Conservative Liberalism or Liberal Conservatism?
I am grateful to James Kalb for his thoughtful and respectful engagement with my newly published book The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order (“Squaring the Circle,” February). He credits me with posing some of the right questions and with highlighting the tendency of liberalism to fatally undermine its crucial historical, political, cultural, and spiritual prerequisites.
At the same time, Kalb suggests that I do not sufficiently appreciate liberalism’s character as a “dominant, aggressive, and destructive theory.” In his view, liberalism finally cannot be moderated or elevated. It needs to be replaced root and branch by a radically different account of the social order and of the sources of human liberty and dignity. Against my efforts to articulate a “thoughtful defense of conservative-minded liberalism,” a project he compares with “squaring the circle,” he evokes the need for a “liberal conservatism” that roots the defense of freedom in a “more fundamental conservatism,” in “a way of thinking tied to tradition and basing itself on an authoritative, substantive understanding of the good for man.” In a word, he suggests that I operate too much within the horizon of liberalism and thus cannot provide the corrective to liberal excesses and illusions that my book sets out to articulate.
Yet the sharp contrast Kalb draws between my “conservative liberalism” and his “liberal conservatism” is undermined by the very quotations that he provides from the book. Early in the review, Kalb quotes the following observation from the preface: “The genuine promise of the modern world cannot be actualized on the basis of the untenable principles of theoretical modernity.” Some version of that thought is reproduced over and over again in the book’s pages. I point out that “unencumbered choice can never be the sole criterion for judging the thought and action of human beings. Liberty understood as pure freedom unconnected to larger ends and purposes fatally undermines the dialectics of truth and liberty, and liberty and virtue, that define truly human existence.”
This is why I devote many pages to the postmodern “culture of repudiation,” to cite Roger Scruton’s wonderfully evocative phrase, that has done so much to undermine those “conservative” traditions and presuppositions that are both goods in themselves and are necessary for the health of the liberal order.
Kalb’s review says nothing about the long second chapter of the book that addresses the problem of religion and nihilism in the modern world. There, I draw attention to a tradition that is in decisive respects both liberal and conservative. Shaken by the tyranny, terror, and moral nihilism that defined the modern revolutionary project, conservative-minded liberals such as Tocqueville rejected the radical Enlightenment’s hostility to religion and affirmed “something above the human will.”
At the same time, confronted by evils of twentieth-century totalitarianism many conservative-minded Christians rethought their intransigent opposition to liberalism, or at least to the goods associated with a liberal order. They came to more fully appreciate that constitutionalism and the rule of law are the indispensable pediments of a free and decent society.
This reconciliation between a chastened liberalism and a Church that has made a prudent choice for liberal democracy as the best available political alternative in the late modern world has nothing to do with indulgence for a debased liberalism that makes human beings the sovereign lords of existence, the creators of our own “values.” Quite the contrary. The Church and a chastened, conservative-minded liberalism find themselves united in rejecting totalitarian democracy as well as the relativistic subversion of a regime of consent, what Pope Benedict XVI has famously called “the dictatorship of relativism.”
Does all this mean that James Kalb and I form a united front after all against the self-radicalizing propensities of liberal modernity? In some ways, yes. We are one in repudiating the liberalism of Hobbes and Rawls, not to mention the postmodernist vulgate which identifies freedom with the antinomian subversion of civilization.
But it is true that I refuse to reject liberalism tout court. Following Tocqueville, I distinguish between the art of liberty, the prodigious art of association and the still vibrant institutions of self-government in the United States, and an increasingly tyrannical “idea of democracy” in which vigorous public debate and discussion are pushed aside in the name of the imperative to maximize equality and individual autonomy. The abstract idea of democracy—indebted to ever more immoderate expressions of liberalism—thus subverts the self-government of democratic peoples.
Without in any way being pollyannaish, as Kalb seems to insinuate I am, I believe that the “art of liberty” is still alive, if not completely well, in the United States (and, yes, to a much greater extent than in the relativistic, postpolitical Europe that has emerged after the upheavals of 1968). We are not destined to be steamrolled by a new historical determinism, this time liberal rather than Marxist-Leninist in content.
And why the gratuitous shot directed at Raymond Aron? He was indeed “Sartre’s friend” in youth. But Aron was subjected to the French existentialist’s limitless scorn for over thirty years for his intransigent opposition to communism as well as for his rejection of the fatuous identification of freedom with “lawless voluntarism” and for his defense of free political institutions and the liberal university during the Parisian revolutionary “psychodrama” (as he called it) of May 1968.
Far from having no “substantive content,” Aron’s tough-minded defense of reason and moderation stemmed from a principled repudiation of nihilism and totalitarianism and from his remarkable capacity, in Pierre Manent’s words, to “speak with authority and competence and eloquence about the public thing.” Such greatness is inherently “substantial” and needs no external confirmation, so to speak.
Finally, while I am second to none in defending a tradition of civilized liberty, I must respectfully dissent from Mr. Kalb’s defense of traditionalism. It smacks of ideology even as it understandably attempts to overcome the ideological subversion of tradition. Whether we like it or not, we are destined to live in modern, dynamic societies. We are thus obliged to bring old wisdom to a new city. That city is the liberal dispensation. But we are in no way fated to lose either our souls or our liberty. To say we have no prospects for elevating or moderating the liberal-order world is in fact to invite inaction or despair.
James Kalb replies:
I thank Professor Mahoney for his response. His book covered the issues well, but my concern is with the outcome of his discussion and of the tradition of conservative liberalism it favors. To put it crudely, what is the bottom line and what does it do for us?
Conservative liberalism wants to use the political art—“the art of liberty”—to restrain liberalism and counter the problems caused by making freedom the highest standard. The political art is important, but it cannot resist the effect of liberalism’s basic commitments forever, especially in the modern, dynamic societies in which Mahoney says we are destined to live. What it can do depends on social facts that settled basic commitments progressively alter.
In Tocqueville’s time, inherited views that were still widespread allowed him to propose something above the human will—specifically, God and the law—as a restraint on liberalism. That is no longer possible, even in America. God is no longer an accepted social fact to which a liberal can appeal and remain liberal. Nor is Churchill’s “Christian civilization” available to liberals as a restraint. Even his “settled customs of the people” are questionable in an age that celebrates change and cultural diversity and has become accustomed to view deeply rooted social attitudes as a drag on progress to be eliminated by public policy.
So how can the “art of liberty” continue today to restrain the rationalization of politics and social life on liberal principles? The most vivid and detailed recognition of the dangers of nihilism is not enough by itself to resist it effectively. We need something definite to propose in opposition. Mahoney and I seem to agree that to work at all Raymond Aron’s defense of reason and moderation, and his repudiation of nihilism and totalitarianism, cannot be purely abstract but need inherent substance. The question is whether that inherent substance needs explication and argument or can remain implicit, validated by personal authority and eloquence.
I believe the former is needed. When self-defining freedom becomes the highest political principle, resulting in a tendency toward nihilism and totalitarianism, it must be opposed articulately, through definite substantive goods that are seen as having greater authority. Otherwise, the social facts that restrain unpleasant developments will dissolve for lack of authoritative support.
Hence my preference for “liberal conservatism” over “conservative liberalism.” The issue is not optimism or pessimism but where the best hope lies for us today. I do not see why viewing the liberal dispensation as our historical fate is realism and therefore good, while taking the development and conceptual dynamic of that dispensation seriously is historical determinism and therefore bad. If artful patching looks possible, it may well be the right choice. If not, as I believe, then it is more realistic to direct efforts to more basic issues.
Obstacles to Conversion
Gabriel Said Reynolds (“Evangelizing Islam,” January) offers an excellent description of how the majority of Muslims perceive conversion. Since my conversion from Islam in 1987, Muslim friends have wondered what made me convert. Was it for the sake of women or wealth? It is enlightening to know that Argentine president Carlos Menem was raised Muslim but chose to convert to Catholicism, but I wish Reynolds would not link the political career of the president with his choice of Christianity. This is the very thing I always dread from Muslim friends: They question my reasons for conversion and claim that I acted on ulterior motives.
Reynolds cites numerous cases of conversion and deals with them with notable objectivity. But the article strikes me as emotionally detached. I would like to say to Reynolds that the law of apostasy did not come from anybody but Muhammad himself. Yes, the Qur’an offers no justification for punishment by execution, but this does not mean that the Qur’an is innocent. The Qur’an is silent on many foundational matters for Islam. It provides no instructions or guidelines for the second pillar of Islam, i.e., prayer, and yet we know how to pray as “good Muslims,” depending on oral accounts outside the Qur’an.
When we look at the history of Muhammad, it does not take long before we see that Muhammad was keen to liquidate his opponents. A convert from Islam risks charges of fitna—seduction of other Muslims also to convert. Why not show the oppressive spirit of Islam? Why talk about it as just a religion when we know too well that Islam is first an ideology, then a religion? It is the Muslim mindset of fitna that threatens the life of infidels like me.
Ibrahim Arafat (Timothy Abraham)
knightdale, north carolina
Gabriel Said Reynolds draws attention to the fact that, while many inroads have been made toward a stronger Muslim response to the gospel, substantial challenges continue to face Muslim converts and those who work among them. Reynolds’ article demonstrates the necessity of conveying a gospel that challenges the social and legal structures that perpetuate the struggles of Muslim converts.
Let’s be clear, however: The goal is not the creation or imposition of Western-style democracies throughout the Muslim world. Nor is it the displacement of the close-knit family structure found in most traditional Muslim societies.
The gospel message has deep implications for every sphere of life, whether culture, law, or education. Those who accept the gospel must be taught to reflect deeply on their own heritages as well as on biblical principles for healthy relationships. In particular, this means that many of the laws found in sharia against apostasy and women’s rights must be challenged by the more equitable vision found in the gospel. The gospel is not just a message of salvation for individual souls; it is a story about a God who is intent on His creation fulfilling its intended purpose.
In Genesis 12:3, God promises Abraham that his seed will be the source of blessing for all peoples and nations. Paul in Galatians 3:16 understood this seed to be Jesus. It is a promise that finds its eschatological fulfillment in the grand vision we see of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation worshiping Christ in Revelation (5:9, 7:9, 14:6).
For Christians, therefore, it is only natural that the gospel message take root among Muslim peoples across the globe. The question is not if Christians should be involved in evangelizing Muslims but how they can do so in a way that equips them to meet the challenges their faith entails and that sustains their faith for generations to come.
J. Scott Bridger
Gabriel Said Reynolds documents how difficult it is to evangelize Muslims. From 1958 to 1960, I worked in Nigeria as a lay missionary along with a group of Irish missionaries (the Kiltegan Fathers). I remember once asking about the apparent lack of outreach to Muslims, and the response I received suggested they believed that it is virtually impossible to convert a Muslim.
In my research, I have found that there are clear cognates to the Golden Rule in Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Judaism but that Islam mandates reciprocity and amity only among fellow Muslims—not with unbelievers. In fact, one finds in the Qur’an the exact opposite of the Golden Rule. For example, Surah Fath 48:29 reads, “Muhammad is the messenger of Allah; and those who are with him are strong against Unbelievers [but] compassionate among each other.”
A cultlike aspect of Islam protects against “foreign” elements, and a slew of recent books penned by converts illustrate the heroic efforts required to leave Islam—for example, Cracks in the Crescent, by Hussein Hajji Wario; Nomad, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali; Cruel and Usual Punishment, by Nonie Darwish; and A God Who Hates, by Wafa Sultan.
Howard P. Kainz
I greatly appreciated James Nuechterlein’s “America, America” (“The Public Square,” January). It was a helpful reminder of the excesses of both hypercritical and uncritical patriotism that infect left and right. I was nodding enthusiastically in agreement and appreciation—until I came across that entirely gratuitous swipe at Barack Obama for wearing a flag pin on his lapel. The implication is that he lacks patriotism or is at least hypocritical for trying to appear to be someone he is not—an uncritical patriot.
Since I cannot know the hearts of others, I have to take them at their word. To question Obama’s patriotism—whether in degree or quality—was not only out of character in the article but contributes only incivility to our civil debate.
Rev. Richard Patterson, Jr.
mechanicville, new york
James Nuechterlein replies:
I thank Pastor Patterson for his kind words about my essay, and I assure him that I meant no disrespect for President Obama. As a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, then-Senator Obama initially wore a flag pin only intermittently. When asked about it, he indicated that he felt no need to advertise his patriotism by wearing a pin and that he was sure voters would understand that what was in his heart was more important than what was on his lapel.
But the issue kept coming up, and Obama took to wearing the pin on a regular basis. He obviously decided that it was easier to do so than constantly to explain why he did not. I do not for a moment think that he lacks patriotism or that he is a hypocrite. I meant only to suggest that no American politician can afford, even on so trivial a matter, to allow questions to arise concerning his patriotic enthusiasm.
Choosing Abortion Over Israel
In the “While We’re At It” section in the January issue, you touch on Norman Podhoretz’ 2009 book Why Are Jews Liberals? and suggest that the question in 2012 might be “Why aren’t Jews liberal anymore?” With respect, not a chance.
The reason that Jews are liberals has little to do with the defense of Israel. With George W. Bush as president, American Jews had one of the staunchest champions of Israel they could have hoped for, as Podhoretz points out, but they still did not vote for him. Nor would they later vote for John McCain, a vehement hawk on Iran—in contrast to Barack Obama, who proposed to sit down and negotiate with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions.
Podhoretz explores (brilliantly, one might add) all aspects of American Jews’ psyches, customs, and prejudices, but the simple answer to his title’s query seems to be “pro-abortion Jewish women.” As Podhoretz notes, John McCain’s pro-life position “was bound to make him unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of Jewish women, who seemed to think that the absolute right to an abortion had been inscribed on the tablets Moses brought down from Sinai. And when he chose Sarah Palin, an equally adamant foe of abortion, to be his running mate, he guaranteed that hardly a Jewish woman in America would vote for him.”
Podhoretz reports that 89 percent of Jews thought that women should have the choice whether to have an abortion, and he quotes Steven M. Cohen and Charles S. Liebman in their “American Jewish Liberalism: Unraveling the Strands,” published in the Public Opinion Quarterly: “‘Jews are firmly committed to permissive social codes in particular. . . . In like fashion, huge gaps separate Jews from others on abortion—86 percent vs. 44 percent. . . . We found that 24 percent more Jews than non-Jews approve of abortions for any reason.’”
With Jewish women so committed to abortion for any reason at any time, it is hardly likely that Jewish men will oppose their women’s views on this critical issue. That is why, during ten years of congressional votes on a proposed partial-birth abortion ban, the religious-affiliated group with the highest proportion consistently voting against a ban was Jewish. Twenty-five of twenty-six Jewish members of the House and nine of eleven members of the Senate voted against the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 signed into law by President Bush.
If the preservation of American abortion-on-demand trumps the survival of Israel, what chance is there for American Jews to vote for anyone other than liberal Democrats? With respect, little or none.
Machines for Living In
Le Corbusier, whose parish church in Firminy Jose Oubrerie praises (“Miraculous Box,” January), represents the epitome of abstract church architecture. He flaunted his slogan, “a house is a machine for living in. . . . It makes no difference whether the building be sacred or profane.”
His first major piece was the Dominican monastery of La Tourette in Evreaux, France (1953). According to author Michael S. Rose, “Its oppressive structures drove out most of the monks.” The Church refused to pay for his Church of Saint-Pierre de Firminy-Vert (where construction began in 1965 and halted in the 1970s). The French government, however, paid for the building’s completion in 2006 on the condition that it function only as a cultural center.
The famous shape of the chapel Notre Dame-du-Haut in Ronchamp is a study in primitivism and has been described at one time or other as a seashell, Noah’s Ark, a sailboat, Peter’s barque, and a nun’s cowl. Modern architecture like Ronchamp alienated artists from the Church’s support, which had remained constant for centuries. As a result, the relationship between visual artists and the Church suffered while local church officials closed their eyes to the “raping” of the churches.
Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J.
scarsdale, new york
Jose Oubrerie replies:
Though we disagree about Firminy, La Tourette, and Ronchamp, I would like to add some information to Sr. Roccasalvo’s letter, which may fill out the reasons for discussing le Corbusier’s work.
First, Ronchamp is le Corbusier’s first “major” religious building. It is used for an annual pilgrimage to the Virgin Mary, a revered statue of whom had miraculously, perhaps, escaped the burning of the church by retreating Nazi troops. Le Corbusier was given the commission at the recommendation of R. P. Couturier, one of the rare promoters of sacred contemporary art and architecture at the time. Ronchamp is one of the most visited monuments in France, and the city has had to rework its parking plan to protect the site from numerous buses. Clarisse nuns have a convent built near the chapel.
Second, many Dominican monks left their convents in 1968 and went to live with the “people” in the cities, having felt cut off from the rest of society. At La Tourette, which was dedicated mostly to the study and education of future or young monks, a small group of them remained and activated it as a conference center. The center was built with little money, and a great part of the construction was done by the monks themselves.
Third, Firminy was, yes, rejected by the conservative Cardinal Archbishop Gerlier of Lyon. The project was carried on by me with contributions of a local Catholic non-profit association from 1970 to 1979, when construction stopped due to an economic crisis. The association made a donation in 2003 as part of the total funding completed by Saint-Étienne Métropole, the city of Firminy, the “Département,” the region, and the state. Today it is a historic landmark open to the public as a museum, and Mass is celebrated three Sundays a month.
As for Ronchamp alienating artists from the Church’s support, what about Fernand Leger, Henry Matisse, Barnett Newman, Oscar Niemeyer, and many others?
earthbound habits and unstunted minds
I live among the Amish in Wisconsin and so, mutatis mutandis, am familiar with the kind of life described by Juliet du Boulay, author of Cosmos: Life and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village (“Faith Forming Culture,” January). I have come to believe that the Amish’s contentment derives from a life lived in faith and in the earthbound habits such faith brings about.
In his review, Gilbert Meilaender suggests that, because the Greek villagers were not given to reflection, their lives were somehow stunted. Might not the opposite be the case? In his book The Secular Mind, Robert Coles suggests as much, quoting Walker Percy: “The abstract mind feeds on itself, takes things apart, leaves in its wake all of us, trying to live a life, get from the here of now, today, to the there of tomorrow.”
First Things welcomes letters to the editor responding to articles in the journal. The letters chosen normally appear two issues after the issue in which the article appeared. Letters may be edited for clarity and length. They should arrive by the tenth day of the month of the issue in which the article appears.
Please send your letters to email@example.com or mail them to First Things, 35 East 21st Street, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10010.