Liberal Democracy

December 27, 2018

Can Liberal Democracy’s Ethos be Recaptured?

“A people without history is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern of timeless moments.” – T. S. Eliot

In a lecture at Calvin College, Reformed political theorist James K. A. Smith responded to Patrick Deneen’s critique of liberalism. He urged Christians to avoid ahistorical nostalgia, get their eschatology straight, and put in the sweat required to recapture liberal democracy’s ethos.

For those unfamiliar, Patrick Deneen is a Catholic philosopher at Notre Dame University who recently argued that the rot of Western civilization is the fruit of liberalism. He believes liberalism is crumbling under its own vices, and that Christians should prepare for a future without liberalism if they want to keep civilization from unraveling.

Despite agreeing with some of Deneen’s critiques, Smith questioned the accuracy of his historical narrative. According to Deneen’s book, said Smith, our current symptoms are due to a disease that is 500 years old. What happened 500 years ago but the Protestant Reformation? Smith said Deneen’s Catholicism led him to believe that Protestantism was what happened when the virus of individual was let loose on Christendom.

So, said Smith, “Protestants nodding along to Deneen’s analysis would do well to pause and consider whether they should be sympathetic to his diagnosis, or whether they are actually the disease he is talking about.” (Deneen later clarified that by the 500-year comment he was referring to early modernist thinkers like Descartes and Bacon, but agreed that the Catholic-Protestant division was an accurate one).

There is a difference between liberalism as a polity and liberalism as an ethos, said Smith.

By liberalism as polity he meant the institutions of liberalism, such as democratic voting systems, due process of law, and constitutionalism, that have brought liberation to blacks, women, and those under tyrannical oppression. It also led to innovations like penicillin, refrigeration, and mass agriculture that have raised the standard of living for billions of people. By liberalism as ethos he meant the myth of an “unbounded autonomism” that he said Deneen “rightly laments.” This also goes by the name of liberal individualism.

Smith argued that the first form, institutional liberalism, cannot be opposed to Christianity because it was founded by Christians. He said the “distinctly Calvinist” legacy of due process was birthed out of the experience of churchgoers working out their differences in local congregations. This experience was vitally coupled with a “Calvinist suspicion of concentrated power and complex motives.” Smith explained, this Calvinist worldview can be seen by John Witherspoon, president of Princeton University, whose most famous pupil was none other than James Madison.

Thus, concluded Smith, the problem with liberalism is that it unhitched itself from a Calvinist suspicion of self and instead chose to align with a theory of utopian perfectibility.

In the Q&A, Deneen inquired whether something inherent in liberal institutions led to liberal individualism. That’s exactly the right question, said Smith, and he admitted it was possible. If there was a cause, it was likely consumer capitalism, although there might be other, less harmful forms of capitalism that would be beneficial to the institutions.

Smith said that Christians must successfully challenge the myth of liberal individualism in order to save liberal institutions. He said Christians lost the debate over the ethos of this liberal order to the idea of radical individualism. Rather than closing the door on liberalism, Christians should extend an invitation to advocates of radical individualism to rediscover what true freedom looks like—it can only be found in Christ. He said it isn’t fair to change the rules of the game just because we lost.

The correct way to repair liberalism, said Smith, is to put it into proper perspective as anti-utopian, and pen-ultimate. We do this by re-introducing the supernatural world and the reality of life after death. If this life is all there is, then the political community is the ultimate reality. There is nothing that gives deeper meaning without a view of the afterlife, so it becomes appropriate in this view to anathematize political opponents. So we need a non-utopian view of liberal democracy.

Ironically, the Protestant quoted a Catholic thinker, Augustine, to urge a political system that assumes that people will have vices (after all, vices did exist before liberalism). Augustine said, “We ought not want to live ahead of time with only the saints and the righteous.” This comment closely echoes Jesus’ parable of the weeds told in Matthew 13:24-30, and explained in vv. 36-43. Our liberal institutions, if we can regain the right worldview, is the best way to achieve this said Smith. It is the polity of those believers who how to wait for the end of days, said Smith—the polity of an advent people.

To persuasively retake the ethos of liberal institutions, Smith said Christians need a unified argument, and this requires a unified theory of the end times. What would this look like? Smith said a rightly defined eschatology would teach that “there’s a kingdom that’s coming, and we don’t make it arrive.”

Is it possible to rebuild a Christianity-compatible version of liberal institutions? Specifically, does Western civilization have enough social capital left to repair them? That’s a good question, Smith said, “and I won’t pretend to have an answer to it. That’s your job.”


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