In early December, the Acton Institute and Calvin College’s Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics co-hosted a conference ambitiously titled “Faith and Democracy in America: Christianity and Liberalism Rightly Understood.” The dueling keynote titles caught my attention. Patrick Deneen was slated to give the first one: “Liberalism is Not Free: The Myths of Religious Liberty.” The next day, Jamie Smith would speak in defense of liberalism: “Thank God for Liberalism: An Alternative History Without Nostalgia.” Since I respect the work of both these scholars and have learned much from their writings, I made plans to attend. The conference didn’t disappoint, though I do wish the format would have allowed for a more genuine back-and-forth between Deneen and his critics. In what follows, I’ll try to avoid too much inside baseball and, rather than attempting to summarize all of the talks, will distill some of the central questions the conference raised for me.
As liberalism draws down this moral (and, I would add, ecological) capital, can churches sustain the kinds of vibrant communities and institutions and practices necessary to form virtuous citizens, citizens whose first allegience is to the Kingdom of God?
Kristen Johnson, a professor at Western Seminary, articulated the conference’s animating questions when she asked whether Christians can find within a pluralistic space opportunities to live radically faithful lives. The danger, of course, is that a liberal, pluralistic space will so malform Christians that the distinctive character of a gospel-formed life is warped. In Smith’s book Awaiting the King he draws on Oliver O’Donovan to claim that “liberalism itself lives on borrowed capital and is only possible because of the dent of the gospel and the formative effects of Christian practices on Western societies” (17). But as liberalism draws down this moral (and, I would add, ecological) capital, can churches sustain the kinds of vibrant communities and institutions and practices necessary to form virtuous citizens, citizens whose first allegience is to the Kingdom of God? (I pursued this line of questioning further in my review of Smith’s book.)
Several of the speakers sidestepped these difficult questions by defending liberalism’s promises of equality and freedom without reckoning with the growing evidence that American liberalism is increasingly failing to deliver on these promises. Speakers such as Samuel Gregg, William Katerberg, Kristin Du Mez, and others pointed out that women and peasants and racial minorities were oppressed in pre-liberal social arrangements, as if that, in itself, answers Deneen’s critique of liberalism.
To this end, several potshots were lobbed at Wendell Berry as a nostalgic reactionary. It is much easier, however, to make fun of Berry for being nostalgic than it is to respond to his warning that our liberal way of life is causing irreparable ecological, cultural, and moral damage. (Even my three-year-old daughter has mastered the art of criticizing Berry: if I am too engrossed in my writing, she leans toward me and repeats “Wendell Berry is a bad dude,” knowing this is a sure way to get my attention.) Yet there are grave consequences when a culture forms its members to pursue wealth and happiness by cutting themselves loose from place and community and tradition. (One of these, as Comment recently explored, is loneliness, which is just one of liberalism’s fruits.)
These defenders of liberalism’s benefits, then, tend to criticize a straw man rather than actually responding to the arguments of people like Berry or Deneen. Indeed, Deneen himself explicitly acknowledges liberalism’s Christian origins and its good results:
Nor does reflecting upon what follows liberalism’s self-destruction imply that we must simply devise its opposite, or deny what was of great or enduring value in the achievements of liberalism. Liberalism’s appeal lies in its continuities with the deepest commitments of the Western political tradition, particularly efforts to secure liberty and human dignity through the constraint of tyranny, arbitrary rule, and oppression. In this regard, liberalism is rightly considered to be based on essential political commitments that were developed over centuries in classical and Christian thought and practice. (Why Liberalism Failed 19)
In other words, liberalism can be marked by the gospel and still be a political and cultural dead end. As Ivan Illich argued, corruptio optimi pessima.
By not acknowledging this possibility, these speakers largely failed to grapple with Deneen’s argument that liberalism is not, in fact, bringing about genuine freedom or just forms of society. Instead, it is sorting society into a small group of winners and a large group of losers. As Deneen puts it, “Society today has been organized around the Millian principle that ‘everything is allowed,’ at least so long as it does not result in measurable (mainly physical) harm. It is a society organized for the benefit of the strong” (148). Smith has elsewhere made a similar case himself, noting that “the dismantling of cultural jigs makes the poor especially vulnerable.”
The poor and marginalized suffer the worst consequences of our rapacious ecological exploitation while reaping the least benefit
There are many facets to this vulnerability, but one of the most troubling, I think, is the way that the poor and marginalized suffer the worst consequences of our rapacious ecological exploitation while reaping the least benefit. In fact, while Deneen’s book repeatedly warns of the environmental consequences that follow from liberated individuals using powerful technologies to satisfy their desires, only one speaker addressed this problem. Hope College professor Steven McMullen noted that liberal market forces directly led to the drastic consolidation of hog farms, with great environmental, ethical, and human costs. But the systemic injustices outlined in books like Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor were, for the most part, simply ignored. Perhaps a system organized around “the pursuit of happiness”—or, in John Locke’s terms “life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like”—is intrinsically destructive of the Creation upon which all human societies depend.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. It was in his keynote that Deneen referred to Locke’s claim that the liberal state “holds out the promise of ‘indolency of the body,’” a promise that is inherently at odds with the Christian gospel. While I expected Deneen to summarize aspects of his book, he instead presented a new—though certainly related—argument: the relationship between state and church in America has always been rigged in favor of the state. Or, as his subtitle suggests, religious liberty in America has always been a myth.
Deneen narrates three waves or settlements in the history of church and state. The first is the separation of church and state enshrined in the First Amendment. Most of the colonies, like European states at the time, had an established church, but for a variety of practical and theoretical reasons, the authors of the constitution decided to not recognize an established church. While this certainly had benefits for the church, it also implicitly signaled that the state’s power precedes the church’s; the church should be grateful for the generous room afforded it by the state.1
The second wave Deneen terms civil religion. Beginning with nineteenth-century assertions of a divinely ordained Manifest Destiny, the church increasingly sanctioned and blessed the liberal state. It acted as a chaplain to the state, helping to form its members into good liberal agents. Deneen points to John F. Kennedy’s campaign for the presidency as a key moment in this history, where Kennedy in essence declared himself an American first and a Catholic second. And in an example that could have come straight out of Smith’s Cultural Liturgies series, Deneen described the patriotic excess on display before Notre Dame football games; this Catholic school bends over backwards to demonstrate its fealty to the American, liberal project, thereby contributing to the formation of good liberal selves.
The third wave, which is still gaining momentum, is secularist true belief. The liberal state has now become a church, and it ruthlessly roots out heretics and polices orthodoxy. Liberalism, as Deneen puts it, is “a creed demanding adherence.” And it aspires to become a global faith, seeking to convert recalcitrant holdouts in backward nations.
Deneen’s conclusion was that “Christians ought not to feel too much at home in any nation.”
Deneen’s argument, then, is that under all three configurations, the liberal state has been the lead partner, so the declining power of the American church’s prophetic witness should not be a surprise. When Deneen was asked about the Christian roots of the Civil Rights movement, he acknowledged the prophetic tradition from which Martin Luther King Jr. drew, but he also noted that King was deeply concerned about American materialism and militarism weakening the integrity of faith traditions. Deneen’s conclusion was that “Christians ought not to feel too much at home in any nation.”
When Jamie Smith gave his keynote the following day, he began by noting that he agreed with much of Deneen’s argument regarding the deformative effects of liberalism. He also said that ten years ago he could not have imagined himself giving a lecture in defense of liberalism (he describes the development of his thinking on these matters at the beginning of Awaiting the King).
Smith critiqued Deneen’s argument as a kind of “medieval nostalgia,” which he called “Wendell Berry on steroids.”
Smith began his critique of Deneen’s book by noting that Deneen’s pathology of liberalism takes the form of a genealogy, and that Deneen’s genealogy of liberalism lays the blame at the feet of Protestants. He critiqued Deneen’s argument as a kind of “medieval nostalgia,” which he called “Wendell Berry on steroids.” What this nostalgia fails to recognize is that liberalism did indeed free marginalized and oppressed people. Those who critique liberalism, Smith argued, can do so because they have only watched others be liberated rather than experiencing this liberation for themselves.
Smith’s alternative genealogy of liberalism depends upon his distinction between liberalism as a polity and liberalism as an ethos. Early modern liberalism was a social architecture that did, albeit unevenly, liberate individuals from unjust institutions and social structures. This liberalism was, in significant ways, a Christian, Protestant achievement, and Christians should continue to celebrate it. Late modern liberalism, however, has become a cultural ethos of autonomism, and the unchecked self has come to be seen as the highest good. It is this liberalism that Christians should challenge while striving to rebuild the fraying political architecture of early liberalism.
Smith then offered a second narrative of liberalism. While his first story sees liberalism as the fruit of Christianity, his second story sees liberalism as Christianity’s penance (it’s not clear to me how Smith’s reconciles these two stories; they seem significantly different). Smith suggested that Deneen’s critique is an attempt to change the rules of the game only because Christians lost the game. Drawing on Ephraim Radner, Smith claimed that liberalism was needed because the medieval church failed to use its political power redemptively and justly, and liberalism has become our cultural ethos because Christians failed to convert subsequent generations (in part because the church’s witness has continued to be weakened by its divisions).
Smith’s genealogy of liberalism may itself be guilty of the nostalgia of which he accuses Deneen.
Smith admirably strives to defend a constrained liberalism, arguing that “Christian liberalism is the fruit of prudence”; it is a way of faithfully inhabiting the “messy permixtum of the saeculum.” But it seems to me that Smith’s genealogy of liberalism may itself be guilty of the nostalgia of which he accuses Deneen. While he claims Deneen is nostalgic for a medieval order (which I don’t think can be substantiated from Deneen’s book), Smith seems nostalgic for a particular historical moment when America (or the West) had a liberal polity and a more Christian ethos. Yet Smith’s own work on the formative power of social architecture and cultural liturgies suggests that this is a precarious and unsustainable arrangement.
Indeed, Deneen’s question to Smith after his talk addressed this problem: if liberalism is not inherently corrosive of faithful Christian commitments, then what went wrong? Why did liberalism become an ethos? (And if Catholics are predisposed to critique liberalism, why do many Protestants (like Wendell Berry) join the critique of liberalism while many Catholics adopt a stance very similar to Smith’s?) Smith replied that it’s hard to pin down contingent historical causes, and that he wishes it were possible to run a control society and see how Christian liberalism might play out differently in different circumstances. This is probably the weakest link in Smith’s genealogy, and I hope to see him develop it further.
The freedom that liberalism offers isn’t free, and its costs are accruing in ever-mounting ecological and financial debts.
If Deneen were an integralist, then Smith’s critique of his project as nostalgic would be more valid. Deneen is not an integralist, however, and as a Protestant myself, neither am I. But if we are going to rebuild our political and civil society in a more just, sustainable fashion, we’re going to have to do so on a much more modest, humble scale. Liberalism was experienced as a real good in an age whose technology and infrastructure made local communities and economies more or less a necessity. But fueled by modern technologies that consume millennia of sunlight in one generation, a polity built to allow autonomous individuals to pursue happiness is simply not sustainable. The freedom that liberalism offers isn’t free, and its costs are accruing in ever-mounting ecological and financial debts.
What solutions might be possible? In his book, Deneen refuses to offer a post-liberal ideology, instead calling for “practices that foster new forms of culture, household economies, and polis life” (183). While most presenters at the conference contested various understandings of liberalism, several suggested possibilities for living faithfully among the ruins of late modern liberalism. Justin Barnard, a professor at Union University, drew on the work of Matthew Crawford to commend cultivating a craft within a living tradition as one way to embody the goodness of illiberal forms of life. The excellence of such crafts might bear witness to the beauty that fidelity and submission to a tradition make possible. Kristen Johnson pointed to radical hospitality as one way to break down the private, liberal understanding of the home; if our households are marked by interdependency and hospitality, we can belong more faithfully to our neighbors and places. These are, of course, the kinds of practical, local efforts that the Front Porch Republic celebrates.
I also wonder if it is possible to discern a suggestive possibility in Jamie Smith’s recent announcement that he is leaving Comment to serve as the editor of Image. It seems that Smith is shifting his own focus: rather than rebuilding a (liberal) social architecture in a more Christian fashion, Image seeks to use what remains of this architecture to proclaim a beautiful, compelling vision of Christian faith. Obviously these are not mutually exclusive endeavors. And as Alan Jacobs helpfully reminds us, the body of Christ has many members. Perhaps the diversity of the American church is not a disease in need of an ideological cure, but a blessing to be grateful for as we strive to faithfully await the King in these uncertain times.
- Interestingly, one of the thinkers Smith musters to support his historical narrative of liberalism as a fruit of the church agrees with Deneen that the First Amendement separation of church and state cedes too much authority to the state. As O’Donovan claims, “Excluding government from evangelical obedience has had repercussions for the way society itself is conceived.” (The Desire of the Nations 246, quoted in Awaiting the King 102 n 19). I haven’t seen Smith unpack this tension, though, and I’m not sure what his stance is on this thread of American religious history.↩