Liberal order is under siege. Populist and nationalist movements in the U.S. and across Europe challenge the entrenched mainstream. Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko performs a meticulous exorcism of the “demon in democracy,” and the Radically Orthodox articulate a “postliberal” vision for Britain. R. R. Reno and others associated with First Things expose the inequities of globalization, and the biases that lurk under the cover of liberal neutrality.
Like Richard Neuhaus before him, Reno has gestured at an alternative by invoking the theopolitical term “covenant.” A “renewed national covenant” is a promising starting point for pondering political order after liberalism.
First, covenant has deep roots in Western political history. American order is laid out in covenantal and quasi-covenantal documents, from Winthrop’s Model of Christian Charity to the U.S. Constitution. Medieval and early modern Europe developed forms of federated empire, and the European Union is a postmodern covenant of nations, albeit one distorted by its adherence to liberalism.
Rooted in the common Scriptures of the Christian churches, covenant also has ecumenical cachet. In Reformed Protestantism, it served as an architectonic principle for reading the Bible, shaped ecclesiology and sacramental theology, and contributed to the development of new forms of political organization. Over his lifetime, Benedict XVI has deployed covenant in a variety of contexts.
Second, covenant polity’s anti-individualism combats the corrosive effects of liberalism. One of the most elaborate covenant political theologies of the early modern period, the Politica of Johannes Althusius, envisions a political order based on consent. Instead of binding together detached individuals, this consent forms a federation of subsidiary societies. Pre-political attachments of family, kin, and local community are not dissolved but affirmed. Althusius’s covenant polity rests on an anthropology of “symbiotes” linked in a myriad of associations that aren’t founded on consent.
Third, covenant polity is polity of mutual obligation. The social bond is, Althusius says, a “tacit or expressed promise to communicate [or share] things, mutual services, aid, counsel.” Althusius assumes a commonsensical anti-egalitarianism: Human beings have different abilities; there are hierarchies of skill and knowledge. If a polity is to function well, we all need the superior gifts of others, as others need ours. Covenant harmonizes democratic consent with recognition of aristocratic excellence.
Politics isn’t reduced to the defense of rights. For Althusius, politics is the art of “associating men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life,” characterized by mutual communication of goods. In contrast to liberalism, which abjures common ends, covenant directs political and social activity toward the common good.
Israel’s covenant polity, for instance, includes laws to ensure that blessings enjoyed by the rich enrich the whole people, especially the landless poor. Operating in covenantal terms, teachers devote themselves to what Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy called the “healing of communal memory,” rather than gleefully subverting students’ unreflective commitments.
Covenant polity, finally, unites law and love. Biblical covenants are initiated by the God who loves Israel for the sake of their fathers, and the covenant people are knit together by the bonds of love for neighbor and one’s enemies. Love is not privatized romance but a “macro” value that overarches what Benedict calls a “civilization of love.”
Covenant isn’t anything like a cure-all. It’s been badly abused. At times, it has taken a racial or tribal turn. It underwrites aggressive nationalism when it treats some nation-state, rather than the church, as the “new Israel.”
The biblical references above expose another difficulty. Western politics borrowed its notion of covenant from the Hebrew Bible. Once we start talking about “renewing the national covenant,” we may have to turn to Israel, as many of the Reformers and their children did, as a model polity. How will that fly?
And then, even more foundationally: Is it possible to speak of a covenant polity without acknowledging a covenant Lord who transcends the polity? Who will that Lord be? Fudging that question will put us right back where we started, with a post-liberalism indistinguishable from liberalism. Facing it will expose how thoroughly covenant polity challenges foundational premises of liberalism.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.