Can we sustain a vibrant, free, pluralistic society without the liberal dogmas of neutrality and diversity? Is there a vision of justice and international cooperation that does not lead us toward a thin and shallow cosmopolitanism? Are we able to defend the dignity of the individual without liberalism’s commitment to the isolated, autonomous, and atomized self?
Today, with the support of the Simon/Hertog Fund for Policy Analysis, the Institute on Religion and Public Life, publisher of First Things and host of firstthings.com will gather a group of nearly twenty scholars for the After Liberalism Seminar. Our goal will be to answer these questions, or at least outline some approaches.
After liberalism? Isn’t that a far-fetched idea? In the universities and media liberalism seems dominant. Perhaps, but it is also decadent. Over the last few decades, American liberalism has turned against its historical strengths, becoming so parochial and negative that it has difficulty functioning as a governing philosophy:
• A confident liberal patriotism has become an anxious, hand-wringing, and sour stance of perpetual critique. Liberals tend to agree with, or at least accept the superior moral authority of those who deny the importance of Western culture, holding it responsible for racism, class differences, and national chauvinism
• An earlier sympathy for religious convictions has turned into a deep antagonism toward their expression in the public square.
• Post-sixties liberalism continues to support the expansion of the welfare state, but to a great degree the unifying ideals of liberalism have shifted from economic fairness and welfare to social and cultural liberation. As a consequence, most contemporary liberals either support or provide no resistance to the extremists who attack the traditional cultural norms that underpin a healthy civic culture—the culture liberalism itself requires.
• The liberal virtues of tolerance and support for social institutions that transcend politics have declined. The family, for example, is treated as a source of oppression, and the institution of marriage is redefined to serve the goal of equality. An aggressive, authoritarian mentality now prevails among liberals that will not tolerate conservative political, moral, and religious views. Legal activists treat the law as an instrument of attack. Universities and art museums have become largely partisan institutions.
• Instead of a cosmopolitan sensibility capable of a sympathetic grasp of opposing views and political competitors, liberalism now encourages an insular mentality. Those who wish to remain faithful to theological orthodoxy or who call themselves conservatives, for example, are not engaged in debate, but rather are denounced as “fundamentalists,” “mean-spirited,” and “divisive.”
These changes and others indicate that liberalism now trends toward a sectarian mentality. For example, when deciding a case concerning abortion, Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court have written: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
This notorious formulation amounts to the bald assertion of a metaphysical prejudice akin to a pious judge basing his jurisprudence on the explicit claim that at the heart of liberty is our perfect obedience to God’s law. Neither can provide a basis for a democratic, pluralistic, and tolerant society, but it seems that today only conservatives recognize this fact.
Another sign of extremism is the self-purifying impulse in contemporary liberalism. For a long time liberals themselves affirmed conservative strands of thought. Walter Lippmann, Reinhold Niebuhr, Lionel Trilling: the middle years of liberal ascendancy in America saw important voices of restraining moderation. However, those voices have become far less common and less effective. In recent decades American liberalism has expelled those who have tried to moderate liberalism—e.g., Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Richard John Neuhaus.
The insouciance of liberalism—its lack of self-criticism, its insular quality, its increasingly aggressive use of state power—has moved America rightward. Today, the dominant tone of our politics is reactionary, a reaction against the decadence of liberalism.
However, reaction lacks real political and social consequence, because it defines itself in terms of what it is against. Is there an alternative to liberalism? Can we envision something after liberalism?
To a great degree, as religious believers, we already have. For example, John Paul II and Benedict XVI have reaffirmed the humanizing authority of God’s revelation—an affront to liberalism and its exaltation of free self-determination as the highest good. Many in other religious traditions have expressed similar commitments. Harvey Cox’s fantasies of a secular city no longer have currency. Men and women of faith in the West are in an important sense living after liberalism rather than against liberalism.
But what about culture and public life? Here we need a similar confidence. Perhaps this will involve a restoration of the patriotic, self-critical, and humane dimensions of liberalism. Burke and Tocqueville provide examples of a conservatism that seeks to save liberalism from its excesses. Or perhaps it will be a different way of thinking about the dignity of the individual and the common good, one more willing to give public currency to the concepts and categories of Aristotle or St. Thomas.
One way or another we need a governing new consensus in America, one that either reforms the decadent liberalism that has for too long predominated, or sets it aside for something new. The After Liberalism seminar seeks to see how far we can go in formulating this consensus.
We won’t be keeping the results a secret. The seminar papers and responses will be published in First Things in the upcoming months. Another good reason to subscribe.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
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