This week the editors discuss Mark Tooley’s conversation with Eric Nelson about his book “The Theology of Liberalism: Political Philosophy and the Justice of God.” They also cover a 1946 article about Americans’ post-World War II anxieties and Eric Patterson’s editorial about Memorial Day.
Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, with another episode of Marksism, with fellow editors and fellow Mark(c)s, Marc LiVecche and Mark Melton. We’re reviewing three pieces from Providence this week, starting with my conversation with the Harvard political scientist Eric Nelson on his latest book The Theology of Liberalism, and then moving on to a piece by our contributing editor Eric Patterson on the spiritual import of Memorial Day, an application to all patriotic holidays, including upcoming Fourth of July. And finally, a piece from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christianity & Crisis magazine of 75 years ago by a Methodist bishop, reflecting on the anxieties of the post-World War Two era, relating that to how it felt after World War One and offering his own Christian response. But starting with Eric Nelson’s Theology of Liberalism and my interview with him, it’s a very, very deep topic, I’ll try to summarize the essence of it, but I’m sure the other Mark(c)s can elaborate. Most helpfully, in that he is recalling that in the English Civil War in the 1600s, that the Parliament was essentially Calvinist and the Royalists were Arminian. And it’s the synthesis that emerged from that conflict who individuals like John Locke, who was in essence Pelagian, in arguing or assuming that people can be moral and make good choices on their own. And essentially liberalism emerged from that Pelagian perspective, and that modern liberalism, if we can date it to John Rawls, is perhaps a distortion of that original vision. And that John Rawls interestingly originally was a Christian and seminarian and Augustinian who lost his faith and yet has a secular Calvinist perspective that Eric Nelson says minimizes free will. And so, it’s a rather despairing attitude. Eric Nelson asserts that to have a better liberalism, we need to have a more robust Pelagianism. That’s the gist I got from our conversation. But Marc LiVecche, what were your impressions?
LiVecche: Yeah, I think that’s right. His book in the interview is sort of a taxonomy of who’s who in political thought from pretty much time immemorial to the present day. I think he says a couple things that are fascinating. One of them is he illustrates how secular philosophy is inextricably entangled with theological debate. It can’t help itself, right. You can’t do political philosophy, you can’t do moral philosophy, you can’t talk about the ends of government without invariably stepping into theological waters, even despite yourself. And I think in the interview, maybe in the book also, in one or the other at least, he discusses this is belief as a theological debate in drag. At heart it’s theology but it’s dressed up as something that it’s not, which is secular, completely deracinated, philosophy. Contrary to that, he says any talk of human dignity, in which any form of liberalism is invariably bound, owes its existence to the Hebraic tradition. You can’t talk about human dignity, however you want to talk about that, without at least breathing air, Judeo-Christian air. It’s in the bloodstream. That’s invariable. So, that’s fascinating. I think it’s a good reminder that even secularism, even the best heresies, depend on orthodoxy. It needs to be involved in the conversation. This idea that we can somehow have these conversations without recognizing their theological grounding, even if you want to dismiss that, is a fool’s errand. He reads into the deep waters, and you guys talk about it, it’s a fascinating portion of it, the Pelagian and Augustinian debate. And Dan Strand lays some of that out well in his own interview, which is cited in the program notes. And it’s worth weighing into, how free are human beings? And if a liberal society is based on the idea that human beings can make voluntary choices for the good, a lot of that is going to rest on whether or not it’s actually possible for human beings to choose the good. Can we do that? And then you’ve got the spectrum of debate as to what degree human beings can freely choose the right. What I think needs to be brought into the say, there’s all sorts of mediating positions, there’s Pelagian who says we’re free, there’s the supposed Augustinian view, though I think it’s a little bit over-described, maybe a stronger Calvinist position would be better, that we have no freedom whatsoever. I don’t think that’s quite Augustine’s view. It’s close, but it’s not quite it. And there’s different ways of getting into that, but it’s I think theology needs to engage with biology, I think biochemistry. What does it mean to be able to make reasonable choices when bodies are corrupt? So, it gets into all sorts of interesting streams that we can discuss further if you want. But I commend the book to people to engage with.
Tooley: I’ve wondered, Marc LiVecche, if maybe Eric Nelson isn’t conflating Pelagianism with Arminianism in terms of how we look at free will. Arminians would still be orthodox and arguably Augustinian to believe free will is a gift of God’s grace. And as Eric Nelson notes, Pelagian tends to be an insult.
LiVecche: Yeah, I think it’s helpful, because the thing that really needs to be, no matter what one thinks Pelagius said, in Eric Nelson’s handling of Pelagius, and he’s not wrong to do this because vast swathes of the tradition do this, Pelagianism is a solution to God being a kind of divine bastard, or a divine tyrant I think is Nelson’s term. He sets us up to depend on grace because he depraved us. That’s not the Hebrew tradition properly understood. It’s not original sin properly understood. Human beings made moral choices that led to human deprivation; now our biochemistry conspires with our appetites. It informs our appetites. It’s also undergirded by our appetites. Our whole biochemistry rebels against our desires to choose the good. So, human depravity is a very complex thing. I think there’s all sorts of ways to get God off the hook, if that’s somebody’s worry, that don’t have to lead to the kind of Pelagianism that he described. I think you’re right to the point to Arminians and other methods.
Tooley: Mark Melton, the piece by this bishop, Methodist Bishop James Baker, from 1946, called “Our Present Anxieties,” reflecting on the angst of the immediate months after World War Two, comparing them to similar anxiety after World War One, and frightened lessons are not being learned and the same mistakes potentially are being repeated. The bishop regrets the focus on national security and on assertion of American power at the expense of a more global approach to the challenges then facing America. And he even mentions the possibility of world government as preferable to the assertion of American power. But what are your thoughts?
Melton: So, this piece, going back and reading articles and books from right after the First World War, he’s saying the same things that were being said then were also being said in 1946, and that caused him anxiety. Because, of course, the mistakes made after the First World War lead into the Second World War, and so, in his mind, especially thinking about atomic bombs, there’s a huge anxiety about the possibility of World War Three with nuclear weapons. And so, that’s where like in Christianity & Crisis at this point there’s a lot of talk about world government. Reinhold Niebuhr seems to be kind of in favor of it as long as it’s preceded by world community, whatever that actually means in practice. But these are kind of the debates that are going on. And there is concern that the United States of America is going to be much more focused on itself, it’s not going to graciously give a loan to the United Kingdom, which needs it at this point, it’s not going to give food to Germany unless it does it in a way that helps America. And so, there’s a concern at this point. In my introduction, though, I kind of look at this through the benefit of hindsight. We can look back at this 75 years and see things worked out all right for the United States overall. We have a huge number of tragedies during that time, Vietnam War and so on, the War on Terror and so on, but at the same time, we didn’t have a World War Three. And one of the things I think about this and the anxieties at this point is looking that we can kind of lessen our own anxieties at this current moment. So, I listed a few, like a potential cold war with China, the idea of cybersecurity attacks happening on a more regular basis, where our infrastructure is getting shut down, and we had a meat packing producing plant shut down recently because of cybersecurity attacks. And so, we still have anxieties, and we’re always going to have those. Sometimes there will be massive tragedies. It’s not always going to be sunshine and roses. So, that’s what kind of I thought looking back at this piece, though it can help us give this broad view. One thing I will say, though, like on some of this stuff that he’s worried about, I feel like enlightened self-interest really helped us long term. In other words, like yes, I mentioned this in another piece about the UK loan, we did give the loan to the United Kingdom and help their economy. But we did it for a self-interested purpose, which was we were trying to prevent the Soviet Union from taking over Europe. That helps Britain, but initially we didn’t want to do it, you can say we were being selfish, but we were putting our national interests together first. And sometimes you have to I think move these two things together. And so, I think the part where I might disagree with him, and I can disagree with him with the benefit of hindsight, is you have to combine the national interest and also this idealist interest. Focusing too much on that idealist purpose is not going to get us too far. And I think one, I might write a piece about this soon, but the idea of giving vaccines, the US giving vaccines to the world. We didn’t do it early on, we vaccinated our own population as much as we could first, and now we’re starting to get vaccines out. I think that is probably the right approach that we would have to do in order to get some of the American people on board. If we’re giving out vaccines to a bunch of people and we’re not vaccinating our own, then there’s going to be political unrest at home that would prevent us from being able to maximize how much we can help the world.
Tooley: And then finally, Marc LiVecche, Eric Patterson’s piece on Memorial Day, which he describes as essentially a call to love and remembrance, which is entirely in sync with the essence of Christianity. He also concludes with a contrast between patriotism and nationalism, quoting Charles de Gaulle saying, “Patriotism is about loving one’s own country; nationalism is about hating other countries.” I’m not sure if that’s an entirely fair description, but your thoughts?
LiVecche: Sure. Yeah, I mean, in our pages we’ve noted that the definition, or working definition, better said, of nationalism is constantly shifting. But there is something to be said. There is a difference between something we can call patriotism and something else, jingoism or whatever you want to call it. But yea, I think the critical point, the heart of the essay, is this idea of remembrance and the idea that Memorial Day must be about remembrance for the sake of being able to transmit those things that’ll never be forgotten. It’s important to tell the stories of the men, and the women increasingly, who stood on freedom’s wall to keep us and the world safe from the wolves. We tell these stories so that we can habituate our children. We habituate ourselves toward the virtues through practice. So, you go and you cheer for the veterans as they parade by. You put the flags on the tombstones; you read the names. You see the ages of the boys, and increasingly the girls, barely even men and women, who have gone and fought and died for us. So, there are patriotic acts, rituals, that we ought to be doing on a regular basis that Memorial Day helps focus our attention on. I think through that habituation, it leads naturally to reflection on our own personal stories or family stories or shared stories as a nation. He touches on that. Reflection on those stories, that the fallen and those who fought with them, expose us to moral exemplars. Which I don’t think anybody would argue we are desperately in need of all the time, but maybe especially nowadays. Reflection on these moral exemplars leads us to reflection and discussion about virtues and what the virtues are and why they were important. These can help shape our own character and our own personal aspirations. I think that’s critical. I think it helps us to reflect on how do we be good men and women who freely choose the good within history. So, how do these norms that we have been called and created to manifest, how do these norms actually play out in the context of history when everything isn’t the way it ought to be? So, I think Patterson, and in typical form, reminds us of the value of our military men and women and our duty and enlightened self-interest to citizens, to refine Melton, in remembering our military.
Tooley: On that note, Marc LiVecche, Mark Melton, thank you for another episode of Marksism. But before we depart, we’re very honored by the arrival of Marc LiVecche’s published new book, The Good Kill. A few words about this book, Marc LiVecche?
LiVecche: Yeah, thank you. This is like the closest apparently that I will ever come to childbirth, this is what I’m told. So, here it is. It’s called The Good Kill: Just War and Moral Injury. I think it’s a very good book. If you don’t believe that then you’ll have to look on the back where Nigel Biggar says, “The Good Kill is a very good book.” So, I’m going to take that to my grave. The book is about some of the things that, if you have been following Providence, I’ve talked about forever. Moral injury is a subset of post-traumatic stress disorder. It comes from doing or allowing to be done something that goes against a deeply held moral norm. Too many of our war fighters go into combat believing that the very business of war, killing the enemy, is morally injurious. I push back against this through harnessing the Hebraic tradition to say look, killing comes in different kinds. Some kinds of killing may be tragic but they’re morally appropriate, even morally obligatory. And so, I helped create a moral framework using Just War tradition to make an argument for moral bruising, that war is always a tragedy, war is always something to be mourned, but that a warfighter can do the business of fighting just war without being morally injured, because they’re doing nothing that goes against the deeply held moral norm. That’s it in a nutshell. And I argue for a kind of mournful warrior. So, what is the character of the just war fighter who fights these just wars justly. So, that’s the book, and I will start tweeting out a 30 percent off discount. Don’t get too excited, it still doesn’t make it super cheap but it brings it down. So, there it is.
Tooley: Hopefully Mark Melton will commission a comprehensive and judicious review for Providence sometime soon. Meanwhile, gentlemen, thank you for another episode of Marksism. Until next week, bye-bye.
LiVecche: Take care.