Mohler, Deneen, & Classical Liberalism

Rick Plasterer on March 27, 2024

What is the way forward for Christian political witness? There are increasing conversations about classical liberalism’s viability.

Patrick J. Deneen, a Roman Catholic, and Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, has suggested moving beyond the classical liberal tradition in his books Why Liberalism Failed (2018) and Regime Change (2023). His discussion of the first book was reviewed by this writer, as well as in a separate article reviewing a panel discussion at the Cato Institute defending classical liberalism. His latest book was critically reviewed by IRD’s Max Prowant last summer.

Deneen discussed his proposal to move beyond classical liberalism in a March 20 interview with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler, a leading evangelical thought leader. Deneen said that his latest book attempted “to articulate a way of thinking forward” rather than provide an outline of a post-liberal future.

The End of Normal Politics

Deneen’s indictment of classical liberalism, as well as what is now called progressivism, sent a “shock wave” through the conservative world, Mohler said, asking Deneen if people have understood his message. Deneen said that they have; they understand that politics is now not “normal.” We no longer live in a world in which the political parties disagree on certain issues but hold a fundamental agreement about America and the world. This is true of the West generally, he suggested.

Mohler observed that in 1960, the platforms of the Democratic and Republican parties were virtually indistinguishable. Since then, society has been “transformed” by social liberalism. That conservatism is an extension of classical liberalism that was widely held in the mid and late twentieth century. But now conservatives face a new and more challenging world. Deneen agreed that changes in marriage and the family, making marriage “elastic” to accommodate same-sex couples and possibly other marital arrangements, and the tendency to see the family as an impediment to personal fulfillment make a conservative vision of society difficult to realize.

Classical liberals have assumed that the natural family and the values surrounding it would prevail “in a condition of liberty.” Yet the radical changes in marriage and the family “have all been done in the name of liberty.” Social conservatism however “requires language that goes well beyond that of individual liberty.” Mohler added that recently he has been reading the theory behind polyamory, and he observed that if one accepts the ideas of personal autonomy and consent of the 1960s sexual revolution, polyamory is inescapable. The revolution cannot be stopped by logic of personal autonomy. It can only be stopped by an act of will against the supremacy of the doctrine of personal autonomy.

Deneen commented on his recent seminar addressing the works of Herbert Marcuse. To effect freedom from traditional society, Marcuse believed, it is necessary to dispense with the “classical liberal commitment to tolerance, and rather advance liberty by a kind of [special] repression of the recidivist, backward, conservative parts of the nation or the world.” This, Mohler, said was “remarkably honest,” and Deneen called it “prophetic.” This thinking has resulted in cancel culture, and “the crisis of free speech on campuses.” But Deneen pointed out that while this is often presented as “cultural Marxism,” the true hero of Marcuse’s essay “Repressive Tolerance,” was “none other than John Stuart Mill.” The objective of Mill’s work “On Liberty” was not liberty in itself as a good, but as a means of destroying traditional society and realizing “a truth, and that that truth … comports with the most radical forms of individual liberty imaginable.” Once this is attained, there is no need for tolerance, and one can “begin to undo what’s regarded as the intolerant remnants of society.”

Reconstructing the Relation of the Elite to the Populace

Mohler said he has long been intrigued by the idea that “modernity is a form of rationalized sexual misbehavior.” He asked if the “regime” Deneen said we should aim to change is not only governmental change, but the real social system effected by the sexual revolution. Deneen said that his objective, like that of the Frankfurt School, which has been very successful over the last century, is to “change the deepest presuppositions of a civilization.” He identified a “false anthropology” as a key presupposition he thinks should be corrected. As a corrective, Deneen proposed “a refamiliarization with aspects of the classical tradition.” The classical tradition examines the relation of the elite and the populace that exists in all societies. Aristotle held that most societies are either oligarchies or democracies. Dominance of one over the other, or interminable conflict between the two, are possibilities, but the ideal, short of an “unearthly good ruler,” is a “mixed constitution” that blends the two political regimes.

Deneen said it is “extraordinarily difficult” to “map out” a blending of the two systems, and that it is more common to have an oligarchy than a democracy. While he favors a “mixed constitution,” he tends to favor the populace. In light of this, conservatives need to engage in some “class analysis” which they have thought unnecessary in a regime of social mobility. Mohler said that it is obvious that in every society, there must be a natural elite. He noted that “every single columnist in the New York Times has more in common than any of those with say, the people that I see every day in American Evangelicalism.” Deneen responded that it is now the Left which is tending to “shroud” its oligarchy in egalitarian commitments and the language of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

This represents a “reversal” of the positions of Left and Right in our society, with a leftist oligarchy committed to egalitarianism ruling a rightist base of common people committed to, or at least accepting as tolerable, the traditional authorities of family, church, and country. Mohler observed that he sees this class divide even in Evangelicalism. When people rise in social status, they begin “talking about the people they left behind as ‘the deplorables.’” Deneen remarked that in the new political configuration, the upper classes (though in fact committed to social liberalism) live more socially conservative than the lower classes. “They’re more likely to get married, they’re more likely to have at least one or two children, the children are likely to stay in school, they’re likely to be able to hold jobs, develop self-discipline, do homework, etc.” On the other hand, with the lower middle and working classes, which were more culturally conservative a generation ago, “the basis of that, whatever that conservatism was, seems to have been completely disrupted.”  They now suffer “high rates of divorce, high rates of out of wedlock births, high rates of drug addiction, … [particularly] the opioid addiction.”

The egalitarian doctrine of the upper classes is really protection “against what they perceive – and rightly perceive – as a growing populist threat to their dominance.” We have arrived at a point in American politics where many on both sides of the elite/populist divide believe that they can simply eliminate the other. Deneen’s alternative, a “mixed constitution,” is one in which “an elite is, conforms or is shaped by concerns for the common good, with a stress on commonness.” We look for the common good by seeing how well “commoners” are doing. If they “are not doing well,” and he believes they’re not, “then somehow the good is escaping us.” But today’s American elite seems unconcerned. Mohler observed that Left America no longer speaks to Right America with arguments. Instead “it’s declarations, commands.” Deneen said he has “heard virtually nothing of the concern of the condition” of the lower classes in the elite universities in which he has taught. While this is true of the liberal/left elite, it is also found among classical liberal leaders, he said.

The Failure of Fusionism

Deneen said the William F. Buckley’s “three-legged stool” of “fusionism” (social conservatism, anti-communist foreign and defense policy, and free market economics) was “inherently unstable.” It was held together by the external pressure of Soviet communism. The instability was seen in the intense debates between Russell Kirk and Frank Meyer. Today, American conservatism is at about the point it was in the 1950s and early 1960s, when it was trying to develop a doctrine consistent with the American political tradition. But today conservatism must be re-thought “through the lens of a new condition.” Deneen said that he is currently engaged in debate with those conservatives who think that fusionism can successfully re-assert itself in a post-Trump America and prevail nationally.

Mohler said that while the Left is firmly established in the Democratic Party, the future of the Republican Party has not been decided. The dividing line separating conservatism from the rest of the world will not be “marginal tax rates,” or other economic issues, but “ontology.” (most particularly ontology about sex (or ‘gender”) which is discovered from biology rather than assigned.

Deneen said he was not very optimistic. Ten years ago, he would have thought that same-sex marriage would be the defining issue for conservatives, but today many have condoned same-sex marriage or fallen silent. He said that twentieth century America was “something of a rachet wrench moving always to the left.” Today, this continues. Mohler referred to Thomas Sowell’s distinction between the “constrained” and the “unconstrained” (with the state of being constrained defining conservatism). Mohler then distinguished between conservatives and “the Right,” the latter being simply a relative term. He believes that many on “the Right” simply want to be slightly less unconstrained than the Left, and see change in their own position as simply “a matter of time.” While they appeal to “change in manners,” Mohler said that manners are not ontology. He said he is prepared to “withdraw from society” rather than accept the gross violations of morality now demanded by contemporary society.

Deneen observed that Americans on the whole are opposed to formality, and this engenders a culture that naturally moves to the left. This leads to such things as calling professors by their first name, dress down Fridays turning into seven day a week informality, denunciation of national borders, denunciation of religion in favor of “spirituality,” etc. In fact, the denial of male/female distinctions is part of this. Mohler said that “if all you want to be is ‘less unconstrained than the other guy,’ you’re still unconstrained.” Deneen remarked that “there’s always going to be a limit to be exceeded, at which point the soft conservative or soft Right would say ‘OK, we can live with … the man on top of the women’s diving platform, but we will oppose the transhumanist.”

Conservatism as the Defense of the Permanent Things

Deneen and Mohler agreed that conservatism must involve defense of what have been called “the permanent things,” the standards of divine and natural law which are unchanging. Unilateral, or “no-fault” divorce, for instance, is unacceptable, and should be opposed even though contemporary society has moved far beyond it. Deneen observed that “we exist in a world of forms.” Some of the traditional social conventions, such as using the titles “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or a man wearing a tie are somewhat “arbitrary,” nevertheless, “they are reflections of a recognition that we exist in a world of forms.” Radicals on the other hand, hold that because some forms are arbitrary, “all distinction is unjust.” Incredibly, they hold that “even natural distinction is unjust.” The real issue, Deneen said, is creation. Conservatives hold that the things we see in the world, including human beings, are creatures, whereas radicals hold that “we are creators.”

Mohler agreed that “manners create a certain context.” He said that “people behave differently in a coat and tie than they do dressed differently.” He said there is “a central conservative insight, that everything we do should speak of commitment and aspiration.” He asked what Deneen as a Catholic saw as the blind spot of conservative Protestants. Deneen responded that the individualism inherent in Protestantism, and the resulting self-assertion and “choice,” tends toward a loss of boundaries, and thus naturally leads to liberalism and radicalism. Mohler answered that confessional Protestants are now endeavoring to recover a rich ecclesiology. This, he said, “is very different than the kind of mainstream Protestantism into which I was born.” They agreed that both traditional Catholics and conservative Protestants have rich resources in the deposit of faith and historic Christian theology to draw on to address the pathology of the contemporary world.

  1. Comment by Patrick on March 28, 2024 at 11:39 am

    I find it very interesting that Albert Mohler spent a lot of energy badmouthing the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) all the while turning a blind eye to all the abuse happening within his own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Very interesting.

  2. Comment by John on March 28, 2024 at 12:49 pm

    I find Mohler’s claim that conservative Protestants are endeavoring for a richer ecclesiology laughable. He is Southern Baptist and most of the conservative evangelical traditions practice congregationalist polity that gives the senior pastor at the nearest megachurch much more power and influence than the magisterial leaders like Mohler. This makes the kind of reining in of individualism and retreat from the secular world increasingly impossible as the large suburb churches who dominate evangelical witness will always seek some kind of accomodation with the dominant mores of the community around them. This can explain both the left-leaning breakaway of churches like Sandleback that ordain women and the increasingly alt-right and Christian nationalist rhetoric of some pastors on the right. The irony is that the same Mainline Protestant denominations (UMC, PCUSA, Episcopal, etc.) who Mohler has spent his career attacking probably have more robust ecclesiological theologies and systems than their evangelical counterparts. Yet no evangelical leaders seem to be willing to acknowledge the inherent weakness in their congregationalism. Even those who have broken away from The United Methodist Church recently to form the more conservative Global Methodist Church have already removed two key components of traditional Methodist ecclessiology that would have made stricter enforcement of doctrines at the local church level easier to maintain: the trust clause and itineracy. Neither development is very surprising considering the split was led primarily by megachurch pastors who have been able to skirt the guard-rails of itineracy for decades to maintain permanent appointments in one church for their entire ministry, avoid the less plum assignments from their conference, and remove checks on their power within their congregations set in place by the Book of Discipline. Naturally any ecclesiology that might give the denominational leaders the power to remove them from their pulpit or claim their church as conference property would be seen as a threat.

  3. Comment by Gary Bebop on March 28, 2024 at 6:07 pm

    For what it’s worth, the earlier commenters seem fixated on side dishes rather than the Mohler-Deneen dialogue. They introduce off-topic peevishness and bad manners to a conversation focused on the common good.

  4. Comment by John on March 29, 2024 at 10:24 am

    Not trying to be peevish, just offering an honest assessment of Mohler’s comments on ecclesiology and the true extent of his influence within a SBC tradition that’s de facto congregationist in its polity.

  5. Comment by Gary Bebop on March 29, 2024 at 1:20 pm

    One thing is for sure: the elite mandarin class never tires of repeating itself.

  6. Comment by George on March 29, 2024 at 9:33 pm

    There is no liberality in Leftism. Leftists should not be called “liberal.” It is a misuse of language. They are intolerant of disagreement and shout down anyone trying to differ with them. It is a mental condition and they can not be reasoned with because they lack the power of reason. They operate from emotion, mostly anger. I believe they are angry with God. Ever “atheist” I’ve known was and if one knows them well enough the cause of their anger can sometimes be discovered. Leftist “Christians” are enigmatic.

  7. Comment by Salvatore Anthony Luiso on March 31, 2024 at 4:07 pm

    “What is the way forward for Christian political witness?” A recognition of the sovereignty of God, that His kingdom is not of this earth, the trend of American society away from God, and the limits of Christians to affect this trend through politics.

    An odd conversation. Are Deenen and Mohler aware that the trend of American society since at least the 1960s is toward greater personal autonomy and lesser constraint of all kinds? Do either of them think that this trend can be slowed, stopped, and reversed by political power, as it appears to have been in Iran, Turkey, Russia, and Afghanistan? Would they like America to be governed in the ways those countries are? Do they think that Americans would tolerate that? If so, why? Don’t the results of polls, elections, and recent referendums on laws related to abortion say otherwise?

    Mohler should realize (if he doesn’t already) that traditionalist Catholics believe that the Reformation is at the root of classical liberalism and everything on the left, and thus Protestantism is fundamentally part of the problem, not part of the solution.

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