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Why Christians Criticize Liberalism
Most accounts of Christian criticism of liberalism take “liberalism” as the primary category. In a new book chapter published today in the Routledge Handbook of Illiberalism, I take the opposite approach. For Christians, the Christian life is fundamental—and for the Catholic Church in particular, its corporate life.
Recently a cottage industry has appeared in academia to dissect Christian, and especially Catholic, responses to liberalism. A separate but related industry has emerged to tell liberalism’s critics that the job has already been done and there is nothing more to say. To understand why those who hold to traditional forms of Christianity—even culturally, as some of us recently argued—have continued the argument, it’s important to try to see the development of liberalism from the standpoint of Christianity.
To read the whole thing, check out Routledge’s offers on the whole book (which includes sixty chapters more!)—or see if your library has access through Taylor & Francis. I’d like to take this moment to thank the editors, especially Renáta Uitz of Central European University, for their initial proposal as well as their patient editing and many crucial improvements. Meanwhile, enjoy the excerpt below.
Contemporary Christian Criticism of Liberalism
The growth of nonliberal political regimes, especially over the past decade, has brought renewed interest in the criticism of liberalism among Christian writers in the US and Europe. That criticism has come from Christian thinkers writing in a variety of genres, not only in theological critique but political theory and cultural criticism as well. This chapter offers an overview of the main lines of Christian criticism of liberalism commonly encountered today, as well as a discussion of the political milieu within which these criticisms have once again become salient.
In the century and a half since the initial clash of liberalism and Christianity, the political terrain has shifted in a number of ways that are important for discerning why the current moment is distinctive. At the broadest level, Christian critics of liberalism perceive that liberalism is both hegemonic and fragile; indeed, that its hegemony has become the source of fragility and the cause of reactions that threaten (or give an opportunity to) replace liberal with “nonliberal” political orders. This perception is heightened by the presence of alternatives to Western liberal democracy elsewhere in the world: the authoritarian state capitalism of China, the populist nationalism of Hungary and Poland, and the reactions against liberal economic policies in the US and the UK. These factors together have given momentum to Christian criticisms of liberalism that emphasize the possibility of establishing political order on a nonliberal basis.
More broadly, contemporary challenges to liberalism are situated within a longstanding debate over the place and role of public religion in liberal democracy. Students of political theology in the tradition of Carl Schmitt have emphasized his claim that “the central concepts of modern state theory are all secularized theological concepts”. For many liberals, liberal democracy subsumed originally Christian commitments, like that of equality before God, into a new and better synthesis; leaving open the question of what role religion should continue to play. Many conservatives argued that the preservation of traditional forms of Christianity was needed to bolster the commitments of liberalism. Few, however, challenged liberalism itself. That is what has begun to change.
To pursue such an inquiry it would normally be helpful to begin with a definition of liberalism around which Christian criticisms could be organized. But while some common elements of liberalism have drawn the criticism of Christian writers—its hegemonic tendencies, excessive individualism, moral neutrality, and imposition of a public/private divide, its treatment of liberalism as a civil religion—accounts of liberalism offered by Christian writers often lie embedded in their critiques. In other words, Christian criticism of liberalism cannot be understood simply as a competing set of academic accounts of liberalism and its flaws. Rather, it must be understood as a particular result of the attempt to live a Christian life in modern, contemporary society within or among otherwise liberal regimes. As the Christian life entails an individual commitment (through baptism) to join a corporate community, tensions have arisen both in the private and the public spheres. At the same time, those tensions have been articulated by an array of members of the Christian community; not only by representatives of hierarchical institutions, but among intellectual circles that are only now opening new avenues of criticism.
For a new set of Christian thinkers liberalism now seems to be both hegemonic and fragile: hegemonic as it seeks to inculcate a liberal way of life throughout the world; fragile as it struggles to generate loyalty and maintain political stability.
In what follows, I take up the viewpoint of Christians who, while trying to live their calling individually and as members of a corporate community, have clashed with the world around them. Beginning from the efforts of liberal political and military forces to dispossess the Catholic Church of its Italian lands in the nineteenth century, I highlight the political contexts necessary for understanding Christian responses to liberalism. Alongside the robust critiques of liberalism levied by nineteenth-century Popes grew a new Catholic social teaching, aiming to address contemporary society in more constructive terms. Following the conclusion of World War II and the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, robust critiques of liberalism were relegated to the margins of Christian thought. Likewise, in the decades before and after the collapse of Communism, many conservative Catholics focused on supplementing liberal democracy with Christian thought while criticizing its excesses. Over the past decade, however, a growing number of Christian thinkers have begun to see liberalism in a terminal decline, unable to claim a unique political or economic power in a world where nonliberal regimes are both stable and economically successful.
Early Tensions Between Christianity and Liberalism: From the Nineteenth to Mid-twentieth Century
Contemporary Christian criticism of liberalism emerges from efforts to follow Christian ways of life in liberal modernity. Yet in one important sense Christian criticism of liberalism is hardly new. During the nineteenth century, as political forces first arrayed themselves under the name of “liberalism” and challenged the political status of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe and Latin America, the Popes took aim squarely at positions they described as “liberal.” In his 1864 Syllabus errorum, Pope Pius IX (r. 1846–1878) gathered under the header “Errors Having Reference to Modern Liberalism” four propositions that he had previously condemned between 1852 and 1861. The condemned propositions held that (no. 77) the Catholic religion should not enjoy the exclusive preference of the state, (78) public liberty of religion is to be mandated, (79) such liberty of religion is not a corrupting influence, and (80) the Pope should generally reconcile himself to “liberalism and modern civilization”. It was this last condemned proposition—that the Popes should reconcile themselves to liberalism and modern civilization that set the tone for the Church’s attitude toward liberalism more broadly. In the English-speaking world, the Anglican convert to Catholicism John Henry Newman, later cardinal, would identify liberalism with “false liberty of thought,” while his fellow convert Henry Edward Manning, Archbishop of Westminster, explained Pius IX’s decrees to a skeptical public.
This first clash between liberalism and Christianity took precisely the form I have suggested is similarly illuminating in present circumstances. Pius IX’s criticisms of liberalism gained importance because they responded to a specific political situation: the intent of political forces in Europe, under the name of liberalism, to separate church and state and, eventually, take land in central Italy that had been under papal government since the eighth century. Although Europe had already suffered many convulsions in the preceding century, in an acute sense Pius IX’s invective against liberalism stemmed from the need to denounce the political ideology that threatened the Church on the Italian peninsula, and ecclesiastical establishments elsewhere. As Manning put it in 1877:
The Liberals of Europe were [previously] such men as Lord Lansdowne; they are now Gambetta in France, Falck in Prussia, Depretis and Mancini in Italy, and those who are in sympathy and solidarity with them in England. Their avowed object is to overthrow the Vatican, their true aim is to overthrow revelation, and to “emancipate religious thought, and the free worship of humanity.”
Catholic social teaching in its modern form took its initial shape in the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII (r. 1878–1903). In a series of encyclicals crowned by his 1891 Rerum novarum, the Pope sought to speak to contemporary social troubles from within the walls of the Vatican, where the Popes had in effect been made prisoner (since 1870) by Italian revolutionary forces. No longer merely denouncing the onslaught of liberalism, Leo wanted to address the underlying conditions of modern society. In his 1888 encyclical Libertas, Leo identified liberals as those who “deny the existence of any divine authority to which obedience is due, and proclaim that every man is the law to himself.” But he also launched a rapprochement with modern regimes that departed from earlier condemnations of democratic government. “Of the various forms of government, the Church does not reject any that are fitted to procure the welfare of the subject,” he wrote – with the proviso that governments not wrong anyone, “and especially without violating the rights of the Church.” From Leo’s pontificate onward Catholic social teaching viewed both the unfettered market economy as well as socialist statism with sharp criticism. In Rerum novarum, Leo identified both capital and labour as important contributors to the good of society. As Communist regimes came into power in the succeeding decades the later development of Catholic social teaching began to reflect the new challenges, with Pius XI emphasizing the themes of subsidiarity and corporate solidarity in his Quadragesimo anno (1931), while warning specifically against Communism in his 1937 Divini Redemptoris.
As Europe and the US emerged from two traumatic World Wars in the years after 1945, the emergence of the new Soviet threat prompted many defenders of liberal democracy to turn to Christian sources both for the reconstruction of Europe (through Christian Democracy) and for bolstering their political system against the Communist alternative. . . .
In the remainder of the piece, I take the criticism of liberalism right up through the present, exploring the reasons why the various rapprochements with liberalism failed after the latter decades of the twentieth century. The volume, edited by András Sajó, Renáta Uitz and Stephen Holmes, contains sixty-one chapters on a variety of topics within the broad theme of “illiberalism.” The e-book is available from Routledge.