Today, conservative critics of liberalism tend to be Catholic. Pundits warn of “‘post-liberal’ ferment among a coterie of mostly Catholic writers,” or report on the “network of Catholic intellectuals” making “the case against liberalism.” “Mostly these new traditionalists are Catholic,” Mark Tooley observed recently. “None are Protestant, which maybe isn’t surprising, since arguably classical liberalism and modern capitalism are Protestant projects.”
But it should be surprising. As Gillis Harp demonstrates, there is a long tradition of American Protestant criticism of liberalism and promotion of a common good–oriented politics. His concise history of the relationship between Protestants and conservatives in this country is studded with quotations from Protestant leaders who viewed government as a moral agent, with a duty to seek the common good and encourage virtue. Defending religion’s public role, these Puritans and Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Anglicans, rejected Lockean thought, liberal individualism, and value-neutral politics as incompatible with Christianity. “There may be danger,” the Puritan Mercy Otis Warren warned in 1805, “that in the enthusiasm for toleration, indifference to all religion take place.” Her words proved prophetic. Today, “toleration” has become “viewpoint neutrality,” which has produced not indifference to Christianity but outright hostility. If we wish to change course, we should consider the communitarian politics of AmericanProtestants.