Home/Rod Dreher/The Church Vs. Liberalism Smash-Up

The Church Vs. Liberalism Smash-Up

There’s been a nice Twitter discussion among Harvard Law’s Adrian Vermeule, Ross Douthat, and others, about the increasingly fraught relationship between Catholicism and liberal democracy. It was sparked by this Vermeule essay in the Catholic Herald. In it, Vermeule criticizes fellow conservative Catholics (Douthat, Rusty Reno) for believing that it’s possible to reach a workable modus vivendi with liberalism. Excerpt:

To begin with, liberalism cannot ultimately tolerate the accommodation in principle while remaining true to itself, whatever Catholics might hope. Reno’s distinction between creedal and traditional liberalism illustrates the problem. In Episcopalian institutions, it is common to hear the Creed downplayed in favour of tradition and liturgy (“lex orandi, lex credendi”). The problem is that the liturgy itself includes a solemn affirmation of the Creed. There is then no escape from taking a stand on the truth or falsity of the Creed’s substantive commitments. Reno, like me a former Episcopalian, falls into a version of this same problem, mutatis mutandis. Liberalism, too, of course has robust substantive commitments, much as it might pretend otherwise. The “tradition” of liberalism, really an anti-tradition, is founded on that substantive creed and cannot coherently even be identified, let alone followed, without entering into those anti-traditionalist ideas and sympathetically interpreting and applying them. Doing so will inevitably amount to a reaffirmation of the liberal creed. Put differently, as I have argued elsewhere, the main “tradition” of liberalism is in fact a liturgy, centred on a sacramental celebration of the progressive overcoming of the darkness of bigotry and unreason. To participate in that tradition, that liturgy, is necessarily and inescapably to commune with and be caught up into a particular substantive view of time, history, world and the sacred – the liberal view.

To be sure, even if liberalism cannot accept the accommodation in principle, perhaps there can be an indefinite truce, a pragmatic equilibrium of political and social forces. It takes two to make a truce, however, or else a higher third power who restrains unilateral aggression – a katechon for the liberal state. In our actual situation, neither condition obtains. The forces of secular progressive liberalism – which span both major political parties – make no secret of what they would like to do to believing Catholics. One Harvard law professor urged his fellow-liberals to reject wide-ranging “religious liberty” protections over LGBT issues because “taking a hard line (‘You lost, live with it’) is better than trying to accommodate the losers … [a]nd taking a hard line seemed to work reasonably well in Germany and Japan after 1945.” (He later offered an unconvincing reinterpretation of his own statements). During the Obama presidency, the then Solicitor General of the US acknowledged that Christian institutions could lose their tax exemptions over their doctrinal stances.


 Sooner or later, and probably sooner, political control over judicial appointments means that judicial views will inevitably be brought into conformity with the views of the wider society, which in the America of 2018 are increasingly dismissive of central tenets of Catholic doctrine. Even the current “conservative” majority on the Court will not last forever; and again, just such a majority produced Obergefell in the first place – such is the power of social conformism. It is not a matter of whether a serious conflict between the liberal state and the Catholic faith will occur, but of when, and how bad it will be. [emphasis mine — RD]

This conflict, while certainly not to be desired or sought out, has the salutary side-effect of reminding Catholics that nostalgia for the lost harmony of the liberal order is a theological error. Catholics should not become too enamoured of the traditions and practices of a particular locality, polity or period; there should be no Catholic “theology of place” and, correlatively, no Catholic nostalgia for lost place and time. It’s not just that you can’t go home again; it’s that for Catholics, whatever place and time is at issue was never truly home in the first place.

Read the whole thing. If you want to comment here on Vermeule’s argument, you need to follow the links to the Douthat and Reno pieces he references.

My reading of Douthat is not that he has any kind of permanent hope that things can be put right again, but rather that he is looking for good signs wherever he can find them. He’s always been like this. He’s like this in his forthcoming book on Pope Francis: looking for signs of hope, even if he believes the hopes are slim. In the column that Vermeule criticizes, Douthat issues a barely-veiled appeal to Justice Kennedy — who earlier in the week this column was published, heard oral arguments in the cake-baker case — to rule for the baker for the sake of keeping the peace. It seems clear to me that Douthat isn’t saying that begging for mercy from power-holders is sufficient. It seems to me that Douthat’s doing what he practically can with what he has been given, and in light of the stark realities of our time and place.

And he’s doing what I think Christians should be doing, as part of the Benedict Option. So is Adrian Vermeule, with the gifts he has been given as a Harvard Law professor and an orthodox Catholic. We don’t get to choose the terms of this fight. We don’t have the option of fighting the battle we wish for. A fundamental mistake people make in interpreting The Benedict Option is to think that I am counseling escapism. That’s not true. It’s rather that I believe that orthodox Catholics and other conservative Christians should understand very clearly that at best we are fighting a rear-guard action — and precisely for the reason Adrian Vermeule points out in the second citation above. We live in a post-Christian society, one in which a far more serious conflict than we’ve seen so far between Church and State is inevitable. To think that we’re going to win these conflicts because we can’t afford to lose them is the worst kind of magical thinking.

That doesn’t mean we can’t afford to fight. It means that we can’t expect to win. A few years back, I spoke to a Christian lawyer who works on religious liberty cases. He told me that what most Christians in that pre-Obergefell time didn’t realize is that on the legal front, “We’re out of bullets.” If I remember the conversation correctly, his general point was that our side lacked a realistic sense of how difficult the legal environment has become for us.

I don’t know what’s going to follow liberal democracy, or what should follow liberal democracy. I care most about the health of Christianity, which can endure any number of regimes, as it has throughout history. I believe that orthodox Christians who genuinely believed that they are called by God to work in politics, in law, and in the military, should, in general, answer that call. But they have to ask themselves: who, and what, are they protecting with their service? That is, absent the discipleship and formation the Benedict Option calls for, what kind of church will we have? Christians who have assimilated into the post-Christian, secular liberal order need no protection. They need conversion. This is a point that I cannot seem to get across to many Christian critics of the Benedict Option: that acquiring and exercising worldly power is an empty quest if the people have lost faith and virtue. Think about it: Even if an Angel of the Lord delivered from heaven the perfect scheme of government, and anointed a Philosopher-King to administer it, what good from a Christian point of view would that do if the people had apostatized?

(Note to readers: I have edited this post somewhat to take out reference to material from a forthcoming essay by Prof. Vermeule, which will be published next week, I think. I saw an advance copy, and should not have talked about its content, even glancingly, in this post. I’ll write more about it when it appears. I offer my apology to Prof. Vermeule.)

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

leave a comment

Latest Articles