Often in Providence you will find criticisms of Catholic integralism—a view that the political order should be oriented to greatest good (i.e., God)—or figures such as Patrick Deneen, who launched a frontal assault on the idea and history of liberalism in the West. Paul Miller hosted a symposium in Providence defending an account of liberalism he dubbed “Augustinian liberalism” and critiquing Deneen and Co.
The recent clashing of swords between Sohrab Ahmari and David French, hyped as a sort of conservative Thrilla in Manila, turned out to be less compelling since it came down to French giving a lecture on constitutional jurisprudence. This sidestepped the key issue on what conservatives ought to be debating. One need not agree with all of Rod Dreher’s criticisms and proposals to affirm the basic truth of what he is diagnosing: we are entering or have entered a post-Christian era in which basic Christian convictions will not only seem foreign but immoral and worthy of suppression.
Many Protestant criticisms of Dreher (who is definitely not an integralist), Ahmari, or Catholic integralism in its varied forms are far too dismissive, overly self-confident, and not terribly well informed of the history and nuance of the positions they are arguing against.
Being for liberalism or democracy (the two are distinctly different things!!) is not the default Christian position. Many Protestants, and American Protestants in particular, have a very bad habit of thinking Christianity and democracy go hand in hand. They do not. Christianity, for the vast majority of history, has existed in non-democratic contexts and often thrived. There is nothing wrong with celebrating the achievements of liberal democracies because the achievements are impressive, but the defenders of liberal democracy downplay the weaknesses of this form of government, which we are starting to fully appreciate.
David French’s defense of liberal democracy seems to be primarily tactical while he mostly sidesteps or downplays the deep cultural morass we have entered. Yes, he acknowledges things are bad, but then he falls right back into constitutional arguments, which are just not good enough. Christian arguments about politics and society should be grounded in more than the Constitution. He might be right on tactics, but he does not adequately address the substance of Ahmari’s complaint about Drag Queen Story Hour.
The critiques of liberalism in figures such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Patrick Deneen, and others are far more nuanced than their critics give them credit. MacIntyre’s After Virtue remains the single most important ethics book of the last 50 years. The critique of liberalism by traditionalist Catholics is very robust and compelling. If Protestants spent any time with the body of Catholic social encyclicals from the late nineteenth century forward, they would find compelling theological arguments that deserve serious attention and responses.
Andrew Walker’s latest criticism of integralism in Providence asserts that Christians who support some version of integralism, which is probably most Christians up until about 200 years ago, are committing an eschatological error. Walker chides, “The Integralist error is to misread this era of history and foolishly believe that society can be uniformly Christian. But salvation via cultural osmosis is not a biblical portrait of redemption.” For Baptists this may seem obvious, but for the rest of Christians throughout history, and even in America, the relationship between politics, culture, society, and the City of God is much more complex than simple church vs. world distinctions. If it were this easy, why have Christians been poring over these questions for two millennia?
Walker blames the withering of Christianity in Europe on the establishment of the state churches that are propped up by “fake Christians,” but that is an overly simplistic and stereotypically American view. The secularization of Europe is far more complex than the establishment of state churches. For starters, Europeans in the twentieth century endured some of the most horrific and destructive warfare in human history, including the Holocaust. Furthermore, after being ravaged by war and genocide, Eastern Europe was then subjected to 50 years of oppressive communism.
Current defenses of liberal democracy among American Protestants have the ring of the defenses of papal monarchy or the divine right of kings from Christians of an earlier age. That is, it reads like a post hoc argument—a conclusion in search of a defense. We know liberal democracy is right and good; therefore, we naturally dismiss or are dismissive toward those who criticize it. If we read these assumptions against the long history of Christian thought, we would be much soberer and more circumspect in our convictions.
If we are going to get anywhere in this debate, we should take on the strongest arguments from our opponents and not their weakest or most caricatured. While I do not think Christians should see liberal democracy as the enemy, I do think its critics often have a point.