The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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Secularized Christianity and Contemporary Liberalism
Paul Gottfried - 05/11/09
hands outstretched

Part 1 of a symposium on James Kalb’s The Tyranny of Liberalism, new from ISI Books.

Jim Kalb’s critique of liberalism is what Hegel would have called a “genetic” approach, that is, one based on the examination of the origin and evolution of a particular idea (in Hegel’s case “Idea” would have to be capitalized since it refers to an absolute but also self-transforming entity). From Jim’s perspective, “liberalism” did not start as a body of opinions or sentiments the day before yesterday but goes back to what Richard Weaver and the neo-Thomists consider the “Ockhamite challenge” to the medieval Catholic synthesis of faith and reason. Once these two points of reference were pulled apart with the rise of Nominalism in the thirteenth century, a process made possible by William of Ockham and his metaphysically skeptical disciples, the stage was set for the modern enterprise in ethics and politics. Like the Nominalists, the moderns, starting with Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, and Descartes, and continuing down to such contemporary thinkers as John Rawls, took previously made assumptions about the communal, corporate nature of man as irrelevant. They also increasingly identified the Good with what isolated individuals might desire, as opposed to some ethical end that was common to all humans and which had its basis in our divine origin. Duty, deference, and piety became extraneous to social life, as liberal ideas became more prevalent; and therefore the purpose of government over time became the assisting of individual pleasure-seeker as they try to gratify their appetites.

Kalb is arguing that the creation of a consumer society with disintegrating social roles and relations has developed out of a very specific conception of how humans should relate to each other and to the nature of reality. Such a society is not merely driven by the availability of malls and supermarkets and by the possibility of women being “liberated” from the home. The social and cultural developments that we see reflect fundamental changes in the way people think, and these changes have taken a long time in coming. Kalb does point to certain “conservative” forces that worked against the full unfolding of liberal atomism and acquisitiveness before the present time. Family and monarchical authority continued to operate for centuries after the erosion of classical and medieval metaphysical and ethical teachings. And for centuries Catholic and Protestant churches taught communal responsibilities and religious revelation to their followers, who continued to live in accordance with their precepts.

Malgré tout the force of liberal teachings continued to gain ground, up until the present moment. By now the function of government is to make everyone feel comfortable and happy, protecting their right to material pleasure and redistributing funds to those who don’t have enough to enjoy. Indeed such a conception of government, argues Kalb, is the only one that now has popular acceptance, no matter how our civic and media leaders may slobber over “human rights” and “human dignity.” The now sacred right of women to destroy unborn children who interfere with their “lifestyles” illustrates the current notion of a “human right.” So does the right of gays and, at least in Holland, entire groups to marry each other, a right that Christians must accept in some places, under pain of being punished as criminals for not respecting it.

Allow me to note that I find every aspect of contemporary liberal society at least as abhorrent as my friend and debating partner Jim Kalb. And I take second place to none in my revulsion for everything Jim criticizes. I also profoundly admire his book, which is compulsory reading in my upper-level courses. But as one should be able to tell from his long, thoughtful review of my books in Political Science Reviewer last year, we differ in our views about how we got to the present disagreeable moment. I am not as dismissive as he about “bourgeois liberalism,” which is the pre-democratic and still socially traditional form of the philosophy of freedom that developed in the nineteenth century. Unlike him, I also view the end of the Middle Ages as containing the seeds of later positive developments, such as the Reformation, the consolidation of nation states, and the rise of a bourgeois civilization. My own work has focused on the formative roles of mass democracy, public administration, and the egalitarian bacillus in bringing about the kind of society that Jim and I detest equally.

But I’m not convinced that one can understand the dynamics of this society by focusing entirely on self-indulgent pleasure seeking and material consumption. The election of Barack Obama is due in part to the same attitudes that infuse racial set asides, anti-discrimination laws, and the willingness to accept double standards in scholarship, social behavior, and everything else in dealing with aggrieved minorities. White Christian Americans and other Westerners feel guilt, or at least are required to appear so, for failing to have practiced some perfectionist standard of equality in the past, and they are therefore required to engage in permanent atonement and even self-deception in order to begin to remedy this wrong. We now have entire months set aside to reflect on our sins toward blacks and women, in what looks like a Lenten season without end.

In my opinion, Jim underestimates the power of transformed Christian narratives and replacement theologies in trying to explain contemporary social and political behavior. Multiculturalism, together with its disparagement of a specifically white Western civilization, is not so much about pleasure-seeking and material gratification as it is about recognizing and expiating sin. Although my own examination of modern political life started out by looking at the ideologies of public administration and changing power-relations, I was led eventually into noticing the religious dimension of my area of study. Secularized Christianity does not remove the presence of Christian concepts of guilt, sin, and atonement but has the result of turning them into ludicrous PC caricatures. Without necessarily rejecting Jim’s picture of the degeneration of liberalism, I am more struck by the kind of degenerate Christianity that has accompanied this process.

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By This Author
Howard, John
Herberg, Will

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