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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