In 2018, Barack Obama urged his Facebook followers to read Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen. We live, Obama said, in a time of “increasing disillusionment with the liberal democratic order.” He traced this disillusionment to a trend that liberal democracies ignore at their own peril: the “loss of meaning and community.”
Obama was right to notice a turn away from liberalism. Drawing on the World Values Survey, Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk have found that whereas 72 percent of Americans born before World War II believe it is “essential” to live in a democracy, only 30 percent of millennials agree. As the authors note, “Disaffection with the democratic form of government is accompanied by a wider skepticism toward liberal institutions. Citizens are growing more disaffected with established political parties, representative institutions, and minority rights.” A similar pattern holds across the developed democracies.
Obama was also correct to attribute the disillusionment to a loss of meaning and community. In 2018, Demos, a think tank in Britain, conducted a series of surveys and focus groups in Britain, France, and Germany. They found that though each nation possessed “in historical terms, momentous levels of prosperity, standards of living, and global influence, a substantial minority—or even majority—of citizens are gripped by a kind of malaise, a sense that something is fundamentally rotten at the heart of their societies.” The researchers described “an omnipresent, menacing feeling of decline,” a belief “that the very best of their culture and communities has been irreversibly lost, that the nation’s best days have passed.”
In order to understand our moment, it is helpful to read Arnold Toynbee, British historian and theorist of civilizational change. Toynbee argued that periods of civilizational growth are marked by a broad consensus capable of inspiring the allegiance even of those on the economic and cultural margins. In periods of decline, by contrast, society falls into schism. It becomes divided into “a dominant minority, which rules with increasing oppressiveness but no longer leads, and a proletariat . . . which responds to this challenge by becoming conscious that it has a soul of its own.”
Toynbee’s idea of the proletariat was broader than Marx’s. Instead of defining it in material terms, as the unpropertied urban industrial underclass, Toynbee saw the proletariat in terms of shared attitude. “The true hall-mark of the proletarian,” he wrote, “is neither poverty nor humble birth but a consciousness—and the resentment that this consciousness inspires—of being disinherited from [one’s] ancestral place in society.” Though proletarianization might be accompanied by economic pauperization, it was, in essence, “a state of feeling rather than a matter of outward circumstance.” A proletarian might be an urban laborer displaced from the agricultural life he had once known, or a ci-devant aristocrat deprived of title and property, or even a slave transported from Africa to a nation that denied his humanity. What these otherwise different men shared was the experience of being uprooted, of inheritance denied.
How does liberalism bring about this feeling? There are as many definitions of liberalism as there are people who have discussed it, but as a practical matter, there exist two forms of liberalism, tied to two political movements. Left liberalism seeks to deliver man from prejudice, discrimination, and inequality through a reordering of society. Its adherents instinctively mistrust religion, nation, and family. Right liberalism, or classical liberalism, shares with left liberalism a concern for the autonomy of the individual, but it tends to stress economic rather than cultural freedom. It is less suspicious of religion and family than of the state.
Since the end of the Second World War, left and right liberals have dominated the politics of the developed democracies. To an extent once unimaginable, capital has been freed from political control, and men have been freed from moral limits. The aptly named “liberal order” now overspreads the globe. It stresses free movement over rootedness, cosmopolitanism over loyalty, and the present over the past. It has led to what Toynbee would describe as a world of proletarians, men who may be prosperous but feel they lack a home and history.
One of the revolutionary slogans of 1968 was, “I want to be an orphan.” Today, people across the globe are demanding a patrimony. A variety of movements attempt to answer this need. The most prominent are the various populist and nationalist movements—stretching from Budapest and Warsaw to Washington, D.C.—that promise to revive and defend national identity. For all their differences, these movements offer their adherents a stake in a larger community, a connection to a purportedly heroic past.
In the face of these movements, Christians have offered a confused response. Some have seemed to embrace racial idolatry, while others have denounced any defense of the nation as suspect, if not simply fascist. Christians, along with their fellow citizens, need a more rigorous response. Without denying the importance of political and national loyalties, Christians must firmly reject all forms of racial hatred and idolatry.
Over the last two centuries, the leaders of the Catholic Church have developed a rich tradition of social thought, which seeks to address man’s need for community. They have insisted that men are unhappy unless they participate in the “three necessary societies”: the family, the political community, and the Church. Right liberals have sometimes doubted the necessity of the political society, whereas left liberals and socialists have sometimes doubted the necessity of Church and family. Catholic thought insists on the necessity of all three.
One need not be Catholic to see the logic of this theory. It recognizes that every human is part of a family. It understands that men are by nature political animals, and that if they are deprived of real political life—if they live under benevolent but remote technocratic governance or a totalitarian state—they will grow restive. Above all, it acknowledges that men have desires that cannot be satisfied in this world. Even those who deny the soul’s immortality feel immortal longings.
In 1939, at the outbreak of World War II, Pope Pius XII drew on this tradition to condemn racial hatred. He traced the rise of Nazism to two related errors: “forgetfulness of the law of universal charity” and denial of a higher spiritual realm, to which politics must answer. Christians preach that all men have immortal souls, and share a common origin and calling. Nazis, by contrast, claimed there are quasi-metaphysical qualities separating different nationalities, with some ranked higher than others. Pius XII warned that this sort of racism “elevates the State or group into the last end of life, the supreme criterion of the moral and juridical order.” Race became a kind of divinity.
Pius XII was no callow anti-nationalist. The Church, he said, “does not think of deprecating or disdaining the particular characteristics which each people, with jealous and intelligible pride, cherishes and retains as a precious heritage.” He likewise defended the family. But he believed that nation and family could become idols unless they were part of “a supernatural union in all-embracing love,” a solidarity that unites all mankind. Pius XI had made the same point in Mit Brennender Sorge, his 1937 letter condemning Nazism. “He who sings hymns of loyalty to this terrestrial country should not,” he wrote, “become unfaithful to God and His Church, or a deserter and traitor to His heavenly country.”
Racism is a form of idolatry. It replaces the loyalty we owe to God with loyalty to a lower thing. The popes understood that what many men seek—an inheritance, a home, a true community—cannot finally be found in nation or race, because this desire is too large to be satisfied by anything less than the divine. We feel, as Pius XII put it, “a homesickness for things eternal.” This did not lead the popes to disdain worldly forms of belonging. They instead insisted that worldly belonging must be subordinated to a higher and universal authority.
In concrete terms, this meant fully recognizing the rights and freedom of the Church, and fighting any attempt to place state, race, or nation above the law of universal charity. The fact that a person falls outside one’s race or nationality could never justify treating him with anything less than charity in spiritual affairs and justice in the political realm. The one is a supernatural acknowledgement of human dignity; the other a natural acknowledgement. Recognizing a spiritual community above every political community does not license totalitarian theocracy. On the contrary, it limits the pretensions of worldly powers while providing the true basis for gentleness and charity.
Weakened families and weakened political communities have made men clamor for worldly solidarities. But these loyalties will prove to be perverse and unsatisfying unless they are ordered to a higher loyalty. The vague feeling of homelessness, the queasy sense of disinheritance identified by Obama and Toynbee, reflects our spiritual as well as our political conditions. It is the unease of children cut off from a Father who wants to give them everything. It must be directed not to any nation or race, but to our true home, our true inheritance, which exists above. Nothing else will satisfy a world homesick for eternity.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things.