There was an interesting First Things book review by Ramona Tausz quoting me:
Today, conservative critics of liberalism tend to be Catholic. Pundits warn of “‘post-liberal’ ferment among a coterie of mostly Catholic writers,” or report on the “network of Catholic intellectuals” making “the case against liberalism.” “Mostly these new traditionalists are Catholic,” Mark Tooley observed recently. “None are Protestant, which maybe isn’t surprising, since arguably classical liberalism and modern capitalism are Protestant projects.” But it should be surprising. As Gillis Harp demonstrates, there is a long tradition of American Protestant criticism of liberalism and promotion of a common good–oriented politics.
Tausz was reviewing Protestants and American Conservatism: A Short History by Gillis Harp. She notes this book is “studded with quotations from Protestant leaders who viewed government as a moral agent, with a duty to seek the common good and encourage virtue. Defending religion’s public role, these Puritans and Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Anglicans, rejected Lockean thought, liberal individualism, and value-neutral politics as incompatible with Christianity.”
No doubt. But I can’t imagine anyone thought there was ever a time in American history that Protestants favored “value neutral” politics. And I’m unaware of many Protestants or many Americans today who truly advocate “value-neutral” politics.
Part of the problem is the definition of “liberalism” in the classical, not contemporary progressive sense. According to prominent contemporary critics, classical liberalism is value neutral autonomous individualism that somehow originates, however unintentionally, with 18th century Protestant British philosopher John Locke. They draw a straight line from his ideas of social contract, which he martialed on behalf of English liberty against royalism, to modern Drag Queen story hours in public libraries for children.
Some defenders of classical liberalism, i.e. democracy with free speech, unintentionally fuel this narrative by defending the Drag Queens primarily as issue of an open public arena in which all must have equal access. Restrictions on free speech for drag queens will lead to restrictions against religious groups wanting to rent public venues. So there must be legal equality of opportunity.
To the critics of liberalism, this defense of equal public access sounds like an amoral neutrality between virtue and religion on one side against radical autonomous individualism culminating with drag queens on the other side. David French is a notable Protestant defender of this notion of equal public access, for which he’s drawn fire from illiberals. The criticism isn’t entirely fair because French definitely doesn’t equate drag queens with moral virtue. But he does believe a virtuous society should allow free speech, absent which virtue will suffer.
The illiberals, at least they who occupy the integralist fringe, seem to reject a society of free speech in favor of a more authoritarian regime that coercively advocates virtue and religion. A recent integralist book seems explicitly to advocate legal restrictions on Protestants, Jews and Muslims in favor of a Catholic regime in which the church exercises paramount influence.
Of course, the Anglo-American political tradition of the last 400 years firmly rejects what is now the integralist project. America’s Founding Fathers, almost all of them Protestant but notably including several Catholics, were not value neutral. But they did reject a state church or special privileges that would empower one religion against another.
The absence of a state church by no means meant the Protestant majority was indifferent to virtue or religion in society. They thought religion best thrived if not established by law or subsidized by the state. And they were firm moralists who believed that morality should be upheld in social habit and reinforced in law.
But the extent to which morality could be codified of course depended on the public will. Nineteenth century Protestants successfully codified government and business closures on Sundays. Early 20th century Protestants successfully banned the liquor trade, a battle which they later lost. They succeeded or failed based on their ability to persuade public opinion. Their notion of morality did not include a coercive authoritarian state imposing restrictions against public opinion.
This new book by Harp contrasts earlier Protestant moralists advocating the common good with later Protestants who were more focused on individualism through the free market, adopting almost libertarian perspectives. But their laissez faire economics hardly made them morally indifferent to civic virtue. They remained largely conventional moralists. And even early Protestants were in their economics typically affirming of private enterprise and limited state power.
Anglo-American Protestants of the last 400 years have almost uniformly been “liberals” in their defense of individual rights against a capricious or monarchical state. The last Protestant illiberals, to the extent they existed, were defeated with the overthrow of the Stuarts in the 1600s. The Revolutions of 1688 and 1776 embodied the Anglo-American classical liberal Protestant idea that the people are sovereign and the rulers are servants of the people, not vice versa.
This Anglo-American Protestant “liberalism” has never been indifferent to the common good, to virtue, or to religious influence in society. It affirms free speech and freedom of religion because of its commitment to a more authentic virtue and more robust religion that subsist on their own and not depending on the sword of the state.
Illiberals mistake this commitment to religious and political liberty as indifference to religion and virtue. They are mistaken.