One common question that’s come up since the Orbanism piece on the main site is one that I tried to anticipate in the essay itself: Is the Augustinian liberal strategy naive? Or, put another way, does it matter if liberalism survives? Should we just give it up, since so many already clearly have, and try to pick the least bad option of the various illiberal choices on offer?
The best articulation of the question came from a reader email:
Don’t get me wrong–I hate the illiberal modus operandi of the Orbanists. But it also seems that the Progressives undermined the liberal project by undemocratically accumulating enough control of institutions to put their finger–if not their refrigerator–on the scales of justice. Orbanism then is the belief that liberalism has already functionally departed, and so all that’s left is the question of whose conception of The Good will reign.
In this context, the choice between an illiberal and risky Orbanism and a useless O’Donovanian liberalism is a tough one. And for what it’s worth, I don’t see how it’s idolatry to pursue a genuine common good by illiberal means. Most political regimes in the history of the world have not been liberal ones, and yet there is always a need for the common good. And right now, Orbanism seems to be the only way to pursue this. This isn’t a path to salvation; it’s merely a path to a better society.
In other words, if the liberal answer is off the table altogether, isn’t Orbanism preferable to the alternative?
Here’s the problem I see in the framing: My friend is right to note that most societies across time have not been liberal. True enough. Unless we are going to stipulate that there was no just society prior to the ascent of liberalism, we have to grant that a society can authentically pursue and even occasionally realize true justice apart from liberalism. I think it’d be highly imprudent to say there was never a just society prior to liberalism, so that inherently means you can have justice without liberalism. Fair enough.
However, when we move from the question of theory and into an encounter with the world that actually exists all around us, a number of problems quickly announce themselves.
One of the causes of early modern liberalism was the frank recognition of religious pluralism in Europe. After the Thirty Years War it was clear that Catholic Europe wasn’t coming back, but neither would Lutheranism or the Reformed faith gain dominance over the continent. And so some kind of resolution that allowed for peace to exist in the face of religious pluralism was necessary.
Now, this insight gets taken in wrongheaded ways by some contemporary liberals, who mistakenly act as if the mere fact of religious pluralism inherently means that the government must be religiously agnostic, perhaps even ethically agnostic beyond the most bare standards of consent. That is to take the point too far.
Christianity has always understood government to have a certain positive role to play within a society—not simply punishing the evil and protecting the material security of citizens, but also rewarding the good. But doing that quite obviously requires a positive idea of what it means to be good, what the government should do to reward the good, and so on. So the traditional Christian teachings concerning government are explicitly not libertarian.
A government that is neutral on questions like the moral status of the unborn, the meaning of marriage, and the obligations society owes to the poor cannot, according to Christianity, fulfill its rightful role. So we need a government that is about more than simply protecting a purely individualistic, purely negative conception of freedom.
However, the fact of religious pluralism, which obviously has only grown in the centuries since the Thirty Years War, does inherently mean that you’ll either need a theory of overcoming pluralism via some sort of sectarian strategy (this is the route implicitly proposed by the theonomists and the integralists, in different ways) or you’ll need a way of living with it.
The sectarian response is increasingly popular on the right, which is why you’re seeing a return of integralism, up to and including the idea that the Roman church has coercive authority over the baptized. The hard power of the papacy is imagined as a bulwark against the vicissitudes of our current moment.
The ascent of theonomy on the Protestant right functions in a similar way with a one-to-one application of the Mosaic law functioning for evangelical theonomists in the same way that an ultramontanist theory of the papacy does for integralist Roman Christians. In both cases, reactionary right wingers are searching for a sectarian solution to the problems of pluralism and private judgment.
There are softer examples of this move as well, I think. The criticisms of “Kellerism,” for example, sometimes fall into the sectarian trap. This isn’t true of all the critiques, to be clear. Some variants of the criticism are just calling for a sensible missiology, if in an occasionally clumsy, imprecise way. This is what I took James Wood to be doing, for what it is worth.
These criticisms are marked by a sober recognition of the new challenges facing the American church and a need to think carefully about the problems of reaching the west, given the increased hostility toward Christian teachings on sex and gender, human identity, and so on. This critique is thoroughly in keeping with the tradition of Newbigin and is, indeed, a critique that Keller would be sympathetic to, being a good student of Newbigin himself.
Yet other critiques of “Kellerism” or “winsomeness,” seem on further inspection to devolve into a critique of Christian moral norms, replacing the biblical call to “gentleness,” “kindness,” and “self-control” (amongst others) with a call to power, dominance, and owning the libs. For some, sincere, good-faith argumentation is in itself a problem, even a symptom of weakness.
For these Keller critics, the problem of evangelism is basically ignored. Their church growth strategy largely consists of political signaling intended to draw in other cultural traditionalists, who may or may not actually believe the Gospel or have had an encounter with Jesus.
Further, because of these political compromises, discipleship also becomes more difficult: You can’t condemn the fruit of the spirit as naive and dismiss the Sermon on the Mount’s contemporary relevance one minute and then call people to lives of genuine following of Christ the next. It doesn’t work. What you win people with is what you win them to. And these sectarian sorts are not winning people with Jesus, but with politics. Thus these bedrocks of church community, evangelization and discipleship, are set aside for political success, success which will supposedly result in the revival of Christian America.
This sort of magical thinking resembles nothing so much as the collect underpants meme:
Phase 1: Take control of the state. (“Integrate from within,” as Vermeule would have it.)
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Christian Society! (Just ignore the gallows set up outside the White House and the braying mobs calling for the death of the Vice President, who, by the way, is himself a Christian.)
The likeliest outcome of the sectarian move, it seems to me, is two-fold: First, the church herself will be eaten away by divisions from within and many churches will lose any pretense of preaching the Gospel, replacing the preaching of Scripture with the perpetuation of a white cultural traditionalism. Second, we’ll see an acceleration of dechurching, as many “1s” and “4s” take the exit ramps out of church and toward the political religions. (Read Graham and Flowers if you aren’t familiar with this terminology.) Meanwhile, “2s” and “3s” will struggle to hold together because the 2s will be quietly sympathetic to the 1s and resentful toward the 3s and the 3s will have the same attitude toward the 4s and similar resentment toward the 2s.
This will, in turn, have the perverse affect of making those orthodox Christians that remain even weaker and more vulnerable culturally and politically and thus ever more dependent on the political system to protect their liberties, and thus ever more tempted to make the compromises that so many in our number have already made.
Alternatives to Sectarianism
So: If that is the likely outcome of embracing the sectarian response to pluralism, I think we’d be well advised to reject it. Where does that leave us? It leaves us needing a way of living with pluralism to some degree.
We shouldn’t be naive about what this may cost us. The reality is that there are significant trends on both the right and left pushing toward various species of totalitarianism. And if we get crosswise of those groups, it is going to cost us something. (Here, again, the example of the Black church in America should be instructive to us all.) We need to be ready to pay that price.
On the other hand, until the time comes that we do pay that price, we should be ever ready to work for the good of the commonwealth, for the good of the church, and for the glory of God. Those of us who do have political, economic, or cultural power should use that power to advance Christian conceptions of the good, and we needn’t be bashful about doing that.
Ban porn. Ban payday loan lenders. Bring back some blue laws so that more workers can have one guaranteed day off each week. Advocate for paid family leave and something like Romney’s proposed child tax credit to ease some of the financial burden facing families. Strengthen labor unions and pass a wage subsidy to help elevate worker wages. Go after for-profit prisons as well as the large pools of money buying up homes and wreaking havoc in predominantly black neighborhoods. Keep pressing the fight on abortion.
There’s so much good that Christian politicians guided by actually Christian policy ideas could do right now. I’d love to see Christian politicians getting serious about this stuff instead of beclowning themselves at conferences and grandstanding on Capitol Hill.
But a Christian conception of the good is not equivalent to the various sectarian responses on offer right now with some Christian groups. A Christian conception of the good, founded in love of neighbor, must recognize that our neighbors are deserving of certain rights and that violating those rights would be a failure to fulfill the great commandment. Moreover, it must recognize that as fallible, finite, sinful people we are prone to error. While that reality shouldn’t render us wholly impotent politically, as it too often has, it should build within us a strong awareness of the dangers of political overreach and abuse.
So, no, we shouldn’t be pursuing integralism or theonomy or whatever other pipedream the reactionary right has conjured up, not only because they are utterly impractical and politically impossible, but because those solutions are actually failures when judged according to Christianity.
The Case for Fighting for (a Type of) Liberalism
So, to answer the question: Yes, I think we need to fight for a rightly understood conception of liberalism, which isn’t a libertarian procedural liberalism, but still preserves things like free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and so on. I think it would be better to fight for those things and lose than to “win” with a sectarian strong man.
There are several reasons we should do this. In the first place, the sectarian move will be corrosive of the commonwealth more generally. It will have a choking effect on what little shreds of public trust remain. At some point, someone has to be willing to deescalate our current culture war or risk losing not merely the war, but the commonwealth altogether.
Second, if history teaches us anything, it is probable that any sectarian strong man we support will become corrupt and abuse his power in all sorts of often quite egregious ways. (Orban defenders are strangely silent about the signs of corruption around Orban’s regime as well as his close relationship to totalitarian and stridently anti-Christian China).
Third, no society can function long without practices of mercy that allow guilt and transgressions to be “absorbed” to some degree and endured for the good of the commonwealth more generally. In a pluralist context such as our own, the practices of liberalism are some of the most important forms of mercy we can offer to each other. So those are the reasons we should want a species of liberalism for the sake of the commonwealth.
There are also ecclesial reasons for wanting us to preserve a form of liberalism. To be sure, the church can survive and even thrive without liberalism. If the revolution comes, the church will endure. But while liberalism is not necessary for the health of the church, there are plenty of reasons to think that illiberalism would be quite disastrous for the church in our current cultural moment.
Because the American church has long been defined by severe failures of discipleship and an alarming lack of discernment, the sectarian solution will be devastating for church life. It will cause the faithful to be distracted from following Jesus and will likely cause those on the edges of the church or outside it to be inoculated to Christianity through observing the (actually unchristian) behavior of professing Christians. Put another way: Sectarianism will have the compound effect of both making our institutional churches (and Christian institutions more generally) weaker due to internal divisions and will expose us to greater political risk as we become ever more noxious to our non-Christian neighbors, including those neighbors who themselves were once church members.
We do not want to go the sectarian route. We want to go the Bavinckian route or, if you prefer, the Augustinian liberal route.
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