Liberalism's Ungrounded Present

Editor’s note: This review was originally published on April 10, 2017

First and foremost, modern liberalism aimed at ending the moral, political, and intellectual conditions underlying the savage religious wars which wracked 16th and 17th century Europe. The concurrence of the Protestant challenge to the Roman Catholic Church with the founding of centralized states capable of raising and funding large armies made these wars both uncompromising and devastating. Although the earliest liberals—Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes—advocated religious establishments strongly supported by the new states as a means of imposing civil peace on warring factions, liberalism took a new turn with John Locke, who argued for republican politics and religious toleration. In the three centuries since Locke, liberalism has retained its republicanism, but in recent decades its relation to religion has become shaky, as religious people have come to fear the advance of “secularization” and liberals have come to fear religious “fundamentalism.”

Giorgi Areshidze, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, offers in Democratic Religion from Locke to Obama: Faith and the Civic Life of Democracy a succinct and penetrating analysis of liberalism’s most recent major iteration. How does John Rawls’ theory compare with the natural rights liberalism of John Locke and the postmodern liberalism of Jürgen Habermas? And how do the attempts of Barack Obama, liberalism’s political standard-bearer in our time, to address the religio-political question compare with the thought of Obama’s two great heroes, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King? Do the troubled relations between the modern state and contemporary religious communities derive from the Rawlsian liberalism we have now, or do they inhere in liberalism as such?

In his 1993 book Political Liberalism, Rawls advocates a doctrine of universal toleration—of political “impartiality” respecting not only religions but all “comprehensive doctrines,” whether derived from revelation or from reason. Government should maintain strict neutrality regarding all conceptions of “the good.” Citizens may invoke religious or philosophic reasons for policy only insofar as they form part of the “overlapping consensus” of opinions in civil society. So, for example, if I assert that all persons stand as equal before God, that is admissible only insofar as public opinion generally favors human equality. Justice in Rawls’s view has no religious or philosophic foundation; its policies simply reflect the prevailing consensus. Debate proceeds along the lines of “public reason,” which means reasoning that remains within the bounds of the prevailing consensus. Thus, as Areshidze writes, “Political Liberalism demonstrates a latent dependence on historically inherited metaphysical and theological foundations that support liberal politics.” (Emphasis added.) Rawlsian liberalism is a specimen of historical relativism.

This historicist tendency of contemporary liberalism both influences and troubles the 44th President of the United States. As an admirer of the Abolitionist movement of the 1800s and the civil rights movement of the 1900s, Obama would revive an appreciation of Christianity on the American Left. He doesn’t want to leave religiosity as the province of social and political conservativism. But he also esteems social and religious pluralism, invoking a need for “the religiously-motivated” to “translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.”  For him as for Rawls, that means “consensus-building.”

Obama regards America as a post-Christian society, a “mosaic” of religions and of irreligion. Areshidze wonders “to what extent is it possible to update American civil religion so as to take into account the nation’s increasing pluralism without at the same time diluting religion so much as to render its contribution to democracy practically useless?” If “the standard of public reasonableness requires all claims of revealed religious authority to submit themselves to the tribunal of unassisted human reason,” why does that not render religion politically superfluous?

The former President understands the Bible in exactly the same way that he and other liberals of historicist leanings understand the U. S. Constitution: “it is not a static text but the Living Word,” open to “new revelations,” inviting us to employ “a method of creative interpretation.” In so arguing, “Obama never explains why religious accommodation with modern life should come at the expense of those religious views which do not simply support present-day cultural norms,” although he admits that “the absolutists” have led the causes he most esteems.

This “conceptual impasse” of contemporary, historicist liberalism leads Areshidze back to the founder of republican liberalism, John Locke, and a preeminent American political practitioner of liberalism, Abraham Lincoln.

Locke was not historicist. He based liberalism squarely on a doctrine of natural, not historical rights. Very astutely, Areshidze remarks that the argument for religious toleration made by Locke in his 1689 Letter on Toleration differs from his argument in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which he was writing at the same time. The Letter “bases toleration on a religious argument about the sanctity of human conscience” as each individual searches for “religious truth.” The Essay “grounds toleration on the limits of human knowledge”—on a form of skepticism. The Letter rests on an appeal to the prevailing opinion of the time, relying on Biblical exegesis; the Essay relies on reason alone. One book is “popular,” the other “philosophic.”

Not that the Biblical exegesis Locke propounds in the Letter fully comports with the prevailing Christian orthodoxy of his time—or indeed with the teaching of the Bible itself. Mutual toleration among Christians is alleged to be “the chief characteristic of a true church,” although the New Testament attests to love, not toleration. When Locke does testify to the fact of Christian lovingkindness, he makes it serve toleration and good works.

Crucially, in enlisting the support of Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, Locke accurately quotes Paul as to sins not to be tolerated by Christians—“works of the Flesh,” generally—but leaves out such Pauline sins as “seditions and heresies”—works of the mind, as it were. It was dissenters’ public declarations of such spiritual sins that persuaded Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin to enlist governments in the task of suppressing the full range of un-Christian acts; Aquinas went so far as to urge the death penalty for heretics. (Perhaps glancing back at Rawls and Obama, Areshidze describes this as a “nearly uninterrupted Christian consensus”—bad news indeed for Rawlsian liberals.)

To this Locke replies in the Letter that coercion can never genuinely persuade, and that only a persuaded soul can enter Heaven through the strait gate. But in the Essay Locke admits that, on the contrary, beliefs are indeed formed by a mixture of coercion and consent. There, he argues not from the Bible but from what later writers would call epistemology: the Bible speaks of “knowing” God, but what is knowledge?

Locke answers, famously, with a materialist form of Cartesianism. Knowledge consists of clear and distinct “ideas,” which are at bottom nothing more than sense-impressions (black is not white, round is not square). If so, when we say we “know” God we really mean we believe He exists;  we are really asserting our faith in His loving (therefore patient if far from tolerant) care. God transcends our sense-impressions, and therefore our knowledge. The philosophic foundation for religious toleration turns out to be our non-knowledge of God, in whose omniscient Spirit alone judgment of heresy may be safely and exclusively lodged.

Abraham Lincoln resembles Locke, deploying Biblical imagery while resting his core argument against slavery squarely on the principles of the Declaration of Independence, “principles which themselves were publicly contested”—the slaveholders, following John C. Calhoun, denied them—“and required theological support if they were to be successful at reforming the political status quo,” writes Areshidze. Whereas the young Lincoln openly described his “civil religion” of law-abidingness as thoroughly and exclusively rationalist, the mature Lincoln invokes the Bible. Yet he does so in a Lockean way, transforming human labor from its status as divine punishment for sin into a theory of value, “the source of man’s natural entitlement to the fruits of his labor” and therefore a proof against slavery. Like Locke, and unlike Rawls, Lincoln does uphold a rationally ascertainable “standard of justice” beyond public opinion, a standard all Americans have sullied by countenancing slavery and thus deserve to be scourged by the “living God”—a being whose existence Lincoln never explicitly affirms.

Martin Luther King goes much further, “aim[ing] to achieve a spiritual transformation of American democracy though the testimony of his religious witness.” King “sensed that Christianity had probably been more transformed by American democracy than American democracy had been by Christianity.” But what would a “religiously tutored liberalism” be? To justify civil disobedience, King couldn’t overlook the Pauline rejection of disobedience to law; rather, the civil rights leader appealed to the Thomistic claim that unjust laws are no laws at all—a point parallel to the Declaration’s charge that the tyrant-monarch had by his tyranny “abdicated government here.”

More, King asserted that the idea of the sanctity of the human person, made in the image of God, justifies the equal rights teaching of the Declaration, which of course does indeed say that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. That is, King saw that the Declaration reconciles Locke with Christianity—much to the consternation of that good Lockean, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the first draft quite evidently without consulting the Bible.

Do the Gospels really advocate social change? No, but to that objection King replied that social conditions had changed—20th century America wasn’t ancient Jerusalem—and, moreover, the apostles wrote in the expectation that the world would end and the Messiah would return in very short order. The two-millennia-long delay of the Parousia necessitated a Christian response, namely, nonviolent social and political reform based upon the standard of equality set down in the Book of Genesis and affirmed by the American Founders.

King then added a historicist trope: “God reveals himself progressively through human history, and . . . the final significance of the Scripture lies in the outcome of the process”—a claim quite foreign to the Founders or to Lincoln. Areshidze doubts that such eclecticism “is ultimately sustainable.” In his final chapter he turns to the postmodern, Jürgen Habermas, and finally to Alexis de Tocqueville, in quest of a more stable liberalism.

He doesn’t find it in Habermas, who himself has shifted from Enlightenment-style secularism to the admission that liberals may be able to learn a thing or two from religion, after all. Habermas offers a bow to revelation, going so far as to say that it can serve as a source of insights for social action that unassisted reason cannot find. As a postmodern, he no longer believes in Enlightenment rationalism, which he now regards as eminently fallible. But he also cannot bring himself to piety. He “appears to remain deeply divided and uncertain,” Areshidze writes.

Tocqueville is more successful. The first volume of Democracy in America (1835) shows the origins of American democracy (by which he means social equality in the sense of the absence of an aristocratic class) in the Puritan founding. The Christianity that guided the Puritans itself served as a bridge between aristocracy and democracy.

“It was necessary that Jesus Christ come to earth to make it understood that all members of the human species are naturally alike and equal,” Tocqueville wrote. Christianity is “the most precious inheritance from aristocratic centuries” in that it is delivered “from above” to an ancient people accustomed to being ruled from above. But the message itself reveals human nature, which undercuts any conventional aristocracy. In a final twist, however, once democracy as a social condition finally erodes aristocracy and establishes itself in civil society, it begins to show the characteristics that Tocqueville describes in Volume II: in a phrase, materialist Cartesianism. Tocqueville “gently reveal[s] how the Enlightenment and modern democracy transform religion,” says Areshidze, bringing us quickly to the crisis of our own times.

Perhaps it was not for nothing that Augustine described the City of God as captive and stranger in the Earthly City. Giorgi Areshidze’s fine book leaves us wondering if the dilemma of liberalism may not be a subspecies of that more fundamental problem, ameliorated by liberalism but insoluble until the return of Messiah.