In America, “liberal” as a political label has been in trouble for some time now. Even those who once would have embraced the word now want to be called “progressive.” As a broad theoretical or philosophical term for an ideology of individual freedom that encompasses most American conservatives as well as progressives, “liberalism” has taken on water of late as well. Many critiques of liberalism stop short of a wholesale rejection, arguing instead that the program has gone wrong somehow—hijacked by technocrats, investment bankers, or Hollywood libertines—and needs only be restored to some older, better form.

A growing movement among orthodox Christians, however, rejects liberalism altogether. Christian critiques of liberalism are as old as the ideology itself, but a late-twentieth-century line of argument put forward by such writers as Alasdair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, and John Milbank is enjoying increasing currency. The general story is that liberalism may have seemed good for Christians and the church, particularly in its mandate for religious freedom, but it was always misbegotten, carrying a genetic defect that would only become obvious in the fullness of time. Patrick Deneen’s bracing new book, Why Liberalism Failed, is the most impressive statement of this argument. Our stalemated tug-of-war politics, our increasingly skewed distribution of wealth, our debauched culture, our addictions, our loneliness—liberalism, for Deneen, causes all of these and more. To him these maladies are not failures; they are signs that liberalism’s mission of transforming people into expressive individualists is accomplished.

Much of Deneen’s analysis of American society, particularly the debilitating state-versus-market-versus-state cycle of remedies to social problems, is penetrating. His account of today’s liberalism as an algorithm for individual self-creation and collective pathology is compelling; his refusal to absolve either the Left or the Right, refreshing. But Deneen is, in the end, wrong to call for the retirement of liberalism. First, an attack on liberalism is an attack on the constitutional democracy that is based on it, and that political regime remains the best under late-modern conditions—for Christians and most everyone else. Second, Deneen identifies all of liberalism with the post-Enlightenment version regnant since the late twentieth century. Older versions of the ideology valued individual freedom but did not shape citizens into narcissists. Third, although even the Enlightenment was a poor grounding for a Christian politics—after all, the Enlightenment dispensed with any need for God—Christian doctrine and practice actually provide a solid grounding for a type of liberalism. St. Augustine was no liberal, but he offers a basis for limited government; later Christian thinkers, a basis for the rights of individual conscience. Orthodox Christianity does not demand liberalism, but it can provide an alternative grounding for a form of liberalism that respects religious beliefs and institutions more than the early twenty-first-century version does.

Constitutional Democracy

While liberalism is more than a political, social, and economic ideology, Deneen ascribes vast powers to it without saying much about its chief task, which is to ground a particular political regime. Like other ideologies, it is the foundation for an interlocking set of political institutions—call it constitutional democracy—that most of us like very much. Liberalism upholds the individual’s right to consent to the laws and governors under which he lives. Thus, it implies a political regime that safeguards the rights of consent of all (adult) individuals, a regime in which the majority rules (democracy) but is limited by law in what it and its representatives may do to minorities (constitutional). In like fashion, Marxism-Leninism upholds the dictatorship of the proletariat, and so implies a regime in which the communist party, vanguard of the proletariat, monopolizes power. Islamism upholds divine law, and so implies a regime in which Sharia is positive law, as interpreted by religious jurists. Constitutional democracy differs from communist and Islamist regimes because liberalism differs from Marxism-Leninism and Islamism.

Deneen does not tell us what he would replace liberalism with. He clearly likes constitutional democracy too, and does not intend to attack it. But history and current events suggest that anyone who prefers the political regime in the United States and scores of other countries—the individual rights and regular, competitive elections—should be very careful before showing its foundational ideology the door. In the 1930s, anti-liberalism was ascendant, and many leading liberals lost heart and cottoned not only toward non-liberal ideas but to actual fascist or communist regimes. No Hitler or Stalin looms today, but European self-styled anti-liberals are worrisome enough. I do not (necessarily) mean the current governments of Poland and Hungary; there are serious arguments that they are not abandoning the rule of law, as the European Union and bien-pensant European opinion would have it. I mean the rise of ethno-populist parties such as Hungary’s Jobbik, Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD), or France’s National Front (FN) (or, for that matter, left-populist parties such as Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos). These parties are attached to group identities—ethnic or class—rather than individual rights. Their policy prescriptions and idolization of Vladimir Putin suggest that, if they could, they would replace constitutional democracy with deformed, destructive regimes.

The point is not that our constitutional democracies today are fine as they are. Deneen makes clear that they are not. Yet you cannot replace something with nothing, and, at least in modern, urban, industrial societies, constitutional democracy has been the regime best able to safeguard human dignity and flourishing. No other regime has its historical record of allowing religious freedom in particular—understood both as the individual’s right to worship and serve God as he or she sees fit, and as the right of a plurality of religious institutions to nurture believers and influence broader society. Nor is constitutional democracy a special deal for Christians and other religious believers. It has proven the best regime under modern conditions for nearly everyone. Christians can support this regime in good conscience because doing so is a way to love their neighbors as themselves. Constitutional democracy and hence, broadly speaking, liberalism, is our best route for addressing the political and social maladies Deneen depicts.

Liberalism & the Enlightenment

But that will not convince some, particularly those who think that the above paragraphs get things precisely backward. Many who attack liberalism see our current political regime as weakening individual rights rather than upholding them, at least the rights of individuals who adhere to traditional beliefs and norms. There is much to the objection that liberalism actually undermines constitutional democracy, at least the free exercise of religion. Seeing what the criticism gets right and where it comes up short requires that we think, with Deneen, about liberalism.

Let us note one objection in passing. For Deneen, liberalism is a set of political ideas with a cunning sense of timing. It is robust enough not only to survive for more than two centuries, but to effect deep social and psychological changes—and to do so in such a way that they only surface after 200 years or so. The claim is empirical, and it would make sense at least to probe changes in American and other modern democratic societies for other explanations. Newer technologies, for example, have increased our collective and individual control over nature. In vastly increasing efficiency in commerce, communication, warfare, and transportation, technology has eroded local and traditional ways, partly by increasing the mobility of populations. At the very least, technology seems to interact with liberalism to produce the moral and social decline that Deneen describes.

But let’s set that objection aside and take Deneen’s view that liberalism has the power he claims. What is liberalism, for him? Why Liberalism Failed makes clear that it is an ideology upholding individual autonomy. The autonomous individual is self-sufficient and self-defining, empowered to live whatever kind of life he or she decides to live. That probably does capture what many people today mean by autonomy, and indeed the kind of person many aspire to be. But it seems as much autopoiesis (self-creation) as autonomy (self-law). It does not seem to be the notion of autonomy that grounded liberalism in the late eighteenth century. For the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, autonomy precisely meant that the individual did not make up his own moral law or create himself, but rather consented to a law already “out there.” The law was objective, not subject to change, and accessible to all rational beings. Freedom meant voluntary consent to that universal law.

The Enlightenment notion of autonomy seems far from the one that Deneen detects in today’s liberalism. This is no accident. In 1985, John Rawls, the most influential political philosopher of the past half century, argued that the principles of liberal justice he had carefully worked out years earlier were “political, not metaphysical”—that is, not timeless and objective, as Kant would have it, but simply appropriate for a “modern constitutional democracy.”[1] “Political liberalism,” Rawls writes in 1996, “is not Enlightenment liberalism.” In an influential 1992 interpretation, Richard Rorty, the pragmatist philosopher, celebrated Rawls for effectively embracing cultural relativism.[2]

Perhaps the fault lies not with liberalism per se, then, but with the late-modern, anti-foundationalist version defended by Rawls and Rorty and regnant today. Deneen himself provides evidence for this claim when he notes that Americans in the nineteenth century, as described by Alexis de Tocqueville on his travels in the 1830s, were a pious, family-oriented, hard-working lot. Tocqueville had his worries about American democracy, including its tendency toward what he called “individualism.” But seen whole, Deneen’s description and critique of liberal society would not travel well to the Jacksonian era.

Looked at historically, liberalism is not a single thing that emerged at a particular time and never changed. Elsewhere I have argued that it has passed through two historical phases and is now in a third. First-stage liberalism saw the chief threat to individual autonomy as the despotic state (allied with the church); its remedy was the liberal-constitutional state. For second-stage liberalism, which emerged in the late nineteenth century, the menace was capital; the remedy was to use the state, by then liberalized, to tame commercial interests so that they would respect the autonomy of laborers. Third-stage liberalism, inaugurated in the latter half of the twentieth century, sees traditional institutions and mores as the primary threat to individual autonomy; it uses the state and corporate sector, now both thoroughly liberal, to rout these threats.[3]

The liberalism that Deneen depicts is, roughly, third-stage liberalism. That is the liberalism that sees individuals as not only bearing rights against the state or capital, but as being fulfilled only when able to create their own identities. Again, that is not how past liberals talked about free people or the good society.

Is the remedy a simple return to first-stage, or “classical,” liberalism? Even if that were possible, it would entail losses; the civil rights movement after World War II was the advance guard of third-stage liberalism. And first-stage liberalism, conventionally understood as intimate with the Enlightenment, had its own problems from the point of view of orthodox Christianity. After all, for Kant himself, the Enlightenment was summed up by Horace’s slogan “Sapere aude!” which Kant took to mean, “Have the courage to use your own understanding!” In other words, do not rely on the authority of others, particularly the clergy with their sacred texts and glosses.[4]

A movement in philosophy, science, politics, and art, the Enlightenment—always capitalized—arose in Europe in the seventeenth century and flowered in the century following. It had both a pure and a practical face. The pure face concerned method, or how we are to gain knowledge: “Sapere aude!” meant detaching rational inquiry from the authority of revealed religion or tradition. The practical face concerned purpose, or what knowledge was for. The time had come to cease speculating about “Forms” or “Accidents” or a “Beatific Vision,” and instead to acquire and use knowledge to improve life here on earth, the life we are living now. Science would no longer consist of the metaphysical dogmas of the medieval schoolmen, but of rigorous empirical testing of observable phenomena. And political science would follow, no longer looking to “republics…which in fact have never been known or seen,” in Machiavelli’s words, but to people and states as they are, that is, as we experience them. The political theories of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Jeremy Bentham, and others share Machiavelli’s disdain for the pondering of heavenly cities.

Let the reader understand: Machiavelli was aiming his rhetorical shot at Plato’s Republic and at St. Augustine’s City of God. The point could hardly be clearer: the Enlightenment—especially its Continental, secular version—despised religious authority and divine guidance. The sacred canopy under which humans ordered their affairs was torn away; the Enlightenment turned our attention away from the way God intends us to live and toward how things “really” are. Of course, how things really are became only what our five senses tell us, and reason was confined to concepts that help us order that subject matter. The Enlightenment begged the question by disqualifying religious authority from helping us decide whether reality is more than sensory perceptions, and by declaring theology outside the scope of reason.

The Enlightenment may have cheated, but the important thing is that it won. And it is not difficult to see the problem that orthodox Christians will always have with the Enlightenment. Whether in radical form, as in France, or the moderate versions of Scotland, England, and British North America, it was a secularizing movement that turned people away from transcendent concerns and heralded the demise of revealed religion. The Enlightenment insisted that we attend to the saeculum, “the age,” i.e., our own time, detached from eternity.

The version of autonomy that follows is likewise secular. Christianity teaches that God makes the moral law known to all people—hence Christian natural law—but that people are too sinful to follow that law and hence need divine salvation. The Enlightenment removes any necessary role for God in this story: we need no divine creator to account for the law’s existence, no divine guidance to discern the law, no divine help to enact it, no divine forgiveness when we fail. Perhaps the problem with liberalism is here.[5] The unmooring of moral law from the Christian God or religious authority might incline liberal society to respond in unhealthy ways to the pressures of modern technology and radical value pluralism. Perhaps Enlightenment autonomy had to give way to today’s autopoiesis; perhaps Tocqueville’s America could not help but produce, in the fullness of time, Deneen’s.

Augustinian Liberalism?

Are we thrown back, then, to Deneen’s radical critique of liberalism? Is it really one big thing with a genetic defect, and hence something Christians (and many others) should consign to the flames? Or can orthodox Christianity ground some kind of liberalism? Again, the question is eminently practical for those of us who believe that constitutional democracy is the best regime under late-modern conditions. The question is not whether Christians can tolerate people who ground liberalism in the Enlightenment or post-Enlightenment; of course they can and should do so. The question is rather whether one person may be a liberal because he is not a Christian, and another may be a liberal because she is a Christian.

To start with, let us note that liberalism did not enter the Christian West from the outside, but emerged within it. The Anglican political theologian Oliver O’Donovan argues that, in historically Christian societies, “the liberal tradition…has a right of possession. There is no other model available to us of a political order derived from a millennium of close engagement between state and church. It ought, therefore, to have the first word in any discussion of what Christians can approve, even if it ought not to have the last word.”[6] I want to take the point further than O’Donovan himself, perhaps, and make the familiar point that liberalism—understood as an ideology that upholds personal liberty and the hybrid rule of the majority and of law—does have an alternative foundation that is consistent with orthodox Christianity. Elsewhere in this issue, Paul Miller outlines “Augustinian liberalism.” As Miller says, St. Augustine of Hippo was no liberal in the modern sense, but his political thought, combined with some lessons of history, provides much support for a Christian liberalism.

Central among the principles of Augustine’s politics is that Christians live at once in the City of Man—the temporal or worldly polity—and the City of God, and that their ultimate loyalty is to the latter. The Christian obeys the laws of the earthly polity, but where they conflict with divine law—as they inevitably will—she follows the heavenly. In a sense, Augustine takes a tenet from Plato and makes it egalitarian: for Plato, philosophers such as Socrates were those who could see reality and hence were sometimes obligated to dissent from the state; for Augustine, all Christian believers are, in that sense, like Plato’s philosophers, with the same obligation.[7]

If the Christian may justly disobey laws of the state that conflict with higher law, it follows that laws that violate a Christian’s conscience are unjust, and a government that enforces such laws is tyrannical. From there, building a just state could take either of two directions. It could call for the City of Man to be as similar to the City of God as possible. That leads to established churches and possibly to theocracy. Or it could call for the City of Man to confine its scope so as to clash with the City of God as little as possible. That leads to limited government, laws and rulers at pains to stay out of contestable religious questions. The two directions are not mutually exclusive; a state with an established religion can also be limited and tolerant, as the case of Great Britain shows.

In any case, the second path, limited government, is an essential step toward a liberal polity—one that respects the Christian’s conscience. But other steps are needed, and these too can derive from Christian doctrine. Again, Augustine is most famous for the doctrine of original sin, namely that the first sins of Adam and Eve are inherited by all persons. If, as scripture says, all have sinned, then no man or woman may be trusted with absolute, permanent political power. Centuries after Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas argued for limits on earthly or temporal rulers, including that they could not order their subjects to sin; sovereigns who violated this stricture were tyrants who could legitimately be overthrown. Still later, Catholic thinkers such as Francisco de Vitoria and Alberico Gentili, and Protestants such as Huguenot Monarchomachs of France, built on these arguments for a right of a people to overthrow their king when that king became tyrannical.

We still have not arrived at liberalism, particularly its emphasis on the individual person. These medieval and early modern writers defended the rights of an entire people, as represented by an unelected elite (typically an aristocracy), against tyranny. Liberalism’s attachment to individual consent derives historically from Christianity’s doctrine of the equality of all souls before God: if the laborers and the poor are the same in God’s eyes as the rich and powerful, justice requires that all be equal before the state. An early struggle over individual rights was over whether to tolerate minority religions. I do not mean the famous letter of John Locke for toleration (1689), which offered chiefly secular arguments.[8] I mean arguments such as that of the Puritan divine John Owen (no relation to the author), who defended toleration 27 years earlier on grounds that were not remotely agnostic about Christian dogma. In a letter of 1667, Owen argued for the necessity of respect for each individual’s conscience, which he called “God’s great Viceregent.”

More than a century later, in the young United States, Christian nonconformists coalesced with heterodox Enlightenment figures to enact the religious freedom of the individual. The Deist Thomas Jefferson and the Calvinist-Baptist Isaac Backus found common ground here.[9] Religious toleration, and hence citizenship in a liberal polity, came to encompass people of all religions or none, and all ethnicities. A Christian basis for this inclusion is found in the Puritan Owen’s elevation of the individual conscience. Note, too, that religious freedom entails each person’s right not simply to believe propositions privately, but to act based upon them. Implied are freedom of association and assembly. A liberal state of this type does not regulate belief or practice except where groups would coerce people or jeopardize their health.[10]

The argument for a Christian liberalism is not complete here, but the conclusion is in sight: Christianity provides an alternative basis for limited government, i.e., government that at once respects its citizens’ consciences (including religious practice) and upholds their rights to agree to the government and laws under which they live. I have suggested a particularly Protestant path to this kind of liberalism, but the work of twentieth-century thinkers such as Jacques Maritain and John Courtney Murray shows that Catholic paths also are available. Catholic, Protestant, or ecumenical, the paths lead to liberalism, the theoretical grounding of constitutional democracy, a matrix of mechanisms that seek to safeguard individuals from tyranny.

The language differs from that of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment liberalism at certain points, but the term “consent” captures what is common to all. Consent need not be based on autonomy, in either the late-modern sense that Deneen rightly decries, or in the Kantian sense of universal secular rationality. A Christian basis for individual consent can rest instead on the general doctrine that God extends grace to all, believers and unbelievers alike. Different branches of the church will articulate that justification in different ways. Catholics and Arminians can appeal to their respective dogmas of prevenient grace; Calvinists, to common grace. Regardless, demonstrated individual consent is essential precisely because Christians (at least those who agree with our friend and guide Augustine) believe that all persons are tainted by original sin. Monarchs and other political leaders are as fallen as the people they govern. Give them power, and they tend toward tyranny. A good regime is a liberal one, in the narrow sense that the potential for tyranny is contained and every citizen’s right to consent to the communities to which she submits and the laws and governors under which she lives is upheld.

Deneen may not disagree when the matter is stated like that. He simply may not want to call this system of thought “liberal.” Perhaps he is right; it may be time to retire that honorable term. But embracing the label of anti-liberal brings its own risks because that label too contains multitudes. If individual liberty as traditionally understood is in danger in today’s post-Enlightenment, third-stage liberal democracies, it surely would not be safe in the hands of the loudest voices in those multitudes—the extremist parties of Right and Left on the rise throughout the West and beyond. These movements agree that liberalism has failed. What they would put in its place appears to be far more oppressive.

[1] John Rawls, “Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 14, no. 3 (1985): 223-251.

[2] John M. Owen and J. Judd Owen, “Religion, the Enlightenment, and the New Global Order,” in idem, eds., Religion, the Enlightenment, and the New Global Order (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 20-21.

[3] John M. Owen, “Not Melting Away,” The Hedgehog Review 19, no. 3 (Fall 2017): 52-62.

[4] Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” in Kant, Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, trans. Ted Humphrey (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983), 41. Kant’s translation was, “Habe Mut dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!” For a fuller consideration, see Owen and Owen, “Religion,” 16-19.

[5] To be precise, Kant built his liberalism upon not autonomy but freedom. The difference was this: autonomy was concerned with the moral law, hence with having moral motives; political freedom was concerned not with motives but with action and its effects on others regardless of motive. But the distinction is not relevant here.

[6] Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 228.

[7] St. Augustine, City of God, Book XIX, ch. 17; see Michael B. Foster, “Augustine,” in idem, Masters of Political Thought, vol. 1, From Plato to Machiavelli (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1941), 224-28.

[8] Locke argued that we cannot know through (modern empirical) science whether religious doctrines such as the Trinity are true, and so the state must not enforce such doctrines. That is a recognizably Enlightenment argument, one that does nicely without God.

[9] J. Judd Owen, “The Struggle between ‘Religion and Nonreligion’: Jefferson, Backus, and the Dissonance of America’s Founding Principles,” American Political Science Review 101, no. 3 (2007): 493-503.

[10] For some productive grappling with the rights and privileges of religious groups in liberal society, see William Galston, “Two Concepts of Liberailsm,” Ethics 105, no. 3 (1995): 516-34.