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Saving Liberalism From Liberals

Conservative scholar Vincent Philip Muñoz says the fight is not over. Is he right?

My friend Vincent Philip Muñoz, who teaches politics at Notre Dame, has a good National Review essay out critiquing Patrick Deneen, Adrian Vermeule, and, tangentially, Your Working Boy. Muñoz — a Catholic and a conservative — broadly agrees with Deneen et al. that we in the liberal democracies are in a serious and complex crisis, but he disagrees that this is the result of liberalism. (N.B., he means classical liberalism, not merely the philosophy of the Democratic Party).

Muñoz does a very good job summarizing fairly the core of the Deneenist critique — one he attributes to “radical Catholics.” He concludes:

The critics conclude that our current situation reigns because of our liberal founding principles, not despite them. If you want to understand the true character of America, the “radical” Catholics contend, just look to the Supreme Court’s plurality opinion in the abortion-rights case Planned Parenthood vs. Casey (1992): “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.”

Contra Deneen, Muñoz says the Casey “abomination” is not the logical result of the principles of the American Founding, but an aberration. Likewise, the moral crises we’re suffering from are not the fault of classical liberalism itself, but because of something extraneous to it. Muñoz concedes that the strongest claim the Deneenists make is

that American liberalism, whatever its original character, has produced a decadent and deplorable legal and moral culture. One might contend that even if the Founders accepted natural law, moral duties, and limits on rights, their account of freedom has proved to be too thin. It provides too much freedom for bourgeois, comfortable self-preservation, what moral theologian Servais Pinckaers calls “freedom for indifference,” and insufficient cultivation of “freedom for excellence.”


America is better characterized as an “experiment.” The Founders well understood that every generation would need to be taught to use its freedom well, which is why they sought to cultivate virtue through education and religion. (Thomas G. West in his excellent new book, The Political Theory of the American Founding, skillfully documents the Founders’ efforts.) They did not embrace Aristotle’s teachings that the purpose of politics is to make men virtuous and that law should be used to coercively habituate moral virtue, but they did understand that their constitutional republic would depend on virtue for its success. “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People,” John Adams stated. “It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” This is why America is an experiment: Can a free people remain sufficiently virtuous to maintain, and deserve to maintain, their freedom?

If we Americans are no longer sufficiently virtuous, the fault lies primarily with us, not our founding principles. Our political and economic institutions have never been perfect, but (aside from slavery and its legacies, perhaps) they have never been so corrupt that they have made virtuous living impossible. Original sin may make corruption probable, and political liberty may make it possible; but the causes of America’s problems lie primarily in the poor choices we have made.

That means the solution to our problem lies, to a large extent, in our choices. To choose well, we must regain both political wisdom and the character that befits a constitutional people. Reacquaintance with our actual liberal principles and a return to belief in the existence of an obligatory moral law are essential.

The latter may require a reemergence of religious belief, especially among the cultural elite where it has precipitously declined. The necessity of morality for liberal democracy, and of religion for morality, cannot be understated. As Tocqueville recognized, religion is the first of America’s political institutions. It teaches us to respect the equality of all individuals and provides the grounds for moderation and self-restraint, both individually and communally.

If I’m reading Muñoz correctly, then he’s saying simply that the moral soundness of liberalism depends on the moral and religious soundness of the people who live under it, well, this is not terribly controversial. John Adams said as much. Deneen’s claim is that liberalism was bound to get us to the Kennedy Moment (“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”). I don’t see that Muñoz has refuted that in this essay. Deneen wouldn’t deny that the Founders were religious men, of a sort, and that liberalism can be compatible with a moral, religious, cohesive polity. His argument is that at its core. liberalism, over time, cannot help but atomize the polity, because it is in its nature to do so.

In other words, Muñoz seems to be saying: It didn’t have to turn out this way. To which Deneen replies: Yes, it did.

It’s easier to see Deneen’s point when you realize that liberalism is not merely a political arrangement, but a more comprehensive way of looking at and living in the world. In this excerpt from an interview with The Nation, Deneen talks about liberalism in economics:

JH: Here’s a good line: “The economic system that simultaneously is both liberalism’s handmaiden and also its engine, like a Frankenstein monster, takes on a life of its own, and its processes and logic can no longer be controlled by people purportedly enjoying the greatest freedom in history.” How much does global capitalism factor into your critique of liberalism?

PD: I see it very much as the right hand of the liberal political project. I see these two systems as having grown up together. Every political worldview has an accompanying economic worldview.

Now, people debate whether we have capitalism or crony capitalism or statist capitalism. But essentially we have what, I think, is market ideology—the ideology that locates in the economic sphere a realm driven by private decision making—and this is the economic counterpart of the self-making self of the liberal political sphere.

I think we tend to have this narrative that capitalism is the opposite of statism. But you see that, so often in American history and in recent years, the growth of a global market has been driven by political processes. Our political order creates our market order.

Liberalism trains us to think of everything as a market. This has broad effects:

JH: So maybe it’s good that liberalism has helped people break traditional bonds, but perhaps only because those bonds are themselves weak or, otherwise, too restricting and oppressive—not bonds but shackles.

PD: I think you’ve stated a core understanding and ambition of the liberal order: of turning religious identity or family identity or one’s geographic identity into one option among many. I would go one step further, and here’s where I think you see the excess of liberalism. We begin to see the actual diminution of any of these particular forms of cultural identity. I think that one hallmark is this: As you move through recent generations, you find that the younger you are, the more likely you have no identifying markers. Now 50 percent of millennials identify with no religious tradition, are unlikely to marry, unlikely to have children, and show the lowest measurements of patriotism ever in American history. Say what you will: This might be a good thing. But I would say it’s potentially a bad thing to have a society of disaggregated, atomized individuals who, I’d argue, are not socialized to be sociable.

My fear is that, if things continue as they’re going, a highly atomized society is one that is very susceptible to the attractions of a despot. Someone who can offer a political identity that would prove attractive as the kind of flattening of our political, economic, and cultural life continues.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that most Americans today were religiously engaged. Would that have stopped the kind of liberal economics that have eviscerated communities? Or the other cultural developments that have deracinated modern people? I don’t see how. Whether the Founders realized what liberalism was capable of or not, the fact is that the deepest principles of liberalism are antithetical to the kind of virtues necessary to sustain liberalism. It’s a paradox.

And it’s a paradox that none of us can escape. I can’t speak for the others in Muñoz’s list, but I would be hard pressed to come up with a system I would rather live under than liberalism. Vermeule is a Catholic integralist, a system that is intellectually coherent, but that is totally unfeasible here, and unacceptable to non-Catholics (as well as many modern Catholics). Deneen, of course, doesn’t propose a post-liberal program, and acknowledges in his book that it is impossible to think past liberalism at the moment. The best we can do is work to shore up local connections and to ground ourselves. That’s my view as well.

And, I have to concede that liberalism, broadly understood, is what makes it possible for my family to educate our children in a countercultural way. People like me can lament the loss of social solidarity, but in the end, do we put our children in the same school as most of our neighbors? No, because we have a very different understanding of what education is and should be, as well as a meaningfully different understanding of moral order. I’m grateful for the liberties that give us the freedom to dissent, and I will fight for them.

I have to admit, though, that liberalism, as it is now practiced in America, gives me the right to be illiberal, and to live illiberally. At least for now. Recognizing that we are living under a paradox does not make one a hypocrite.

Muñoz concludes:

The “radical” Catholics’ misinterpretation of America is thus no mere academic matter. Their mistakes blind us to how our liberal principles offer a moral framework by which to support life. They are unable to appreciate the greatness of Lincoln or appropriate his moral wisdom and constitutional statesmanship. They preach local community and relationship to the past, but fail to understand their own community and eschew America’s own traditions and what is most noble about them.

In doing so, “radical” Catholicism alienates from the American experiment those who should be America’s most faithful friends, dispiriting young conservatives in particular. If liberalism was never attractive to begin with — if Casey is consistent with the Constitution — why fight for America? Why run for office or give one’s time or treasure to those who do? Why even vote and implicate oneself in an inevitably failing and corrupt political regime? The political alienation the “radical” Catholics foster cannot help but engender disdain for engaged citizenship and responsible patriotism among the young, religiously orthodox citizens that America most needs right now.

I see what he’s getting at, but I think this relies too much on abstraction. It’s not hard to see why liberalism was once attractive, and why it remains attractive in theory. In practice, though, the Casey decision is consistent with the Constitution, because the Supreme Court, the authoritative interpreters of the Constitution, have declared it so. Liberalism — politically, economically, and culturally — have produced a people that by all appearances believe that Justice Kennedy’s statement is true. I would love to see Pew poll Americans on their opinion about the Kennedy statement:

“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 liberals who founded America in the 18th century would not have agreed with that. But can anybody seriously claim that Justice Kennedy’s view is not consonant with what most Americans today believe? If defending classical liberalism from the liberals (in the left-wing sense of the term) means convincing the American people that Kennedy’s statement is not essentially true, then the battle for liberalism is lost. As Deneen points out in his Nation interview, liberalism has turned us all into “self-making selves.” The problem is, human beings can’t sustain a way of life as a herd of self-making selves. Even Christianity itself has become Self-Making Selves At Prayer (this is what Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is). If the ordinary source of transcendence has become so thoroughly immanent for most of those who look to it, what hope is there for our politics?

Think about it: Liberalism’s latest battle is to insist that we can make our own sex, male or female or somewhere in between. Before long the Court will be asked to decide if this is true, constitutionally. Whatever the Court decides will be the law of the land. Why, exactly, should young conservatives give themselves over to defending a system that by its very nature undermines (actively and passively) and even denies things they believe to be fundamental truths?

One conservative answer might be: because we have to do the best we can in the world as it is. You don’t have to affirm liberalism to serve on your town council, and to do your best to improve the world for your neighbors, using the liberties you have. Even after the Roman Empire fell in the West, people still showed up for work. I expect conservatives will keep doing the same thing here. This is why in The Benedict Option, I explicitly say that religious conservatives should stay involved in politics, to work for the common good and especially to protect religious liberty.

But we have to do this with clear eyes. I don’t see sufficient evidence to convince me that liberalism can be rescued from its unwinding. Conservatives, especially religious conservatives, have to face this difficult truth, and prepare themselves and their families for it. Liberal civilization has done the thing that the conservative thinker Eric Voegelin warned us not to do: immanentized the eschaton. That is, we have assumed all transcendence into ourselves. The Founders did not believe that, but the logical outworking of their principles had this effect. And here we are.

Anyway, read the whole thing.  It’s well worth considering. For you conservative readers who believe that classical liberalism can be saved, I’m eager to know how you think that might be done, given the cultural realities of our post-Christian age.



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