Give to Liberalism What Is Liberalism’s, and to God What Is God’s

Patrick Deneen’s new book “Why Liberalism Failed”

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.


Why Christians Should Rediscover Old Movies

On digging into the treasures of the past to answer the problems of the present.

I am an Anglican parish priest. In that role, I get to hear some of the concerns of my congregants and other Christians on a fairly regular basis. I know many, many faithful Christians who complain about “all the trash that’s on TV and in movies.” Parents and grandparents in particular worry about the corroding effect that current shows, films, music, and commercials may have on their children.

They have my sympathies. Gone are the days when you could go downtown in the evening with a couple bucks to watch a fun, kid-friendly western, and munch on some popcorn. There’s a fair bit of nostalgia mixed with this kind of moral concern as many of us reflect that what used to be a happy childhood diversion has become a perilous spiritual minefield of gore, f-bombs, sex scenes, and disrespect toward parents (as just a small sampling of Decalogue-breaking inducements springing forth from Hollywood). As the Statler Brothers once opined, “Whatever happened to Randolph Scott?”

I saw a recent article outlining how a growing amount of children’s television will feature characters with sexually immoral lifestyles, a trend that’s been on the rise for a couple years now. This normalization of spiritually sinful practices is of course not new to American pop culture. On the other hand, as Dean Abbott has so clearly argued, modern’s children entertainment seems to be getting notably worse (with even some non-Christians noticing)

Predictably, this creates a good deal of hand-wringing in the pews. I have had more than one parent, grandparent, aunt, and uncle voice frustration that there isn’t anything “wholesome” on television or the movies anymore. Some film companies feed off of this desperation, which is how we get atrocious, embarrassing flicks like God’s Not Dead and Facing the Giants. Too often it feels as if the choice for believers is between morally un-compromised cheese and aesethetically excellent garbage. Many Christian parents are unaware of or are (understandably) unwilling to force the former category on their homes. The net result, though, is that unthinking consumption of every new film or sitcom has become the norm for many.

But why? Perhaps it’s time to admit that this problem is self-created. What motivates our acquiescence and lack of discernment is often nothing more than hype and FOMO (fear of missing out). Even worse, the screen has become an alluring babysitter for many Christians. Faced with the fact that a large amount of American entertainment cannot be consumed in good conscience, what is a “plugged in” Christian to do?

In the first place, Christians need to be the foremost people rethinking the omnipresence of screens in home life. You don’t have to go far to find good reasons why people, especially children, are generally better off outside or buried in a book than glued to a soft blue glow. American culture has a whole especially needs to recover the idea of play, and not the overly regimented, helicopter parented type. I don’t presume to have expert suggestions here, but ought not Christians of all people be willing to take radical steps to counter the inert, pornified, disaffected spirit of the age?  This may mean no video game systems until the teen years, or no smart phones until legal adulthood. Such are matters of Christian liberty and prudence, though I’ve found Andy Crouch’s The Tech Wise Family to be an incredibly helpful guide on such matters.

But there’s another opportunity here. Consider the reality that older films, television, and music were often (at least at a surface level) morally and even artistically better than a majority of what is produced today. It is a tragedy that most American teenagers are completely unaware, for example, of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” movies. It’s a tragedy not only of Christian discernment but of cultural heritage (especially when we consider films and music of particular excellence). Christians should be paying closer attention to old things.

There is a vast ocean of classic movies and music, much of which, if not explicitly spiritual, at least does not actively undermine Christian moral formation. Many of these films and albums are inexpensive. For the cost of taking the kids to a cinema matinee, one can stock up on dozens of excellent movies. Put some time in to study the keystones of American cinema which reach back nearly a century. Request and borrow them from a local library if your budget is tight. Save up and acquire copies of era-defining television dramas that delighted your own parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. You can even buy re-runs of Looney Tunes and those pulpy Hanna-Barbera Saturday morning cartoons like Johnny Quest. The threat of “binge-watching” notwithstanding, these options can last a family a long time.

This is an invitation to Christians who love pop culture to become real students of it, by reaching back in the past to preserve and enjoy excellently made things. Perhaps we should think of the steward of film and music as not unlike a discriminating librarian: he highlights and saves that which is best. We all currently endure what John Lukacs called an “inflation of ideas:” more and more works that seem to say less and less. Children as well as adults need to have our tastes formed, matured, and perfected. And that weighty task need not be unpleasant.

Yet again, I think it is time for Christians to be different from other Americans and not be among the heaviest consumers of entertainment media–especially not the newest and latest. Unplug a bit. Build up a library of good films and shows that are examples of good art. It rarely hurt anyone to skip over the latest, shiniest, and untested. I’m not the first to suggest this, and I won’t be the last. But I can’t help noticing that this is what I start thinking about when folks complain about these issues. Pull the plug. Be weird. It’s not going to kill you to miss pop culture references. Take it from a happy homeschool alumnus. The western world is going mad; not need to drive yourself crazy keeping up with it.

Barton Gingerich is an assistant priest at St. Jude’s Anglican Church in Richmond, VA and a contributor to the Faith and Honor podcast. He earned his B.A. in History from Patrick Henry College and his M.Div. with a concentration in historical theology from Reformed Episcopal Seminary.

Ruth Marcus and the Logic of Abortion

Arguing for Down Syndrome elective abortion is not about libertarian freedom. It’s about reshaping society.

In her March 9 op-ed on aborting unborn infants with Down Syndrome, Ruth Marcus writes that her argument is against government coercion. On the contrary, her argument is actually for it. To argue that people that should have the right to decide whether or not to kill a baby based on its mental health is, ultimately, to argue that they should be compelled to do so. I’m sure Marcus would resist this characterization, but she would do so on illogical and incoherent grounds.

Marcus’s case for allowing elective abortion for Down Syndrome babies appears libertarian at first. She writes:

I respect — I admire — families that knowingly welcome a baby with Down syndrome into their lives. Certainly, to be a parent is to take the risks that accompany parenting; you love your child for who she is, not what you want her to be.

But accepting that essential truth is different from compelling a woman to give birth to a child whose intellectual capacity will be impaired, whose life choices will be limited, whose health may be compromised.

In other words, what Marcus opposes are not the families who choose to let their Down Syndrome diagnosed children live, but the proposed laws that would restrict families to that option alone. This is a standard defense of abortion choice from a classically liberal perspective. Likewise, Marcus’s comments about the “intellectual capacity” and “life choices” of Down Syndrome children follow a common pro-choice logic. If you know (according to this view) the unborn baby will have a difficult life, abortion is a reasonable measure to prevent a child from suffering. Not one shred of this argument is unique to Marcus. It is a textbook presentation of the Planned Parenthood worldview.

What makes Marcus’s argument galling to many readers is her naked devaluation of children with Down Syndrome. Yes, this is morally offensive, but it’s also extraordinarily clarifying. Marcus’s argument against these laws entails an explicit argument against Down Syndrome itself. In her final paragraph, Marcus appears to concede that her position on Down Syndrome elective abortion may be a slippery slope:

Technological advances in prenatal testing pose difficult moral choices about what, if any, genetic anomaly or defect justifies an abortion. Nearsightedness? Being short? There are creepy, eugenic aspects of the new technology that call for vigorous public debate. But in the end, the Constitution mandates — and a proper understanding of the rights of the individual against those of the state underscores — that these excruciating choices be left to individual women, not to government officials who believe they know best.

Elective abortion for children who are short or nearsighted would indeed be “creepy,” she writes (note the unwillingness to use a moral adjective). But elective abortion for Down Syndrome babies is not creepy. Why not? Because shortness or nearsightedness is not as bad as Down Syndrome. The case for elective abortion of Down infants is, as Marcus has already shared, that their lives are difficult and their minds impaired. That’s not the case with babies who need glasses or can’t reach very high. They may be inconvenienced in some ways, but the family who receives a diagnosis of Down Syndrome is facing life with a child who will suffer, and whose needs may impose great burdens on their family and society.

This is not an argument about choice. It’s an argument about certain kinds of children. And it’s an argument that spews forth not from moral relativism or libertarian absolutism, but from a deep seated conviction that the death of the wrong kinds of children can improve our economics and culture.

Margaret Sanger’s abortion worldview was not about maximal liberality, but about shaping the demographics of society so as to eliminate people that hinder it. Likewise, contemporary activists such as Katha Politt are admirably shedding the euphemistic pretenses of “safe, legal, and rare” to boldly proclaim that abortion is not a regrettable, sad thing, but a positive social good. The pro-choice movement has achieved legal victories through appeals to privacy and self-rule, but its DNA is far more complex than that. Ruth Marcus’s piece leaves unsaid what is nevertheless an undeniable implication of her argument: The world would be better off without children with Down Syndrome. Fleeting hat tips to the freedom of families to decide otherwise fail to disguise this.

The question that ought to be put to Marcus is not, “How can you say these awful things,” but, “Accepting that your logic is true, why should the government allow babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome to be born?” If she replies that it is wrong for politicans to make this decision, the follow up question should be why it was right for politicians decide in 1973 that some unborn weren’t human, but it’s not right for politicians now to declare that some are? Why is her private moral math about why she would abort a child with Down Syndrome good enough to be protected by law, but the moral math of millions of other families who receive and love and care for their children not good enough for that?

“Can” has a weird way of becoming “ought.” It is impossible to defend elective abortion of Down Syndrome infants the way Marcus does without ceding the notion that parents have a moral responsibility not to let themselves or these babies suffer through existence. The legacy of abortion choice is a legacy not of endless libertarian freedom, but of a vision for a better world through death.

Why Letter & Liturgy?

Truth and beauty belong together. That’s what this place is about.

“Letter and Liturgy” is a phrase that has captivated me for a long while now. The more I thought about it, the more its meaning became apparent to me. The beautiful, literary expression of ideas, practices, and beliefs of the Christian faith—this is, I think, the essence of what the name means.

Truth and beauty are easy to separate. In fact, most of us do separate them. Whether we’re talking about Christian art that is biblical but kitschy and cheap, or whether we’re encountering gorgeously articulated ideas that splash like acid on the gospel, we know from experience how often man can separate what God has joined together. Cold fundamentalism on one hand, exuberant self-authentication on the other. This seems to describe the majority of our experience as believers in Christ. Is there any hope of undoing this?

That’s why I’m writing here. The world doesn’t need another Christian website, blog, or publication. Of course it doesn’t. Letter & Liturgy is not necessary whatsoever. But that’s not why I’m writing. I’m not writing because God needs me to write. I’m writing because God has made it so that I need to write. I need to preach to myself. I need to keep truth and beauty together in my own heart. I need Letter & Liturgy far more than anyone else needs it.

My hope, and my expectation, is that the feelings and desires I’ve described here apply to other people. In fact, I know they do. I’ve had the conversations, I’ve read the reflections, and I’ve heard the prayers. This space is a humble effort to respond to the tragic divorce of truth from beauty, of goodliness from godliness, of the right words from the eternal Word. If that effort resonates with you, I hope you will find here a balm for your mind and your soul.

Psalm 33:3 says, “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.” That’s what I want to do: Sing skillfully, to Him.

Is There a Place in Evangelicalism For Non-Ministers?

A few months before I started there, I took part in a preview weekend for the Bible college that I eventually attended. At one point I had the opportunity to ask the then-dean of the college what the vision of the school was for people (like me) who did not intend to go into vocational ministry. His answer was one I quickly became accustomed to hearing: Every Christian is a “minister” in the realest sense of the word, no matter his or her vocation. Therefore, there would always be a reason for Christians to get a theological education. Wherever we are—the church, business, or the arts—we are ministers.

I think this is true. But I also think it didn’t really answer my question. It seems to me that the question this dean actually answered was, “Why should I give a Bible college money if I don’t have intentions of pastoral ministry?” But that’s a different question. What I wanted to know that evening was whether there was a space to belong for people like me at an institution that is explicitly commissioned to train pastors. I wanted to know whether this college had a category for me (and whether I could have a category for it). To this day, I’m not sure  I completely understand the relationship between evangelicalism’s most important institutions and her non-pastor members. I don’t think I’m alone.

Asking whether there is space for non-ministers in evangelicalism can feel a bit like asking whether there is space for non-members in the local church. On one hand, of course there is! The church is always open like that. After all, if only existing members ever darkened the doors, the church would die. But to say there is space for non-members in this sense is not to say that the church commits to, listens to, or cedes any kind of authority to those attenders. A healthy congregational polity, after all, doesn’t let its non-member attenders cast crucial votes or wield spiritual authority. I often wonder if this is the kind of posture evangelicalism is liable to assume toward its non-ministerial members.

Conservative evangelicalism’s most important, most formative institutions are its churches and its seminaries. One might assume the seminaries exist to serve the churches, but the reality is far more complicated than that. Add in the parachurch ministries and affinity networks to the mix, and you start to get a sense how overlapping the leadership cultures of evangelical institutions really are. The overwhelming majority of influence and institutional capital in my quadrant of evangelicalism is owned by pastors and seminarians. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” The question for me is not whether this is a good or bad thing. Rather, the question for me, as a non-pastor, non-seminarian evangelical who is nonetheless invested in the life and doctrine of evangelicalism: How then shall I live?

Here’s an example of the issues this dynamic can create. Jen Michel is right, I think, to ask whether there is a “gender gap” when it comes to Christian nonfiction. Rather than framing the issue as a case of men refusing to read women, though, I believe I would frame it as a problem of institutional identities. When Jen says “men” here, she of course means Reformed, complementarian men. Who dictates what Reformed, complementarian men read? Well, to a certain extent, Christian publishing does. But what dictates Christian publishing? Aye, there’s the rub. The most doctrinally sound, most ecclesiologically minded publishing houses in evangelicalism tend to invest a large amount of their attention and resources toward pastors and seminaries. Why? Because that’s where the heartbeat of our particular theological culture lies. Again, this isn’t a bad thing. There is something healthy about not totally divorcing the teaching authority of the church and the teaching authority of trade nonfiction (though I think they’re not the same). But it does create, as Jen points out, practical consequences for those of us who don’t live at that heartbeat.

What do Christian writers and speakers do when they’re not ministers? How should they think about their calling? In case you think these are relatively insignificant questions, perhaps put the question a little more bluntly. “Who’s in charge” of, say, the evangelicals who think and writer and speak, but not from the seminarian nexus of evangelical authority? It’s tempting here to appeal to people like C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Elisabeth Eliot, and Nancy Pearcey: all of them hugely influential evangelicals and none of them pastors, seminary presidents, or church network founders. But these are exceptional examples, both in talents and context. The question is not whether we have any more Lewises or Schaeffers or Eliots or Pearceys among us. The question is whether there is a visible path, in the era of Patheos Progressive and narrative-as-authority sub-evangelicalism, for lay writers to become genuine leaders.

Part of the challenge is, I suspect, that for much of conservative evangelicalism, a truly trustworthy leader is one who prioritizes evangelism over intellectualism. That’s at least one reason why the death of someone like Billy Graham looms so large over the evangelical movement, and inspires a meaningful introspection into our identity and future. Make no mistake; Graham is, humanly speaking, the most important American evangelical in history. But such a judgment also implies that evangelicals think of preaching in a way they don’t necessarily think of other things. To borrow some philosophical terms, we might say that in the worldview of evangelicalism, intellectualism and cultural engagement are accidental, but preaching is essence.

It bears saying an umpteenth time: This isn’t bad! It does, however, necessitate evangelical conscientiousness about our movement and its culture. It might also invite some uncomfortable questions about whether pastoral ministry has been inappropriately incentivized, pitched as the only serious vocational option people who want to make a difference for the kingdom. And, as Jen Michel and others have pointed out, it creates a need to articulate more about gender and evangelical authority.

I love both the pastorate and the seminary, but I know (at least as well as one can know these things) they are not in God’s sovereign design for my life. And yet I also know that I want to talk to Christians, have skin in the game, and use whatever resources and time I am given to help both believers and unbelievers see and feel glory. Whether there’s room for me to do this seriously without being a minister, I’m not sure yet. I hope so. Not just for my sake, I hope so.