National Interest: The War over Liberal Democracy
This article was originally posted at The National Interest.
Fatalism about liberal democracy is nothing new and has always found a disaffected audience. Left-wing politicians, writers, academics, activists: for decades they have denounced the Western liberal project as the primal cause of racism, inequality and exploitation. This time, though, the most strident prophets of gloom are residents of the cultural and religious right. Liberalism has collapsed, they tell us, because it was steeped in sin from its birth: it has failed “because it was true to itself.”
The conservative critics of liberalism offer an important and often penetrating analysis of our social ills. The epidemic of loneliness, the rampant materialism, the dissolution of ties to family and community—these are fearsome problems. Yet the true object of their complaint lies in the very origins of the liberal order: its foundational beliefs and ideals. The right-wing condemnation of liberal democracy—supported by intellectual sins of omission and outright distortions of fact—is as mistaken as that of the radical left.
Behind their protest, one detects a wistful nostalgia for the pre-modern world, an attachment to the medieval concepts of virtue, community and authority. In this, they fail to reckon seriously, if at all, with the sins of Christendom: the denigration of individual conscience, the criminalization of dissent, the corrosive entanglement of church and state, the hedonism of clerical leadership and the deeply rooted anti-Semitism. The Catholic medieval project, for all its achievements, ultimately failed to uphold one of the most transformative ideas of the Jewish and Christian traditions: the freedom and dignity of every human soul.
The conservative critics of liberalism thus ignore its actual historical beginnings. The attempt to construct a Christian society through coercion led to the betrayal of the most basic biblical and humanistic ideals. The quest for a unified community, once idolized, unleashed a long campaign of repression and terror. This, at root, is what produced the existential crisis of Christendom.
Yet this catastrophic failure—judged as a deep contradiction of the life and teachings of Jesus—generated a robustly Christian response. In this sense, the liberal project began as a protest: whispered in the Christian humanism of Erasmus, quickened by Luther’s Reformation, advanced by John Locke’s biblical vision of natural rights and culminating in James Madison’s religiously rooted republicanism. The abandonment of liberalism—as suggested by its critics—will lead where it always has led: to widespread ignorance, servitude, tyranny and totalitarianism. Understanding and defending liberalism’s historical achievement is the first step toward any serious effort at cultural renewal.
The Christianization of the Roman Empire brought with it profound reforms in European law, politics and society. The Catholic Church ended Rome’s gladiatorial games, established institutions to care for the poor and abolished human slavery. The universities founded by the church in Paris, Bologna, Oxford and Toulouse were an innovation: institutions devoted primarily to higher learning. At its best, the monastic tradition helped to dignify the concept of work, challenged the materialism of medieval society, extolled the disciplines of prayer and the study of the Scriptures, and strengthened the relationship between Christian belief and Christian virtue.
Nevertheless, the medieval church eventually replicated—and institutionalized—the repressive habits of pagan Rome. By the eleventh century, the Roman pontiff embodied the desire of the church to impose its inflexible will on the entire Western Christian world.
In 1075, in an effort to end the emperor’s intrusion into church affairs, Pope Gregory VII issued “Dictates of the Pope,” an utterly revolutionary document in church-state relations. Among other propositions, it asserted the infallibility of the church and authority of the pope over every living creature—including every political authority. “He himself may be judged by no one,” the pope declared, adding that “all princes shall kiss his feet.” He even granted himself the power to depose emperors. In 1302, Pope Boniface VIII reaffirmed these claims in his Unam Sanctam (“One Holy”): “We declare, state, and define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”
Conservative critics of modernity properly fault those enlightenment thinkers who promoted “radical individualism” under the banner of liberty. One of the consequences, they explain, is a relentless quest for political power that renders democratic self-government impotent. The rise of the omni-competent state is indeed a formidable problem.
Yet it is not an entirely novel problem. In asserting claims of supremacy for the Roman pontiff, Gregory began by “looking within his own breast” for authority: an expression of individual autonomy that would make enlightenment philosophes blush. By attempting to consolidate in a single individual unprecedented—and unchallengeable—religious and political power, the church endorsed a theory of governance that would rival the political absolutism of Thomas Hobbes. By overreaching, the medieval church discredited itself before the emerging power centers of Europe.
There were other self-inflicted wounds. The Renaissance popes—who evidently inspired Mario Puzzo’s The Godfather —were notorious for their venality and greed in their own day. Clerical bribery, nepotism, sexual immorality, ruthless violence: these were open secrets among a disillusioned laity. Meanwhile, the sale of religious relics and indulgences invited the rank commercialization of the gospel. Patrick Deneen, a Catholic political scientist at Notre Dame, excoriates liberalism for promoting “hedonistic titillation” and a society obsessed with “consumption, appetite and detachment.” The critique neatly describes the ecclesiastical culture of late medieval Europe.
s between church and state, however, were not the only cause of the deepening crisis of Christendom. The gravest issue was its domestic policy: confronting the religiously unorthodox. Unlike ancient Rome, the Holy Roman Empire would not tolerate religious pluralism within its borders. No Christian thinker did more to legitimize the use of force against religious dissenters than Augustine of Hippo.
The patristic works of Origin, Jerome, Ambrose and others had cited the Bible to anathematize heterodox belief. But it was Augustine (354–430) who interpreted Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast in Luke’s gospel—“compel them to come in, that my house may be full”—as a rationale for the use of force against heretics. For Augustine, coercion of this kind was “a just persecution” aimed at rescuing souls from damnation and preventing the heretical disease from spreading. “The church persecutes out of love,” he wrote, “the ungodly out of cruelty.”
Thus, the greatest authority in Western Christianity—whose writings were disseminated widely in medieval Europe—put his stamp on state-sanctioned violence against the unorthodox. So entrenched was the Augustinian doctrine that the seventeenth-century philosopher, Pierre Bayle, a convert to Protestantism, was moved to compose a 600-page (in modern type) rebuttal. “I don’t think it possible to imagine anything more impious, or more injurious to Jesus Christ, or more fatal in its Consequences,” he argued in A Philosophical Commentary , “than his having given Christians a general Precept to make Conversions by Constraint.”
Nevertheless, a theology of coercion would instruct European society for well over a thousand years. It helped to underwrite the Inquisition: church tribunals created to root out heresy—a capital offense—and reconcile heretics to the church. First authorized by a church council in 1229 in France, clerical leaders vowed to “diligently, faithfully, and frequently seek out heretics” in their parishes. Church courts to judge the accused soon were established throughout Europe.
We need not overstate the brutalities of the Inquisition. Those judged guilty of heresy who renounced their views could find mercy and be restored to the church. Large public executions—like the two hundred Cathars burned at the stake at Verona in 1278—were rare. The machinery of the Inquisition was never as efficient as its proponents claimed. Nevertheless, over the span of six centuries, tens of thousands of people met violent deaths, their property seized and their families left destitute, for one reason: they dared to think differently about God than the established order.
In his much-discussed book, Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen fails to mention this feature of Christendom. Instead, he argues that the medieval cultivation of virtue was “a central defense against tyranny” and one of the distinguishing marks of European Christianity. “Protection of rights of individuals and the belief inviolable human dignity, if not always consistently recognized and practiced, were nonetheless philosophical achievements of premodern medieval Europe,” he writes. Rod Dreher, an editor at The American Conservative , brushes aside church abuses by extolling the “enchanted world” of medieval Europe, with its consciousness of spiritual realities. Medieval men and women “carried within their imagination a powerful vision of integration,” he writes in The Benedict Option . “In the medieval consensus, men construed reality in a way that empowered them to harmonize everything conceptually and find meaning amid the chaos.”
These are essentially pious fictions. The tragedy of Christendom—the everyday reality for ordinary men and women—was the establishment of a moral bond between Christianity and a culture of coercion, betrayal and terror. The church of the martyrs had transformed itself into the church of the inquisitors.
The use of torture, previously reserved for crimes against the state, became an integral part of church discipline. Unless the accused named others guilty of heresy—neighbors or family members—their confessions often were rejected. Gian Pietro Carafa, named pope in 1555, expressed a mental outlook closer to that of a Soviet KGB agent than a follower of Christ: “Even if my own father were a heretic,” he declared, “I would gather the wood to burn him.” Spiritual unity came at a great human cost.
This aggressive stance was in fact fueled by anxiety, a deep insecurity about the integrity of the entire medieval project. One expression of the insecurity was the impulse to censor: the creation of the Index of Prohibited Books. Another was the impulse to dogmatize: the construction of rigid boundaries defining acceptable belief. A third tendency was to exclude: the marginalization of dissenters from civic and political life. The latter impulse helps to explain European anti-Semitism, what historian Paul Johnson has called “a disease of the mind.”
The disease spread like a plague throughout the latter Middle Ages, when power struggles with the state, clashes with Islam and the growth of new heresies combined to put the church on the defensive. Patristic and medieval sources offered a basis for the toleration of Jews in Christian society. Like Muslims, Jews were to be tolerated in the hope that they could be persuaded to convert to Christianity. Throughout the Middle Ages, the papacy opposed their forced conversion, and they enjoyed a qualified autonomy in their practice of Judaism.
Yet, beginning in the thirteenth century, writes historian Mark Cohen, papal protection for the Jews was replaced by “hostility and a strong desire to exclude the infidel Jews from the company of Christians.” Other medieval texts justifying the use of force against Jews—accused of the “ritual murder” of Christian children—came into play. Dress codes entered authoritative canon law under Pope Gregory IX. Jews increasingly fell under a shadow of suspicion and endured outbursts of intense violence. During the Black Death in the 1340s, for example, Jews were massacred across Germany, Flanders and elsewhere. Copies of the Talmud were burned, and many Jews were forcibly converted to Christianity. The polices of subjugation, restriction, and exclusion finally led to expulsion: beginning in England (1290), followed by France (1306), Portugal (1496), Provence (1498), Saxony (1536), Bohemia (1541) and the Papal States (1569). In 1492, under the sway of the Spanish Inquisition, Spain ordered the expulsion of its entire Jewish population, roughly 200,000 people. Tens of thousands of refugees perished trying to find safe haven.
The apologists for Christendom either ignore these excesses wholesale or argue that they were negligible compared to the atrocities of the twentieth century—and quite modest compared to the legal practices of medieval Europe. As one canon lawyer put it recently for the National Review : “torture was ubiquitous in courts of the time, and the Inquisition’s use of it, while objectively horrific, was downright progressive when seen in context.” All of this evades the crux of the crisis: the transformation of the gospel, with its message of divine love and spiritual freedom, into an ideology based on exclusion and subjugation.
A small but growing number of thinkers discerned a spiritual malaise overshadowing the church. The Roman See managed to silence the voices of Jan Huss and John Wycliffe, but it had a much more difficult task in the person of Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536), a classical scholar and a Catholic theologian who defined for generations the reform movement known as Christian humanism. Erasmus used the tools of classical learning to draw believers into a deeper knowledge of Scripture, especially the message of the gospels, which he believed had been effectively abandoned in much of European society.
Nowhere was this deficit of piety more glaring than in politics. In The Education of a Christian Prince , Erasmus argued that a prince is set above his subjects politically, but not morally. The prince, in fact, is “a man ruling men, a free man ruling free men and not wild beasts.” It is “a mockery,” Erasmus wrote, when rulers “regard as slaves those whom Christ redeemed with the same blood as redeemed you, whom he set free into the same freedom as you…” Elsewhere he asked: “What makes a prince a great man, except the consent of his subjects?” In all this, Erasmus anticipates the Lockean model of consensual government.
Likewise, the church and its ecclesiastical leadership came under a withering assessment. In works such as In Praise of Folly , Erasmus lambasted the moral turpitude of clerical leadership: the warrior popes, heresy trials, priestly concubines and lust for wealth and worldly power. “If Satan needed a vicar he could find none fitter than you,” Peter tells Pope Julius at the gates of heaven. “I brought heathen Rome to acknowledge Christ; you have made it heathen again.” Although Erasmus never developed a theory of religious freedom, he condemned the persecuting temper of Rome. “Compulsion is incompatible with sincerity,” he wrote, “and nothing is pleasing to Christ unless it is voluntary.”
Erasmus called his reformist vision “the philosophy of Christ,” meaning a thoroughgoing return to the life and teachings of Jesus. The gateway to personal and social renewal, he argued, was the Bible, which must become as familiar to laymen as it was to priests and bishops. In 1516, Erasmus produced a revolutionary translation of the New Testament, based on a study of original Greek manuscripts. His text cast doubt on the accuracy of the Latin (Vulgate) translation, first made by Jerome in 382 and endorsed as authoritative by the church.
The work set off a storm of controversy. One critic warned that if the Vulgate was in error, “the authority of theologians would be shaken, and indeed the Catholic Church would collapse from the foundations.” According to biographer Johan Huizinga, Erasmus appeared to many admirers as “the bearer of a new liberty of the mind.”
Disaffected by the materialism of the church, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther (1483–1546) became emboldened by the example of Erasmus, whom he regarded as “our ornament and our hope.” Erasmus’ Greek New Testament arrived in Wittenberg just as Luther was lecturing on the book of Romans. It became the working text for his own translation of the Bible into German, the publishing event that shattered the hegemony of the Catholic Church.
More than 150 years before John Locke attacked the Hobbesian concept of an all-powerful Leviathan, Luther led an assault on the “tyranny of Rome” and its “perverse leviathan” of religious mandates that reduced the faithful to slavery. Luther’s watchword was freedom, proclaimed in his incendiary tract, “The Freedom of a Christian.” “One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom,” he wrote. “That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ.”
By forcibly controlling the interpretation of Scripture, Luther claimed, the Roman Curia was proving itself “more corrupt than any Babylon or Sodom ever was.” By elevating its priestly class and demanding obedience to its teaching on works, penance and pilgrimage, the church had degenerated into “so terrible a tyranny that no heathen empire or earthly power can be compared with it.”
Luther’s doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers”—a message of spiritual freedom and equality—was violently at odds with the entire superstructure of Christendom. Under the medieval system, only the monastic orders, with their vows of celibacy and poverty, could produce the “spiritual athletes” of the church. While modern admirers like Rod Dreher hope to recapture the monastic spirit, Luther experienced the monasteries as hotbeds of avarice and pride. He abolished them. “Here Christian brotherhood has expired and shepherds have become wolves,” he complained. “All of us who have been baptized are priests without distinction.”
The papal bull of 1520 excommunicating Martin Luther from the Catholic Church accused him of promoting forty-one heresies and “pestiferous errors.” One of the alleged errors was his view that “the burning of heretics is against the will of the Holy Spirit.” Luther’s challenge to the church involved not only a disagreement about the gospel and the authority of the Bible; it set off an enduring debate in the West about the rights of individual conscience in matters of faith.
Finding inspiration in the example of the first-century Christians, Luther elevated the individual believer, armed with the Bible, above any earthly authority. This was the heart of his defiance at the Diet of Worms: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand.” Neither prince nor pope could invade the sanctuary of his conscience. This, he proclaimed, was the “inestimable power and liberty” belonging to every Christian.
Over the next two centuries, every important advocate of political equality, pluralism and religious freedom in the West would enlist Luther’s insights. Yet no one did so to greater effect than English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704). Combining Luther’s defense of individual conscience with the Erasmian “philosophy of Christ,” Locke imagined an entirely new political community: a society that guaranteed equal justice to all of its citizens, regardless of religious belief.
Locke’s career is central to the story of how the West defeated two of the most intractable problems of medieval European society: political absolutism and militant religion. In seventeenth-century Europe, the problems were inextricably linked; both drew nourishment from eccentric interpretations of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. No progress toward a more liberal and tolerant society was possible, Locke reasoned, without a revolution in the theological outlook of political and religious authorities.
This is the fundamental objective of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government . Thomas Hobbes made a secular argument for political absolutism in The Leviathan , but by the 1680s, when Locke composed his Two Treatises , absolutism was wrapped in biblical citations supporting patriarchy. Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha, despite its vastly different theological outlook, shared with Leviathan one fundamental idea: the perpetual and complete submission of every subject to an arbitrary sovereign.
For Locke, this was a one-way ticket to tyranny. If political authority is absolute and unquestionable, then the human race is a slave race. Authors such as Deneen, Dreher, Christopher Ferrara, Yoram Hazony and other conservative critics of liberalism make no meaningful distinction between Locke and Hobbes. They do not appear to have taken their historical task seriously: “Slavery is so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation,” Locke began his work, “that ‘tis hardly to be conceived, that an Englishman, much less a Gentleman, should plead for it.” Hobbesian-style servitude was exactly what Locke risked his life combatting. Indeed, his First Treatise —often ignored by political theorists—offers an exacting examination of the Hebrew Bible to reveal no rationale whatsoever for absolute rule.
What, then, is the basis for any political authority? This is Locke’s great objective in his Second Treatise , in which he enlists the language and moral authority of man’s natural rights. As he asserts the freedom and equality of every human being, Locke’s biblical anthropology is on display:
The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possession; for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; all servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by His order and about His business; they are His property, whose workmanship they are made to last during His, not another’s pleasure.
A legitimate political society, Locke reasons, must respect God’s relationship with his people. In his wisdom and with his divine power, God calls each person to work out his will in the world. Created, called and sent by him: they belong to him and to no one else. Unlike Hobbes, Locke postulates a “state of nature” containing a fundamental moral law—that human life must be protected so that it can fulfill its divine calling and serve its true sovereign. Political absolutism, by definition, robs God of his divine prerogative. The only government capable of upholding God’s moral law, Locke concludes, must be based on the consent of the governed.
Herein lies the great contribution of Locke’s Two Treatises : like no other author, he offered a rational, moral and theological basis for consensual government. As historian Peter Laslett summarizes it, Locke established a set of principles for political equality “more effective and persuasive than any before written in the English language.”
Yet this is only part of Locke’s achievement. In A Letter Concerning Toleration , Locke combines the political doctrine of consent with a radical reinterpretation of the life and teachings of Jesus. No tolerant, pluralistic society is possible, he argued, unless it is sustained by a broader culture nurtured by a gospel of divine mercy.
Locke’s Letter completely rejects the prevailing view of religious identity as being rooted in family, geography or political regimes. He argues that faith cannot be inherited; it must be appropriated through individual judgment and consent. The same holds true for membership in a community of believers: the church must be understood as a “free and voluntary society.” Voluntarism in matters of faith, he wrote, is confirmed by “the perfect example of the Prince of Peace,” who never compelled anyone to follow him or embrace his teachings.
Locke’s conservative detractors detect in all this an atomistic individualism. Writes R.R. Reno, editor of the Catholic journal First Things : “Locke’s ideal society is…a free association of individuals, unbound by duties that transcend their choices.” In Liberty: The God that Failed , Christopher Ferrara, president of the American Catholic Lawyers Association, claims that Locke’s vision of liberty is limitless: “For Locke, as for Hobbes, freedom means the absence of restraint on human action.” Among these critics, Locke emerges as an almost demonic opponent of Christianity and God’s moral law. “Locke writes that the law works to increase liberty,” according to Deneen, “by which he means our liberation from the constraints of the natural world.”
A more misleading and fraudulent portrayal of Locke’s philosophy would be hard to imagine. Indeed, Locke seems closer than his critics to traditional Christian doctrine when he explains the nature and importance of authentic faith: “The care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force; but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God.” Coercion produces hypocrites, not converts.
Any serious reading of Locke’s work reveals a mind animated by belief in a universal moral law, in the immortality of the soul, and in the hope of eternal life. “The law of Nature stands as an eternal rule to all men,” he wrote, “legislators as well as others.” Declarations that “every man has an immortal soul, capable of eternal happiness or misery” appear repeatedly in his many writings on religious toleration. Precisely because the stakes are so high, Locke argued, the central obligation of government is to protect the freedom of every individual to discover the truth about God and his moral demands, according to his conscience. Government has no higher purpose than this. More to the point: any government that fails to uphold this natural right of religious freedom forfeits its legitimacy.
What kind of a political community, then, does Locke envision? Locke lived through the turbulence of the Restoration (1660–1689), a renewed struggle between king and parliament amid an effort to reimpose religious conformity (via the Anglican Church) throughout England. The latter project was an abject failure. Wherever it was attempted, whether in Protestant or Catholic countries, the unifying vision of Christendom produced the same results: it treated ordinary, God-fearing citizens as criminals, turned neighbor against neighbor and sent thousands to prison or execution. Religious pluralism was a sociological reality in post-Reformation Europe. Locke’s genius—counter-intuitive to establishment elites—was to imagine a political society that could draw strength from diversity.
The just state, he argued, will guarantee the equal rights of all its citizens, regardless of religious identity: “The sum of all we drive at is, that every man enjoy the same rights that are granted to others.” The civic ethos for which Locke pleads in A Letter Concerning Toleration is that people treat their fellow citizens as they themselves wish to be treated. “Nay, if we may openly speak the truth…neither Pagan, nor Mahometan, nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth, because of his religion.”
Elsewhere in the Letter, Locke makes clear that he includes law-abiding Catholics among those to be treated with equity—a radical proposition in a Protestant nation seething with anti-Catholic prejudice.
Catholic thinkers such as Adrian Vermeule, professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School, simply do not take Locke at his word. “Both politically and theoretically,” he writes in First Things , “hostility to the Church was encoded within liberalism from its birth.” The accusation is groundless. In the Lockean commonwealth, even the most despised religious minorities would be granted full rights as citizens. Impartial justice for all religious believers: is this not the political application of the golden rule, the very heart of Christian morality?
It would take another century before the Lockean vision of a just and pluralist society would find political expression: in America’s Constitutional Convention of 1787. Virtually all of America’s Founders viewed religious freedom as the bedrock of republican self-government. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, in a 1947 ruling, put it this way:
If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.
This conviction is on spectacular display not only in the religion clauses of the First Amendment, but in James Madison’s precursor to the convention debates over religion, his Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments . Written as a response to plans for a general assessment tax to support churches in Virginia, its defense of liberty of conscience nevertheless transcended local politics. Indeed, in no other Founding document are the woeful lessons of Christendom, as well as the insights of Erasmus, Luther and Locke, put to such powerful effect.
To many of Madison’s European counterparts, the religious wars of the post-Reformation period seemed to validate the claims of the soft theocrats: diversity of religious belief invited sectarian violence and social disorder. Yet Madison looked at the historical record—and at the American experiment thus far—and came to the opposite conclusion. “During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial,” he wrote. “What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.” He rejected any form of religious establishment because:
[I]t will destroy that moderation and harmony which the forbearance of our laws to intermeddle with Religion has produced among its several sects. Torrents of blood have been spilt in the old world in consequence of vain attempts of the secular arm to extinguish Religious discord by proscribing all difference in Religious opinion. Time has at length revealed the true remedy. Every relaxation of narrow and rigorous policy, wherever it has been tried, has been found to assuage the disease.
Here was Madison’s “true remedy” for sectarian strife: freedom of conscience in matters of faith. Civic peace and political prosperity could be achieved, he argued—but only if the political authority ensured “equal and complete liberty” for all religious groups.
Following Luther and Locke, Madison describes conscience as the sacred realm of belief involving “the duty which we owe our Creator… It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him.” Our religious commitments, he explained, must be carried out through reason and conviction, not force or violence. “The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.”
The conservative critics of liberalism insist that its emphasis on freedom was intended to release individuals from their moral obligations to God and community. The Framers’ commitment to religious liberty, writes Ferrara in Liberty: The God that Failed , was “a massive bait-and-switch operation,” one that “requires not just the subordination of Christianity by the State but also the triumph of Liberty over Christianity as a competing creed.” The original and fundamental aim of liberalism, according to Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed , was “achieving supreme and complete freedom” by disabusing individuals of any concern for the common good. The Founders’ hidden agenda, he writes, was to “inculcate civic indifference and privatism among the citizenry.” This would allow the State to consolidate its power and marginalize religion from public life.
These conspiratorial tropes, oddly reminiscent of Marxist narratives, have no basis in the historical record. Locke was not content with “narrow measures of bare justice” in the pluralistic society he advanced. “Charity, bounty, and liberality must be added to it,” he wrote in A Letter Concerning Toleration . “This the Gospel enjoins, this reason directs, and this that natural fellowship we are born into requires of us.” Madison explicitly insists upon freedom of conscience not merely as a right, but as a religious obligation: “what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator… This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.” This is why the Founders, avid readers of Locke, considered religious freedom a natural right: a pre-political right, superior to the ordinary claims of government or civil society. “[F]reedom of conscience and freedom of choice are not the same; where conscience dictates, choice decides,” writes political scientist Michael Sandel. “Where freedom of conscience is at stake, the relevant right is to exercise a duty, not make a choice. This was the issue for Madison…”
This view of religious conscience was reflected not only in all of the original state constitutions, but also in the pulpit oratory of the period. “The members of a civil state do retain their natural liberty or right of judging for themselves in matters of religion,” proclaimed Yale minister Elisha Williams. “Every man has an equal right to follow the dictates of his own conscience in the affairs of religion.” The unconcealed objective of the Founders—consistent with the cultural assumptions of most Americans—was not to render religion impotent, but to protect its independence from government meddling. Their common aim was to increase religion’s moral influence in civic and political life.
Madison’s Memorial helped to defeat the religious assessment bill, clearing the way for Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, a defense of the rights of conscience that shaped the religion clauses of the First Amendment. Herein lies the singular insight of their civic vision: liberty of conscience as the first freedom in the constitutional order, an inalienable right intended to anchor the other civil liberties in the Bill of Rights. To achieve this, there could be no national religion, no attempt to create a unified religious community—in short, no revival of Christendom.
This, in the end, appears to be the principal cause of the conservative antagonism toward liberal democracy. “The American model is, in sum, terminally flawed,” writes Christopher Ferrara, “by failing to allow the Church to guide the temporal powers according to the majestic demands of the divine and natural laws.” Patrick Deneen complains that modern liberalism “generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom.” He seems strangely unaware that this was precisely the situation in medieval Europe on the eve of the Reformation. This was the condition of European society that reformers such as Erasmus, Luther and Locke sought to change. As they experienced it firsthand, the bond between faith and virtue had been shattered.
Yet the defenders of the medieval order disavow these unpleasant realities. Laments Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option : “The West has lost the golden thread that binds us to God, Creation, and each other.” The golden thread, if it ever existed, was lost long before the arrival of liberal democracy. The point must not be missed: outrage over what Christendom had become—over its betrayal of Christian ideals—sent successive generations on a quest for a more just society.
The Founders took note. In a letter to F.L. Schaeffer, dated 1821, Madison explained that the American model of religious liberty
illustrates the excellence of a system which, by a due distinction, to which the genius and courage of Luther led the way, between what is due to Caesar and what is due God, best promotes the discharge of both obligations.
Hence the profound significance of the American experiment: by establishing the principles of freedom and justice for people of all faiths—in law and in culture—the United States has avoided the sectarian hatreds that drenched the European continent in blood.
These lessons were lost on the French revolutionaries, by contrast, who looked to the secular theorists of the radical enlightenment for guidance. “Christianity preaches only servitude and dependence,” wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Social Contract . “Its spirit is so favorable to tyranny that it always profits by such a régime.” The Founders unanimously rejected that view. In their republic, faith and freedom were made allies from the start, and the result has been the most stable and religiously diverse society in the history of Western Civilization. Despite its many shortcomings, the United States has established an ethos of inclusion, equality and social justice that is the envy of the world.
The architects of this new liberal order knew what they were doing; they knew their history and understood their debt to an earlier generation of reformers. In this, they looked to Locke, not to Voltaire.
Ironically, in their religious critique of secular materialism, Deneen and company have imbibed a thoroughly secular narrative of the American Founding. They fail to grasp the fundamental divide between the French and American Revolutions—between the radical enlightenment of the former and the moderate enlightenment of the latter, tempered as it was by evangelical Christianity and Lockean liberalism. Locke’s vision of freedom drew its energy from the Bible’s emphasis on authentic faith, a legacy of the Christian humanism of Erasmus. For these reformers, the scandal of Christendom was its obsession with rituals and orthodoxy over genuine belief, expressing itself in charity and love. “Jesus Christ, bringing by revelation from heaven the true religion to mankind,” Locke wrote, “reunited these two again, religion and morality, as the inseparable parts of the worship of God, which ought never to have been separated.”
It is here where liberalism’s critics descend into a swamp of intellectual confusion. “There is nothing in the liberal system that requires you, or even encourages you, to also adopt a commitment to God, the Bible, family, or nation,” writes Yoram Hazony in First Things . “A main goal of Locke’s philosophy,” Deneen writes, “is to expand the prospects of our liberty—defined as the capacity to satisfy our appetites—through the auspices of state.” Nonsense. As we have seen, none of these thinkers who broke from the medieval worldview imagined freedom as an end in itself. From both their published writings and private correspondence, this theme emerges like the morning star: the supreme objective in securing political and religious liberty was not the acquisition of property or the pursuit of pleasure. It was to make possible the pursuit of truth and the cultivation of virtue, framed by the moral precepts of the Bible.
Nevertheless, the rich and complex relationship between Christianity, freedom and virtue in the liberal project—culminating in the American Founding—is largely ignored by the critics. They are correct, of course, in decrying the recent distortions of the concept of liberty that have unleashed a raft of social and cultural ills. Their critique of the unrestrained self that seeks political power to pursue selfish ends is sobering.
Yet their theorizing seems grossly disconnected from the concrete advances in the defense of human freedom and dignity made possible by political liberalism—what one reviewer for The Weekly Standard calls “a crime against memory.” There is, indeed, an absence of gratitude: a flippant indifference to the courageous and hard-fought battles of earlier generations to advance the cause of freedom. Lacking a deep sense of the historical challenges to sustaining a just society, the naysayers are prepared to curse the entire liberal democratic endeavor.
In this, they seem to have joined the ranks of the aggrieved utopians who typically populate the cultural left. “If the American right wants to copy all the flaws of the New Left, I guess the republic will survive,” writes Alan Wolfe, a political scientist at Boston College, for Commonweal Magazine . “But it sure would be nice to have a conservatism that takes reality seriously.” The conservative fatalism of Deneen, Dreher and company provides yet another example of why sustained attention to our civilization’s achievements, as well as its shortcomings, is the first requirement of responsible citizenship.
America’s Jewish community bears witness to that history. Nowhere outside of Israel have the Jewish people found a more welcoming political community. The reason, according to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, can be found in the “self-evident” truths of the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Sacks explains that these truths “are anything but self-evident. They would have been unintelligible to Plato, to Aristotle, or to every hierarchical society the world has ever known. They are self-evident only to people, to Jews and Christians, who have internalized the Hebrew Bible.”
The modern crisis of liberalism is real enough, but its critics seem too embittered to offer a realistic path forward. Their disillusionment is not unlike that of a century ago, in the aftermath of the First World War. Book titles published in the 1920s and 1930s tell the tale: The End of the World ; The Decay of Capitalist Civilization ; The Twilight of the White Races ; The Ordeal of This Generation ; Modern Civilization on Trial ; The Problem of Decadence ; and Spengler’s The Decline of the West , to name just a few. For many authors and intellectuals, the problem was liberal democracy itself. Socialists, communists and fascists seized upon this disillusionment, and we know the rest of the story: the only forces that stood between civilization and barbarism were the defenders of the liberal democratic order.
This salient historical fact helps to define our own situation: an age of failed states, radical Islamic jihad and authoritarian aggression. The fiercest critics of the liberal project—from either the political left or right—typically have little personal experience with societies that lack democratic norms. They seem unable to imagine what the international order would look like absent the powerful influence of the Western conception of natural rights and human equality. They enjoy the prosperity and stability of the West, even as they excoriate the ideals that produced it. James Madison, in “Advice to My Country,” published posthumously in 1834, warned against a posture of self-flagellation:
The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated. Let the open enemy of it be regarded as a Pandora with her box opened; and the disguised one, as the Serpent creeping with his deadly wiles into Paradise.
America’s transparent enemies—the purveyors of relativism, materialism, tribalism and statism—present dangers enough to the republic. No other serpents are required. Conservatives who traffic in cynicism about the entire liberal project may fancy themselves doing the Lord’s work. But their condemnation of the democratic ideals of freedom and equality as inherently perverse seems quite at home in the devil’s playground. Unchecked, they would rob us of the sources of our democratic strength. They must be resisted.
Joseph Loconte is an associate professor of history at The King’s College in New York City and the author of the New York Times bestseller A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War. He is at work on a documentary film series based on the book, and the film trailer can be found at hobbitwardrobe.com