Peter Leithart’s recent contribution to the failure-of-liberalism genre opens with an arresting claim: “Liberalism is centrally an alternate, anti-catholic ecclesiology.” This assertion strikes me as correct, although too cryptic. We need to be more precise: Liberalism functions as an “ism” insofar as its proponents insist upon its magisterial authority, asserting that liberal principles—and only liberal principles—offer a full, perfect, and sufficient basis for the ordering of common life.
Leithart directs us to “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” where we find John Locke at his most extreme. The key conceptual move comes in his definition of our “civic interests.” They concern “life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.”
The only spiritual value on Locke’s list is liberty. The others bear upon bodily life and are matters of utility. Winnowing down the higher goods we seek to share with others (the “anti-catholic ecclesiology,” as Leithart puts it) to ever-greater liberty—and only ever-greater liberty—makes consent supreme. The reason is evident. If we deem liberty the only matter of spiritual concern in public affairs, then we will demand that every man be free to consent or not consent to any authority invested with society’s power of coercion, limited only by the principle that his consent (or lack of consent) does not impede anyone else’s liberty or compromise his utility.
Over time, this demand for free consent erodes political respect for natural authority. In our time, feminism, gay rights, and transgenderism insist that the male-female difference deserves no authority over our laws and social mores.
The same demand erodes the authority of history. Norms of citizenship and duties of communal membership flow from our recognition of the authority of particularity. We are children of our time and place, and in an analogous sense we owe filial duties to our cultural and historical inheritance, duties our consent ennobles but does not create.
And, as Leithart notes, the requirement of consent is antithetical to a Christian understanding of life under the lordship of Christ. Yes, we can only participate in his kingdom as his disciples insofar as we freely affirm him as our lord and savior. But the legitimacy of Christ’s authority flows from his divinity. It in no way rests on our consent.
Leithart says that Patrick Deneen and I are satisfied to blunt the revolutionary character of liberalism. In the tradition of Burke, Tocqueville, and others, we call for a renewed respect for non-liberal modes of life—family, community, nation, and church. I cannot speak for Deneen. But as far as my own efforts are concerned, Leithart is correct.
It requires only modest awareness of the human condition to see that we share powerful “civic interests”: the integrity of marriage, family patrimony, historical memory, and communal pride, to say nothing of truth and justice. I call these commitments “strong gods,” because they rouse men to sacrifice health, wealth, and even life. And I urge us to minister to their return that they might pinion liberalism’s imperial ambitions and leaven our liberal age with loves and loyalties that give direction and purpose to our freedom.
Leithart regards my political theology as too accommodating to liberalism. By his reckoning, my approach fails to challenge the liberal ecclesiology and its claim to magisterial authority. He suggests that I instrumentalize the church, turning her into yet another mediating institution. But it is perfectly possible to both honor marriage vows as sacred and point out that staying married leads to better health and material happiness. Just so, affirming the civic benefits of the church does not undermine affirmations of her supernatural foundation.
In his First Apology, Justin Martyr addresses the pagan charge of atheism, which in the ancient context amounted to the claim that Christians did not respect the gods of the city, and were therefore disloyal and treasonous. He notes that Christian teaching inclines men to virtue, not quarrelsomeness. Christians are ready to sacrifice their material goods rather than fling themselves into greedy and grasping endeavors. They are prompt in the payment of taxes and respect the law. “We are in fact of all men your best helpers and allies in securing good order.”
Because Leithart and many others share with me a staunch opposition to liberalism’s arrogance, I want to end with a warning: Let us not be so foolish as to become Locke’s negative. Liberty will (and should) remain an enduring “civic interest.” We need a society that is at least liberal, but not merely liberal.
Most of my critics press in directions opposite to Leithart’s charge that I do not challenge liberalism head-on. They imply (or say outright) that my call for “strong gods” leads to “illiberalism.” To answer this charge, I draw upon Tocqueville. He recognized that our liberal age tends toward dissolution, which paradoxically breeds conditions of modern tyranny, not plenary freedom. We need the ballast of non-liberal loyalties—“strong gods.” And if I may rephrase Justin Martyr, those who minister to their return are in fact of all men the best helpers and allies of those who seek to preserve the modern culture of freedom.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
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