Protestant Classical Liberalism

Protestants, Social Virtue & Classical Liberalism

on November 6, 2020

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.

  1. Comment by David on November 7, 2020 at 4:44 pm

    Public libraries are not open areas where people can do anything they wish. Even talking is discouraged. Any events that take place in a library do so with the permission of the staff. A drag Queen or anyone else cannot simply walk in and start a performance.

    While prohibition came to an end, it did have the permanent effect of ending saloon culture. Modern bars are by no means the equivalent of saloons that served as social and political clubs in earlier times. Some even offered bathing facilities for working men living in tenements with limited plumbing.

    In addition to strong drink, groups as the Methodists objected to all theatrical performances and even attending the circus. Gambling, cards, tobacco, dancing, and reading works of fiction were all on the blacklist until the 1920s when public sentiment turned against churches with these positions. The Methodist Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association additionally prohibited chewing gum in 1907, then largely a female vice, as it too much resembled chewing tobacco,

  2. Comment by Star Tripper on November 8, 2020 at 12:05 am

    Seriously Mark, David French? French would be the first to jump up and volunteer to be a camp capo if and when Conservatives in America get packed up and sent off to the camps. He is a cowering Quisling of the worst type.

  3. Comment by Barbara on November 9, 2020 at 12:18 am

    Recently, the Libertarians and Catholics have teamed up to say that they started capitalism, and they are doing revisionist history for this reason. The Acton Institute is one place where they can be seen in action. And the Libertarians, separate from the Acton Institute, have people going back through the primary source documents related to the foundation of America, and they are saying this person or that document was really Libertarian when it was not. And the Catholic Church has given a totally wrong view of Christian Capitalism, which is what we had in the beginning of this country. There were no Libertarians back in England or America when they first started using Capitalism. John Locke sided with the Protestants and laissez faire and free trade meant something different back then, than what most people think of today. The Christian governments of England and America were based on strict laws in every area, very much in contrast to what we have today. People were family oriented and “brother” oriented. They were in cooperative groups of like minded people and the Protestants were very active in every aspect of government and trade and business, but we are seeing where people are trying to change history. Blackstone’s Commentaries can be accessed on the net, and I’m sure a quick look at them, would show anyone the Founders would have severely punished anyone attempting to harm the children like people are doing today.

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.