In his much-discussed Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen identifies two revolutionary anthropological assumptions that constitute liberalism: first, that political order is founded on the “unfettered and autonomous choice of individuals,” and second, that human beings can and must be liberated from the constraints of nature, including our own. Today’s economic, political, sexual, ecological, and educational ills aren’t deviations from liberalism. They are predictable outworkings of liberalism’s founding creed, and thus cannot be healed by upping the dose of liberalism.
Deneen’s definition disregards the role of religion and the public management of religion in the formation of liberal order. This isn’t to say Deneen ignores religion. He refers frequently to pre-liberal “Christian and classical” politics, which he acknowledges are the roots of liberalism. He knows that liberal systems officially guarantee religious freedom. Explaining the inner connection between liberal individualism and statism, Deneen writes, “Shorn of the deepest ties to family . . , place, community, region, religion, and culture . . . deracinated humans seek belonging and self-definition through . . . the state.” This quotation is typical of Deneen’s analysis, which treats religion as one among several mediating structures corroded by liberal individualism. Yet this misses the theological twists and turns that laid the foundation of liberal order.
I can imagine reasons for this gap. Perhaps Deneen emphasizes anthropology for rhetorical reasons, to speak to readers for whom theology is, at best, an obscurantist discourse. And it always seems unfair to fault a writer for what he leaves out, since no book can cover everything. In this case, though, the oversight is critical. Liberalism emerged as a solution to problems of religious pluralism and religious freedom, and was accompanied by a liberal re-formulation of theology to buttress liberal politics. Because he marginalizes these questions, Deneen sidesteps one of the central dilemmas facing liberalism’s critics.
This is one of the important insights of Helena Rosenblatt’s recent The Lost History of Liberalism. Rosenblatt traces the pre-history of liberalism from the aristocratic liberalitas advocated by Seneca and Cicero through medieval thinkers to the Enlightenment. Over many centuries, “liberality” was a social virtue, the opposite of self-interested individualism. As late as Locke and Hobbes, often identified as the founders of liberalism, “liberal” retained its classical connotations of magnanimity and generosity. According to Locke, Jesus commands Christians to act with “patience and meekness under injuries, forgiveness, liberality, compassion.”
“Liberal” first takes on something of today’s meaning in early modern discussions of religious toleration. In his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke identified toleration as the “chief identifying mark of the True Church” but insisted that Christians shouldn’t be content with the “bare Justice” of grudging toleration. Christians of all churches must be magnanimous toward those who differ over minor points of doctrine or practice, treating one another with “Charity, Bounty, and Liberality.” During the eighteenth century, religious toleration became, Rosenblatt says, “a core liberal value,” and by the end of the century political writers were calling for governments to adopt “liberal” policies toward religion, like the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Locke already links liberal, minimalist theology with liberal politics, and Rosenblatt shows that this link was strengthened in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The Revolution established a “liberal” constitution that guaranteed individual rights and eliminated the privileges of traditional elites, including the Catholic hierarchy. But the Revolutionary assault on the Catholic Church left France without a moral compass, and the French people were reluctant to trade in their Catholicism for the thin gruel of a “Religion of Reason.”
To fill this need, Madame de Stael and Benjamin Constant, lovers and collaborators, argued that France needed an updated theology that renounced coercive power, eschewed dogmatism, slimmed down to a few core convictions, marginalized sin and emphasized human perfectibility, and simplified ceremony. For de Stael and Constant, liberal Protestantism was an ideal replacement for Catholicism, and it has since served as the civil religion of liberal political order. In short, as David L. and D. C. Schindler have argued in various places, liberalism is founded on an established liberal ecclesiology as well as an established secular anthropology.
Because he downplays the theological and ecclesiological commitments of liberalism, Deneen seems to retain a fundamentally liberal stance. He admits as much as a strategic matter, advocating the formation of “intentional communities” that “will be regarded as ‘options’ within the liberal frame.” Deneen is refreshingly reticent to propose alternatives to liberalism. He knows that an anti-liberal blueprint plays into the rationalism he rejects. Theory will follow practice, and he urges patience to see what post-liberal formations grow up from local experiments.
But I wonder if Deneen’s commitment to liberal order is more than tactics or modesty. Here’s the dilemma: Can anti-liberals consistently advocate a politics of virtue without questioning the absolute right of religious freedom? Can anti-liberals jettison liberal anthropology while retaining liberal ecclesiology and the religious policies that go with it? Can anti-liberals, in short, avoid questioning the First Amendment?
Is Deneen willing to bite that bullet? I’m not sure. But if not, we must ask: Is Deneen also among the liberals?
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.