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Liberalism & Sacred Order

What does Patrick Deneen know that you need to understand? (Dartmouth)

In a long Twitter thread, Justin Lee — he’s a great follow @justindeanlee — makes a heroic effort to explain to skeptical liberal colleagues at Arc Digital why the critique Patrick Deneen and others make of liberalism should be taken seriously. Here’s the whole thing on Thread Reader. Note well: at the beginning of his commentary, he makes it clear that his focus is metaphysical, not strictly political. By “liberalism,” he doesn’t mean the philosophy of the Democratic Party; he means classical liberalism, the governing philosophy that has ruled the US and Britain since the Enlightenment, and most of the Western world off and on. Free markets, individual liberties, etc.

Lee starts by defining liberty in its positive and negative senses. Negative liberty is freedom from coercion; positive liberty is the freedom to master yourself, and do what you should do. Lee:

Especially in the case of negative liberty, you have to have a state to adjudicate between competing rights — and there’s no coherent way to do that without reference to a set of values outside the system.

Liberalism presents itself as morally neutral, but it’s not, because no political system can be.

There is no escaping metaphysics — that is, an underlying account of the nature of reality. Metaphysics also implies a moral and political anthropology: an account of what a human being is. As Lee indicates, the reason we are having so many problems sorting ourselves out politically is because we, as a late liberal polity, lack a shared metaphysics. The Christian religion used to provide that, but at this point in our history, no longer does, because most people either disbelieve, or their belief is soft and emotional, not strong enough to build a social order on (in other words, Christianity has become subordinated to therapeutic bourgeois individualism). More Lee:


Read it all.

To restate: Lee makes the MacIntyrean point that the attempt to uphold a political order without a shared metaphysics is doomed to fail. He further says that classical liberalism is not possible without Judeo-Christian foundations, because it is from the Bible, and its teaching that man is made in the image of God, that we get the modern idea of human rights. Liberalism’s claim to be neutral is just a pose; it too has a metaphysics, because there is no way to avoid metaphysics.

The ne plus ultra of incoherent late liberalism was this statement by Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion of the 1992 Casey decision, reaffirming abortion rights:

“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

The idea that we get to make up our own metaphysics itself implies a metaphysics! Or at the very least it implies an attitude towards metaphysics that is functionally nihilist. The idea that the individual has the right to make it all up is an utterly incoherent basis for a political and social order. You can see in these 28 words the invisible metaphysics of liberalism: it pretends to vindicate a broad idea of individual liberty, but does so in a court decision that judges unborn human beings as outside the realm of personhood. Which, okay, fine — but don’t pretend that you’re neutral here. In fact, this infamous Kennedy line is particularly rich coming from a judge, whose very role is to decide the contours of liberty within a polity.

On the fundamental questions of abortion and gay marriage, the Supreme Court has declared them to be beyond politics. Again, fine, but don’t pretend that this is in any way a neutral decision. Obergefell, like Casey, implies a certain view of what a person is — and in the case of the former, what marriage is. Pro-LGBT liberals think it’s just irrational prejudice when traditional Christians say that gay marriage isn’t really marriage. In fact, though it sounds kind of la-tee-da to put it this way, both sides — pro-SSM and anti-SSM — are operating from incommensurate metaphysics. It’s important to understand that because it shows just how deep the divide goes. Liberals who say it is merely prejudice (or, in the Supreme Court’s judgment, “irrational animus”) are neatly dismissing deep conservative objections based on what marriage is as pure hatred.  I bring this up not to start a new argument about gay marriage, but to point out how liberals do this sleight of hand to dismiss conservative claims while reinforcing their own pretense of neutrality.

Most people don’t think metaphysically, of course. That’s not how life works. But we live metaphysically, whether we are aware of it or not. Philip Rieff points out that all civilizations have a “sacred order,” but ours, in the post-Christian era, is the first that has tried to live on a negation of sacred order. It can’t be done — and we are living through the death of a civilization whose traditional sacred order is no longer felt by most of its people. (More on this in a moment.)

The questions before courts now about transgenderism are at bottom metaphysical. What is sex? Is it wholly a social construct, or does it have a strong basis in material reality? I predict the Court will ratify whatever the changing beliefs of the professional class are. This will further damage its authority, because many will see its decisions are arbitrary, as based heavily in an irrational animus towards anything that threatens the educated bourgeoisie.

In any case, I think what Justin Lee is trying to get his liberal friends to grasp is that Team Deneen are writing about something that truly exists. Liberalism is a lot more fragile than many liberals think. Deneen’s basic argument is that liberalism has failed because it has succeeded so well. That is, liberalism has created a world of unprecedented individual liberty, but in so doing, has made society thin, fissiparous, and ultimately ungovernable, because it has left us with no means to adjudicate our disputes. If you want to think more deeply about this, please read this 1989 Atlantic essay by the political theorist Glenn Tinder, titled “Can We Be Good Without God?”

My Benedict Option idea is based on the idea that MacIntyre is right, but that there’s no realistic way to go back to the shared Christian understanding of sacred order. One feature of it that has not been much remarked on by commenters is the claim that even Christians have abandoned the traditional Christian concept of sacred order. I bang on about “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” so much because as Christian Smith has shown, it really is the de facto religion of Americans, including American Christians. American Christianity has failed to Christianize liberalism; liberalism has liberalized Christianity. And by “liberalized Christianity,” I don’t mean only that it has made American Christianity more “liberal” in the sense of “progressive”; I mean that it has rendered Christianity into the religion of liberals (radical individualists) at prayer. You can have a 100 percent Trump voting, God-and-guns congregation that is also 100 percent liberal in the sense I mean. If late liberalism is incoherent, so is Christianity after Christendom.

As a Christian, I am less concerned that the constitutional order continue than I am concerned with the survival of the Church. A superficial reading of The Benedict Option would hold that the greatest threat to Christianity today comes from the state. What I really say in the book is that the greatest threat comes from within: from the unthinking absorption by Christians of classical liberalism and its metaphysics. This absorption has occurred less from a failure of doctrinal instruction and more from a failure of discipleship — that is, instantiating traditional Christian teaching into daily practices.

But I digress. Going back to the Deneen critique, a lot of people faulted him for not having an answer to the problem he diagnosed. That is, because he doesn’t say “this is what should replace liberalism,” then his critique of liberalism must be unsound. This is a failure of logic. If a doctor examined you and said that you have an incurable, fatal disease, what sense would it make to dismiss the diagnosis because the physician does not know how to arrest your condition? That’s what we’re dealing with here. The metaphysics (“sacred order”) of secular liberalism create an unstable and unsustainable political system. There is no apparent way out of this within secular liberalism itself. Something has to give. The fact that for many of us, all the conceivable alternatives to liberalism seem worse than liberalism does not negate the Deneen critique.

In the dawn of the 4th century, Roman paganism was exhausted, but Roman elites could not conceive of anything different than a state founded on the gods that their ancestors had worshipped for many centuries. Within a century, everything had changed. We are in such a time of transition now, I believe. If secular liberals want to understand what’s happening, they need to deal with Deneen (and MacIntyre, et alia), not just dismiss them. If you haven’t read Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, you really should. He’s a good writer. Even Barack Obama recommended this book as an important read to understand our times.

Anyway, if you’re on Twitter, follow @justindeanlee — he’s consistently interesting.

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.

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