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Liberalism and its meaning for Christians

[Originally published in the Spring 2005 issue of The New Pantagruel]

Liberalism has enormous power as a social reality. When liberals call themselves “progressive” they make it stick. Their views dominate all reputable intellectual and cultural institutions. Judges feel free to read liberalism into fundamental law, even without historical or textual support, because it seems so obviously right.

Nonetheless, many people resist the notion that something called “liberalism” can matter so much. After all, liberal views have changed over time and will change again. Everyone holds some such views, few people hold all of them, and most normal people who hold them cut back on them in various ways. Besides, the results attributed to liberalism can be attributed to other things, non-ideological social developments for example. So why not forget stereotypes like “liberalism” and look at particulars?

In spite of such objections, grand principles such as those that characterize liberalism do matter, because they order our social world. How people understand things, and the basic principles on which they cooperate, make an enormous difference. Liberalism is the system of principles behind the social, moral, and political views that dominate our public life. People aren’t often completely aware of things as basic as the accepted principles of social morality. They state these principles variously, how they are applied changes over time, and a lot of what people do and say is at odds with them. Nonetheless, the principles are there and determine what happens in crucial cases when something important comes in question. Otherwise, understandings would be too much at odds for the community to endure.

Crucial cases and the principles that decide them determine the direction of events. At bottom, the liberal principles that have determined the direction of mainstream moral and political discussion in recent decades are quite simple. They hold that value is based on individual desire, and morality on the equal essential worthiness of those desires. It’s human preferences that make things good, and since preferences are equally preferences, everything thought good must equally be good. To think or act otherwise would be “judgmental.” Politics and public morality thus become focused on giving preferences as much and as equally as possible, and on supporting people in their efforts to satisfy their preferences. Freedom, tolerance, equality, and social welfare thus become the principles expected to prevail once something becomes a clear public issue.

What we’ve said so far is accepted by most people, at least in general terms. However, liberal principles also have implications that are less well-known and in the end mean the self-destruction of liberalism. Liberalism qua liberalism, with its exclusive emphasis on freedom and equality, is incapable of dealing rationally with questions of authority and power.

The difficulty is that when preferences clash, the liberal demand for equal treatment means in the end that the dispute has to be resolved by someone other than the parties, and the resolution has to pass itself off as something that isn’t a substantive decision. Anything else would be oppressive, since it would allow one party’s preferences to suppress another’s. That squeamishness about power makes normal political life impossible. A political issue, by definition, involves a conflict of preferences. Liberalism must therefore (at least ideally) depoliticize all serious political issues and determine them by an allegedly neutral process. It needs to rule by denying that power is being exercised, claiming in effect to be a system of power that rejects and opposes power.

The history of liberalism shows its reluctance to admit that government makes and enforces important decisions that might well have been made otherwise. Under classical liberalism, the need for a neutral resolution of all issues meant that everything had to be a matter of property rights. To answer a question you asked what the holders of the relevant property interests wanted. Today, the supposed neutrality of property rights is supplemented and when possible replaced by the supposedly less rigid and arbitrary neutrality of technicians, experts, consultants, therapists, ethicists, facilitators, social scientists, lawyers, transnational bureaucrats, and human rights advocates, all of them here to help us and none of them (supposedly) exercising significant discretionary power.

The claim that such people and the norms they enforce are neutral is, of course, absurd. Liberals plainly have a theory of what is good, a vision of what human relations should be, and the will to back their views by force and insist they be followed throughout human life so that everyone has to live in their kind of society whether he likes it or not. The ostensible neutrality of liberalism disguises a practical dictatorship of intrusive functionaries and money. The taxes, regulations, and re-education programs that feature so prominently in advanced liberal society wouldn’t be needed if liberal governments were neutral. While liberals claim to be on the side of the little guy, the claim is evidently false. They often oppose particular tyrannies, but the opposition is part of an effort to abolish local power in the interests of universal power. Respectable institutions and well-placed people are regularly liberal, while those who reject liberalism are tagged as ignorant, provincial and lower class. Can it really be true that in liberal society the well-placed and powerful become selfless while provincials and outsiders become oppressive?

In fact, advanced liberalism stands for a system of comprehensive social administration, and favors irresponsible central power as long as that power is its own. The system rules by pretending not to command, but only to protect principles like equality and tolerance that are accepted by all and precede all legitimate public discussion. The need to keep up the pretence gives liberal rule its specific quality—its tendency, for example, to rely on judges and functionaries who wrap their decisions in claims of legal principle and expert knowledge that no one understands but everyone must give in to.

It also means that opposing views, which would radically undermine the legitimacy of liberal rule by forcing it to exert power in visible and controversial ways, must somehow be kept out of public sight. Comprehensive indoctrination, “Political Correctness” and “hate speech” rules, which set strict limits on what can legitimately be said in public, are thus essential parts of advanced liberalism. To bring the matter home for Christians, liberalism must try to eliminate the social relevance of all religion that is understood as more than a poetic representation of purely human aspirations.

The point is unavoidable. A liberal government recognizes no ultimate principle of authority higher than what people want. Its principles thus require it to base its legitimacy on the consent of those recognized as legitimate members of society, and in the end—since liberalism is inclusive and believes in equality and individual rights—on the consent of all human beings. It can’t be satisfied if even in the minds of a minority there exists a principle of authority independent of its own and potentially at odds with it. The mere existence of such a thing strikes at the root of the claim that liberalism uniquely reconciles government and the individual autonomy that it recognizes as ultimately authoritative.

The attempt to eliminate specifically religious authority everywhere in society is thus integral to advanced liberalism. A government that makes individual choice the highest principle can’t easily tolerate it when individuals want the wrong things. Liberalism thus demands thought control. Fear and hatred of “intolerance and fundamentalism”—the belief that there are goods that do not reduce to human desire—are a permanent feature of advanced liberal society.

To understand the extent of the practical threat liberal dominance poses to religious believers, one must understand the depth, power and pervasiveness of the forces behind it. Some of these forces relate to accepted understandings of reason and reality, others to more material factors.

As to the former, liberalism is intimately linked to a modern secular and scientific understanding of rationality that emphasizes observation and measurement. Since values can’t be directly observed or measured, liberalism treats them as subjective feelings projected on morally neutral facts. As a result, respect for them becomes simply a matter of respect for the feelings of those holding them. Equal respect for persons is thought to require equal respect for values, and the basis of morality becomes giving people equally what they want. Liberalism is thus a rather direct moral implementation of the operative philosophical outlook of our time, positivist scientism—the belief that the methods of the modern natural sciences define rationality and what’s real. (“Postmodernism” is irrelevant to the issue because it doesn’t give answers. When someone needs to deal with a real problem he reverts to scientism.)

The integration of liberalism with scientistic ways of thought makes it impossible for most educated people today, who have been brought up on scientism, to conceive that liberalism might be wrong. To give credit in dealing with others to what can’t be seen and demonstrated, or treat a “value” as more than a personal preference, is thought irrational, willful, oppressive, and dangerous. If you’re not a liberal, there’s something wrong with you, and you can’t be accepted as a legitimate participant in public life. Hence, for example, the reaction to the film
The Passion. The specific arguments didn’t matter: the bottom line was that the film had to be stopped simply because of its spectacular refusal to reduce God to human desires, a refusal that threatened the foundations of the advanced liberal order.

Other forces supporting liberalism reflect present-day social and technological conditions. Technology has consequences. Electronic communications, jet flight, city life, and the automobile make every person, place and thing equally present to every other, so that each has the same environment and position. That situation, along with the extreme fluidity of relationships, destroys differences of implication and significance, so that nothing means anything definite and everything becomes either a resource for some further purpose or an object of undifferentiated desire or aversion. Money, government decree, and technical rationality become the sole principles of order, and the whole of life—work, education, entertainment, the mechanics of daily life, the relations between the sexes and generations—becomes swallowed up in a universal rationalized system that treats the whole world as a resource to be processed for efficient equal satisfaction of preferences.

The resulting technocratic order takes human control for human purposes as the standard, rejecting the authority of the given and the transcendent. History, biology and religion become obstacles to be overcome rather than ordering principles to be accepted. Pleasure and power become the ultimate goods, and other goods are thought to make sense only by reference to them. Pushpin (now called “popular culture”) becomes as good as poetry, religion becomes a “preference,” and traditional morality becomes simply an effort by some people to control others.

Technocracy thus promotes the liberal moral outlook. The reverse is also true: liberal morality serves technocracy by rooting out everything at odds with its dominant institutions. A technically rationalized process strives for clarity and perfection through standardization. Differences must be as few, well-defined and technically manageable as possible. When applied to society such demands mean that the particularities of history, place, and human relationship must be deprived of significance. Qualitative differences must be treated as differences in individual taste, so that a “pro wrestling” match and pontifical high mass can be treated as things of the same kind and dealt with by the same standards and procedures. “Discrimination,” the recognition of serious non-bureaucratic and non-market distinctions, and “intolerance,” the recognition that to pursue one thing is to reject another, become outrages against social order and morality. The greatest threat, however, remains “fundamentalism”—recognition of an authoritative principle that can’t be reduced to the unified rationalized process that constitutes the technocratic order.

By making opposition to discrimination, intolerance, and fundamentalism its supreme moral principle, liberalism expresses and promotes technocracy. The great “cultural” issues of the day—PC, multiculturalism, the struggle over sex and family life, the growing dominance of the radical secularist Left—are all aspects of the campaign by technocratic institutions to make their power absolute by eradicating, as discrimination, intolerance, and fundamentalism, all traces of other forms of social organization. Thus, to say marriage matters is “discrimination;” to say it has to do with some relations and not others is “intolerance;” and to keep making those points when their opposition to technocratic rationality has been pointed out is “fundamentalism.” Marriage must therefore be abolished as a specific natural institution with a necessary social function and reduced to sentiment and non-binding private commitment so people can become simply a mass of consumers and productive units guiding their lives solely by idiosyncratic taste within technically rational public institutions. The same point applies to all religious and cultural standards that don’t simply repeat the demands of the technocratic order. To give such standards any weight at all is discrimination, intolerance, and—to the extent a principle is asserted—fundamentalism or similar fanaticism.

Liberalism has thus become an instrument of a system of power making absolute claims. The results have been horribly destructive. In the interests of the institutions now dominant and a conception of morality that makes them absolute, liberalism has bulldozed and paved over the social and cultural setting in which ordinary people make their homes and find meaning and dignity, reducing them to powerlessness and degradation while raising the well-placed to secure and comprehensive dominance. Pop culture—glitter for the few and trash for the many—is its worthy symbol.

The triumph of liberalism and technocracy means that Christians now find themselves in an all-pervasive setting whose basic principles require the social eradication of their faith, or at least its transformation into something radically other and less than what it was. Hence, the crisis in the churches and in their relation to the general society. To participate in public life as it is is to surrender in advance, because it requires effective agreement that Christian belief is a private taste, and thus not belief about God, man, and the world at all. While to withdraw from public life is to give up the battle against a relentless and expansionist enemy.

The immediate prospects for the churches thus seem bleak. Nonetheless, the long-term outlook is good, even from a purely secular perspective. A rationalized system is never as rational or consistent as it hopes. Advanced managerial liberalism demands the rationalization of human life on a few clear principles, but utopian enterprises always fall apart. Man can be disordered, corrupted, and killed, but not neutered, corrected, and made manageable. He always wants something beyond the given and the technically attainable. Religion corresponds to that desire, so it can’t be wiped out and always comes back.

We can’t know just how the advanced liberal order will fall apart, or exactly what will follow, but we can be certain it will not last. If nothing else, it will disappear for failure to reproduce itself. In the meantime, the task of those who see liberalism’s radical defects is to understand it for what it is, resist it, keep alive what they can for better days, take advantage of the rights or favors liberalism grants, appeal to whatever resists or escapes technocratic rationalization, and make the case, in season and out, for something more worthy of humanity.

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Comments

Most people have internalized liberal principles without being aware of it. Most people are unreflective and do not examine their own assumptions. They have no idea that their serious opinions, if they have any, express a world view - usually the liberal view.

Essays like this - which is erudite and eloquent and which is crammed with prudent judgments and subtle analysis - have a very small number of readers. Whether such essays as yours can ‘raise consciousness’ about the ubiquity of liberal beliefs and the specific consequences for Christianity, seems very unlikely. Your readers are already members of the choir, so to speak. The masses who are in need of political education are beyond the reach of minority media; only the mass media can disseminate new opinions among the multitudes.

If liberalism contains the seeds of it own destruction, then in view of its immense power and influence at the present time, we can only watch and wait, perhaps for several generations, for its inevitable demise. For the time being, it’s a choice between quietism and despair.

(None of the above will be news to you: I don’t know why I’ve bothered to comment - except to say that commenting at blogs and such like is a form of vanity.)

In discussions about liberalism’s virtually total victory in our present Western world and the dire consequences that victory poses for us I have often had people ask me what use it is to speak out about it because there seems to be nothing that can be practically done about it. Your last sentence, defining the task of the traditionalist in such circumstances, provides the best answer to that question that I have eve come across. Thank you!