In a recent column, New York Times writer David Brooks rightly recognizes that liberalism faces a crisis. He is concerned that Western democracies are losing “self-confidence and will,” and therefore are too weak to respond to threats from within and without. If liberalism is to “thrive again,” Brooks says, we have to make “the spiritual and civic case for our way of life.” 

Liberalism, though, is an ideology – not a way of life. By elevating individualism to a ruling idea, liberals set about unloosing the complex knot of localized authorities that bind Western societies together. Brooks worries about the decline of “coherent moral communities” throughout the twentieth century, but he fails to acknowledge that this decline was the express purpose of liberalism from its outset. Ideology runs roughshod over the real rights of actual persons and particular places. 

While Brooks correctly diagnoses many of the problems facing the world order, his commitment to liberalism therefore means he fails to prescribe real solutions. Liberalism simply is not enough to address the crisis of meaning afflicting the West. Instead of doubling down on a failing ideology, we must identify the substantive goods our civilization must secure, and then determine how they are to be conserved. 

At the beginning of his column, Brooks quotes Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a critic of liberalism who understood the civilizational struggle ahead of the West. But far from praising liberalism, Solzhenitsyn thought the West would have to abandon ideology to triumph over totalitarianism. In Solzhenitsyn’s famous 1978 Harvard commencement address Brooks cites, he took the liberal West to task for appeasing the Soviet Union. “The Communist regime in the East could endure and grow due to the enthusiastic support from an enormous number of Western intellectuals,” he thundered, “who refused to see communism’s crimes, and when they no longer could do so, they tried to justify these crimes.”  

In other words, Solzhenitsyn believed that the crisis of courage he saw was in fact fueled by the failure of liberalism. In the Harvard speech and elsewhere, he argued that liberal ideology is a pretext for using the power of the state in revolutionary ways. To take one example from Brooks’s own column, he positively labels individualism a space to pursue “adventures in living.” Progress, for Brooks and other liberals, means expanding this space as widely as possible – even if that means undermining traditional communities. 

But human beings were not made to live as free radicals. Liberalism, like all forms of ideology, is at war with the very nature of the person. As University of Florida professor Aaron Zubia has recently put it, “Contemporary liberals reject a given order of things, that is, a prior, universal truth capable of limiting our attempts at self-assertion. Self-creation is the guiding ideal of liberal thought.” Liberals are agnostic about society’s summum bonum, but possess a puritanical confidence in their ability to impose this relativistic “liberty” on all people. 

Even milder forms of liberalism put too great an emphasis on the atomized individual. Brooks himself acknowledges that “the celebration of individual freedom has overspilled its banks and begun to erode the underlying set of civic obligations.” Instead of prioritizing the human person’s place in a transcendent moral order, liberalism advances either a radical concept of autonomy or else a “low-but-solid” notion of material prosperity. It is difficult to see how any of this spiritual deracination could inspire citizens to defend their country. 

Peoples on the frontlines of authoritarian attacks against the West have instead been turning to particular traditions – not abstract ideologies – as a source of strength. They are looking for the permanent things that bind them together in community. Ukrainians have seen something of a religious revival since Putin’s unjust invasion began. Poles’ Catholic identity is essential to their daring opposition to Russian expansionism. After the October 7 attacks, moving images of Israel Defense Forces members celebrating Jewish ceremonies circulated on social media. In places where the conflict between freedom and tyranny erupts into war, people fight to conserve their way of life – not to promote liberal platitudes.  

That said, an earlier kind of liberalism was far more comfortable expressing itself in civilizational terms. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for instance, often spoke of World War II as a defense of “Christian civilization.” His radio broadcast following D-Day, in which he hailed the expedition as “a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization,” would no doubt strike latter-day liberals as provincially conservative or even “Christian nationalist.”  

Yet Brooks frustratingly turns up his nose at “cultural traditionalists” who he says seek to “restore the old ways, the old religion, national greatness.” He singles out Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban – who rightly deserves criticism. His heavy-handed approach to domestic opposition and comfort with the Chinese Communist Party certainly should not be a model for Americans. But one is left to wonder what Brooks thinks of other “cultural traditionalists” who have been more friendly to American interests, such as Polish President Andrzej Duda or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

It is liberals who have consistently undermined these conservatives’ ability to defend the West. In just the past few years, the Obama and Biden administrations recoiled from religious traditionalists on the world stage, condemning their “populism” from a place of sneering universalism. Liberals labeled some of America’s most steadfast friends “bigots” or “religious zealots” or “authoritarians.” America’s political class has shown more concern for their own prestige among other cosmopolitans in Paris and Berlin than the pressing defense needs of our allies in Jerusalem and Warsaw against mutual enemies.  

For Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, only a renewed “cultural traditionalism” could provide the strength needed for the West to prevail against totalitarian ideology. In one speech honoring the Roman Catholic peasants who resisted the French Revolution, Solzhenitsyn argued that faith is the single most important weapon in this fight. “We all have lived through the twentieth century, a century of terror, the chilling culmination of that Progress about which so many dreamed in the eighteenth century,” he said. “And now, I think, more and more citizens of France, with increasing understanding and pride, will remember and value the resistance and the sacrifice of the Vendée.” Liberal ideology could never defeat Soviet communism; the only thing that could was the conservative spirit of the Vendée counter-revolutionaries. 

It was not liberals, then, but rather conservatives who answered Solzhenitsyn’s call to renew the West’s courage. Ronald Reagan was perhaps Solzhenitsyn’s most prominent admirer, and he sought to turn his insights about the crisis of the West into a practical political program. Reagan abandoned the liberal détente strategy of the 1970s, and made it clear he believed the United States must prevail over the Soviet Union’s “evil empire.” Conservatism, not liberalism, was his fighting creed. 

Along with the military build-up historians justly laud, Reagan also led a moral rearmament of the American people. “Here in America, religious beliefs are central to our founding principles,” he said in his first presidential statement celebrating Passover and Easter, “We draw special strength from our unity as a people who trust in God, and from the lessons for us and our children in our rituals.” Reagan deployed this Abrahamic moral imagination to rally the West against communist human rights abuses and position the United States for victory in the Cold War. He did not embark on a quest to spread liberalism around the globe, but rather to defend the authentic traditions and principles of the American people. 

The West’s enemies have thrived in the intervening years, though, largely because liberals have lost faith in our civilizational foundations. They are more interested in “deconstructing imperialism” and “climate justice” than in triumphing over revanchist regimes. Even Brooks’s talk of “liberal norms” and “shared values” seems weak compared to the strong moral claims made by half-crazed ideologists in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran

Brooks is entirely correct to worry about our enemies’ “passionate intensity,” but he is wrong about how to answer it. Ultimately, liberalism will never be enough to defend freedom in the West. Ideology cannot provide the meaning Brooks is searching for – only faith can.