The Invention of Liberalism
by Jack Pappas
Liberalism has recently become a shibboleth for everything that is wrong with our present age, with critics in the in the academy and the media as well as the political establishment.
For the global Left, the term “liberalism” has become a kind of shorthand used to identify everything from the evils of the contemporary incarceration and national security state, to the neoliberal corrosion of the democratic public sphere, and to the exploitive (and ecologically catastrophic) reign of predatory capitalism. For the global Right, “liberalism” has come to signify the root cause of everything from declining religiosity to the destabilization of a common social fabric rooted in “traditional” family life and “Western” cultural homogeneity.
That liberalism would undergo such an apparently sudden shift in its cultural and political cachet, from a position of unquestioned dominance to a widespread object of scorn is, however, not unsurprising nor altogether unwarranted. Yet, the content of these various critiques couldn’t be more dissimilar, and it precisely this dissimilarity which reveals a need for greater clarification and rigor about the usage of “liberalism” as a catch-all object of critique, and in turn raises questions about how Christians ought to think about liberalism and its critics.
What after all is liberalism?
To provide something of a simplified definition, interpreted through the prism of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the political project of liberalism affirms the freedom and dignity of the human person, entitled to political freedom, and to social and economic security, equal in representation before the law without distinction of race, gender, or religion. Consequently, liberalism is inseparable from a commitment to pluralism and to social and economic democracy.
Thus, when the political Left identifies liberalism with the neoliberal regime of predatory capitalism (or even with capitalism itself), or with the coercive and anti-democratic logics of mass incarceration and neo-colonial interventionist foreign policies, it does so as a kind of misdirection. To be sure, liberalism is not immune from internal tensions or contradictions (such as between individual freedom, and collective equity, or between universal rights and the self-determination of nations), contradictions which have themselves yielded the very dangers which the Left would critique. However, the task of critiquing and resolving these contradictions is fundamentally an intramural one, an expansion and realization of liberalism’s central democratic and pluralistic principles (a fact recognized by generations of civil and socialist activists) within political and economic life.
In contrast, the emerging critique of the energized illiberal Right is inherently opposed to these very principles and would affirm them only within the bounds of a culturally (or confessionally) homogeneous state. In fact, despite the undeniable range of ideological expressions on display within current circles of political reaction, from the Trump movement and Brexit, to the Alt-Right and the Catholic neo-integralists, all parties seem to be united by a shared belief that political (and even intellectual) freedom leads to an inevitably self-destructive pluralism, marked by religious fragmentation, cultural instability, and sexual libertinism (the Right’s most recent bête noire). In this moment of political upheaval, a number of Christians have advocated either for a kind of apolitical quietism, a concerted movement of retreat from the pluralist public into a privatized space of homogeneity (see, Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option). An apparent growing number of Christians have opted to embrace a singularly critical view of liberalism, rejecting “economic liberalism” (capitalism) and “social liberalism” (democratic pluralism) in the name of a nationalist socio-economic program with a state-imposed religious confessionalism (i.e. “integralism”), reminiscent of Franco’s Spain or Salazar’s Portugal. This inevitably raises the question of whether or not these reactionary attitudes constitute the only properly Christian stance toward liberalism.
Is Christianity really, after all, irreconcilable with pluralism and the principles of liberal democracy? Is a properly Christian society really synonymous with a confessional state ruled by generals or hereditary monarchs? Any response to these questions that is not wholly and resolutely negative fails to recognize the fundamental dependency of liberal ideals upon Christian conceptions of human dignity and liberty of conscience.
Indeed, to insist that the Church is primarily tasked with the coercive subordination of individual consciences through a weaponization of political power is to exchange the Kingdom of God, announced by the Gospel, with an earthly counterfeit. This political vision of a homogenous confessional state is one which would surrender the ascetical hardship of loving the stranger within our midst, proclaiming instead the necessity of “rendering unto Caesar” not what is Caesar’s, as Christ commands (Matthew 22:21), but by rendering what is God’s wholly unto Caesar. It is perhaps not unsurprising that these contemporary Christian critics of liberalism, for all their fetishization of Romanovs and Habsburgs, ultimately have such little patience with the God who reveals himself among the marginalized, and who has “chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the things which are mighty,” (Corinthians 1:27) and repudiates worldly power through self-sacrifice upon the cross.
This is not to suggest that Christianity is simply synonymous with liberalism, or that Christians ought to withdraw from contemporary political battles. Rather, it suggests that a politically engaged Christianity requires that we love beyond the boundaries of the familiar and participate in a pluralistic public.
Moreover, this does not mean that Christians cannot make demands upon social organization. Rather, it is to reject the notion that the nature of such is one properly oriented toward the defense of a homogeneity against the cacophonous plurality of human individuality.
On the contrary, the very content of the Christian demand upon society is an absolute one, but its task fundamentally lies in the elevation of those impoverished masses who languish in material suffering under the heel of earthly power. The political commitment of the Christian is not to realize some earthly Kingdom of theocratic rule, but above all to” preach glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken in heart, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind” (Isaiah 61:1).
Jack Pappas is a doctoral student in the Theology Department at Fordham University.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.