“Liberalism” is under assault globally. By “liberalism,” I refer to classical liberty, rooted in limited government, rule of law, free speech, property rights, and religious liberty. Of course, liberalism with these concepts is always under assault. Its salad days after Communism’s fall in 1989-1991 were highly unusual across millennia, with tyranny and authoritarianism as humanity’s default.

In this context, David Brooks in his latest column reviews Fareed Zakaria’s new book Age of Revolutions: Progress and Backlash From 1600 to the Present. Brooks, citing Zakaria, recalls liberalism’s roots in the 16th century Dutch Republic, in Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, the unfolding industrial revolutions in Britain and America, and Victorian moral reforms. Brooks doesn’t cite, and Zakaria does not assign a chapter to, the American Revolution, perhaps because it was the natural progression of the Glorious Revolution. Zakaria calls the rise of American industry the “real revolution.”

Brooks summarizes this trajectory: “Technical and economic dynamism goes hand in hand with cultural creativity, political reform, urbanization, a moral revival and, it must be admitted, vast imperialist expansion.” American paramountcy post WWII and post-Cold War metastasized this not-so-secret formula for “liberal” success. Humanity is now exponentially wealthier, healthier, longer lived and has more access to liberty than ever before imagined.

Yet liberalism is now partly in retreat, as some societies shift authoritarian. And even in America, the chief guardian of liberty, there are growing postliberal voices flirting with alternatives.

Brooks notes:

The great liberal societies that Zakaria describes expanded and celebrated individual choice and individual freedom. But when liberalism thrived, that personal freedom lay upon a foundation of commitments and moral obligations that precede choice: our obligations to our families, to our communities and nations, to our ancestors and descendants, to God or some set of transcendent truths.

But these transcendent truths have retreated in favor of autonomous individualism. Brooks notes:

When there are no shared moral values and norms, then social trust plummets. People feel alienated and under siege, and, as Hannah Arendt observed, lonely societies turn to authoritarianism. People eagerly follow the great leader and protector, the one who will lead the us/them struggle that seems to give life meaning.

There is also the famous Francis Fukuyama quote from 1989:

But supposing the world has become “filled up,” so to speak, with liberal democracies, such as there exist no tyranny and oppression worthy of the name against which to struggle? Experience suggests that if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation, then they will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain boredom: for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle. And if the greater part of the world in which they live is characterized by peaceful and prosperous liberal democracy, then they will struggle against that peace and prosperity, and against democracy.

So, when people are prosperous, secure, healthy, and free, they can become bored and potentially seek adventures leading to dark places. Restlessness and ingratitude are intrinsic to human nature. No matter how much we have, we want more, which we cannot define.

Brooks says liberalism must make not just the material but also “the spiritual and civic case for our way of life.”  And Zakaria says: “The greatest challenge remains to infuse that journey with moral meaning, to imbue it with the sense of pride and purpose that religion once did — to fill that hole in the heart.”

But can a transactional social arrangement take the place of religion in offering transcendent purpose? Brooks hints no, but many champions of “liberalism” imply or explicitly claim yes. The challenge is that an open and liberal society does not impose a uniform dogma, as traditional or authoritarian societies do. The metaphorical temple at society’s center does not offer a specific totem to which all must bow but offers a somewhat empty space behind the altar. This way, individuals and communities are free to define their own transcendent specifics.

Brooks alludes to it, and Zakaria offers more detail, but the rise of liberalism is mostly a Protestant story. As Brook says, Dutch Calvinism, was on “high alert for the corruption that prosperity might bring” and “encouraged self-discipline and norms that put limits on the display of wealth.”  Calvinism in the Netherlands overthrew centralized authority, desacralized hierarchy, literally and figuratively smashed idols, and generated entrepreneurial and scientific energy that lifted a small nation into a great economic, maritime, and cultural power.

The same low church Protestant culture also ascended in Britain in the 1600s, culminating with the Glorious Revolution and an imported Dutch king who gladly acceded to a Bill of Rights and other reforms. Under this Whiggish influence, no more absolute monarchs or arbitrary power governing state, church, and the economy. Creative individualism and egalitarianism were unleashed, guided by broad Protestant morality and transcendent purpose. These same energies fueled the American Revolution, amplified by the Great Awakenings that were foundational to Victorian self-denial, social reform, and greater democracy that ultimately enfranchised all adults.

Anglo-American political, economic, and cultural power, which created, sustained, and globalized liberalism, are premised largely on Protestant understandings about authority, the individual, liberty, morality, and creativity.

Importantly, these Protestant insights about liberty and creativity that fueled liberalism spoke to universal human nature so powerfully that liberalism was able to globalize into non-Protestant and non-Christian societies. Christians are small minorities in Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and, although larger, in South Korea. But these dynamic societies, in their capitalism and democracy (Singapore has high economic freedom but less political), in many ways are essentially Calvinist without the Calvinism. The same is true many other places.

Brooks and Zakaria wonder if Western societies with receding religious belief can retain liberalism. And if not, what can replace it? In pondering this question, it should be recalled that the truly devout are always a minority in every society, which is a particular Calvinist concept, with its stress on the “elect.” Britain and the Netherlands even in the 1600s were not exclusively filled with pious saints. But the pious minority exuded energy that transformed their societies.

Also importantly, Protestantism and Christianity are hardly declining globally. Britain may have many empty and closing Protestant chapels. But there are perhaps 2.5 billion Christians in the world, nearly half of whom are Protestant or evangelical. Pentecostalism has some of the same fierce energy that Calvinism had in the 1500s and 1600s, with often dramatic results, especially in Latin America, where it has become a decisive political and cultural force.

Of course, lines of human progression are never straight, and Latin American Pentecostals are often prone to the same authoritarian political temptations that attract many others. Centuries-old strong man cultures are hard to overcome. And fallen human nature demands a king. But ultimately, Pentecostalism, like other Protestantisms, inclines toward the decentralization and democratization of power.

Although some retrograde U.S. Protestants are attracted to postliberal authoritarian impulses, the chief political pulsation of Protestantism across centuries is classical liberalism. Protestantism is the often-unacknowledged chief father of liberalism. Ironically, liberalism’s critics more often scoffingly recognize this parentage than do liberalism’s champions, with Protestants themselves often silent and/or clueless.

Protestants should gladly admit their parentage of liberalism and accept the responsibility of stewarding this heritage. It’s uncertain whether Protestants can by themselves renew and reinvigorate liberalism against its many adversaries. Protestants will best renew liberalism not by advocating a specifically Protestant society but by stressing those Protestant themes that created liberalism:  liberty, human dignity, self-denial, creativity, entrepreneurship, decentralized authority, freedom of conscience, and aversion to all authoritarian/royalist ambitions.

Protestants cannot and do not aspire to take over society. But they can infuse liberalism, in Zakaria’s words, with “moral meaning” and cosmic adventure, essential antidotes to today’s widespread boredom and ingratitude.