“Sin’s Political Lessons” is one of three addresses given to a symposium on "After Liberalism," put on in late February with the support of the Simon/Hertog Fund for Policy Analysis and of Fieldstead and Company. The following is a response to Wilfred M. McClay's “Liberalism After Liberalism.” The other response, by Yuval Levin, can be found here. The other two addresses and the responses will appear in the June/July and August/September issues.
While arguing that liberalism is ultimately incoherent, smothering the very individualism it seeks to foster, Wilfred McClay nonetheless rejects the conclusion that “liberalism is and was utterly false, an error from start to finish.” Rather, liberalism is only “exhausted,” having “done its historical duty,” and is now “ripe to be superseded by something better.” He concludes that liberalism’s benefits—religious toleration first and foremost—might be grounded in distinctive features of the Christian faith.
McClay’s indictment of liberalism starts with Alasdair MacIntyre’s argument that emotivist propositions have replaced rational argument over objective moral ends. Instead, individuals report their feelings, and these do not necessarily reflect any objective moral order. MacIntyre and McClay see danger in this rhetorical (and philosophical) transformation. But identifying the danger does not end the discussion. Liberals might agree with his argument yet continue to believe that the emotivist move, on balance, produces more benefit than harm. It is this perceived benefit that I believe provides the staying power of liberalism.
We see such emotivist appeals even in the arguments for church disestablishment advanced by Jefferson, Madison, and others. These old arguments remain fresh today: The religious conflicts of the Reformation and post-Reformation eras remain, however obscurely, a driving force for liberalism. Residual horror at the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War, underlined by the English Civil Wars, still prompts a visceral reaction by many to any hint of religion in the public square.
Even after a twentieth century in which secular ideologies led to the deaths of tens of millions, the horrific, if diffuse, memory of Christian slaughter still prompts the specter of “religious war” in even the most ordinary of conversations on religion and politics. I believe that, at its most primitive level, the liberal urge to convert truth claims into emotive statements stems from the need and desire to respond to the devastation of these wars.
But why should this urge drive liberals to convert truth claims into emotive statements? Liberals believe that the emotivistic move reduces conflict and opens venues for conversation rather than conflict. In short, it works to improve the human condition.
Last fall my college asked me to undergo a forty-hour course of mediation training that qualifies one to mediate disputes with the goal that disagreeing parties might resolve their disputes without the need for more complicated and costly processes. One central technique of the mediation process is to guide disputants to make emotive “I” statements rather than statements about the other disputant’s behavior. This explicitly emotivistic device mutes the natural defensiveness of people when they are criticized, and therefore allows the disputants to begin speaking to each other again.
This manner of resolving conflicts is contrived. But it also seems to work surprisingly well. Similarly, liberals want to get religious disputants to emote and therefore to talk rather than to fight.
I don’t think this process would be controversial if everyone understood its aim to be the promotion of communication rather than conflict. The problem arises when this procedure is conflated with claims about the nature of truth. This is the conundrum that liberals face, and it is the circle that liberals can never quite seem to square. Indeed, some liberals, such as Richard Rorty, seem so desperate to sustain the benefits of the technique that they prefer to give up on the idea of moral truth altogether and reject even the attempt to derive a coherent foundationalist account of liberalism.
As a result, for those living “after liberalism,” it is not sufficient merely to refute the defects of the reigning philosophical system. It is necessary to address the quite legitimate felt needs that motivate liberalism. Addressing these needs requires an answer to the question of whether religious belief is intrinsically dangerous and whether claims of absolute truth are consistent with forms of toleration sufficiently robust to offer credible assurance that devastating religious conflict will not be repeated.
Here McClay makes the second move in his argument. He seeks to provide the basis for tolerance that liberalism desires but cannot provide for itself. He argues that it is because of the absolute truth claims of the faith that Christians embrace tolerance, not despite them. He addresses the liberal fear with the argument that Christians fought religious wars despite the truth of their faith, not because of it. He develops this possibility from the premise that the faith teaches “the dignity of each individual person”:
The story of the fall of man . . . could be understood as a powerful expression of God’s love for us, since he loved us enough to permit us the freedom to disobey and reject him. [We tolerate error] because the commitment to noncoercion flows from a theologically grounded commitment to the fundamental and intrinsic dignity of each individual person and to the necessity of letting that person come to God freely, in a disposition of love, in the manner of God’s desiring.
For McClay, toleration must be founded in a set of absolutist claims, such as those made by the Christian faith. In this, I believe, he is correct. But where he goes high I would instead go low. Where he grounds tolerance in the high anthropology of human dignity, I think it would be better grounded in recognizing the indignity of the human person.
An Augustinian account of humanity’s corruption provides a better ground for toleration because of its view of the intensity and the extensiveness of human sin. On the one hand, the intensity of the wound of original sin goes so very deep that it suggests no human power—including the sword—can heal it. God alone can heal the wound through the unique work of his Spirit. On the other hand, the extensive effects of the Fall are not limited to the person who would be coerced but affect the human magistrate who would do the
coercing. Recognizing this suggests the need for limiting the power of government.
Humanity rejected God, and this so scarred us that we cannot freely choose to receive his grace without the initial move of God’s Spirit: As St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, “A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” It is because the wound of sin goes so deep that not even the human sword can remedy it. Because conversion is out of human hands (as a cause, not as an instrument, of course), the Christian is freed to be gentle in dealing with those in opposition. In 2 Timothy, Paul urges the Christian not to fight but rather “with gentleness [to correct] those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.”
Note the argument: God calls his servant to act with gentleness toward unbelievers because their will is in bondage to Satan. Only God—not the human agent—can free the captive. It is God alone who grants repentance. The divine monergism of God’s work in repentance is the ground for God’s human servants to treat those in opposition with gentleness: Because the wound of sin goes so very deep, human harshness can serve no divine purpose.
I have not forgotten Augustine’s argument for the suppression of the Donatists for the sake of their reform and reunion with the Church. But I do not believe that Augustine erred because he had too little respect for the dignity of the human person. Rather, his argument that magistrates should coerce the Donatists did not reflect a low enough opinion of the human person. His argument, as it were, wasn’t
Augustinian enough. The Donatists required a force more powerful than the state to convert their intellects and wills.
But it’s not only the depth of the wound of sin that counsels for tolerance, it is the breadth of that wound as well. We learn empirical lessons on the relation of sin and government power from the experience of Old Testament Israel and from the experience of Christendom. Magistrates are human, and therefore also labor with a nature inherited from the first Adam. While the occasional king managed to reform worship in Old Testament Israel, more often than not political forces arrayed against the Lord’s purposes and prophets. Similarly, while I have no doubt that Christendom witnessed any number of pious magistrates, I also have little doubt that many magistrates sought to place the Church in service to their purposes. Given the evidence, Christians can reasonably conclude that, on balance, because of the Fall, it is best to limit the power of the state.
This line of thinking similarly influenced the American founding. Early in The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton observed that “men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.” That magistrates share that nature stands at the heart of Madison’s argument in the famous passage in The Federalist 51, that because men are not angels the great difficulty in framing a government “lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
A prudential reservation of authority over matters of conscience seems a fair implication of the darker view of human nature. But I think we can go further than this libertarian minimalism and assert that the very essence of the gospel implies tolerance for those who do not share our beliefs. We see this initially in the law given to Israel regarding the alien and sojourner. The central motivation for these laws was Israel’s own experience. “[God] shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” Fallen humanity is the alien before God. Despite this, St. Peter writes, God “is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” Note the “you” who benefits from God’s patience.
God’s patience with us derives not from humanity’s residual dignity or freedom but from our desperately fallen state and original sin’s hold upon us. But if God extends to the alien before him his charity, knowing that the alien is his enemy, then his people, who were also his enemies and benefitted from his patience toward them, are to do so as well.
James R. Rogers is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. This paper was given to First Things’ "After Liberalism" symposium, produced with the support of the Simon/Hertog Fund for Policy Analysis and of Fieldstead and Company.