Commenting on Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, columnist Ross Douthat once remarked: “Rod is right, even if he’s wrong.” This sentiment works equally well, I think, for Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. Deenen’s core argument in his widely discussed book is that classical liberalism, the Enlightenment-spawned, Founding Father-adopted political philosophy of inalienable rights and self-determination, has been destroyed from the inside. The problem for the West is not ultimately that we don’t have enough liberal freedoms; it is that such freedoms have instead enslaved us to the self-destructive march of modernism and economic determinism. “Liberalism has failed,” Deneen writes, “not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded.”
A political philosophy that was launched to foster greater equity, a pluralist tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, protect human dignity, and, of course, expand liberty, in practice generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom. It success can be measured by its achievement of the opposite of what we have believed it would achieve.
The Case Against Liberalism
Deneen’s case against classical liberalism could be summarized as an appeal to the moral disintegration of 3 “s” words: Self, society, and the state.
Self: Classical liberalism’s emphasis (from John Locke) on the autonomy of the individual and the absolute right to determine oneself through social contract has resulted in an incoherent and immoral worldview of the self. Rather than seeing ourselves as created for a virtuous purpose, and defining the good life in terms of our alignment with that transcendent reason, we define happiness almost exclusively in terms of self-expression. “The most basic and distinctive aspect of liberalism,” writes Deneen, “is to base politics upon the idea of voluntarism—the unfettered and autonomous choice of individuals.”
Society: The cultural effects of this worldview of voluntarism have been widespread inequality and mutual hostilities. Social bonds, once upon a time inexorably tied to one’s geographic place, have been disintegrated through “upward mobility” and the inalienable right of people to change anything they want, whenever they want. Believing in a God-given right to make of one’s life whatever one desires is the same as believing that both parents and unborn descendants don’t really count (unless, of course, you want them to count!). Thus the philosophical link between individuals and groups is destroyed, culture becomes anticulture, and society is fragmented beyond recognition.
The State: Deneen writes that classical liberalism requires an ever-more powerful central state to enforce its “freedoms.” Though conservatives and progressives may argue about words and means, Deneen believes that the modern Right and the modern Left are equally committed to this kind of statism. Each political philosophy “can be counted as liberal because of this fundamental commitment to liberation of the individual and tot he use of natural science, aided by the state, as a primary means for achieving practical liberation from nature’s limitations. Thus statism and individualism grow together while local institutions and respect for natural limits diminish.”
All in all, the portrait Deneen paints is of a sociopolitical worldview that exchanges permanence for libertarian freedom, close community for universal rights, and, ultimately, transcendent meaning for self-authentication.
Regardless of anything else about Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen’s grim diagnosis of Western society seems inarguably true. We don’t need to look very deep or very far to see the evidence. Americans are deeply polarized and alienated from one another, and many of the institutions that served as cultural touchstones in the past—especially religious institutions—are fraying. The horrific opioid epidemic epitomizes the despair and isolation of capitalism’s losers. Economic inequality and resentment are widespread, and both were major factors in the election of Donald Trump and in the resurgence of an angry, nativist populism all around the world. At the same time, government institutions take children away from their parents seemingly at whim, and religious citizens—even nuns!—are taken to court and stripped of their livelihood for their antiquated beliefs. It would be difficult indeed to overstate the dysfunctions facing our country. We can easily say that Deneen is right as to the what, even if he’s wrong as to the how.
Christians and Liberalism
Deneen is a conservative Catholic, and there are unmistakably religious elements to his argument. However, Why Liberalism Failed is a book of political philosophy, not of religion. He does not, for example, ground his case against liberalism in Scripture but in premodern classical thought. While this is an observation and certainly not a criticism, the absence of a robustly theological framework in Deneen’s book leaves much work to evangelical readers in working out the implications of the gospel for anti-liberalism.
One major question that Why Liberalism Failed leaves largely untouched is how we should think of the legacy of religious freedom. It’s only fair to point out that widespread religious liberty, especially for religious minorities, was not a feature of most premodern societies, and certainly was not a feature of the Greco-Roman cultures on which Deneen bases much of his appreciation for pre-modernity. Deneen rightly points out that Christianity exercised a positive influence on Western society in terms of human dignity and the image of God. But this observation doesn’t resolve the tension, since even Christendom eventually expressed itself violently against foreign peoples and beliefs. Deneen’s argument, recall, is not that classic liberalism needs to be more faithfully adhered to or more consistently applied, but that its sins and destructive consequences are endemic to it.
In order to make a case for religious liberty for religious minorities within an anti-liberal framework, Deneen must either a) qualify his argument to say that most, but not all characteristics of liberalism have destructive effects, or b) argue that such religious liberty is not really a feature of liberalism at all, thus we can have it without having liberalism. The trouble with option B is, as I’ve alluded to, coming up with historical examples of non-liberal societies where religious minorities are safe and protected. The trouble with option A is that this is clearly not what Deneen says.
Is religious liberty really that important for a Christian political philosophy? I would argue it is. For one thing, a healthy separation of church and state (not to be confused with the quarantine of church from state) preserves the possibility of ecclesiological integrity in the church. A state church cannot require evidences of regeneration as a basis for church membership anymore than the US government can require a high IQ for voting rights. Both a state-enforced church and voting rights have the same legal basis: Political citizenship. The problem with a state-enforced church is that the theological basis of membership is not political but spiritual. The church is the community of the people of God, and that identity cannot be mediated through political ends.
The best way to preserve the integrity of the church’s membership is to not tie it to a political system. And the best way to avoid tying it to a political system is through a political culture of religious liberty. What Christian anti-liberal thinkers must articulate is how a pre or anti-liberal society can promote this kind of religious liberty.
Some Christians who are enthusiastically behind the anti-liberal project have suggested that it is (or will be) impossible to be simultaneously for classical liberalism and Christian virtue. While there is some truth in that, I would caution against relocating the source of Christian virtue. Rolling back the nihilism of modernity is a necessary project because Christian faith and practice repudiate it. But sociopolitical structures do not in themselves produce Christian virtue. Not even Christian cultures can by themselves do this, a lesson we’ve learned from watching evangelical “values voters” bend over backwards to dole out indulgences to presidents. The most authentic Christian virtue comes from the regenerated soul, the imagination and heart that are resurrected through faith and empowered by the Spirit. Whether this kind of virtue can live on in a liberal age is a foregone conclusion. It not only can, but it will.
Why Liberalism Failed is a valuable book, eloquently written and thoroughly clearsighted about the way that cultures and traditions can shape us. It is indeed time for Americans to question whether our basic assumptions about rights and community are actually undermining both. And Christians also need to examine ourselves, to see whether we are bringing to the public square a vision for human flourishing that is rooted in an absolute right to self-determination, or in the beauty and harmony of life under our wise Creator, King, and Redeemer, who, unlike liberalism, can never fail us.