protestant illiberalism

Protestant Illiberalism?

on August 10, 2020

Catholic Integralism is increasingly modish among a subset of Catholic intellectuals who think “liberalism,” embodied in America’s historic concept of liberty, not only has failed but was always doomed. It envisions a society in which once again “the church” is paramount, as in romanticized past ages.

Several decades ago there was a small subset of ultra Calvinist Evangelicals who advocated Reconstructionism, which somewhat similarly envisioned a society operating under biblical law. Its chief theorists and most followers are now gone.

For several years I’ve wondered if some form of neo-Reconstructionism might arise among Evangelicals in tandem with Catholic Integralism. In a recent Law & Liberty piece, Greg Forster sees signs of it in Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler’s new book The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture and the Church. The headline is: “A Protestant Integralism?”

Forster says Mohler makes “an equally important type of illiberal Christian argument against liberalism—evangelical Christian nationalism.” Admitting Mohler doesn’t specifically repudiate political liberalism, Forster says Mohler’s “logic leads him to repudiate political liberalism” in favor of “an illiberal religious nationalism.” He notes that Mohler wants to “rechristianize” secularized civil law, quoting Mohler:

We can now see what so many have long denied—that the experiment in liberty and self-government known as the United States of America is premised upon an affirmation of human dignity and human rights that only makes sense within and can only be sustained by a worldview that is based on at least an inherited Christian conception and an affirmation of natural rights.

Forster says Mohler repudiates “one thousand years of Western Christian political thought,” which supposed “that individual human rights are universal and are grounded in the design of our nature, and are therefore knowable independent of special revelation.” Lawful liberty relies on natural law, not necessarily Christian revelation, Forster insists. He shares Mohler’s distress about secularization in public life, which “undermines the social conditions of individual moral virtue, institutional integrity, and community solidarity the liberal social order presupposes.”

But Forster warns that Mohler’s “logic of culture war culminates in an illiberal religious nationalism that is inconsistent with liberalism’s commitment to authentic religious freedom.”

In Mohler’s Law & Liberty response to Forster, he agrees with Catholic thinkers Patrick Deneen, who rejects liberalism, and Adrian Vermeule, an Integralist, who see the “project of modern liberty as out of control.” But unlike Deneen and Vermeule, Mohler does “not see the project of ordered liberty as the problem.”

Mohler affirms the classical liberalism of the American democratic project, saying: “I believe that the project of civilization in the West, and in the English-speaking world in particular, has brought the greatest flowering of liberties and the greatest opportunities for human flourishing in human history.”

But Mohler thinks this civilization built upon liberty cannot survive if not transcendently rooted:

I am not a Protestant Integralist, but I do profoundly believe that secularism cannot sustain either virtue or respect for life. I am not a nationalist, but these days affirming the importance of the nation-state, the distinctive project of the nation, and the strengthening of a nation is enough to get one called a nationalist. I recognize that secularism and secularization are not identical and that secularization in a general sense seems to be inevitable under the conditions of modernity. I want Christians to help preserve our civilization and this great project of ordered liberty. I do not want them to abandon it.

Forster certainly agrees that our civilization needs transcendent roots, which are historically Christian mostly. And Mohler firmly believes in religious liberty and does not advocate any privileging of Christian theology in civil law. Both affirm an ordered liberty that historically descended from Christendom but whose principles of human dignity are universally accessible.

Universal accessibility doesn’t mean universally developed or acknowledged. As British historian Tom Holland writes in his book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World:

The humanist assumption that atheism and liberalism go together was just that: an assumption. Without the biblical story that God had created humanity in his own image to draw upon, the reverence of humanists for their own species risked seeming mawkish and shallow. What basis—other than mere sentimentality—was there to argue for it?


Today, as the flood tide of Western power and influence ebbs, the illusions of European and American liberals risk being left stranded. Much that they have sought to cast as universal stands exposed as never having been anything of the kind.

Christianity and its often ungrateful cultural descendants, which include secularism and humanism, claim a universalism that “was culturally highly specific. That human beings have rights; that they are born equal; that they are owed sustenance, and shelter, and refuge from persecution: these were never self-evident truths.”

The ordered liberty that esteems humanity as God’s image bearers is a gift to all from the biblical revelation. Not all beneficiaries will admit its origins. Many will vigorously deny them. But the acceptance of its principles is a divine victory of itself. Believers in the biblical revelation have a special obligation to nurture societies that advance and sustain this understanding, even for the skeptical and ungrateful.

Integralism and theocracy thankfully are no longer viable because Christianity itself has overturned them in favor of a “liberalism” in which all have legal equality. Christians need not seek privilege for their faith. But as stewards of humane civilization, we must constantly witness to the truth that humanity is sacred only because of its Creator.

  1. Comment by Tony Heine on August 15, 2020 at 7:52 pm

    Forster and Mohler are debating over their liberalism bona fides, while the left abandoned the liberalism concept years ago.
    The left rode the liberalism bus until it took them to their destination. Then, like Erdogan’s Turkey, they got off. I think it was in downtown Portland.
    Forster and Mohler’s defense of secular law is just as misplaced as their defense of liberalism.
    If “secular” means something free from a religious basis, then “secular law” is a contradiction in terms.
    There is no neutral ground. There is no law that is not based on the commands of a god. We all live in theocracies. The only question is which god gets to make the laws.
    Obama, of all people, understood this when he said in 2006: “Our law is, by definition, a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
    Much has changed about our laws. Just ask David Daleiden.

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