religious freedom, and focusing our laws on defending each human person’s rights, within the limits of the common good, narrowly defined as “human flourishing.” (Define the common good too broadly, to include things like “eternal salvation” and you’re right back in Iran, or Puritan Massachusetts, or the Spain of the Inquisition.)

Deneen has insisted in essay after essay that such a project is self-defeating. Let’s assume that Locke was really a sincere Christian with a healthy vision of the common good (as he insisted he was). Deneen thinks the individualism he embraced would always eat away from the inside. Like a cancer cell, it would multiply and hijack then kill the body politic. The good intentions of U.S. founders who insisted (one after another after another) that virtue and religion were crucial to freedom? The road to Obergefell gets paved with such good intentions.

Maybe so, in a fallen world. Give people ordered liberty and they’re going to look for loopholes. Make the state secular, and it will eventually become secularist. It will grab the lowest common denominator of utilitarian hedonism and hunt Christians as heretics. We’re almost there now in America. Large swathes of Europe effectively do this. Don’t try homeschooling in Germany, for instance. 

But What Does Illiberalism Give Us?

Let me turn it around. Tell the state that its job is to form people in an abstract plan of virtue, as set forth by one religion. Then what will it do? For that we can’t look to headlines but to history. It will censor the press, control the schools, and imprison people as heretics. Because it thinks it’s playing for infinite stakes (the eternal salvation of souls) it will see few limits on how much it dominates people’s lives. Oh yes, and because the

church is rich and powerful, it will now attract the worst kind of people: the greedy and power-hungry.

John Locke, despite himself, produced same-sex marriage. In the exact same way, Louis XIV, despite himself, produced the slaughter of French priests and nuns by the mob.

This state of affairs ends when enough people get burned out from burning heretics. Then something like liberalism emerges. If the Illiberal state was nasty enough for long enough, the rebels won’t stop there. They won’t just yank away the Church’s power to persecute. They will turn the tables and persecute it in turn.

When the French Revolutionaries hunted helpless Catholic peasants in the Vendee genocide, they didn’t condemn the Gospels. Or even the sacraments. No, they cited the cruelties of Louis XIV in hunting down French Protestants. What’s sauce for the goose, they argued. … Even more, they insisted that Catholicism was dangerous. They must root it out lest it bring back the Inquisition. (Today, resist transgenderism and people will accuse you of wanting to burn witches.)

Utopia Means ‘No Place’

So taking a realistic view of history, we could say that John Locke, despite himself, produced same-sex marriage. In the exact same way, Louis XIV, despite himself, produced the slaughter of French priests and nuns by the mob.

Where did trousered apes get so many rights? Did we pick them out of the trees, like bananas?

The lesson? That we can’t pretend we’re going to come up with some perfect formula to “fuse” Christian orthodoxy and liberty. Nothing we draft will be strong enough to endure every twist and turn of culture. We live in the realm of contingency, where all things waste to nothing. And all political movements generate counter-movements. Hegel at least got that right. What he got wrong was his blasé confidence that what would result was a “synthesis” of opposites that would be stronger than before.

In fact, history seems more like an almost endless game of rugby. There aren’t just two teams, and nobody’s wearing jerseys. It’s a constant scrum of one group of people with a partial, imperfect view contending against many others. We can broadly observe that we don’t want any of these teams to score a goal. Instead, we want the ball to stay near the middle of the field. That’s the closest we can hope to come to a Golden Mean balancing virtue and political freedom, the common good and the human person. But we must make clear that it’s a balance we seek, and renounce extremes that violate basic human rights, like religious freedom. To do any less is not just a crime, but a blunder. It’s a Tiffany’s blue-wrapped gift to the enemies of the Church. 

The Endless Rugby Game of Human History

Periods where religious values dominate the state accomplish some wonderful things. The best cathedrals, universities, and intellectual syntheses in European history date from the Middle Ages. Modern science got its start there. All the cultural capital of Christendom? That came from periods when governments hunted heretics. (Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton. …) But building up such capital with the backup of state coercion runs roughshod over the rights of the human person. And it plants the seeds of violent, anti-Christian revolutions.

Conversely, periods preoccupied with the rights of the individual don’t build up the same capital. In fact, they spend it down. We still, now, vaguely think of human life as sacred most of the time. But we couldn’t tell you why. That’s why we keep making exception after exception. We demand “inalienable rights,” then forget what they’re based on and keep expanding what’s on the list, to include “transgender acceptance” and “abortion on demand.” The theory of humanity our elites have now settled on boils down to “featherless biped.” Where did trousered apes get so many rights? Did we pick them out of the trees, like bananas?

Schlepping Toward Bethlehem

Really, the best times to live as far as I can see it, are in the twilights that follow illiberal governments. Or religious states in decline, if you will. You’ve plenty of cultural capital built up in previous centuries. But you’re laying off persecutions. You have gorgeous cathedrals built by your intolerant ancestors. But no one will fine you if you choose not to pray in them. The state might have an official church, but it doesn’t arrest dissenters. (Along those lines, America was de facto an officially Protestant country until the middle 1960s, and mostly better off for it, even for Catholics and Jews.) To me, the ideal of human society will always be 19th century Vienna. But you could not have had that without the bonfires and purges of the Counterreformation. Just thank God you don’t have to live through them.

There is no perfect end state in human affairs. There is only schlepping. Let’s try to schlep as close as we can to the Golden Mean. And remember that if no one pushes back we too will press things much too far. And we won’t enjoy the backlash one bit.

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  • Howard Rosenbaum

    Well – there’s never really going to be a cultural construct, political dynasty or an institutionalized religious reign capable of creating anything even remotely akin to a “heaven on earth “. The founding fathers of our republic understood this & provided checks & balances to insure this fledgling nations survival. Liberals seemingly try to create counter checks & balances to address their concerns. They in spite of their claims to being unfettered by religion are the most “religious “ among us. They are those who believe they can bring about a heaven on earth as such.
    We know how foolish that is . They don’t. They’ve “ been blinded by the light “.
    The light so called which is really no light at all ……

    • Howard Rosenbaum

      It’s always fun to use liberals words against them …..

  • There are four sins crying to Heaven for vengeance and all four sins are the public policy of this Evil Empire, America, and all four sins are the favored objects of positive law in this Evil Empire, America.

    Willful Murder (Abortion, Unjust Wars, Drones, Assassinations)

    The Sin of Sodom (So-called Gay marriage, the acceptance of sodomy as permissible and praise worthy)

    Oppression of the Poor (Usury, which is state-sponsored theft of labor).

    Defrauding Laborers of their Wages (Mass immigration which undermines the wage scale, closing manufacturing in America and relocating it overseas to be done by slaves)

    Now, the encyclical of the great Pope Leo XIII, Immortale Dei, teaches the government must provide public worship of the one true God not treat religion as though it is a matter of personal opinion like America has done.

    America, long ago, ceased to exist as a nation and it is now, as St Augustine taught, aught but a gang.

    • mr. producer

      Now ask yourself, who’s behind gay marriage, usury, unjust wars (Iraq), hollywood and pornography, the msm, feminism and planned parenthood? Could it be some of the same forces that were behind the French and Bolshevik Revolutions? Those same forces that brainwashed its common citizenry into separating passion from reason?

      • I suppose one could identify The Frankfurt School as a proximate cause and the Judaised Protestants who founded America as a remote cause but the plain and simple truth is we now have the USCCB and the vast majority of nominal catholics in full-voiced support of religious freedom and the vast majority of voting-age catholics support either the Stupid Party or the Evil Party, both of which have created the nightmare we are doomed to live in.

        There can be no doubt that there is no such thing as a Judeo-Christian culture but the Jews who have such influence (The created and control Hollywood, gained control of the media + banks etc) have it because the WASPS surrendered all to them.

        Even the very crummy laws we have exist because they were crafted and created by white putative christian men – everything from Abortion to legalised sodomy, to easy divorce,, to endless unjust wars and so one should be careful about blaming our woes solely on the Messias-Deniers.

        IN 1965, the population of America was about 195 million. Since then we have added about 113 million immigrants from countries which have no common language, culture, religion, political philosophy etc etc with the population then dominant in 1965.

        Our overlords have turned a once united country into a dangerous and divided one and because diversity + proximity = war, we can be sure chaos and conflict are coming down at us at a rapid rate.

        America is no longer a nation (look up the definition of nation); it has become Neo-Yugoslavia with multi-ethnic, multi-racial,multi-religious, and multi-cultural peoples and look at how diversity was the strength of Yugoslavia.

        For a glance at the future, look at Senator Feinstein whose identify politics have come home to roost and poop on her property. She couldn’t get the endorsement of her party in California because Identity politics. Is she so dense she couldn’t understand that if you invite in millions of mexicans they will vote for one of their own rather than a Jew?

        Why support a Feinstein over a DeLeon if you are a Mexican?

        America proudly legislates against the Commands of Jesus Chris, King of Heaven and Earth,and so it is cursed.

        • ArthurMcGowan

          Immigrants vote about 80% pro-abortion. Try pointing out that fact to our No-Borders bishops.

    • ArthurMcGowan

      All four of those sins are supported by the Pope and his favored bishops. You want THEM to wield civil power?

      • Yes. It would be much easier to convict them of sin if they held power rather than slyly advance it from behind the curtain.

  • I now disagree. Liberty is simply no longer a virtue for me- I long for the days of a strong church and a stronger inquisition to keep government under control.

    All you get from liberalism is immorality and the destruction of civilization. Only the strong hand of illiberal ism can build a civilization up.

    We are barbarians living in the ruins of a superior culture.

  • ArthurMcGowan

    Whenever I read traddy articles, pining for a “Catholic confessional state,” I shudder, picturing Blase Cupich, Donald Wuerl, and Sean O’Malley armed with even more money and coercive power.

    • Richard W Comerford

      Mr. ArthurMcGowan:

      I have heard it said that the best proof that the Roman Catholic Church was founded by Christ is the Church’s very survival from century to century – despite the best efforts of Catholic Bishops to destroy her.

      God bless

      Richard W Comerford

  • Richard W Comerford

    Re: The Great Commission: “Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. ” – Matthew 28:19

    If His followers are faithful to their Master how can they NOT form Catholic governments?

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

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